"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.
Zappa, Lennon writes, "couldn't decide what he should do with me: educate or debauch me" and their affair radiates the usual Oedipal heat of teacher-student liaisons: sex in his downstairs home-studio while the wife is upstairs; sex in the bathroom of a theater after sound-check; covert sex play in the back-seat of a car as Zappa chats with his manager who is driving.
But Zappa did teach her, too--about himself as much as anything else--and Lennon's readings of Zappa are in many ways more trenchant than Watson's. While Watson sees Zappa as an idealized model of liberation, Lennon points out how he "kept his emotions under tight control," and explains the excesses of his lyrics in this way: "As a rugged individual in a conformist world, he had reached the conclusion that his survival hinged on selling the public on his peculiar art by using reverse psychology, exaggerating his 'unsavory' qualities. It worked, but it took its toll on him."
Lennon observes with a lover's eye, and when she recovers the girl she was and writes unguardedly, capturing "that elusive 'when,' " as she puts it, she is quite moving. Impossibly small gestures linger in her mind, nearly 25 years later: "The last thing I remember before I drifted off was Frank leaning over me and gently pulling my blanket up over my cold bare feet. He squeezed my toes a little as he did it. . . . Then he went back to work."
The affair ended badly, of course. Zappa was married, he had other girlfriends, and his work took precedence over everything. After being out of touch with him for many years, Lennon found herself beset by a pain "so intense it was physical" when Zappa died. She began writing "Being Frank," she says, as an "experiment" in dealing with those feelings. It's possible, though, to read the book as an act of revenge, or at least a declaration of independence, as much as an act of love.
For three years, Lennon knew that Zappa was seriously ill and never contacted him. Perhaps extricating herself from his emotional shadow had been too devastating for her to risk seeing him again. Perhaps, somewhere within her, he persisted as such an exalted personage that she did not truly believe he could die. The depth of her response to his death suggests, however, that her identity was still profoundly intertwined with his.
However invisible Lennon may have felt as a young girl and however famous Zappa was, this story is as fully hers as his. And "Being Frank" is the product of a hard final lesson that being Frank and being Nigey Lennon are not the same thing.