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The odd riffs and dissonant chords in a rock innovator’s life

Special to The Times

A decade after his death from prostate cancer, Frank Zappa is still bestowed with such labels as “icon,” “legend” and “cult hero.” He was also a weird and complicated guy, which added to his appeal -- though not always. Along with his prodigious, oddball musical output, he left a long trail of poorly handled relationships, both personal and professional.

As Barry Miles makes clear in this exhaustive biography, Zappa’s ardent fans are as eccentric as he was. Miles notes that a tiny sphere orbiting the sun between Mars and Jupiter was named 3834 Zappafrank, “after the International Astronomical Union’s Minor Planet Center was subjected to the largest lobbying effort ever seen in the naming of more than 3,000 asteroids.”

Zappa’s path to fame was an unlikely one. He led a lonely, itinerant childhood, and often got in trouble at school. He showed a love of music early on and was keenly interested in musical experimentation. As a teenager, his main problem was finding others with similarly off-kilter tastes.

By the mid-1960s, Zappa formed the Mothers of Invention and made the irreverent, challenging music that would define him. Case in point: In the liner notes for the group’s album “Freak Out,” Zappa described the song “The Return of the Son of Monster Magnet” as “what freaks sound like when you turn them loose in a recording studio at one o’clock in the morning with $500 worth of rented percussion equipment.”

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That album proved groundbreaking. It was “the first rock double-album, the first rock ‘concept’ album and musically it was about as cutting-edge as a rock album could be without being classified as avant-garde jazz or modern classical,” Miles writes.

“Over the years it has consistently been voted as one of the top 100 greatest albums ever made and even today it has not aged, even if the recording quality now seems a bit raw.”

As he became influential musically (even before going solo), Zappa seemed resolutely alone. He felt no kinship with the so-called counterculture movement, which he derided as a “commercial joke.” The bohemian-minded Zappa heartily supported such notions as group sex, but he opposed other aspects -- most notably drug use, because he hated losing control. Zappa seemed unable, or unwilling, to fit in with groups of any kind.

Nor was he well regarded by some musical peers. Lou Reed, then heading the Velvet Underground, shared a concert tour (and a record label) with Zappa and was dismissive of his band: “ ‘They can’t play and they can’t write.... Frank Zappa is the most untalented bore who ever lived,’ ” Miles quotes Reed as saying at the time. While Reed had a distinctly East Coast sensibility, Zappa was firmly rooted on the West Coast -- another thing Reed mocked.

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Miles’ admiration for Zappa’s wildly creative artistry is obvious, but he also explores his subject’s darker side. He treated bandmates as employees rather than collaborators. He had a misanthropic streak and a tenacious, unappealing fascination with smut and toilet humor, often reflected in his music.

He regarded feminism with suspicion, and sometimes he was accused of being blatantly misogynistic. A self-absorbed workaholic, he neglected his wife and children. He alienated fans, business partners, family and friends to an extent that seemed willfully self-destructive.

“Zappa,” says Miles, “inhabited a cold, hard world.”

Miles’ account is a useful addition to the numerous published books about Zappa, including an autobiography, and its flaws are few and relatively minor. But Miles is easier on his subject than he might have been.

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And he offers a surfeit of mundane information: "[Zappa] had a lifelong aversion to pasta. The only Italian food he could bear to eat was pizza. He had an abhorrence of anything with garlic or onions in it, even the slightest trace, which meant he rarely ate in Italian restaurants.”

In the end, Miles characterizes Zappa, for better or worse, as “an iconoclast in the male tradition of Neal Cassady, Hunter S. Thompson, William S. Burroughs, Ken Kesey, Allen Ginsberg, Lenny Bruce and the early Norman Mailer.”

Surely the merit of being lumped with those towering rogues is questionable. All were iconoclasts, but do they deserve to be regarded as more admirable than troubling? That depends on who’s asking.

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Carmela Ciuraru is a regular contributor to Book Review.


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