Zappa Autobiography is Problematic

The Real Frank Zappa Book  (1990)
By Frank Zappa and Peter Occhiogrosso
Poseidon Press, 352 pages.

I don't read many music biographies because most have the same arc: a misunderstood childhood, teen struggles, solace in music, discovery, and rise to the top. Then it's either addiction and early death, or a lifesaving intervention and late-in-life bliss. So when I ran across a free copy of Frank Zappa's book–which I had never before read–I figured it had to be different. It was, but not in a good way.

Let's get this out of the way. Zappa (1955-93) was a brilliant artist in several genres: rock, jazz, orchestral, and experimental music. If you poke around on YouTube you can find his first TV appearance. It was on the old Steve Allen Show and Zappa played–are you ready?–a suite for bicycle spokes and handlebars. Most people know him as the frontman for The Mothers of Invention (MOI), a band with more quirks and weirdness than Madonna, Lady Gaga, KISS, and Alice Cooper could collectively rival. The MOI wasn't the sort of band one "liked" in a traditional fashion; one experienced the Mothers and then endlessly contemplated and discussed what it all might have meant. That band and all of Zappa's other projects, no matter the genre, was highly experimental. Think elements of beebop merged with whatever Zappa's mind thought fit into a sound swirl that might or might not have a melody.

Alas his book, published three years before he died of prostate cancer, is a lot like his music, which is to say chaotic and a product of vision that is often too personal to make sense to anyone but Zappa himself. Other parts are rants–against incompetent producers, censorship, and overall stupidity, for example–and still other passages are rather complex musings on composition. It is decidely not about the MOI to which he gives scant and scattered discussion. (The book's chronological development is, at best, loose.) Zappa's prose stretches the definition of free form. There are lots of passages in Zappa use italics for no discernible reason, and still others in which he uses BOLD type, again not necessarily for any grammatical or dramatic effect. The entire of the book reads as if it went from Zappa's head to the page. Check out his song lyrics and you can tell they are also more catarsis than contemplation. Wanted: A good editor.

What you do get is the impression that Zappa was a complex man. He was, for instance, simultaneously anti-drug, anti-censorship, and pro pornography. One can only imagine what he would think of today's trigger warnings and push to set limits on public speech. If you think Zappa was a 60s' Flower Child, think again. He hated most things about the counterculture, especially drugs and heavy drinking; Zappa routinely fired band members who used drugs. He lived amongst rich celebrities in Laurel Canyon, but he was a family man with four children, only one of whom (Moon) is not now in the music business. He called his political views "practical conservatism;" a better label would be libertarianism. Some of the chapter titles are almost self-explanatory: "How Weird Am I, Reallly?" (very!), "All About Music," "Send in the Clowns" (his rant against music as a business). I applauded the chapter titled "America Drinks and Goes Marching," in which he skewers what we might call empty-headed good ole boy flag-waving culture. There is also "Church and State," the separation of which he thought all conservatives should support. (Cancel the Fox retrsopective.)

I think you get the picture. If you come across this book anywhere, the best way to approach it it is to open it randomly and read. If it makes no sense, open to somewhere else. Repeat. In an odd way, such a strategy unveils the layers of Zappa's genius. His was a mind that never stopped, so don't try to keep up. The book as literature is rubbish. The book as insight is undoubtedly in the mind of the beholder.

Rob Weir

No comments: