Saturday, October 20, 2012

Frankly Speaking

It's rare to find a memoir about a mentor relationship with a famous artist that isn't self-aggrandizing, or filled with prurient gossip, but Pauline Butcher's memoir about Frank Zappa, as Kevin Courrier explains in his review in Critics at Large, is a cut above the rest.

Beauty & the Beast: Pauline Butcher's Freak Out! My Life With Frank Zappa

Until recent years, most of the books about the late American composer Frank Zappa, including my own (Dangerous Kitchen: The Subversive World of Zappa), have been attempts to provide a proper context for his work. Simply put, for many, the name Frank Zappa only conjures up images of a deranged freak who warns us not to eat the yellow snow. What gets lost in that somewhat uniformed view is a much deeper and complex understanding of how Zappa brought to popular music a ferocious desire to break down the boundaries between high and low culture. He created in his work, until his death from prostate cancer in 1993, a unique and sophisticated form of musical comedy.

By infusing the canon of 20th Century music with his scabrous and outrageous wit (influenced by comedian Lenny Bruce and the irreverent clowning of Spike Jones), Zappa presented musical history through the kaleidoscopic lens of social satire turning that history into a wildly theatrical display of Dadaist farce. He poked fun at middle-class conformity (Freak Out!), the Sixties counterculture (We're Only in it For the Money), Seventies disco (Sheik Yerbouti), the corporate rock industry (Tinsel Town Rebellion), and the fundamentalist narcolepsy of the Reagan era (You Are What You Is). Beginning with his band The Mothers of Invention in the Sixties, Zappa built a formidable career in rock & roll by combining a wide range of styles, including serious contemporary music (inspired by Edgard Varese, Igor Stravinsky, Anton Webern and Charles Ives), jazz (Eric Dolphy, Charles Mingus), rhythm & blues (Guitar Slim, Johnny 'Guitar' Watson), doo-wop (The Channels), and social and political parody. His career essentially had its roots in the artistic rebellion against the excesses of Romanticism in the late 19th Century beginning with the absurdism of Erik Satie, and then continuing with the birth of serialism that ushered in the modern era of the 20th Century. 

Besides creating a potent mixture that upset listeners who wanted to cling to the more romantic view of art as something that should be morally and spiritually edifying, Frank Zappa composed a more unsettling dangerous brew. It raised larger questions about what constitutes music, why we consume it, and how we could experience – through satire – a diverse mixture of chamber music, jazz, and hard rock, sometimes co-existing in the same piece of work. In doing so, it afforded listeners the opportunity to liberate their tastes to include all forms of music without being prejudged by its pedigree. He didn't treat listeners, or fans, simply as consumers – he treated them as voyeurs, too. Zappa understood that some of the record-buying public consumed music to reinforce their lifestyle. Therefore they became susceptible to whatever was in vogue. His music, tied to no popular trends, forced the audience to confront ideas and thoughts they might not be comfortable accepting blindly. For example, the folklore concerning the band's sexual escapades and proclivities on the road (common to almost every form of popular and classical touring ensemble) became the subject material for songs. As Lenny Bruce brought the backstage milieu into his onstage routines, Zappa also didn't create any romantic illusions in his rock songs. On the contrary, his music exposed the band members for exactly who they were by embroidering their absurdities with a sardonic fervor and a satyr's grin.

Today we have been getting more books that attempt to reveal more the person behind the composer, even the man behind the mythology that Zappa himself created around his project/object. Nigey Lennon's Being Frank: My Time With Frank Zappa(2003) was a fascinating and insightful personal look into the backstage world of Zappa. Describing a relationship, both sexual and artistic, that she had with the composer in the early Seventies, she brings to light the perplexities of Zappa's own life, perplexities that informed his music, and how he could portray himself as both a family man with a wife and children, yet also a free spirit driven by a large and passionate appetite for satisfying his lust for art and women. But if the book had any true weakness, it was that Lennon seems to exist only in her book. No other Zappa history – including recollections by band members – acknowledges her existence. While she is a convincing writer with perceptive observations (and photos to back her up), she ends up resembling a Zelig-like figure who quietly slips into the picture and out of it.

