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  • Peter Occhiogrosso

The Real Frank Zappa Audiobook

The Audible audiobook version of The Real Frank Zappa Book, read by his son Ahmet, contains excerpts of Frank speaking brief segments that did not appear in the print version. They come from my original audiotapes of the interviews I conducted with Frank in 1987.

Some 33 years after The Real Frank Zappa Book, which I coauthored, was published by Poseidon/Simon & Schuster, the audiobook version has at long last been released on Audible. Most of the original text is read by Frank’s son Ahmet, who does a creditable job of evoking Frank’s sarcasm (although I never heard Frank pronounce “etc.” as “ek-settera” the way Ahmet does throughout). But for me the highlight of the audiobook is that every so often they insert a brief snippet from the audiotapes I recorded while I was working one-on-one with Zappa in the basement of his home. The first thing Zappa fans should know is that some of these snippets contain material that is NOT in the print version of the book.

That’s a good thing because many of the gems on those audiotapes did not make the final cut of the print book for various reasons. Here’s one example. Instead of hearing Ahmet read the text of the Introduction from the print version, we hear Frank himself saying, “The only time I would read is if somebody physically forced me to do it. I hate to read. I hate it. I find books to be absolutely dreadful, for my taste. I mean, there's some people who can't stand to listen to music. I really don't like books. I wouldn't deny anybody the right to read, but it's not a pleasurable sensation. There is a reason to do this book, but I would put it real low on my list of priorities of things to do. The fact of the matter is that the book is an object for people who get data from books because they enjoy the process of reading. Why shouldn’t I project myself to that audience? My body tells me I don't wanna look at this piece of paper, I just don't wanna do it. Two things really bore the fuck out of me—one of them is reading books. I really can’t stand it.”

I salute the Zappa Family Trust and Ahmet for listening to the tapes of my original interviews with Frank and extracting a few stories and asides that our editor at Poseidon, Ann Patty, didn’t think belonged in the book. I could almost sympathize with Ann because Frank told a lot of off-the-cuff stories that didn’t exactly fit in the flow of a narrative—they just happened to pop into his Dada mind. In the middle of Chapter 4, for instance, we hear audio of Frank telling me about meeting Salvador Dalí at the bar of the St. Regis Hotel in New York in 1967, while the painter and his friends were all eating "hashish candy." At the time, Zappa was performing nightly at a short-lived historical venue on St. Mark’s Place in the East Village, called the Balloon Farm (which later morphed into the Electric Circus). Frank invited Dalí to come to his rehearsal that afternoon, but through some snafu, the band was inadvertently locked out. So when Dalí and his wife pulled up in a limo, Frank and the boys were all sitting on the steps with their gear, waiting for someone to let them in. And so, the master of Surrealism never did get to hear the Mothers rehearsing. (I know this snippet came from one of my cassettes because I can hear myself laughing in the background.)

When I hear these morsels while listening to the audiobook, I travel back in time to the environment in which we created the original. It was Fall 1987 and a busy time for me. Over a period of two months, my first hardcover book, Once A Catholic, had been published, and I had embarked on my first author tour, opening for Pope John Paul II in selected cities (literally at times; if the Pontiff was saying mass later that day in Detroit, I’d be on the local morning news show along with some priests or nuns). I had finished the manuscript of the first of two books with Larry King (Tell It to the King, Putnam), and then I had flown out to L.A. to start work on Zappa’s autobiography.

The previous year, I had interviewed Frank for Once A Catholic— in which he spoke openly about his Catholic upbringingthe difference between religion and spirituality, his admiration for Gregorian chant, and music as “sculpted air.” (As far as I'm aware, this is the only time he ever discussed his religious background and his feelings about spirituality, other than his loathing of all televangelists.) Coincidentally, my friend and colleague Paul Slansky recommended me to Frank’s publisher to coauthor his impending autobiography. Frank subsequently called and began by giving me a detailed critique of everything that was wrong with my rendition of our interview!

I figured that was it for my participation in the project. But then he pivoted and said he felt he could get along with me well enough to make it through what he presumed would be the arduous process of writing his autobiography. Arduous because, as Frank acknowledged above, he hated to read or write and thought books were a waste of time. The publisher offered me a sizeable advance, however, so I flew out and rented an apartment in Sherman Oaks, close enough to Frank’s house in the Hollywood Hills that I could commute there daily to work on the book.

To say the least, our work schedule was Zappa-esque. Frank was in the midst of rehearsing his band for an upcoming tour, and his daily schedule went something like this:

• 4 PM to 12 midnight, rehearse his band in the studio;

• Midnight to 6 AM, return home and work on the book with me.

When Frank descended from the “dangerous kitchen” to start work, he sometimes brought along a hot dog or some other foodstuff, but most nights he appeared with only a large portable thermos—the kind with a push-down top that you still see in delis and convenience stores—loaded with black coffee. As he consumed its contents during the course of our work each night, he also smoked cigarettes—a lot of cigarettes. I had quit smoking a few years before and found the smell detestable, but hey, I was under contract and Frank was Frank. He considered cigarettes to be food (“Tobacco is my favorite vegetable”), and didn’t understand why people were so uptight about secondhand smoke.

I would show up at Frank’s home around 11 PM, hoping that Dweezil or Moon Unit or Gail would be there to let me in and show me down to the basement. The room contained Frank’s recording studio, which held both his prized Synclavier III synthesizer (“the same one Michael Jackson uses,” he said proudly) and a Bösendorfer piano! In the center of the room was a large black leather sofa positioned for viewing TV or, more importantly, videocassettes, with the audio coming through stereo speakers. This was the first time I’d seen a stereophonic VCR played through a hi-fi system, and I determined to set up one when I got back to New York. Frank usually left instructions for me to view certain videocassettes so that we could discuss the subject matter later that night when he got home—in part because he wanted me to understand the lengths to which his fans would go to impress him.

