Zappa: A Biography by Barry Miles
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
Frank Zappa is the musical idol of my youth. I listened to Zappa's album "Freak Out!" almost 50 years ago, in 1966 or 1967, fascinated by what I considered the avant-garde freshness of the music, political references, and great sense of humor. Obviously, being a teenager, I dearly loved the scatological and obscene references. Later, when I tried to grow up, came my fascination with Mr. Zappa's strong stance for freedom of speech and against consumerism. As far as music is concerned I was very much into Mr. Zappa's guitar playing, and "Hot Rats" and "Shut Up n' Play Yer Guitar" were some of my most revered albums. Zappa's death in 1993 came as a big loss in my life. Zappa had been my hero, someone to look up to politically and musically.
I read (or tried to read) several books about my hero. Zappa's autobiography - "The Real Frank Zappa Book" - made me adore my idol even more. I did not particularly like the unfocused "The Frank Zappa Companion", and could not very much get into "Frank Zappa: the Negative Dialectics of Poodle Play, full of technical details about the music, and sounding too much like a research paper on the conceptual continuity of Zappa's work for my taste. I have just now finished "Zappa" by Barry Miles. It is a great biography, a serious, extremely well researched book that - in my view - does a fantastic job of showing the real Frank Zappa - a musical giant, yet a real person, full of insecurities and obsessions. A genius yet also somewhat of a jerk.
The major strength of Mr. Miles' biography is that it transcends the biographical details, the enumeration of albums, songs, and performances, and the trite gossip. The author proposes several theses about forces that drove Frank Zappa in his art and in life and provides convincing arguments for these theses. Perhaps the most important of them is that the experience that shaped the artist the most was the ten days he had to spend in San Bernardino County Jail for making an ostensibly pornographic tape, whereas in reality he was entrapped by a zealous policeman. "By the time he got out, he no longer believed anything the authorities had ever told him. Everything he had been taught at school about the American Way of Life was a lie." Ever from then on he would try to make America "see itself as it really was: phoney, mendacious, shallow and ugly."
Zappa often claimed he did not want to become what he is known to most people as - a rock musician. He famously confessed "I never had any intention of writing rock music. I always wanted to compose more serious music and have it performed in concert halls." His becoming one of the most famous rock artists was a vehicle that allowed him achieve his ultimate goal - having various symphony orchestras play his "serious" compositions. The guise also allowed Zappa to achieve the other major goal of his life - becoming a pre-eminent social critic. Songs like Brown Shoes Don't Make It express "consummate indictment of government corruption and the vacuous sterility of American consumer society." In I'm the Slime Zappa "describes television content as vile and pernicious, brain-washing the American public until they are a country of zombies who do as they are told: eat the processed junk food that is advertized, and think what the government wants them to think, all dished up as mind-numbing sit-coms, soap operas and game shows." Well, it is hard not to totally agree with this assessment.
Mr. Miles' diagnosis is most acute when he emphasizes Zappa's "ambivalent relationship to the counter-culture". While living in the absolute center of this counter-culture, he despised most of what it stood for. Zappa usually had very little respect for his fans and often he even vilified his audiences. He treated many people whose money he took for performing for them like complete idiots (and rightly so). The famous "Gee, my hair's getting good in the back!" quote satirizes the audiences' preoccupation with looking like the band members they idolized. The adolescent boys screamed in delight when they listened to Zappa's famous Titties and Beer, which was, basically, a song about how stupid they were.
I am for complete freedom of speech in arts and do not mind if an artist wants to write songs with lyrics about defecation, urination, flatulence, feet odor, nasal excretions, and other such things. People who are disgusted by the subject matter should just refrain from listening to these songs. And yes, I am disgusted with some Zappa's lyrics - I think 'Jazz Discharge Party Hats' might be the grossest song ever - yet I still support his right to write such a song, while at the same time doubting whether he ever managed to grow up.
What Mr. Miles' book made quite clear to me is how tyrannical and callous Frank Zappa was with respect to the musicians who played for him. Despite the fact that they had to work extremely hard - no other bands in the history of rock had to practice that hard during insanely prolonged rehearsals - and that Mr. Zappa paid them little, he continuously berated them and fired at will. His patronizing remarks about the members of the London Symphony Orchestra, who played his compositions and applauded his skills as a composer, are a particularly acute example.
Mr. Miles puts forward several other interesting theses in his book, for instance, about the influence of Zappa's Sicilian patriarchal roots, the consequences of his father's constant job changes and consequent relocations of Zappa's family, his lack of friends, even his apparent inability to love, yet this review is already way overlong. To sum up (finally!): Frank Zappa is a great musician and a keen social observer. He is the author of perhaps my favorite epigram "Scientists claim that hydrogen is the basic building block of the universe because it is so plentiful. I say there is more stupidity than hydrogen, and that is the basic building block of the universe." Yet, there is also another side to the genius and while I still admire Frank Zappa, I would somehow feel embarrassed, having read this great biography, to call him my hero.
Four and three quarter stars.
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