The late Frank Zappa has always been a frustrating figure in the history of 20th century music. Was he a failure as a rock musician because he never had a truly widespread popularity? Was he a genius who somehow couldn’t resist rubbing the nose of the public in his own apparent obsessions with vulgar language and shocking sexual behavior? Was he a pop traditionalist with deep roots in doo-wop and rhythm and blues, or a compositional revolutionary along the lines of Stravinsky and Schoenberg? In the end, Zappa was, it seems, all these things, and more.
The prolific pop culture biographer Barry Miles – who’s written also about the lives of Paul McCartney, Allan Ginsberg, and Jack Kerouac – has now turned his attention and his research staff to Zappa. Miles’s new book about of Frank Zappa is more useful than Zappa’s own 1988 autobiography in sorting out the facts of his life from the myths, but it falls short in many ways when it attempts to analyze the significance and meaning of Zappa’s creative work.
Zappa’s parents were from a fairly traditional Italian-American background – which is to say, rather rigidly Roman Catholic – and Zappa grew up in a family that was strict and conservative, even perhaps by the standards of the 1950s. Add to this the Zappa family’s tendency to relocate every two or three years – Frank’s father worked for the defense industry – and young Zappa found himself gravitating toward rock and R&B music as a means of escape and comfort from his family as well as a way to fit in among his constantly changing peer group. By the time Zappa was a teenager and the family had settled (so to speak) in one of the desert suburbs of Southern California, Zappa was playing guitar in various bands.
At the same time, Zappa began developing an interest in – what can we call them – serious 20th century composers like Edgar Varese and, in particular, Igor Stravinsky, and Zappa’s music teachers encouraged him to learn to write musical scores. Zappa admits scribbling out music on staff sheets just in the sheer curiosity to hear what it all sounded like when a band or orchestra played it. Zappa finished high school, but didn’t get much more than a few classes in music theory at community college before he left to pursue his interests in music full time.
By time he began his career as an independent musician, he had already established several characteristics of his process of creation: first, Zappa always worked extremely long and intense hours; second, he had a knack for exploiting (for better and for worse) the talents and resources of those around him; third, he demanded complete creative control of every aspect of his work; and lastly, he rarely turned up an opportunity to shock or offend the establishment. Perhaps because of these traits, perhaps in spite of them, Zappa managed to turn out a consistently bold and innovative rock music, as well as, in the end, a considerable amount of fascinating “serious” music written for the orchestra and the Synclavier.
Miles does an admirable job of chronicling the private and public life of Zappa in his childhood, early years, and his peak creative years, which are in this reviewer’s opinion, from 1968’s We’re Only In It For The Money to 1975’s One Size Fits All. People from the earlier years are perhaps more willing to go on the record about Zappa’s cold treatment of band mates or his often-denied marital infidelities or his disposition to be a prima-donna or an egomaniac. In the later years of Zappa’s life, as he withdrew from touring, focused on his studio work, and eventually succumbed to cancer in 1993, he was surrounded by a close circle of family and friends who remain loyal and tight-lipped. You can’t fault Miles for that.
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