Saturday, September 30, 2006

Frank Zappa

I've just finished Frank Zappa by Barry Miles and seldom has any biography had such a profound and unexpected effect on me. So much so, in fact, that I'm going to find it very difficult to listen to Zappa's music for a long while. Why? Because a lot of the songs I always took to be satirical, I now know to be mere explicit descriptions of his real-life predelictions. No-one expects their heroes to be saints, but we also don't like to discover that they have feet of clay or, in Zappa's case, so to speak, feet of mephitic slime. Yes, Stink-Foot does come to mind. Anyway, it gave me no pleasure at all to read about his caveman attitude towards women (a trait, incredibly, shared by his wife Gail), his cavalier treatment of band members; his general misanthropy, and utter hypocrisy in nearly all aspects of his life. The fact that he was also a control freak seems, by comparison, only a minor addition to this litany of failure.

But most damning of all was the way he reared his children. They were allowed do exactly as they liked: Their totally inappropriate - but, for them, perfectly normal - behaviour at school, for instance, would be hilarious if it wasn't so shocking. They watched porn and horror films with both parents (who, incidentally, seldom communicated unless it was about business) and, when they became teenagers, Gail insisted that they shower with any overnight guests to save water. Yes, that is hard to believe. The only rule in a house - where inflatable sex devices and pornographic cartoons lay casually strewn about - seemed to be Thou shalt not bother daddy when he's working.

His cruelly-christened daughter ("If it's a boy call him Motorhead. If it's a girl call her Moon Unit," Zappa blithely instructed his heavily pregnant wife as he leaves for London with another woman) tells of how her father's obscene lyrics "made her shy, almost repressed about my own anatomy" and, in another heartbreaking incident, she begs for some sort of normal relationship with him. And the result of her pleading? Valley Girl, one of his most successful records. I hope the Zappa children turned out safe and healthy, but the more I read, the more I couldn't get Philip Larkin's line out of of my head: "They fuck you up, your mum and dad..."

Barry Miles is a reputable biographer who knew Zappa very well, but that doesn't, of course, mean that he might not have a lorryload of axes to grind. You shouldn't, of course, believe everything you read, but if you like Frank Zappa's music, maybe you should avoid this book. As depicted here, he was a human being with very few redeeming qualities. Even his hostility towards drugs - which would surely be to the average parent's credit - comes across as just another of his wilful perversions.


Blogger The Boy said...

Interesting blog. I know nothing about Frank Zappa apart from a few songs of his (that I like). Maybe I shouldn't read the biography as I want to enjoy Valley Girl until the day I die.

4:39 pm  
Blogger Sam Hall for Pensacola City Council, District 2 said...

Thanks for what appears to be a heartfelt, yet mindful review.

Sam Hall

9:47 pm  
Blogger Gary said...

Speaking of Zappa I came across a great quote from the man himself this week, "The building block of the universe is stupidity". Love it. Gar

10:45 pm  
Anonymous Aisling said...

I just read your review last night,i've heard a passage from the book,read on Radio1(Book on One)about 2months ago.As a Zappa listener,i found it very interesting to hear another perspective to an artist i would normally never have questioned.As i said to Aoife,i always find that when i read about an artist that i greatly admire,i always discover their undesirable attributes,which sometimes can disappoint me,but i'd hope that wouldn't taint their work,which essentially is the most important thing for me.
Thanks for the review.Looking forward to reading the book.

1:42 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

only now catching up on your blog having been screwed by "the system" into loosing my B.Band after believing that shopping around for the best deal was good for one's health. Your Zappa insight was kinda shocking ( o/k even though most of the curtains have been opened in our time of revelations ) to this sucker who not only consumed with relish the complex beautiful music but took for granted the cool outsider stances. Never trust a hippie but especially one who never cuts his hair !!

4:36 pm  

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