The Real Frank Zappa Book – Review

The Real Frank Zappa Book

Real_Zappa_Book_trI’ve been seeng the name Frank Zappa a lot these days. On TV, on Facebook, and his name’s even popped up a few time in my conversations lately. Which prompted me to write this review of his book and relate a chance encounter I had with him shortly before he passed away.

I was working at Jerry’s Famous Deli when a chance meeting with the man himself transpired. And coincidently, I had just finished reading his autobiography. Apparently, there were so many books and articles written about Frank Zappa and the Mothers of Invention, and the myths that sprouted around him and the band, Frank felt compelled to set the record straight about his life, music, opinions and politics once and for all. In his own words. In his own book.

For the record, it’s one of my favorite reads. Though his writing is infused with some underlying, even overt- bitterness and frustration stemming from a relentless onslaught of stupidity and ineptitude throughout his life eminating from people in authority,  including record company executives, law enforcement, and ultimately, the U.S. Senate in his famous face-off with the Tipper Gore and the PMRC over censorship, it is howlingly funny at times. Zappa’s humor infused  with biting sarcasm… is unsurpassed.

In the Real Frank Zappa Book, Zappa’s description of people and events that inspired many of his songs is hilarious. And… if you happen to be a musician, it’s a must read for the sage advice he offers to members of your tribe, alone.

The book also includes some of his original drawings, too. In fact, some of the pages remind me of my own notebooks – I used to draw, scribble and doodle on the pages of my notebooks all the time back in elementary and high school. These sketches serve well to enhance Zappa’s intelligent, humorous and perceptive writing, and I think almost anyone, whether you’re a super fan or have never even heard of the guy, will embrace the wit and wisdom extolled by the inimitable Mr. Zappa.

But, the most striking thing was toward the end when he wrote candidly about his home life. And this is when it became very real for me –  in real life.

As I said earlier, I was working at Jerry’s Famous Deli the evening I met Frank Zappa. And I had only recently finished reading The Real frank Zappa Book. Now, ordinarily, I made it a point to never, never, ever approach celebrities at work. Being a bartender in a high profile place like JFD, where seeing celebrities  was commonplace, it just was not appropriate for an employee to go up to famous people and ask for autographs, or drool all over their idols and stammer stupid, incoherent hero-worship-gobbled-goop.

But this was different. Because I wasn’t just a casual fan of Frank Zappa. We had a history…

In 1968, a 16-year-old me was up in his bedroom, in Philly, PA listening to XPN, the  local FM radio station, when the DJ (I’m pretty sure it was Michael Tearson), was playing this unbelievably funny, subversive, anti-establishment, anti-authoritarian – yet outstanding musically – album, in it’s entirety. So, I called the station to ask what I was listening to. I had never called a radio station before, and I was surprised because I didn’t even hear a ring when Tearson’s voice was suddenly on the phone telling me I was the ninth caller and congratulating me, because I had just won the new Leo Kotke album. I thanked him and then explained that I was actually calling to ask what the name of the album was that he had just played. He seemed confused, because I didn’t sound excited at having just won the Kotke album. I thanked him and explained that I just wanted to know what album he was playing.

We were on the air, so I think I may have annoyed him inadvertently.

He told me, it was “‘We’re Only In It for The Money’ by The Mothers of Invention.”

And that’s how I “discovered Zappa. The next day, I bought the album and memorized every word to every song on it. Then I picked up his previous albums “Freak Out” and  “Absolutely Free” . Later, I got hooked on ”Sheik Yerbouti” and “Joe’s Garage”. Nothing was sacred. He skewered everything and everybody. Shattered every stereotype. Years later, he would infamously battle Tipper Gore in Senate hearings over censorship and the labeling of albums with ratings stickers. By the time I was in California, tending bar at Jerry’s Deli, Frank Zappa was like an old acquaintance. I had recently read in the news that he had been losing his battle with prostate cancer and might not be with us much longer. Which made it even more surprising to me when he got up to go outside for a cigarette.

At this time, I was still a smoker myself. It was a mId-November evening in 1993.  The Real Frank Zappa Book was still pretty fresh in my mind. In the book, Frank relates that he is most comfortable in his home studio, composing and recording music. He was not fond of going out in public at all which is why it struck me odd that there he was, sitting in a corner booth across the room from the bar with his whole family… his wife Gayle, and the kids in a place as public as Jerry’s Deli. So when Frank got up and walked outside after dinner, I decided to take the opportunity to meet him.

