A new biography of the grungy “genius” of rock ’n’ roll returns over and over again to a few themes, all carefully documented and likely to upset the faithful.
A gregarious loner who grew up during the 1950s in the character-free towns littering the southern California desert, Frank Zappa displayed early on the odd mix of interests that would show up later in his work: doo-wop music, Hispanic pachuco culture, toilet humor, atonal avant-garde composers, and a love/hate relationship with trash culture. Pop-culture historian Miles (Jack Kerouac, 1998, etc.) is at his best when ably chronicling Zappa’s early years, especially the 1960s, when he spread his freak flag via The Mothers of Invention (which he later disbanded, having come to see his bandmates as employees instead of collaborators) and such massively outsized compositions as Freak Out! An omnivorous music lover, Zappa boasted a legion of influences, which was reflected in his prodigious output; by the ’70s, at least in this account, he seems to be releasing a double or triple album on every other page. This gives Miles plenty of material to sift through for references to things in Zappa’s life, connections to other songs, and so on. Unfortunately, as the author himself often points out, for all his universally recognized musical talent, Zappa had a simply awful sense of humor, not to mention a viciously misanthropic outlook, and was always self-destructively undercutting his compositions with pointlessly smutty lyrics, “continually rubbing his audience’s face in the dirt.” Miles is far from an all-inclusive biographer, displaying as little interest in Zappa’s personal life as the artist did himself and preferring instead to go into lengthy detail about his legendarily monastic editing and recording sessions. A portrait does emerge here, and it’s a frighteningly soulless one: against it, Miles’s occasional reminders of Zappa’s musical genius seem more like afterthoughts than genuine analysis.
Far from the last word on Zappa, but an interesting shot from the sidelines.