A Biographyby Barry Miles
The definitive biography of religion-baiting, Republican-hating, chain-smoking, coffee-addicted, classically trained guitar virtuoso Frank Zappa.
Ten years after his death, Frank Zappa continues to influence popular culture. With almost one hundred recordings still in print—from his revolutionary work with the Mothers of Invention to his influential first solo album, Lumpy Gravy—Frank Zappa remains a classic American icon. Scores of bands have been influenced by (and have shamelessly imitated) Zappa’s music, and a talented roster of musicians passed through Zappa’s bands, including Captain Beefheart, Jean-Luc Ponty, George Duke, Lowell George, and Steve Vai. Now comes the definitive biography of Zappa by best-selling author Barry Miles, who knew Zappa personally and was present at the recording of some of his most important albums.
Miles follows Zappa from his sickly Italian-American childhood in the 1940s (his father worked for the military and was used to test how effective new biological warfare agents were) to his youthful pursuit of what was a lifelong dream: becoming a classical composer. Zappa brings together the many different personalities of this music legend together for the first time: the self-taught musician and composer who gained fame with the “rock” band the Mothers of Invention; the political antagonist who mocked presidents while being invited by Václav Havel to represent Czechoslovakia’s cultural interests in the United States, and Zappa the family man who was married to the same woman for over thirty years.
Rebel, performer, and a true musical visionary, Zappa is a brilliant and sweeping portrait of an American legend, written by one of rock music’s most respected biographers.
“Vividly explores the life of a music legend—shedding light on the tensions that made him simultaneously iconoclastic and conventional.” —Vogue
“Miles has listened hard and researched well to craft a critical yet respectful biography of a man many consider a key musical genius of the past 40 years. . . . Read Miles’ biography to affirm Zappa’s creativity, hostility and wild, exploitative lifestyle. Read it, too, for the story of a ruthless autodidact of strange, warped humanity.” —Carlo Wolff, San Francisco Chronicle
“A comprehensive and finely detailed biography . . . Miles traces his life with academic ferocity.” —Mitch Myers, High Times
“Rebel, performer, and a true musical visionary, Zappa is a brilliant and sweeping portrait of an American legend, written by one of rock music’s most respected biographers.” —San Diego Reader
“Pop culture biographer Miles . . . paints an engrossing portrait. . . . Skillfully weaves together the major beats and minor notes of Zappa’s remarkable life . . . hits the ups and downs of Zappa’s life like a skilled composer in his own right. . . . The result is a penetrating look both at Zappa and at the social and political milieu in which popular rock music stepped to the fore.” —Publishers Weekly
“Miles, who knew him well, gets closer than anyone to unraveling the enigma of Zappa and explaining his peculiar gifts and neuroses.” —Mick Brown, Daily Telegraph
“[An] excellent and authoritative biography.” —Val Hennessy, Daily Mail
Praise for Paul McCartney:
“A must-read for anyone interested in the Beatles, the ’60s, for that matter, modern culture itself.” —People
John Lennon had just moved to New York and was being shown the sights by Village Voice columnist and broadcaster Howard Smith. When Smith told John he was going to interview Frank, John exclaimed: “Wow, I always wanted to meet him. I really, really admire him.” Smith was puzzled and asked why. “He’s at least trying to do something different with the form. It’s incredible how he has his band as tight as a real orchestra. I’m very impressed by the kind of discipline he can bring to rock that nobody else can seem to bring to it.” Smith asked if John would like to come along. “I’d love to meet him,” said John. They took John’s silver Lincoln Continental to 1 Fifth, the hotel-apartment block on the corner of Fifth Avenue and 8th Street where rock bands often stayed.
Frank opened the door. “I brought somebody along,” said Howard. “Oh hi, glad to meet you,” said Frank, absolutely deadpan. The other Mothers, however, leapt up off their seats and rushed forward to be introduced.
Later that day, on Howard’s talk-show on WPLJ John said: “I don’t know why I should have believed it because I should know better, having had all that guff written about me, but I expected a sort of grubby maniac with naked women all over the place, you know—sitting on the toilet. The first thing I said was, “Wow, you look so different. You look great!” And he said, “You look clean too—he was expecting a couple of nude freaks.” Howard told Albert Goldman that Lennon was very deferential to Frank: “John acted like “I may be popular, but this is the real thing.” Yoko acted like Frank Zappa had stolen everything he had ever done or even thought from her.” Frank completely ignored her. When Howard suggested that John and Yoko might like to join Frank on stage that evening, it took Frank a moment or two to realize that this was a good thing.
