Sunday, November 5, 2017

Sibling Lament – Frankie & Bobby: The Rest of Our Story by Bob Zappa

Frank Zappa in 1969. (Photo: Ron Case)

Two years ago I wrote a review of Bob Zappa’s first self-published book, Frankie & Bobby: Growing Up Zappa. It was an invaluable resource considering I just finished the manuscript to my own book about his brother Frank slated for release the following spring. I was in contact with Bob Zappa regarding his first memoir and, at the time, he told me that a follow-up volume was in the works since his first book only took the story of his life with his brother until 1967. This new volume, also self-published, picks up where the first book left off by bringing Bob’s life and times to the present day.

Zappa has a lot to say about himself and his brother, especially around the time of Frank’s death in 1993, but he selects various stories about his own, and equally interesting, life post-1967, in a seemingly random fashion. As I said of the first book, “A memoir provides a writer with the opportunity to scorn some people, praise others and to embellish their own history.” In this second memoir, his chance to scorn his late sister-in-law Gail Zappa is taken up in Chapter 13. It’s the most painful part of Bob Zappa’s version of events revealing much about him and his estranged relationship with Frank’s wife.

I learned a lot about Gail Zappa while researching my book. She was a complex individual who was highly protective of Frank’s musical legacy since she was the de facto gatekeeper to his personal affairs. She ran the house in Hollywood Hills, raised the family and took his phone calls and answered correspondence during his entire career. When he died in 1993, she set up the Zappa Family Trust that incorporated the business of continually getting Frank’s music out on CD and, with the help of Joe Travers, cleaning up his archives for more releases. Moon, the eldest daughter, has reported that,     financially speaking, Gail’s bookkeeping wasn’t particularly efficient. In 2005 ex-Mother of Invention Jimmy Carl Black said “she’s a terrible person” for trying to control her husband’s music by restricting performances by new musicians.

Most of the stories about Gail’s unusual behaviour came out after her death from lung cancer in October 2015. For instance, her daughter Moon was very upset by her mother’s choice to grant her a smaller share of the ZFT profits. “She was meaner than I could have possibly comprehended,” Moon said after being her principal caregiver in her mother’s final days. It was a similar experience for Bob when Frank developed cancer in 1993.

According to Bob, after Frank called him with his cancer diagnosis, his follow-ups were blocked. He writes, “Each of the many times I called Frank’s house after that first phone call, Gail told me that Frank was either asleep or having some kind of therapy and to try again . . . After so many fruitless attempts, I was worried that I might not get the chance to actually see him.” Bob flew from New York to L.A. to meet his mother, his younger brother Carl, and his sister Candy to plan for a group visit to Frank’s home. When he arrived and reached out, Gail turned him down. Bob admits his regret for not actually going to Frank’s house and knocking on the door, but clearly for him the time wasn’t right or he knew Gail wouldn’t let him in the house. Fortunately, Bob says, Frank’s mother, Rose Marie, did see her eldest son just before he died.

As Bob tells it, Gail never liked him from the time they first met in 1967. Zappa served as a Marine in Vietnam (early sixties) and one night he got into an argument over the war with Gail’s father, who thought the whole war was necessary in the fight against Communism: “Gail’s father thought it was justified because of the domino theory. I jumped in and said it was bullshit and was going to get a lot worse before it got any better . . . I realized that from that point on, my relationship with Gail had gone off the rails, and fixing it was not an option.”

He writes, “For many years, I struggled to understand Gail’s attitude toward Candy, Carl, Mom, and me, and I kept coming back to one theme. I think she wanted to make Frank comfortable in his final days, but she was equally determined to get retribution for his on-the-road relationships.” Bob paints her as a control freak who had the emotional and legal power to dictate the terms of Frank’s musical and financial legacy. In the rather disturbing 14th chapter called “Frank’s Death and Its Aftermath,” Bob goes into more detail about his dreadful experience in December 1993. When Gail phoned him with the news of Frank’s passing, she added, “There isn’t going to be a funeral. He’s already been buried.” According to Bob, she offered no further details. Sadly, Frank’s immediate siblings, including his mother, who was nearly 80, couldn’t formally mourn his death, or even visit his grave because it was unmarked. Bob reports that they felt his loss very deeply. He later describes his efforts, in 1996, to clarify the death certificate that featured irregularities, among them the cause of his brother’s death, where he died and the attending physician’s notes. Bob reproduces an image of the death certificate in the book. He even goes so far as to contact the LAPD to investigate. Det. Rick Jackson followed up six months later, only to confirm Bob’s observations, but added that the department wasn’t going to investigate further due to the 9,000 cold cases currently open, of which Frank’s was not a priority. Regrettably, Bob “let it go” and has since then remained deeply hurt about how it all ended for his side of the family.

Fast-forward to 2016. Bob reports that life was not so good for Frank’s children, Moon, Dweezil, Ahmet and Diva. After a “Zappa” copyright dispute that went public, it was revealed that the profits from the Zappa Family Trust were not equally distributed among the four offspring. As a result the siblings have since become adversaries to Frank’s legacy: Moon and Dweezil on the one hand, and Ahmet and Diva on the other. Although he doesn’t admit to taking sides, Bob has been able to reconcile with the elder Zappas with great success. He writes, “Dweezil is the legitimate (and only) heir to Frank’s musical legacy.” Moon “is a beautiful, intelligent and talented young woman . . . who misses her father, has difficulty with how her mother treated her and Dweezil, and is happy to be back in touch with me.” While Bob has reconnected with Moon and Dweezil successfully, however, the same cannot be said about his relationship with Frank’s younger kids, Ahmet and Diva.

Frankie & Bobby: The Rest of Our Story is a selected series of vignettes that don’t have as many insights into Frank’s personality as the first volume. In this book Frank is often described as the elder statesman with a directness that Bob appreciates to this day. (Last year’s documentary Eat That Question gets high praise.) To me, the rest of the book has less relevance, but I did find comfort in Bob’s tales of his life in recent years. He remarried after his first wife died of cancer and today he seems happy about being in the public eye. Some fans might consider Bob a hero for at least partially unifying the Zappa family, albeit with a reserved sentimentality, in this second volume. But of the two books, I still prefer the first one for its insight into Frank’s development as an artist.

John Corcelli is a music critic, broadcast/producer, and musician. John is also the author of Frank Zappa FAQ: All That’s Left To Know About The Father of Invention (Backbeat Books).

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