My place is really rocking, so we gotta put a guard outside
If my folks come home, I'm afraid they're gonna have my hide
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Jermyn Street at night
Well, it turns out Frank Zappa was a human being after all. He always came off to me as that sort of extreme genius so far outside the sphere of average human thinking that he was essentially an alien. "Dead Girls Of London," however, proves he was indeed a mortal like us, prone to jealousy, insecurity, and doubt. I'm not exactly sure whether I am glad to discover this truth or not. I kind of liked alien-genius Zappa.
Our "song place" of concern today is the Tramp, a members-only nightclub on Jermyn Street in London extant since 1969. The club is one of the most exclusive of its kind: Elton John, The Rolling Stones, and Frank Sinatra all haunt its dance floor. Ringo Starr, Liza Minnelli, Joan Collins, and Peter Sellers all had their wedding receptions there. Shirley MacLaine once passed out, wasted, on a Tramp table for a whole night. The great drummer Keith Moon danced naked there (though let's be honest, that's not all that "exclusive" of a claim).
Frank Zappa found his way to Tramp while recording Sheik Yerbouti
in 1978. It was the only place that served food at 2 in the morning. In addition to dining, Zappa also figured he'd try to find some feminine company for the night, something that would normally not be a problem for a wealthy, famous rock star.
At Tramp, however, Zappa found a bunch of money-driven type-A personality folks (cue Bob Seger's "Still the Same
") who were only interested in bedding men who could advance their careers. For some reason, bedding Zappa was not considered a good career move at that time, so he ended up spending his nights alone. This experience inspired him to write his song about the vacuous "dead girls" of London who cared about nothing but boutiques and the jet set.
Inside the Tramp
Perceptive observers will note here that Zappa was married in 1967 and remained that way to his death. This, of course, raises suspicions of cheating, but Zappa and his wife's attitudes towards sex were very open, and he frequently criticized American attitudes towards sex. So it's not hard to fathom that Zappa's wife was fully aware and even supportive of Zappa's booty calls, both fulfilled and unfulfilled. By all accounts, Zappa was a good husband and father who was beloved by his family.
All possible infidelity aside, this song humanizes Zappa in a way most of his music never did. It's sort of strange to imagine this wealthy, successful man, who was said by all to have an impressive bearing and disposition about him, sulking in his hotel room because he couldn't get laid. Like everything else Zappa, the emotions filtered out of him in the form of a killer song, but the essential foundation was nothing more than good old-fashioned frustration and wounded ego.
Van Morrison recorded vocals for the song, but those had to be scrubbed due to contract obligations. Zappa co-wrote the song with the electric violinist L. Shankar, so he included it on Shankar's 1979 album Touch Me There
, which was produced by Zappa and released on his label, Zappa Records. Morrison's vocal was replaced with a twin lead courtesy of Zappa and Ike Willis. The Van Morrison version floated around on bootlegs, and surfaced in 2011 on the compilation The Frank Zappa AAAFNRAAAAAM Birthday Bundle
"Dead Girls of London" is an interesting song in the Zappa catalog. Rather than being about muffin men or eating yellow snow or any of the other usual oddities that make up Zappa's cast of characters, "Dead Girls" was about Zappa himself in all his frail humanity.
Though he did also manage to turn his sexual frustration into a song about "dead girls," so maybe it's not all that far off from the usual Zappa after all.
Rest in peace, Frank. I hope all those dead girls are being more receptive to you now.
Songplaces contributor Jeff Suwak is a writer and editor living in the Pacific Northwest. He is the author of the novella "Beyond the Tempest Gate" and various works of short fiction. He writes for The Prague Revue, and has a blog about Pacific Northwest travel (Northwest Nomad.com). He loves being berated on Twitter @JeffSuwak and receiving visitors at beyondthetempestgate.com. Images from a promotional video published by The Tramp.
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