Two Sides Of Frank Zappa

  BOOK REVIEW:
  VIVA! ZAPPA! THE REAL FRANK ZAPPA
  
   by Cai Campbell.
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   Upon first glance, "Viva! Zappa" and "The Real Frank Zappa Book"
   --hereafter referred to as VIVA! and REAL-- appear to be very similar.
   The cover of each book features a close-up of the face only a mother
   could love. Here we see Frank himself with his dark, bushy hair,
   matching eyebrows, dark sparkling eyes, close set and divided by a
   long, slender hook nose. His warm, quirky smile is framed by his
   trademark mustache and thick, bushy patch resting above his chin. Both
   photographs portray Frank with his head cocked slightly to the right.
   Together, with this immediatley recognizable figure, jumps the word
   ZAPPA, so as to leave no doubt about the contents of either book.
   
   The covers DO differ, however. The photo gracing the cover of VIVA!
   features Frank wearing a fedora, angled in such a way that he appears
   a mock gangster. A single bright light illuminates his face, making
   his skin seem all too pale while casting a dark shadow over the rest
   of his face. His hair is tied back and is very long. Splotches of red,
   yellow and blue paint decorate the photo; adding life and color to
   what would normally have been a placid contrast. This artificial and
   haphazard addition of color portends VIVA!'s contents. The cover of
   REAL seems more genuine--warmer. Frank's hair is cut short and he is
   wearing a business suit and tie. The lighting is more varied and gives
   his skin a healthy red glow, echoed in the deep burgandy of his tie.
   VIVA! is of a larger format, measuring eight-and-a-half by
   ten-and-a-half inches, compared to REAL, which measures six by nine
   inches. REAL, although smaller, is three times thicker than VIVA!, but
   utilizes a much larger type. Overall, the two would seem to purport
   the same amount of text.
   
   VIVA! was published in 1986 and REAL in 1989, so it would appear that
   both books could draw upon the same source material. At this point
   both books would seem very similar. However, as we delve further into
   the actual contents, it becomes apparent that both books approach the
   subject matter from different angles, succeeding in balancing each
   other out.
   
   Although VIVA! and REAL rely on previously published material, REAL
   makes an effort to present the material in a more personal and
   illustrative manner. Unfortunately, neither book contains a biography,
   comprehensive or otherwise, so one can only assume that similar
   material was culled from similar sources. The most obvious instance
   where identical source materal was utilized for both books is in their
   presentation of a story pertaining to Frank's main musical influence:
   the modern composer Edgard Varese. Frank originally wrote the story
   --discussing his infatuation with the composer-- for a magazine in
   1971. The piece is presented verbatim in VIVA! (105). The same essay
   had been rewritten for its inclusion in REAL (31). There are many
   subtle differences in the way the same story is presented. Here is one
   section of the original story as it appears in VIVA! (106):
   
     On my fifteenth birthday my mother said she'd give me $5. I told her
     I would rather make a long-distance phone call. I figured Mr. Varese
     lived in New York because the record was made in New York (and
     because he was so weird, he would live in Greenwich Village). I got
     New York Information, and sure enough, he was in the phone book.
     
   Now, here is the same section as presented in REAL (33):
   
     On my fifteenth birthday, my mother said she would spend five
     dollars on me (a lot of money for us then), and asked me what I
     wanted. I said, "Well, instead of buying me something, why don't you
     just let me make a long-distance phone call?" (Nobody in our house
     had ever made a long-distance phone call.) I decided that I would
     call Edgard Varese. I deduced that a person who looked like a mad
     scientist could only live in a place called Greenwich Village. So I
     called New York information and asked if they had a listing for
     Edgard Varese. Sure enough, they did. They even gave me his street
     address.
     
   The section from REAL is more illustrative while the section from
   VIVA! is more matter-of-fact. This is typical of REAL. Frank seems to
   have made a concious effort to include tidbits of his life which he
   never before shared. It was as if he had a copy of VIVA! in his hand
   and thought, "Oh, I can add this little story here." This fact becomes
   apparent when you compare the first sections of both books: Frank's
   childhood. The overall story is the same, with highlights of Frank's
   upbringing presented in chronological order, but REAL differs in that
   Frank will stop at a certain point and share a funny little story,
   like this one (26):
   
     You used to be able to buy single-shot caps at the hobby store.
     These were better than the ones on the little rolls because they had
     more powder in them and made a bigger bang. I spent hours with my
     X-acto knife, cutting away the extra paper, saving the trimmed
     charges in a jar. Along with this, I had another jar full of the
     semilethal Ping-Pong dust. One afternoon I was sitting in our garage
     --an old rickety one with a dirt floor... It was after the Fourth of
     July and the gutters in our neighborhood were littered with used
     fireworks tubes. I had collected a few, and was in the process of
     reloading one of them with my own secret formula. I had it propped
     between my legs, filling it with a layer of this and a layer of
     that, packing each layer down with the butt end of a drumstick. When
     I got to the layer of single-shot caps, I must have pressed too hard
     and the charge ignited. It blew a large crater in the dirt floor,
     blew the doors open, and blew me back a few feet, balls first. Why,
     I could have almost escaped from jail with that one.
     
