Mothers of Invention at the Garrick

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Mothers of Invention at the Garrick
By Dan Sullivan
The New York Times, Thursday, May 25, 1967

"Absolutely Freeee," which opened at the Garrick Theater last night, will cost you threeee dollars a ticket. Whether you find the money well-spent will depend a great deal on how old you are, or wish you were. Although a good many strange and wonderful things were promised by the advance publicity for this show under its former name, "Pigs & Repugnant," it turns out to be nothing more nor less than a concert by a seven-man group called The Mothers of Invention.
The Mothers, as we will call them for short, are familiar to and worshipped by the Flower Generation. The Pepsi Generation may find them a little hard to take. Let us say that the Beatles are as far-out a group as you have encountered up to now. The most striking difference between the two groups is not in their work but in their approach to their work – the Beatles' basic desire to please an audience versus The Mothers' basic distrust of one (or at least of the one that attended the opening). The distrust is seen in the super-ironical introductions of Frank Zappa – "Here's another hot little number ..." – and in the cool diffidence with which the group goofs around between numbers. The audience has the feeling that if it is not very careful, the boys might just say, "Who needs this scene?" and walk out. Their music is also, more often than not, frankly hostile – both in its headachey volume and in those lyrics that you can make out amid the roar. "Across the nation ... black and white ... TV ... trading stamps ... high-school ..." The targets keep popping up, but whether they are being hit with any degree of verbal accuracy or style is impossible to discover without a libretto. As pure sound, though, this approaches genius. From an electrified kitchen of percussion, saxes, guitars, flutes, etc., they produce a thick, black sound shot through with odd treble sunbursts and pinwheels – the exact aural equivalent of the nervous ever-changing abstract projections flashing on the screen behind them.
Beneath the Lenin beards and the John-the-Baptist hairdos, these are fine musicians – never better (and surely never more attractive) than when they are parodying the rock'n'roll numbers of an earlier generation. They are of an age that can honestly think of Elvis Presley with nostalgia. There is something oddly sweet in their parody-homage of "Hound-Dog," and lesser-known of yesterday's hits, which they made fun of in a way that cannot disguise their honest affection for the Old Masters. Whether their show at the Garrick will make any new friends for the Mothers – or whether they really want any – is hard to say. If they are interested in attracting a wider audience, it might be suggested that they consider the uses of silence, as well as volume, to attract and hold an audience's attention. With the best will in the world, one's attention does tend to click off, like a thermostat, under a steady barrage of triple-forte, no matter how brilliantly achieved. At such moments, the Mothers' music becomes simply a background roar – as it would on the subway – and the listener finds himself paying more attention to what is on his his mind than what is in his ears. If what is on his mind is spiritual enough – how to attain the inner light, say – then the music of the Mothers can be considered devotional. But the trouble with the Pepsi Generation is that most of us are more likely to be wondering what we did with our car keys.