Pauline Butcher, on the other hand, is not only an accountable part of the Zappa clan from 1967 to 1972, she has written a candid and vividly entertaining story of an unlikely meeting between a cultured and fashionable secretary out of Swinging London and a composer who set out to make himself and his band look anything but fashionable. In Freak Out! My Life With Frank Zappa (Plexus, 2011), a tale that reads like a reverse of Pygmalion, Pauline Butcher recounts how she became Zappa's secretary in London and eventually moved to Laurel Canyon in Los Angeles to live with his family and entourage through the turbulent years of The Mothers of Invention. What she traces is the life of a middle-class woman with no hints of bohemianism who doesn't just get in touch with the bohemian within herself, but in doing so, she manages to not lose her sense of self in the process. All through her book, based in part on diaries she kept during that time, Pauline Butcher is strikingly independent despite her conventionality, at first turning down Zappa's sexual overtures, and later on, some of the men she meets during her stay at Zappa's log cabin (which was a hovel of both artistic and melodramatic ferment).

Pauline Butcher and Frank Zappa (photo by Ed Caraeff)
Despite turning down Zappa's initial come on (concluding with the inelegant, "Do you think if we fucked, you could still work for me as my secretary?"), Butcher doesn't flinch from the magnetism of his personality. "I was unimpressed by the whole rock’n’roll scene and acted very superior towards them," she writes. "I was smitten with Frank, though. He made you feel as though you were the most important person in his life. I think he really did have that effect on everyone, but women particularly. He encouraged me to write, telling me all the time that I had a unique perspective on what was going on at his log cabin in Hollywood." And write she does. It's blissfully refreshing to read a first person account of life with a famous composer that isn't self-serving. Butcher is not only brutally honest about Zappa and his many contradictions, she's also equally revealing about various confusions she has about who she is and what she wants to become. Freak Out! My Life With Frank Zappa makes clear that her defiant claim for selfhood is exactly what he admired about her despite his constant tweaking of her more cultured habits and views. (It's implicit in the book that he perhaps recognizes in her his own demands for a life lived on terms only he finds agreeable.)

Frank Zappa & The Mothers of Invention in 1969
While the book also deals with the music (comically when she tries to transcribe the lyrics to theAbsolutely Free album where she misses all the colloquial American slang and balks at the sexual satire), it is also about the musicians. Her friendship with saxophonist and keyboardist Ian Underwood (dubbed the 'straight' member of the band by Zappa) is sketched lovingly as two kindred spirits, who both get drawn into Zappa's orbit by the allure of his idiosyncratic personality and the boldly artistic climate he provides. By contrast, her close bonding with Pamela Zarubica (PamZ, as she calls her – the 'Suzy Creamcheese' of the early records) is fascinating because both women bond differently with Zappa, in ways that are platonic but without losing the passion often found in love affairs. Butcher also paints an equally vivid portrait of Gail Zappa, the true love of Frank's life, who still has to endure the endless groupies and sexual promiscuity. But she also finds in Butcher the most unique form of confidante since Gail also fears that Butcher may be a rival for her husband.

Pauline Butcher today
The picture that emerges of Frank Zappa in Pauline Butcher's memoir is beautifully, paradoxically detailed without losing the spirit of affection she has for him:

"Living in the house with Frank, I'd learned many new things. He could delight in ribald tales of travels with the band, but complain with the coldest cynicism about their performance. He welcomed people into the house, and then groused when they hung around. He could be a sympathetic listener, or a mocking tease who ripped at your beliefs and enjoyed the flap. He collected people and then behaved like they were not around. He voiced libertarianism but ruled his band with an iron rod. He fêted the disenfranchised and outcasts, yet coveted a capitalist's lifestyle for himself. He scorned the American people for their ignorance while criticizing the establishment for treating them like children. He stood in judgment on almost everyone in the outside world – and yet I knew no other man more unassuming, humble or compassionate."

Her ability to see through all the contradictions in the Zappa homestead while still being accepting – including a duo like the Plaster-Casters who roamed America creating statuettes of rock stars' dicks; and The GTO's, rock's first musical groupie band, whose first and only record, Permanent Damage, was produced by Zappa – enabled Butcher to not only depict the perils of free-spirited communes, but also to become more of a free-spirit herself. Freak Out! My Life With Frank Zappa is an affectionate book about a woman who finds her footing in the world by encountering a man and an artist who rarely felt at home in it.

- originally published on December 20, 2011 in Critics at Large. 

– Kevin Courrier is a writer/broadcaster, film critic, teacher and author (Artificial Paradise: The Dark Side of The Beatles' Utopian Dream). His forthcoming book is Reflections in the Hall of Mirrors: American Movies and the Politics of Idealism.

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