   This sort of personal touch permeates REAL, and gives us more insight
   into the mind of Frank.
   
   Although both books contain many photographs, REAL makes use of many
   illustrative drawings. Most chapters in REAL begin with a funny
   illustration depicting a charicature of Frank embroiled in a situation
   with plenty of symbolism surrounding him. As you delve into the
   chapter, the symbolism in the illustration begins to take on more
   meaning. For example, chapter three (REAL 38), "An Alternative to
   College," begins with an illustration depicting the charicature of
   Frank shackled to a set of encyclopedias, lying beside two large bags:
   one labeled "beans," the other "rice." There is a large pulpit,
   standing behind the bags, sporting an angry looking, short-haired
   judge--waving his gavel with one hand and holding a reel of audio tape
   in the other. Upon completion of the chapeter, you learn that the
   shackles and encyclopedias represent the worst job Frank ever
   had--selling Collier's Encyclopedias door-to-door. The judge with the
   audio tape represents the time when Frank spent six months in jail for
   "conspiracy to commit pornograpy" (57). The bags of rice and beans
   represent the meager foodstuffs Frank was forced to live off after he
   had served his sentence.
   
   Each chapter in VIVA! begins with a picture of Frank on the left-hand
   page and a full page chapter title on the right. The chapter titles
   are comprised of letters cut out from various magazines and are
   illustrated with various pieces of post-industrial mechanical parts.
   This format is an attempt by VIVA! to recreate the record sleeve
   design popular with most of Frank's works. VIVA!'s chapter title page
   format presents each chapter in a way which is both comfortable and
   recognizable with Frank Zappa fans.
   
   REAL's format allows the reader to visually analyze the material being
   presented in the chapter in a unique and original way. VIVA! contains
   many photos, both black & white and color. The wide variety of photos
   visually enhance the stories about Frank, his family, and his
   musicians. The black & white photos in REAL serve the same purpose,
   but all of these photos are from Frank's personal collection. Many of
   the photos have never before been published, and only on two occasions
   do photos from both books match: Frank's baby photo (REAL 12 & VIVA!
   8) and his high school graduation photo (REAL 88 & VIVA! 9). The
   inclusion of personal photoes by Frank in REAL is another instance
   where he adds his personal touch.
   
   REAL is divided into nineteen chapters, each of which is focused,
   while the seven chapters of VIVA! are more general--encompassing a
   wide range of material. There is a chapter in VIVA! called "The Zappa
   Menagerie" (43) which discusses all the different musicians Frank has
   worked with, his work as a producer, his own record label, his
   relation to the technical people involved in recording, and various
   projects, such as his work with the London Symphony Orchestra. By
   contrast, REAL has a chapter titled "How Weird Am I Anyway?" (13)
   which discusses Frank's early childhood years. Another chapter from
   VIVA! called "No Commercial Potential" (61) critically evaluates
   forty-one of Frank's works in chronilogical order. Discussion on each
   record include the musicians used, where and when the record was
   recorded, what instruments were used, and what recording equipment was
   used. Then we have a chapter in REAL called "Porn Wars" (261) which
   deals specifically with Frank's fight against the PMRC (Parent's Music
   Resource Center). As you can see, the chapters in VIVA! cover a wide
   range of material, sometimes making it difficult to pinpoint specific
   information, while the chapters in REAL concentrate on individual
   topics, making it easy to find certain details.
   
   VIVA! does a very good job of answering the how, what, where and when
   of Frank's life, while REAL answers the most important question: WHY.
   This fact may already be apparent, but let us examine another example.
   VIVA! mentions Frank's relationship with Captain Beefheart as being "a
   mixture of love and hate" (27), but there is no support for this
   statement. The reader can only assume that this statement is true. In
   REAL, Frank goes into much more detail concerning the nature of their
   relationship (51):
   
     Life on the road with Captain Beefheart was definitely not easy. He
     carried the bulk of his worldly possesions around in a shopping bag.
     It held his art and poetry books and a soprano sax. He used to
     forget it in different places--just walk away and leave it, driving
     the road manager crazy. Onstage, no matter how loud the monitor
     system was, he complained that he couldn't hear his voice. The high
     point of our relationship (according to Rolling Stone--aren't they
     some kind of authority on these matters?) was making the Trout Mask
     Replica album together in 1969. Don (Captain Beefheart) is not
     technically oriented, so, first I had to help him figure out what he
     wanted to do, and then, from a practical standpoint, how to execute
     his demands. ...We taped a few selections... and I thought they
     sounded terrific, but Don got paranoid, accused me of trying to do
     the album on the cheap, and demanded to go into a real recording
     studio.
     
   Again, Frank describes facts of his life in detail, where in VIVA!,
   certain details are a mixture of conjecture and hearsay. VIVA! and
   REAL are two excellent references for anyone who wants to know about
   Frank Zappa. VIVA! presents many different aspects of Franks life and
   work in a concise, straightforward format. In REAL, Frank elaborates
   on these aspects of his life and gives them the credibility which only
   Frank himself can. Together, these two works represent a near complete
   view of the life, work and philosophy of Frank Zappa.
   
   Cai Campbell
   vex@greatgig.com
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