Friday, November 20, 2015

Brother's Keeper: Bob Zappa's Memoir Frankie & Bobby

Bob Zappa (right), with his brother Frank (left) and his son Jason (centre). (Photo courtesy of Bob Zappa.)

Memoirs can be tricky to write. The reader is at the whim of the author who is empowered to reveal as little or as much about themselves and other people as they want to. A memoir provides a writer with the opportunity to scorn some people, praise others and to embellish their own history. As Canadian writer Farley Mowat once said to Michael Enright on CBC Radio, “why ruin a good story with the truth?” For Robert (Bob) Zappa, younger brother of Frank Zappa, who recently published his own memoir, telling the truth was painful yet rewarding, “it was a cathartic experience; it has given me a tremendous sense of relief from the sadness that I have felt on so many occasions over the years since his [Frank’s] death.” Bob Zappa’s book is called, Frankie & Bobby: Growing Up Zappa. It was self-published in September and it’s one of the most revealing books about Frank Zappa that I have read.

When Frank died in 1993, his younger brother Bob decided to express his grief by writing about the relationship he had with Frank. But rather than cast broad strokes, he focused on the years 1949 to 1967. It was his intention to write about the early years growing up together to reveal whom he was but more importantly, to recall and discuss the formative years of his older brother, one of the most “original” artists the world has ever known. Growing Up Zappa offer fans important insights into the character of Frank Zappa. It’s an exceptional memoir with great stories: some painful, some not. But what the reader comes away with is a better understanding of Frank, how he thought, what he valued and how the troubled history of his family, who were frequently moving, shaped him as a man. As a writer who’s going to release his own book on Frank Zappa next year, I gained a lot from reading Bob’s book that was never really present in any other source, especially about the so-called formative years. As Frank characterized his early life: “you had to be there.” Bob Zappa was there and his eyewitness account of Frank’s life, gives the reader a perspective only a brother could provide, and I’m glad he shared it with the world. But the book also includes Bob’s own struggles making friends, finding a career and staying out of trouble. His time in the U.S. Marine Corps, during the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis followed by a tour of duty in Vietnam, is especially interesting.

Bob Zappa penned the memoir in 1993, shortly after Frank’s death from cancer. His goal, as he explained to me in an email exchange, was “to describe events in our lives together that helped shape his incredible artistic, musical and social behavior.” And while I read, with some familiarity about the same places and events biographers and scholars have discussed before, Bob’s memoir has that “on the ground” feel that makes for a good read. Consequently, Frank becomes less abstract and more human. He, like his brother, was a troubled soul who had a really hard time adapting to new environments only to be upset again when their father moved to another location. According to Bob, his brother became a “deep thinker” and was cool under pressure. It was his way of adjusting to the greatest challenge to the whole Zappa family namely, “the frequent and often disruptive moves we made.” Under such stressful circumstances, Bob reveals the facts.

From 1951 to 1959, the Zappa family moved seven times to seven different neighborhoods, mostly in southern California. (They drove from Baltimore to Monterey, in the summer of 1951) Frank and Bob attended nine different schools that had an enormous psychological effect on the two of them. Yet the nomadic nature of their existence brought them closer together as brothers since the chance to make friends and presumably keep them, suffered as a result. As Bob says, by the time he was a teenager “the only skills I had were making friends and then losing them.” That sad admission is one of the more poignant moments in the book.

Finding security of place and a stable household challenged Bob and Frank endlessly when they were growing up. While Bob sought out healthy organizations such as the Boy Scouts to feel grounded, Frank found solace and security in music, which the two of them often shared. Bob recalls a series of steady visits to Sun Village, an African-American equivalent to a ghetto, located outside of Lancaster, California. “Frank and I spent many great Saturday and Sunday evenings with band members and their families playing music, eating fried chicken and drinking cheap beer.” At this time, Frank was playing drums with his first integrated band, The Blackouts, honing many of his skills as a composer and conductor. The “band brought about one of Frank’s many learning spurts.” As Bob tells it, Frank learned how to evaluate musicians and organize rehearsals.

One of the influential teachers in Frank’s life was Dr. Karl Kohn at Pomona College in 1961. Kohn is rarely mentioned in the biographical studies of Frank Zappa, but his brother Bob tells a marvelous story of how Frank’s first wife Kay [Sherman], urged him to audit Kohn’s music class. Kohn was a highly qualified professor who graduated from Harvard and was teaching composition at Pomona, which was a private school in California. Frank didn’t have the grades or skills as a musician to get into Pomona, so Kay arranged a meeting with Kohn to grant her husband a chance to attend his class without paying for it. According to Bob, this was the most important moment in Frank’s life as a composer, a “tipping point.” Bob writes, “While Frank truly wanted to pursue a career in music, he might not ever had done so without these turn of events.” Frank attended every class, did the assignments and proved to himself and those around him, that music was his path in life. According to Bob Zappa, Kohn was very impressed by Frank’s work in his class.

As far as Frank’s personality was concerned, Bob goes on to conclude that his brother was very much like their father: stubborn, willful and comfortable working alone (Frank wrote music. His dad worked on math puzzles). But they also had anger issues, which often reared their ugly heads in times of stress. Frank’s edgy interviews and sharpness of wit, according to Bob, came directly from his anger generated from the frequent moves in his youth and conflicts with their father. That’s an important insight into Frank’s personality only a brother could really provide making Frankie & Bobby: Growing Up Zappa an important book to read.

I reached out to Bob Zappa through his co-writer, Bob Stannard, who helped Bob shape the manuscript into a more cohesive book. Zappa clarified a couple of points for this review and he told me which one of Frank’s albums best represents their time growing up in Lancaster: Cruising with Ruben and The Jets. It’s an interesting choice since that record harkened back to the fifties and Frank’s love for doo-wop music, albeit without the romantic idealism of the genre. Regarding his book, Bob reported that the reception to it has been very strong in the UK, Australia, Europe and Latin America. The book has sold well in North America but the sales numbers are much higher overseas. (The first edition has sold out.)

On a technical note, the book was published as a series of indented stanzas, rather than paragraphs, which makes for a challenging read. When sentences are given the same visual weight, it detracts from the importance of the events in the story. (A software glitch that affected the formatting was the apparent cause.) I hope the second printing corrects the format. The book can be ordered here.

John Corcelli is a music critic, broadcast/producer, musician and member of the Festival Wind Orchestra. He's just finished Frank Zappa FAQ: All That's Left to Know About the Father of Invention (Backbeat Books) to be released in 2016.

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