FRANK ZAPPA’S has inspired dozens of biographies and hagiographies, from standard discography-laden plod through mad academic dissertations, but still, further insight is needed into the artist’s very specific – albeit incalculably eclectic – genius.
What’s thin on the ground in literature about the late, great composer/guitarist is: 1) Genuine musical analysis beyond the usual trite rock journalistic clichés, 2) Searing socio-anthropological explanation of his complex lyrical and musical cross-references, and 3) Personal insights that humanise a man whose character was often adjudged immoral, degenerate, sexist and abhorrent by critics who had merely caught the odd lyric snippet.
Freak Out! My Life With Frank Zappa, as you might reasonably surmise, belongs in the third category, and is only the second book to gaze directly into the eyes of the man himself (the first was Being Frank – My Time With Frank Zappa by Nigey Lennon, a musician who had a brief affair with FZ in the early ‘70s.) Pauline Butcher was Zappa’s secretary for four years, living for a time in a Laurel Canyon log cabin that became woven in rock legend. The house in question was the centre of Zappa’s “freak” empire, and in 1968 it was a magnet for many of the biggest names in rock (from Hendrix to Clapton to Jagger and many others) as well as a frightening contingent of Mansonesque psychos.
Pauline Butcher was an English secretary who Zappa hired to type out some lyrics and articles, and she comes across as a bit prim, a bit proper, quite conservative, and essentially superficial. And that’s the book’s biggest problem. Her book rightly concentrates on that log cabin and the scene around it, and being an obsessive diarist and letter-writer, she has managed to preserve a wealth of detail about daily life and all the bizarre people and incidents that occurred there. It’s never less than interesting to anyone fascinated by the era, or a music scene then in its infancy. But it lacks real insight about what really went on, and is very sketchy in its descriptions of visits by various stars. It’s clear, for instance, that Eric Clapton worshipped Zappa (as so many English musicians did at this point) because his music was clearly more complex and forward-looking and thinking than anyone else’s. But it never explains whether Clapton (or any of the other musicians passing through) had any real affinity with Zappa. So despite Butcher’s assertion that she was right there in the thick of it, you get the feeling that she missed a lot of the dialogue that was going on, or was too young, or not interested enough, to absorb those conversations.
Butcher doesn’t have too much to say about music, either. She hates Zappa’s lyrical sideswipes about government and repression but loves his music, when it’s not making commentary or using naughty words. She’s overpowered by Captain Beefheart (Don Van Vliet) as a person but barely mentions his music. She’s derisive about the music of other Zappa acolytes like the GTOs and Wild Man Fischer, and writes Tim Buckley off as “boring” without further explanation.
Freak Out! My Life With Frank Zappa is at its best when it’s describing the man himself. Butcher doesn’t skimp on her criticisms of FZ (she condemns his chauvinism and unstoppable ego, inparticular), but she describes him as a man with endless curiosity, someone who was capable of genuine empathy, and who was genuinely up for hearing what you had to say; and also a man who really did live for his art. While the book is short on music, one of the most touching sequences was her description of the loving detail that Zappa would give to each note as he wrote out his compositions the old-fashioned way.
While Butcher’s book is a minor footnote on the expanding list of publications about her former boss, it does go some way towards rectifying the typical view that Frank Zappa was something of a cad. After all, the celebrated rock critic Lester Bangs once described Zappa as “a despicable wretch morons actually call a ‘composer’ instead of ‘rip-off artist’, walking human offal if such a matter ever lived.”* Freak Out! My Life With Frank Zappa clearly shows what his fans always suspected: that he was a driven, passionate, obsessive creative artist who was capable of great compassion, but would never suffer fools gladly. GARY STEEL
Fan Rating = 3.5
Non-fan Rating = 2.5
*Note: The drug-ridden Bangs had been generous in his assessment of FZ’s music until some kind of personal run-in with the composer resulted in his change of attitude.