Inside the head of Frank Zappa
New biography looks at distinctive musician
By Adam Dunn
Special to CNN
Frank Zappa was "the poet of urban sprawl," says author Barry Miles.
"Freak Out," 1966
"Absolutely Free," 1967
"We're Only in It for the Money," 1968
"Uncle Meat," 1969
"Weasels Ripped My Flesh," 1970
"Sheik Yerbouti," 1979
"Shut Up and Play Yer Guitar," 1981
"Jazz from Hell," 1986
"The Yellow Shark," 1993
NEW YORK (CNN) -- Frank Zappa was an aspiring classical composer but gained fame as a rock 'n' roll guitar god. He took music seriously, but titled albums "Lumpy Gravy" and "Burnt Weenie Sandwich."
He didn't indulge in drugs or alcohol, but could spend hours or days in the studio, living on coffee and cigarettes, often at the expense of his family while he ironed out project after project.
He was a business-savvy bandleader, an overbearing boss, a mocker of culture and a scorner of Congress (particularly when it came to aspects of censorship).
In his new book "Zappa: A Biography" (Grove Press), Barry Miles (author of biographies of Alan Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac and Paul McCartney) offers a look not so much at the Zappa the man as much as how the man revealed himself through his work and the guises he wore while undertaking it. His book is a good primer for those wishing to learn the steps Zappa, who died in 1993, took to create himself (he never was much for school).
Zappa drew inspiration from nowhere, almost literally. "He was the poet of urban sprawl, not even of the suburbs," says Miles in a phone interview from London, England.
Frank's father, a restless teacher, meteorologist, and metallurgist who did a stint as a chemical weapons researcher for the Army, pried up his family from their home base of Baltimore (the Zappa clan originally hailed from Partinico, Sicily) and moved them all over, eventually finding an affinity for the desert exurbs outside Los Angeles.
Young Frank was uprooted so often, Miles says, that it permanently damaged his ability to form meaningful relationships, while encouraging his latent creativity to provide substitutes.
"Sometimes the most ordinary of upbringings allows this to happen. In Zappa's case I think it was the ordinariness, the emptiness of much of his experience, particularly growing up in the desert, where there was little in the way of architectural, visual stimulation or anything else," he says. "That enabled his creative ability to come to the fore, to make up for much of what was missing in his life."
'He had an empathy'
Indeed, the bland towns Zappa was shuffled through during the early part of his life would form the backdrops for the stories and characters of his songs, whether with his band, the Mothers of Invention, or in his solo material.
"Frank was a sort of anthropologist in that sense. He really celebrated these lives, and these people, who were getting by as best they could in what to the rest of the world would be regarded as unusual circumstances," says Miles. "He was naturally very cynical about them, and about American culture in general, but he had an empathy for these people, because he grew up in that kind of environment."
Miles' book also details the strange mix of musical influences Zappa maintained throughout his career: the Viennese school of classical composers (Varèse, Webern, Schoenberg, Stravinsky) and 1950s R&B (especially doo-wop, the subject of the late-'60s Mothers of Invention alter egos, Ruben and the Jets).
While the Zappa chronicled in these pages might strike some as an over-amped artistic vacuum cleaner, Miles carefully shows how these styles remained a constant musical presence in Zappa's life.
"He began life writing classical music," Miles says. "He didn't actually write his first rock 'n roll song until he was 21, whereas he'd been writing classical music since he was 16."
Zappa was also a master producer. "He had taken an interest in school in harmony and the most basic things you need to know," Miles says. "He did have a self-taught technical knowledge in that respect. ... He came up the best way possible, in the studios, trying to imitate records on the charts, to get a certain sound like spoofing a surf records or something."
'He always wanted to have complete control'
Author Barry Miles
Zappa's records -- from the Mothers' "Freak Out" (the first rock double album) and "We're Only in It for the Money" to his solo work, such as "Apostrophe," "Joe's Garage" and "Jazz from Hell" -- always had a following. He boosted the careers of Captain Beefheart and Alice Cooper, influenced Devo, and gave free rein to outsider musicians such as Wild Man Fischer.
Still, it all seems to come down to what might be termed the Zappa Paradox: how a product of the counterculture, who employed everything from peanut butter to amplified garbage cans to make his message heard, could distance himself so fully from the very audience he strove to reach.
"I think it stems from a basic insecurity, originally, but also a sense of superiority," Miles said. "He could talk to other musicians because they had a common language. Those people became his friends, or as close as he came to them (he always maintained that his family were his only friends). ...
"[But] he could never take an audience seriously. If he took their advice, what they liked, that would mean he would have to take others' views seriously as well, and he wouldn't do that, he always wanted to have complete control. No one could ever be in a position to influence him, as far as he was concerned. He really didn't want that."