The second show ran until the early hours. It was 2:00 am Sunday; Frank had already completed a third encore and people were starting to leave their seats, when the stage lights went on again and an astonished audience realized who was onstage. They stood on their seats and screamed while Frank scowled at them. Howard Smith had known that John and Yoko would never show up unless he stayed with them all the time, and even so they were nervous wrecks when it came time to perform. It took about a gram of cocaine to get them on stage. At first all went well as they ran through the Olympics’ 1958 “Well (Baby Please Don’t Go)” (the B-side of “Western Movies”) which Lennon used to sing at the Cavern, marred only by Yoko’s unrelated yelling. Her wailing also got in the way of “King Kong” which Zappa quickly terminated, then they went into a simple blues jam over which Lennon, followed by Flo and Eddie, chanted the word “scumbag” while Yoko did her thing. Don Preston, who guested on Mini-Moog that night, had fond memories of the gig: “At one point in the concert, one of the things that was very striking was that John started imitating Zappa by conducting the band with hand signals. I thought that was hilarious. And he was doing a really good job of it.” After a bit Frank asked the audience to join in and at some point someone placed a black bag over Yoko, who continued to wail. Lennon arranged his guitar against a speaker to produce continuous feedback and she continued shrieking for some time after the band had left the stage. For years afterwards Yoko apparently complained that John had abandoned her helpless inside the bag.
The concert was released as The Mothers, Fillmore East—June 1971, on August 2nd, only two months later. Frank had hoped to use some of the John and Yoko material—over lunch in an Italian restaurant they had done a deal that they would both have copies of the tapes to do anything they wanted with—but Frank refused to deal directly Lennon’s manager, Allen Klein, who had a reputation for obfuscation and mendacity, and permission didn’t come through on time. John and Yoko, however, took Cal Schenkel’s hand scribbled sleeve and John annotated it to make the sleeve of the live bonus album that came with their Some Time In New York double album. At the same time they claimed copyright on the entire jam, giving “King Kong” the new title “Jam Rag” (British slang for a tampon). Frank was exceedingly annoyed.
200 Motels and extensive touring had exhausted the touring-can-make-you-crazy/ groupie sketch but the idea of a half hour rock playlet that could be modified to include local personalities and place names wherever they played had been a great success and was an obvious touring vehicle. It had provided limitless opportunities to parody every other rock group and pop hit from quotes from the Seeds to a wicked take-off of the Who’s Tommy in the middle of “Bwana Dik.” It is tempting to think that Zappa took the idea of an ever changing operetta from Stravinsky whose The Soldier’s Tale was designed to be transposed into any time period and to suit any nationality. Stravinsky wrote: “Place names like Denges and Denezy are Vaudois in sound, but in fact they are imaginary; these and other regionalisms—the actors also introduced bits of Canton de Vaud patois—were to have been changed according to the locale of the performance, and, in fact, I still encourage producers to localize the play . . .” Zappa was the narrator of The Soldier’s Tale when it was performed at the Hollywood Bowl in 1972 with Lukas Foss conducting. Stravinsky died the previous year.
Zappa wrote another playlet—”Billy the Mountain”—a virtually unintelligible fantasy, particularly for foreign audiences—about a mountain that gets a royalty cheque for all the postcards that have been sold with his image. He decides to celebrate by taking a vacation in New York, and on his first day’s travel he levels Edwards Airforce Base (where Zappa senior worked when Frank lived in Lancaster). As a piece of writing it shows every sign of being knocked off in a hurry and not even read through, and yet it is quintessential Zappa. In the recorded performance Zappa almost lovingly lists the far flung dormitory communities of Los Angeles: Torrance, Hawthorne, Lomita, Westchester, Playa Del Rey, Santa Monica, Tujunga, Sunland, San Fernando, Pacoima, Sylmar, Newhall, Canoga Park, Palmdale, Glendale, Irwindale, Rolling Hills, Granada Hills, Shadow Hills, Cheviot Hills. He remains at heart, resolutely suburban – this is his material, he is inseparable from it as a rider from his horse, a fortune teller from her cards. The great cultural wasteland of the Californian suburbs is the space wherein Zappa works.
Zappa celebrates their very lack of urbanity, their tackiness, their ugliness and lack of taste. Urban sprawl, with its monotonous box-like housing, relieved only by strip malls, drive-ins and roadhouses, has no sense of place. The enormous areas covered mean that even church spires are only visible from a few blocks away. It is Zappa’s use of this environment that causes Europeans and Americans to read him in very different ways; why he was always seen as a genius and a star in Europe, while he suffered neglect at home. Europeans regard him, to a certain extent, as a pop artist. Not pop as in pop music, but Pop Art, as named by Lawrence Alloway in 1954, which though labelled in England is, with the exception of Richard Hamilton, essentially American. Europeans could be romantic about American consumer artefacts because they do not make up the whole of their own culture. Everyday life in Europe, even thirty years after the period under discussion, is lived among the strata of history.