Frank Zappa Gets Down

Traveling into work one morning I heard the old (wow, sorry to use that word) 80s song, Valley Girl, by Frank Zappa and his 14 year-old daughter Moon Unit. And I forgot how funny it was. When I got home, I did a little research on Mr. Zappa. He was the son of a Naval Postgraduate School (NPS) professor:

Frank Zappa
Frank Zappa

Zappa was often sick as a child, suffering from asthma, earaches and sinus problems. A doctor treated his sinusitis by inserting a pellet of radium into each of Zappa’s nostrils; little was known about the potential dangers of even small amounts of therapeutic radiation. Nasal imagery and references appear in his music and lyrics, as well as in the collage album covers created by his long-time collaborator Cal Schenkel.

Many of Zappa’s childhood diseases may have been due to exposure to mustard gas. His health worsened when he lived in Baltimore. In 1952, his family relocated for reasons of health. They moved, next, to Monterey, California, where his father taught metallurgy at the Naval Postgraduate School. They soon moved to Claremont, then to El Cajon, before finally settling in San Diego.

 Frank Zappa was also quite conservative in his views:

Describing his political views, Frank Zappa categorized himself as a “practical conservative.” He favored limited government and low taxes; he also stated that he approved of national defense, social security and other federal programs, but only if recipients of such programs are willing and able to pay for them. He favored capitalism, entrepreneurship and independent business, stating that musicians could make more from owning their own businesses than from collecting royalties. He opposed communism, stating “A system that doesn’t allow ownership […] has–to put it mildly–a fatal design flaw.” Zappa expressed opinions on censorship when he appeared on CNN’s Crossfire TV series and debated issues with Washington Times commentator John Lofton in 1986. He had always encouraged his fans to register to vote on album covers, and throughout 1988 he had registration booths at his concerts. He even considered running for President of the United States.

Zappa did not use illegal drugs. He tried cannabis ten times, but without any pleasure, and “never used LSD, never used cocaine, never used heroin or any of that other stuff.”

And his one-time secretary, Pauline Butcher, has written a book about the man:

Freak Out, My Life with Frank Zappa, by Pauline Butcher
Freak Out, My Life with Frank Zappa, by Pauline Butcher

Butcher also believes that Zappa wasn’t really “like” the life that he lived. “Underneath it he was a very conventional character. I couldn’t have done it with the others around at that time – Rod Stewart, Jeff Beck, those crazy people, who took drugs.” Drug-taking, notably, was something that Zappa could not tolerate.

In the world of rock biography, fandom is exploited heavily. Pretty much anyone who can lay claim to some level of articulacy, and who has a modicum of provenance to offer, can find a publisher for their musings. When Butcher sent out her proposal, she received 12 expressions of enthusiastic interest right away. But Butcher’s book is of wider interest. Sure, it describes a formative time in the life of an innovative musical artist, which Zappa most certainly was.

I really am more intrigued by his music, which I know very little of. (Although his children’s names are hilarious: Moon, Dweezil, Ahmet and Diva.)