Monday, October 27, 2008

Francis Zappa, an Italian "hoe"

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.


Brett said...

Pierre Boulez does Zappa here:

zombiewrangler said...

Read some pretty scathing reviews on Miles' book. Sounds dodgy. But I have not read it. Newbies should try "The Real Frank Zappa Book", by FZ and Peter Ochiogrosso. You will get a good understanding of Zappa's love of 12-tone music (and doo-wop!!) and how it influenced his compositions. Also with a healthy dose of Frank's politics and philosophy and his personal history.

But mostly, those interested should give "Yellow Shark" a listen. Or Boulez conducting the London Symphony Orchestra doing Zappa. "FZ:London Symphony Orchestra, Vol 1 & 2."
Those 2 sets will help to explain why FZ is the most important American composer since Gershwin. The humor and emotion which Frank could evoke with rhythm, tone, and instrumentation is unmatched.
It's a shame that most US symphonies overlooked Frank while he was alive. They were possibly afraid of the complexities of his works (which means you have to REALLY practice to make them sound good.) Perhaps they didn't like his use of rock and roll instrumentation alongside traditional symphony instruments. Or maybe they didn't like him because he was a loud-mouthed freak who didn't care much for the status quo mentality of most symphonies.
Anyhow, the piece that SLSO is performing is entitled "G-Spot Tornado." It is frenetic. Frank's son, Dweezil performed it on the most recent Zappa plays Zappa tour and you can hear it on "Yellow Shark". Many thanks to conductor David Robertson and I hope to hear an entire program of Zappa compositions in the near future.

Confluence City said...

Thanks, Dale.

For what it's worth, Miles found a lot of people who thought Zappa's own accounts of his life weren't accurate.

He comes across as a great artist and a lousy guy - not an unusual pattern.

Anonymous said...

Take the Barry Miles book and burn it. Many people who worked with Frank not only admired him, they are also very grateful to him. Buy or rent the Over-Nite Sensation/Apostrophe DVD if you'd like to hear some of this from former band members. If you take Miles' opinions out, half the book is gone.