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It’s a paradox that often bad events are the material to create something, sometimes, even special. The most obvious cases are when love goes sour, when someone betrays another, or perhaps when it’s reached its end and the people drift away to find someone and something else.

It’s possible that the music genre known as the blues consists of this single cause. We all know it well, it’s been parodied to death: Woke up one morning, my woman done left me, (there’s a mule kicking in my door). With this sure knowledge it seems ridiculous that so many musicologists and film makers have asked the question ad nauseum: What is the blues? Well, it’s really quite simple. In fact, it was Son House who had the answer and it was love, or the loss of it.

One of the best books Graham Greene wrote was The End of the Affair, full of impotent rage and pathos for the love he could never have. It almost perfectly encapsulates the power that bad luck, misfortune, can have on turning out a great work.

Other much larger tragedies have been the material for great art: Guernica by Picasso is one that springs to mind; the other would be If this is a man by Primo Levi. Others have been personal, such as the swirling, vertiginous, pictures by the mentally ill Van Gogh; a man and artist struggling with internal demons and all the vexations of life.

Amongst this catalog of desperate calamity and hard luck it seems odd that a revolting Thanksgiving dinner might be sufficient to inspire a classic tune. It did. Yes.

The instrumental Black Napkins, (here is a particularly incendiary end of gig performance) was named in memory of a disgusting Thanksgiving dinner in Milwaukee. Zappa said he had had the song for over a year “but it was finally named last Thanksgiving when we were having this horrible Thanksgiving dinner in Milwaukee. Sliced turkey roll with the fucking preservatives just gleaming off it, and this beat-up cranberry material. The final stroke to this ridiculous dinner was the black napkins, sitting next to the dishes. That really said the most about the dinner.”

Black napkins and purulent, seeping, cranberry sauce. It is a dreadful image. If there had been lyrics the song’s pain might have been made more obvious which is not overt in the instrumental; though its sense of anguish, almost universal, is conveyed.

We have all sat down to a meal somewhere, tired, away from home, when the creature comforts are so important and familiar food can restore us but instead we are served some unpalatable malodorous meal: gray dry meat, peas and carrots boiled to a homogenized sludge, and jaundiced fried potatoes while an uncaring waiter grins at us and offers some cruel wish for us to enjoy the repast.

If lyrics had been written for the music it might have been too painful. During that era Zappa had turned a prosaic metaphor of love, one that hippies had used at the time, “being into….” between musician and fans and applied the present perfect tense “have been into” and made the metaphor a bland statement of fact.

As it is Black Napkins reminds us all that adversity is out there somewhere, in a diner, in a mall, a pizza shop, perhaps in a supermarket, and that all it takes is the creative mind to grasp it and transform it into something great, which will reach other people.

Guy Cranswick
22nd November 2014