Book Review: Frank Zappa — A Jerk of Genius

Veteran British journalist Barry Miles pens the definitive biography of irreverent rocker Frank Zappa.

Zappa by Barry Miles. Grove Press

By Milo Miles

Veteran British journalist and biographer Barry Miles, who has specialized in the Beatles and the Beats, treats Frank Zappa with the same corrosive irreverence the artist applied to every subject he discussed or wrote a song about. At the same time, Miles shows strong, though buried, affection for an unfettered, headstrong bandleader-composer who could only have flourished in 1960s America.

This is a wise course to follow. Zappa died of prostate cancer almost 11 years ago at the age of 52, but the iconoclastic pioneer has never gone away. He released an immense amount of music and new fans continue to discover him through satiric and experimental-rock landmarks like the Mothers of Invention’s “Freak Out!” (1966) or jazz-fusion faves like “One Size Fits All,” (1975) or sexist and homophobic gross-outs like those on “Tinseltown Rebellion” (1981) or all of the above on coffee-table albums like “L?er,” (1996) or the “You Can’t Do That on Stage Any More” series (1988-1992).

Since the mid-60s, Zappa is either uncritically worshipped or unreflectively dismissed. Miles lacks any grand theories about Zappa’s music. For those, you can either listen to the records yourself or turn to Neil Slaven’s “Electric Don Quixote.” But Miles’s taste is clear and hard to reject. Perhaps the only serious lapse is the skimpy one-paragraph gloss on the rich and varied double LP “Uncle Meat.”

As a biographer, Miles presents a portrait that enables a reader to appreciate the seriousness, intelligent dedication and independent spirit of Zappa’s works while acknowledging their roots in uptightness, workaholism, and a nearly gruesome emotional isolation. Control and contradiction are yin and yang of this jerk of a genius.

Miles makes a strong case that Zappa was profoundly shaped by two shocks and two grand passions. The first shock was the accumulated effect of a series of jolts: Zappa’s Sicilian immigrant father, Francis, moved the family from one defense-industry job to another, hopping from Baltimore to northern California and finally to several spots in the desert suburbs outside Los Angeles. Zappa never had a long-running set of friends, and to compensate, he worked hard to create a charismatic image.

The second shock was in 1965 when Zappa was busted for making pornography. It was a case of outrageous entrapment that, nevertheless, resulted in 10 days in a filthy San Bernardino cell and three years probation. Jail so traumatized Zappa that avoiding another bust is a persuasive reason he almost never touched drugs. But the injustice was not lost on him, either. “[Zappa] made sure that his pornographic tape was heard by everyone – he remade it time and time again, at least a couple of times on each album, rubbing it in the face of respectable society, making America see itself as it really was: phony, mendacious, shallow and ugly.”

One of his grand passions was the most eccentric composer in 20th-century classical music, Edgard Varese (Zappa admired Igor Stravinsky as well). The other was the African-American street corner-harmony style known as doo-wop, along with early R&B in general. Miles notes the curious fact that, while Zappa remained dedicated to raucous sound and intricate rhythm formulations in the manner of Varese, his interest in classical avant-garde never extended much beyond the end of World War II — and indeed, his sympathy for new styles of popular music waned by the mid-’70s. He was a notorious disparager of disco and punk.

Miles sees Zappa’s contradictions as rooted in his obsession with control. That may seem odd for a major rock and roll figure but Zappa, like many rebels before him, wanted freedom on his own terms. In his case, freedom meant relying only on yourself and maintaining command of every aspect of your inner and outer environment. As much as any pop performer, Zappa was born to be his own producer and have a home studio.

But the rage for control also illuminates how he could oppose censorship yet objectify women. All true romantic partnership means giving up some control, and for Zappa that was a non-starter. As Gail, his long-suffering wife of 30 years, puts it, “Frank did not do love.” Miles also provides new detail about how Zappa cut his kids adrift.

According to Miles, Zappa’s main motivation was simply to hear what his compositions sounded like, so he treated talented people like hired hands. The group unity of rock or the sense of collective creation in jazz mattered little to him. No wonder Zappa moved from a standard batch of true-believers in the original Mothers of Invention to touring groups made up of studio musicians to finally creating and performing everything himself on the fascinating but now outmoded type of synthesizer called a Synclavier. Zappa finally incarnated his dream of a mad scientist brewing up shocking fantasy-projects in his basement laboratory.

Zappa’s business dealings with record companies and his bands reveals the same self-serving but quixotic spirit. For all the overheated rhetoric, missed released dates, shortened and censored albums and lawsuits that litter Zappa’s dealings with the music industry, he remains an articulate inspiration and artists-rights pioneer for composers and performers who want more control over their material and albums. He fought what he saw as inequitable contracts as fiercely as he fought prissy pronouncements from the Parents Music Resource Center in the ’80s.

Over the years his crusading spirit became increasingly sour. Zappa skewered the pretensions of the counterculture for all time on “We’re Only In It for the Money” (1968, a demolition worthy of Bertold Brecht). But he gave the same era a soulless mugging 17 years later in “We’re Turning Again.”

Miles’ book offers the ideal complementary reading to David Walley’s “No Commercial Potential: The Saga of Frank Zappa.” Originally published in 1972, this early and most thoughtful rock book was written by a passionate fan at a time when the pros and cons of the unruly musician’s career were all too fresh. It’s a testament to Zappa’s enormous talent that his accomplishments and disappointments count for more than the legacy of nearly all his peers.

Milo Miles has reviewed world-music and American-roots music for “Fresh Air with Terry Gross” since 1989. He is a former music editor of The Boston Phoenix. Milo is a contributing writer for Rolling Stone magazine, and he also written about music for The Village Voice and The New York Times. His blog about pop culture and more is Miles To Go.

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1 Comment

  1. eric on July 11, 2018 at 6:24 pm

    I was a big fan of the Mothers of Invention, and it’s undeniable front man, Frank Zappa. My opinion of Zappa is based on his music with the Mothers, and adversely, after the Mothers. I believe the influence, and talents of the band members of the MOI is what put Zappa on the map, and that gave him his credentials. Zappa needed that influence, peer pressure, and possible intimidation to make good music. I believe what he did after he went “solo” was overly complex, burdened with needless duration guitar solos, too many notes per second crap, and almost crippling mean spirited pessimism, and hate. There is a good reason that Dvorak is considered a brilliant composer, and Zappa is a footnote at best. I don’t think he ever understood what pure music composition is, and I surmise that he thought complexity was the same thing. Having said that, he had moments of brilliance interspersed in his eclectic, thrown on the wall, prolific recording output. He was a hard worker. I’ve seen him play 4 times. The first was at the Garrick Theater in Greenwich Village in 1967, or 68. I was very impressed, but I was quite young, and there is no denying that The Mothers of Invention was different than anything being done at the time. They were different because they were competent, talented musicians making music that both parodied, and sampled music of that time. Also, they looked a lot more dangerous than the Beatles, or the Rolling Stones and in the entertainment business; image is everything.

    I could go on, and on and that would be fun if this was a small social setting with cocktails, potato chips, and polite disagreements. The Mothers of Invention was dear to me at a time in my life and I like to remember the pleasant, artistic impressions they made on me in my youth. As I have aged, I grew to dislike the anger, and meanness of Frank Zappa and that is something I don’t want to associate with music anymore. Music is the easiest, and most satisfying art to appreciate so I prefer to spend my time and ear drums on music that moves me in nicer ways.

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