Is "The Real Frank Zappa Book" really a book? Can an author who starts out by saying, "I don't want to write a book, but I'm going to do it anyway," who grudgingly admits that "I think it is good that books still exist, but they make me sleepy," be counted on to produce anything worth reading? The answer, as nearly everything else about the protean Mr. Z, is both surprising and contradictory.
Certainly Frank Zappa, eminence grise of the Mothers of Invention, is the unlikeliest rock star this country--or any other one, for that matter--has produced. An opinionated autodidact of the first water, a fierce battler both against censorship of rock lyrics and for teen-age voting, an admirer of Varese, Webern and Stravinsky who has had his own uncompromisingly modern music conducted by Zubin Mehta and Pierre Boulez, Zappa loves to mock convention in the best, most deliberately chaotic Dada style.
Expecting this man to write a decorous, orthodox book is like expecting Manners the Butler to burp in public. And even in its design, "The Real Frank Zappa Book" pays very little mind to convention. Its authors (Zappa and writer Peter Occhiogrosso) don't even seem to like ordinary type very much, bursting into italics, bold face, even BOLD FACE CAPS whenever the spirit moves them. And artist and designer Awest has added surprisingly delightful squiggles and illustrations on almost every page.
The book's literary format is equally unusual. Although, in an unexpected bow to convention, it is in fact made up of plain old chapters, "The Real Frank Book's" real building blocks are a series of shorter, several-paragraph-long apocalyptic bursts in which Zappa, rock's version of cranky raconteur Oscar Levant, regales us with a series of ad hominem anecdotes about his life and times, showing how he made the transition from youthful goof-off to mature guru.
Actually, Zappa was never a goof-off. Coming from a somewhat unusual background--his father, a meteorologist and metallurgist who once worked for the poison-gas-manufacturing Edgewater Arsenal and brought gas masks home for each member of the family--Zappa was a somewhat unusual teenager, discovering the music of Varese, for instance, and being so moved by the sounds that Look magazine had called "dissonant and terrible; the worst music in the world" that when his mother offered him anything $5 could buy for his 15th birthday, he opted for a phone call to the maestro's Greenwich Village apartment.
Bands of his own soon followed, musical aggregation with evocative names such as Joe Perrino and the Mellotones, the Hollywood Persuaders (remember "Grunion Run," the flip side of "Tijuana Surf"), the Black-Outs ("the only R&B band in the entire Mojave Desert") and the Soul Giants. Gradually developing his own anarchic spirit and individual brand of satiric lyrics, Zappa founded the Mothers in 1964, changing the name when MGM recording executives "convinced themselves that no DJ would ever play a record on the air by a group called 'The Mothers.' " So, "the stock line is: 'Out of necessity we became the Mothers of Invention.' "
Soon carving out a unique, perhaps indescribable niche in the chaotic rock market, the Mothers surprised everyone, especially those MGM executives, by becoming a successful band. But success, typically, did not make Zappa very happy, and much of the sections of his book devoted to the Golden Age of Motherhood are devoted to Zappa's tales of woe: how this or that record company cheated him, how a British concertgoer clobbered him, confining him to a wheelchair for nearly a year, how the British government involved him in a bogus obscenity trial.
When he's not replaying his tribulations, Zappa spends a good bit of time providing what he feels his fans want, which is decorous recountings of those wild and crazy times that bands inevitably have on the road with fun-loving types like the infamous Plaster-Casters. His heart clearly not in the telling, Zappa makes these doings sound about as lascivious as a VFW meeting, and perhaps they were. In fact, the most appealing incident turns out to be the time when, at the instigation of a young fan's brothers, he drove 20 minutes outside of Stockholm to sneak into the bedroom of the youngster, whose name was Hannes, and said: "Hannes! Hannes! Wake up! It's me, Frank Zappa." "As expected," Zappa dryly reports, "he was very surprised."
If the truth be told, Zappa seems barely able to interest himself in any form of recollection. Obviously that is a not inconsequential flaw in a book that is at least nominally autobiographical. And what Zappa is interested in talking about, what in fact seems to be the reason he agreed to do a book in the first place, presents problems of its own.
What Zappa apparently likes to do more than anything except write serious music is fulminate against the fools and foolishness of the world, and "The Real Frank Zappa Book" consists largely of this hip Andy Rooney's gripes and grievances. We learn, for instance, that Zappa feels that "Daylight is an ugly time of day," that stupidity is "the basic building block of the universe," that "Parents have more to do with making their children weird than TV or rock and roll records."
The difficulty is not that Zappa's complaints lack wit (they conspicuously don't) or that his targets, like the slavishness of the modern music establishment, aren't eminently worthy of his ire. It's just that so much wall-to-wall stridency is finally more tiresome than effective. Too good is no good, my mother used to say, and that goes for this mother as well.