Frank Zappa: A Biography
By Barry Miles
Veteran celeb biographer Barry Miles has turned his attention to the life of Frank Zappa—a daunting task, considering how closely guarded the musician and composer was about his personal life. Frank Zappa: A Biography, while a fair effort, ultimately fails due to a lack of primary sources and musical savvy coupled with sloppy research and an eerie condescending tone which judges its subject through a thorough (if somewhat jumbled) chronology.
The portrait Miles paints of Frank Zappa is of an artist who used his pent up anxieties of being an ex-Catholic and his growing disillusion with authority to create sometimes brilliant and sometimes puerile works that speak of a very complex and emotionally stunted man. Miles all too often fixates on that portion of Zappa’s catalog that deals with sexual subject matter, yet his own gossipy chestnuts of the artist’s sexual activity deliver the same appeal to prurient interest he looks down upon in Zappa’s work. While it’s clear that the author has a certain respect for his subject as a cultural icon and iconoclast, he often grasps at straws, looking to draw correlations within Zappa’s life that are pure conjecture.
With numerous references to The Real Frank Zappa Book (the autobiography written with Peter Occiogrosso in 1989), Barry Miles seeks contradictions within Zappa’s own accounts of events, relies heavily on this work in order to dispute rather than to enlighten. When he quotes the many musicians who have crossed Zappa’a path, he tends to focus on the negative. It’s well known that Zappa ran a tight ship, levying fines for infractions working his musicians to perfection and producing an incredibly tight stage show over the years. But what of those musicians who were grateful for graduating from the “School of Zappa”? Disgruntled bandmates certainly make for more interesting press, but shed little light on the considerable influence the bandleader had on his musicians.
Miles has taken the low road in Frank Zappa: A Biography, much like Albert Goldmann’s bios of Lenny Bruce and John Lennon, ferreting out facts that suit his own agenda rather than shedding light on one of music’s most fascinating figures. Then, perplexingly, the final chapter is filled with plaudits and accolades on Frank Zappa’s accomplishments. Make up your mind, Mr. Miles. Your subjectivity has ruined any credibility you might have had.
The most important legacy Frank Zappa left behind lies in his music, his quick wit and social consciousness and his relentless confrontation of popular and political culture. Unrepentantly, he exposed the hypocrisy of the society on which he commented with words that jarred the complacent and angered the self-righteous. Along the way, he brought a tremendous amount of discipline and virtuosity to rock and roll rooted in his love of classical music, a genre in which he also excelled. Apparently, Barry Miles is among those for whom all the pieces simply didn’t fit into an easily digestible package. Zappa’s work speaks for itself and such nonsense about his sexual and emotional ethos and practices bespeak the anxieties of an author who has a preconceived idea of what artists should be rather than what they are.