The most notable example was a bizarre video in which Frank interviewed a fan named Laurel Fishman, who displayed a large Mason jar containing a perfectly shaped spherical turd the size of a softball. Laurel claimed that she had produced this artifact after being inspired to become a vegetarian by Frank’s song “Call Any Vegetable.” A transcript of Frank interviewing Laurel, and expressing disbelief that the excremental sphere was genuine, found its way into the print version; in the audiobook, however, you can hear Laurel herself telling Frank the entire story.

Scenes We’d Like to See (but were left out of The Real Frank Zappa Book)

In a telephone call before we started work on the book, Frank and I discussed several options for how to present the material. One idea that I had was to begin with us having a series of internal monologs or dialogs, discussing how we would write the book while thinking other, contradictory, thoughts. Frank liked that concept but wanted to build on it. “You can make it twice as peculiar if my interior monologs have nothing to do with any of the situations that are going on,” he said. “So whatever I'm thinking about, it's got absolutely nothing to do with the book—the farthest away thing that you can think of, like archaeology. I think that'll get a good laugh, especially if your internal monologs are nailed down to the daily grind of doing the interview and the rest of that stuff. For instance, I could be thinking about a restaurant in Hawaii.”

I loved that idea, but our editor didn’t go for it. Another idea I floated was to embed an audio microchip in the front cover, like the ones in greeting cards that play “Happy Birthday.” Only in this case, you would open the book and it would play a few notes of Jazz From Hell, one of Frank’s instrumental albums. But Frank had a better idea: when you open the cover it plays a snork—the sound like an animal snorting that he used on some of his records. Maybe the publisher figured that would cost too much to produce.

Here I should explain some of the mechanics of producing coauthored books to clarify what I'm talking about. Usually the coauthor or ghostwriter (the main difference between a “coauthor” and a “ghost” is that the former, as in my case, gets their name on the cover) spends a lot of time interviewing the subject, in person and/or by phone. The recordings are then transcribed and the writer whittles a draft text out of the hours of interview material. The writer then sends a draft of the text to the “celebrity” author, who makes appropriate adjustments, corrects factual errors, and adds fascinating details that they may have forgotten to include during the extended interview process. The celeb may also delete material that, on second thought, they would rather not see the light of day. Some celebs may opt out of the revision process. When I coauthored my first book with talk show host Larry King, I offered to send him the first draft for his appraisal. “Nah, that’s all right,” Larry told me, much to my astonishment. ”I’ll read it when it comes out.”

True to his reputation among fellow musicians and band members of being an extreme control freak, Frank insisted on completely revising the first draft, which I had sent him in both typed form and on floppy discs (remember those?). Frank’s first response to my draft was to tell our editor that my draft was unacceptable, and he implied he might not authorize the remainder of the advance I was due. But then he apparently sat down at his computer and started to play around with all those computer files. And there were plenty of files. I had recorded some three dozen 90-minute cassettes (a little over 50 hours), and I took the best material from those tapes, put it into files, and arranged them chronologically, but also by topic.

So, Frank had a lot to play with. He also hired an illustrator and added strategically placed boldface type and made the book more fun to look at than most all-text books. If you’ve seen the original print book, you know what I mean. If you haven’t, you may have seen Howard Stern’s Private Parts. I know that Howard got the idea for the interior design of that book from Frank’s book because he interviewed me to coauthor his book based on the look of it. I had listened to Howard’s show a few times and found it inane, but I knew his book would probably sell a lot more copies than Frank’s, so I went for the interview. No matter how hard I tried to find a reason to like Howard, or to convince him that I could do a great job, however, he saw right through me and realized that I thought he was a schmuck. I know that because a woman friend of mine who listened to his show every day told me he said as much on the air. Stupid me! I really should learn to be more convincingly disingenuous in the future.

In Frank's case, of course, I was excited to work with him right off. The truth is that, as many times as I had listened to Freak Out! when it came out in 1966, I wasn’t a huge fan of his music in general. But I had seen him on TV testifying before Congress about the absurd campaign by the PMRC (Parents Music Resource Center, formed in 1985 by Tipper Gore) to put warning labels on records like Cyndi Lauper's ode to masturbation, "She Bop." I thought it he was a political activist and visionary who would be fun to work with. And, apart from his smoking, it was. Frank invited me to join his family for dinner at home one night. I don’t remember what we had, but I do recall that Ahmet, then still in high school, informed his dad that he’d be going to the movies after dinner with a friend of his. “Oh, no you’re not,” Frank announced. “You have school tomorrow!”

When the inexpensive portable cassette recorder I had brought with me began to malfunction, Frank was understanding. The next day when I showed up for work, he proudly displayed his own Nakamichi console recorder with separate boom microphones. We recorded the rest of the interviews in high quality stereo—a difference that my transcriber later remarked on with joyful exuberance. Frank clearly loved the high-performing gear he had accumulated, including the Synclavier III. He showed me how it could take a melody he had composed and play it back—as a country-western song, or a string quartet—and then print out the score! Frank appreciated that part because he had spent more than $100,000 having his orchestral compositions copied by professional transcribers.

I won’t go into detail on all the segments from our initial interviews that pop up on the audiobook—including a long anecdote about meeting David Bowie, and how Bowie subsequently lured virtuoso guitarist Adrian Belew away from Frank. I'll just say it’s more fun if you come across them unexpectedly while listening to the book.

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