He had just stuck a cigarette in his mouth, so I lit it for him. Pulling out a lighter like Jesse James pulled out a gun is something i had gotten pretty good at as a bartender. I lit my own and said, “I’d just like to thank you for the work your doing in your fight in Washington against censorship”. His eyes smiled. I think he appreciated that I talked about something that was important to him. We talked about the hearings for a bit and then he asked where I was from. I told him I was form Philly and that I first heard him years ago on XPN and won a Leo Kotke album when I called the station to find out about the Mothersof Invention album. He got a laugh about that. Then he asked me if I knew this guy or that guy, and that’s about it. After speaking briefly about the Philadelphia music scene, he went back to his table and I returned to the bar. Getting to meet and speak with Frank Zappa was one of the highlights of my life.

Frank passed away about  two weeks later, on December 4th, 1993. Thanks to a loving family, and a legion of adoring friends and fans worldwide Frank Zappa’s life was well worth celebrating. Part of his legacy The Real Frank Zappa Book, which I highly recommend to anyone who cares to know more about this truly legendary icon of eclectic and electric music and baby boomer culture.

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6 Comments

  1. Sam W

    Hi

    Thank you for the great article! I didnt even know who Frank Zappa was. I am a fan of your blog and read your review. You were so candid in your review and related it to your personal experience, which I totally appreciate!

    I am off now to listening to the album! You a a great writer. please bring us more!

    Sam

    Reply
    1. Hal (Post author)

      Wow, Thanks, Sam. I hope you like the album. Frank’s lyrics may be pretty shocking listening for the first time. He had a very unique way of seeing things, and though at times, he was over the top in his views and came of as a very radical guy, he was one of the most talented and intelligent people of my generation. No matter what ones politics were, they ended up admiring and/or respecting him.

      Thanks for being a fan of mine, BTW. I’ll keep those posts coming! My next Great American Journey segment is overdue again.

      Hal

      Reply
  2. Margy

    Hi Hal,

    Wow, how lucky am I to have discovered your blog?!! What an amazing and informative blast from the past.

    Your writing is just wonderful. Weaving your personal experiences in with the information is such an enjoyable experience.

    This post on Frank Zappa really moved me and brought back so many memories of growing up in southern California.

    I remember hearing “Don’t Eat The Yellow Snow” blaring from behind my older brother’s bedroom door as the pungent smell of weed filled our home’s hallway. My teenage brother and his friends would pay me and my sister 50 cents to make them grilled cheese sandwiches- and lots of them! Lol, little did we know at that young age what was making them so hungry!

    Frank Zappa was a musical genius. He maintained his personal integrity to the very end. Extremely intelligent and articulate, he never failed to take a stand for what he believed in. His shows were so entertaining to watch and people talked about them long after the show was over.

    I really appreciate your blog and wish you continued success!

    Margy

    Reply
    1. Hal (Post author)

      Thanks, Margy! Y’know, besides the encounter I related in the story, I was fortunate enough to see him perform live with the Mothers of Invention twice when I lived in Philly. The first time was at a little club in Bryn Mawr, PA called the Main Point. It was a very small, intimate room, and Frank was stellar. He wasn’t a mere frontman. He conducted the band like a master puppeteer, and they were solidly in sync with every finger-pont, nod or twitch that Frank made. I’ve never seen anything like it, with the possible exception of Danny Elfman conducting Oingo Bongo in a similar fashion. I think both of them were influenced by Spike Jones, who preceded all of us baby boomers, but set the bar for the likes of Frank and Danny.

      The other time I got to see Zappa and the Mothers was at the Atlantic City Pop festival. I remember him being much more outspoken politically at that concert, but musically, a great show as well.

      It’s nice to see his son, Dweezle carry on the legacy of his music, though his story is bittersweet.

      Reply
  3. Matt Janowski

    Hal,

    Matt Janowski here from WA. Awesome post and review on Zappa. Saw him live in CT back in around 1986 and was surprised to see him get out of his limo near a pub that we happened to park next to.

    We now wait patiently every year to watch Dweezil carry his old man’s legacy. And the performance of Zappa plays Zappa is nothing short of incredible, every time.

    A friend of mine have been dabbling in making music. He’s a guitarist/bassist and I drum/lead vocals. We’re at Smackjaw.com. What software/hardware do you use to produce your music?

    Congrats on battling and beating cancer and I wish you all the health and success in your future.

    Reply
    1. Hal (Post author)

      Thanks for leaving a comment, Matt! I agree. Dweezil has done the old man proud, even if Gayle (Mama Zappa) hasn’t given her official seal of approval. So sad that she’s obstructed his legacy over money.

      I use Garageband on the Mac for my music and voiceover editing. It’s not ProTools, but I’m happy with the results. Garageband allows me to save my files as MP3 and they are easily edited into my videos.

      Re: The cancer… Yep. Definitely dodged a major bullet. As far as I know, they got all of it, and I am now cancer free. It was quite an ordeal while it lasted.

      Reply

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