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Zapped : Two perspectives on a rock legend : FRANK ZAPPA: The Negative Dialectics of Poodle Play, By Ben Watson (St. Martin's Press: $27.50; 597 pp.) : BEING FRANK: My Time With Frank Zappa, By Nigey Lennon (California Classics Books, P.O. Box 29756, Los Angeles 90029; $14.95; 160 pp.)

March 19, 1995|Anthony DeCurtis | Anthony DeCurtis is a senior features editor at Rolling Stone

"I still think it's one of the smartest things I ever said," Frank Zappa remarks in an interview near the end of Ben Watson's exhausting critical study, "Frank Zappa: The Negative Dialectics of Poodle Play." "Rock journalism is people who can't write interviewing people who can't talk in order to provide articles for people who can't read."

It may be one of the funniest things the late composer ever said, but it's not one of the smartest, because the real problem with rock criticism these days isn't stupidity, or at least not the kind of stupidity Zappa is talking about. No, the real problem is the sort of hyper-cerebral blather that characterizes virtually every page of "Frank Zappa."

Of course, Zappa, who died of cancer in 1993 shortly before his 53rd birthday and who was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame earlier this year, is not a particularly easy figure to approach. Over the course of nearly three decades he produced a staggering amount of recorded work, much of it exhilaratingly ambitious, willfully complex, self-contradictory and, all too often, flat-out offensive.

Zappa was a divided soul who aspired to the 20th-Century avant-garde musical tradition, but rejected the sterile pretensions of its (more or less nonexistent) audience. At the same time, he was also drawn to the guilelessness and cultural vitality of popular music--"Louie, Louie" was a song he would return to repeatedly throughout his career--but despised its sentimentality and eagerness to embrace the lowest common denominator. More disturbingly, Zappa seemed determined to undermine the visionary reach of his music with incessant scatological "humor" and idiotic frat-boy sexism.

Ben Watson might at first seem the ideal person to sort all this out. A British poet, he's steeped in Zappa lore and versed both in contemporary musicology and the various waves of European philosophical and cultural theory that have washed these shores over the last half-century. He is most successful in those rare moments when he manages to avoid intellectual cuteness (a tendency embodied in the subtitle of his book.) Analyses of Zappa's "utopian disregard for genre," his aesthetic and social desire to "create dissatisfaction with limits," and the political implications of his smutty lyrics in "a society in which false piety commits monstrosities" are smart and convincing. And his conclusion is unassailable: "finally it is (Zappa's) incongruity as a cultural figure that is his most inspirational facet. He fits arts radio no more than he gets along with obsequious top-40 jocks."

But Watson is not content to stop there and sometimes disappears into his own clotted rhetoric.

In a footnote that pretty much stands as his critical modus operandi, Watson explains that "Poodle play insists that the more absurd the connections are, the better they are." That entails the reader being subjected to discussions like one titled "Apostrophe (') and King Lear" in which Watson traces a series of preposterous parallels between Zappa's 1974 album and Shakespeare's tragedy. Plato and James Joyce get the treatment, too, with Watson helpfully pointing out that, "In Apostrophe (') the assault on Plato takes the form of a talking-blues dialogue called 'Stink-Foot.' " Sure.

Still, Watson is nothing if not sporting. In the interview that concludes the book, he allows Zappa his full, lively say. It turns out--surprise--that Zappa had never read Plato, couldn't stand Shakespeare and couldn't "say that I've ever read anything by Joyce all the way through."

Conscious of his impending death and concerned about his legacy, Zappa touchingly admits to being "so flattered that you would spend all this time to write a book on me." But, more tellingly, when Watson asks him if he has a "message" for the burgeoning "Zappa industry in academia," Zappa laughs and advises: "Get a real estate license."

Nigey Lennon's "Being Frank: My Time With Frank Zappa" represents a more familiar genre than Watson's loopy speculations: that is, the personal memoir. While Lennon is at some pains to establish her credentials as both a musician and a writer--she is the author of books about Mark Twain and Alfred Jarry, as well as co-author of "Bread and Hyacinths: The Rise and Fall of Utopian Los Angeles"--the impetus for "Being Frank" primarily derives from a brief affair she had with the composer in the early '70s.

A smart, alienated kid growing up in Manhattan Beach, Lennon caught Zappa's ear by sending him a tape of some her songs when she was 16. He responded, they spoke and, a year or so later, he invited her to tour with him. A gifted guitarist and musicologist, Lennon would occasionally perform with Zappa's band, though, "despite the pesky point of my being underage," much of her time on stage seems to have been spent simulating sexual acts.

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