When I saw that David Robertson had programmed The Saint Louis Symphony Orchestra to perform some music by Frank Zappa this season (Nov. 13 at the Pageant), I knew I must be missing something. David is quirky and willing to shatter expectations, but not at the expense of musical quality. Zappa as composer must be the real deal. Who'd have thunk.
This weekend I took my daughter and her friend Navia to the St. Louis County Public Library to check out some books and DVDs. I browsed in Biography and came upon Zappa by Barry Miles. This weekend I read this fascinating and well crafted book about what seems to have been a deeply unpleasant but unexpectedly versatile and pioneering cultural figure.
I'll start a series of posts about this book with a note on the old man, Francis Zappa, drawn above from an undated family photograph where Frank looks pubescent.
The old man was of Sicilian peasant stock ("Zappa" means "hoe" in Italian), who was brought to this country (to Baltimore) as a toddler. He was able to afford college with the help of his father and his earnings playing cards. He studied history at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill and played guitar in a trio. Miles tells us the old man serenaded coeds with "Pretty Little Red Wing, the Indian Maiden" (a song I recorded Pops Farrar singing that we released on his CD Memory Music: Songs and Stories from the Merchant Marine).
Frank would eventually pick up the ancestral guitar, after getting started on drums (and failing to keep a backbeat), but the concept of supporting the educational aspirations of your children petered out before Frank Zappa procreated. Though he was a millionaire by the time his kids were grown, he told them they were on their own if they wanted to further their education.
This was because he had developed a simpleminded rap about education being a tool of mind control - and because he was a tightwad, a trait he seems to have come by honestly. When Francis moved his family to California, though he had a decent salary as a teacher, he used to follow farm trucks on weekends and have Frank and the other kids hop out to pick up the produce that fell to the road.
Miles makes much of Francis constantly moving the family hither and yon. He argues that always being the new kid - the new ugly kid with the big nose, one might add, though Miles doesn't judge Zappa's looks - made Frank distant emotionally. He certainly stayed that way almost until the end and comes across in this book as a difficult man to like or love. He treated his bandmates as employees, fired them en masse without notice, and couldn't get any of them to come to the 20th anniversary of The Mothers of Invention. As his longtime drummer said, Frank had no friends outside of his family - and you wouldn't want to be a member of his family.
During World War II, the old man did defence work with the U.S. Chemical Warfare Service and the Zappas often lived in highly toxic environments. That may or may not help to explain why Frank Zappa developed prostate cancer at an early age and died young, at 52. The old man also was pugnacious and liked to storm off on people, another trait inherited by the son and directed, in his case, toward everyone from the denizens of the counter-culture he helped to create and Tipper Gore.
Not much of a man, judging by this book, though his story as an artist is fascinating. I'll come back with that later.