In 1965, when a young Frank Zappa was getting started in the entertainment business, he had a small music and film studio in the tiny desert town of Cucamonga, 75 miles east of Los Angeles.
Zappa was a self-described “freak,” unwashed, broke and with long unkempt hair. The local police disliked him on sight.
That’s why the cops organized a sting operation to try to put him away. An undercover cop went into Zappa’s studio and asked him to make a pornographic audiotape for a stag party. Zappa, who was surviving on peanut butter sandwiches, needed the money.
So he and a female friend recorded a few moans and squeals, set it to music and gave it to the customer the next day. Busted! Though the judge laughed when he heard the tape — angering the local district attorney — Zappa still was found guilty and received 10 days in jail.
He emerged a changed man — cynical, distrustful of all authority, ready to flip the bird to the rest of the world. This story serves as the linchpin for Barry Miles’ Zappa: A Biography.
There are more than a dozen books about Zappa, a cult rock music figure for three decades who died from prostate cancer in 1993 at the age of 53. But Miles’ new book sets the bar much higher, with not only a review of the musician’s life but also a refreshingly critical look at Zappa’s treatment of his fans, band members and family.
Zappa and his band, The Mothers of Invention, stormed onto the Los Angeles music scene with their 1966 debut LP “Freak Out.” Since then, Zappa has nearly 100 studio and live albums in print, many of which rank as some of the best records in popular music.
But Zappa was always a classical composer at heart. He drew his inspiration from the modernist composers of the 20th century: Bartok, Stravinsky and especially Edgard Varese. These classical roots are evident in much of Zappa’s music.
Miles begins with Zappa’s upbringing, especially noting how his Sicilian father, a chemical engineer, constantly moved the family around the country.
This, Miles theorizes, possibly contributed to Zappa’s lack of emotional attachment. The author also explores Zappa’s early activities with the Catholic Church, and uses that experience to postulate that the church’s sexually repressive environment led Zappa, the rebel, to write so many scatological and prurient songs.
The picture Miles paints of Zappa is fascinating but not always pretty. Early in his career, Zappa saw his role as that of teacher as much as entertainer, extolling his audience to question authority and help change the world. But at the same time he criticized those who tried to do just that.
For instance, in the song “Plastic People” he takes a dig at those who marched in protest of the city’s forced closure of Pandora’s Box, a local dance hall. “Any fan actually listening to the words must have wondered just what it was he wanted of them,” Miles writes.
Zappa comes off even more obnoxious as we see how he treats the musicians around him. When Zappa joined the Mothers, he was an equal member. But after years of making no money, Zappa forced the band to break up in 1969 just as they were getting popular. The band had already served Zappa’s purpose.
Ironically, over the next 20 years, Zappa would work with more than 100 musicians, trying to recreate the mystique of the very band he destroyed.
At his home outside Los Angeles, he worked nights and slept days, spending much of his life in his massive basement studio. He rarely saw his wife, Gail, or his four children, and cheated on his wife often while touring.
When eldest daughter Moon Unit wanted to sing a song with her father, she wrote him a note and stuck it under his door.
Zappa didn’t respond for two months; the resulting project, “Valley Girl,” was the singer’s biggest hit. The book has a few faults: not enough detail about Zappa’s musical period in the 1970s and `80s, and almost nothing about many of the musicians he worked with during that period. The book also seems to rely almost entirely on previously published articles and books. The author apparently knew Zappa personally, but the book still would have benefited greatly from more fresh interviews. There are also some minor factual errors that any hard-core fan will notice.Still, despite its minor problems, “Zappa” is a fascinating read. Frank Zappa was one of a kind, and in this day of banal “music product,” his cynicism is needed more than ever.