November 13, 2004

Paglia on Zappa.

Camille Paglia reviews a new book about Frank Zappa in the NYT Book Review. True to Paglia form, she emphasizes Zappa's Italian background. The book, by Barry Miles, is just called "Zappa," but Paglia titles her review "Freak Out!" after Zappa's first album. I can't hear that title without guilt, because a friend of my brother's loaned me the album, an expensive double album, 35 years ago, and I've never given it back. For the last 30 years or so, I haven't remembered the person's name or had any idea how to reach her. So it's really just a permanent burden of guilt. But here's some Paglia on Zappa (and Miles, whom she doesn't seem to like very much):
Miles, who knew Zappa, often seems ambivalent about him. There is a gap between the ''juvenile and prurient'' Zappa he describes and the one we see in the book's sensational photographs, which show a man of burning magnetism and piercing intellect. Miles calls Zappa a ''cold nihilist'' who felt no real emotions for anyone. Along with ''cynicism and misanthropy,'' he detects Catholic guilt and ''deep-seated problems with women.'' Zappa was ''stuck in a 50's time warp'' -- yet the bold feminist Germaine Greer was a Zappa fan.

Whatever the meaning of the S-and-M and fetish imagery in his songs (a theme that makes Miles squirm), the picture painted here of Zappa's family life is troubling. When not touring (which he loved to do -- Miles calls him a ''road rat''), Zappa spent 10 to 18 hours a day holed up in his cavernous basement studio in his Tudor mansion in the Hollywood Hills. He was a born tinkerer and a groundbreaker in early digital production.

Addicted to black coffee and cigarettes (he was fiercely antidrugs), he slept during the day and saw little of his family. His second wife, Gail, said, ''Frank did not do love.'' When she was 13, Moon Unit slipped a note under the studio door to ''introduce'' herself and her ideas. The result was the hit song ''Valley Girl,'' a phenomenon when it was released in 1982. Because he thought formal education a waste of time, Zappa took his children out of school at 15 and refused to pay for college.
Painful. But "black coffee and cigarettes" -- that reminds me, I'm in the middle of watching "Coffee and Cigarettes," and liking it very much. I'm up to the scene with Iggy Pop and Tom Waits and I'd only meant to stop for a minute to go see if the Tom Waits fan in the house wanted to watch that scene, and I got sidetracked by my laptop and that Paglia review!

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