TAKE IT AWAY, BOB...
the run up to publication of his book about his early years growing up with
brother Frank, I asked Bob Zappa if he would submit to a short interview with
me. While we did talk via Skype for the ZappaCast before the book was published, we
agreed it might be better to wait for me to read the book before he said any
more. Now that I have read the book (see
my review here), I threw some
follow-up questions at him.
IB: In your excellent new memoir, Frankie & Bobby – Growing Up Zappa, you describe in detail the long, difficult family journey from Edgewood to Monterey in your father's Henry J – which seems to have been quite significant in Frank's development. It may also have inspired the song Kaiser Rolls. Does the 'stumbler man' mean anything to you?
BZ: Questions about references in some of Frank’s songs are a bit too speculative for me to try to answer. Your association with Kaiser rolls and the Henry J is pretty interesting but I wonder how many people would find that connection of interest - other than me, of course?
IB: You’d be surprised – the various Zappa-fora are awash with such ‘down in the weeds’ discussions! Where you aware of Sandy Hurvitz (aka Essra Mohawk) at the time of the Garrick Theater run?
BZ: Yes, I knew about Essra – and a few others. But his relationships with other women was not a part of our story that I want readers to know.
IB: Okay. When we spoke on the ZappaCast, you said you had no recollection of the early Zappa/Beefheart collaboration Lost In A Whirlpool. Can you at least recall the guitars you and Frank might've used?
BZ: I don't remember which guitars were used on that recording, but I seem to recall that we had borrowed whatever we used. Maybe from the Franklin brothers – but don't quote me on that.
IB: Okay, I won’t! You refer in the book to Frank's interest in necromancy and UFOs. Your comment about his deal with the devil is also intriguing.
BZ: Frank's interest in necromancy, aliens and other unworldly things was, I believe, simply part of his vast curiosity about life, death and everything in between. He also enjoyed trying to impress me and others with his bold interest in things that, at the time, we're not openly discussed.
IB: There's a hint in your book that Frank may have been a synesthete. His son Ahmet also recently claimed that Frank had 'an enhanced form of hearing' due to the radiation treatment he had on his sinuses as a child. Do you think there’s any merit in such notions?
BZ: I don't know how Frank's hearing could have been enhanced by a radioactive nose pellet, but stranger things have happened. Here's what Wikipedia says:
"Synesthesia is a neurological phenomenon in which stimulation of one sensory or cognitive pathway leads to automatic, involuntary experiences in a second sensory or cognitive pathway. People who report such experiences are known as synesthetes."
Does that describe Frank's heightened sense of hearing? Hard to tell but that magic pellet could have just as easily affected his colour perception or his ability to taste. In this same vein, perception is reality.
IB: Did you ever meet Paul Buff?
BZ: I do not remember ever meeting him.
IB: Tell us some more about your friendship with Dick Barber – does he still snork?!
BZ: Dick Barber, Bill Harris and I have been friends since 1960. They were both at my wedding on September 26 here in New York and although I had not seen Bill in person for over 10 years, Dick came to New York in 2014. My wife Diane and I had dinner with him here at our apartment. But I am in touch with both of them by email or phone on a regular basis, sometimes daily. And at our wedding it was as though we were still high school pals, only older, slower and with less hair. Yes, Dick still snorks! He also flies his own airplane, one that he built just before he built his house in Nevada. He is a man of many accomplishments and talents.
IB: Were you around when Frank made that phone call to Edgard Varèse?
BZ: I remember when he made the call and how excited he was about it.
IB: What is your own personal taste in music?
BZ: I listen to classical, bluegrass, Frank, of course, and music from the 1940s. Like comfort food for the ears and soul.
IB: Is it true that Frank intended to record you and Candy for his Bizarre label?
BZ: He may have wanted to record Candy but by the time he had his labels I was either in the Marines or in graduate school (I can't remember which) and, quite frankly, I have no musical talent. But he always tried to include his siblings in things that amused him.
IB: Are you still in touch with your half-sister Ann?
BZ: Not on a regular basis. The last time we were together was at my mother's funeral.
IB: Have you ever used your father's book, Chances: And How To Take Them, to bet on the baseball series?
BZ: No, I have never even read my father's book because it presumed that anyone who did read it actually knew mathematics beyond addition, subtraction, division and multiplication – which leaves me out. Besides, I like basketball.
IB: Do you recall the last time you spoke with Frank?
BZ: There were two special occasions: when he called to tell me about his diagnosis and once when he was going through therapy. There were many times when I called him in L.A. from N.Y. but was often told he was either too sick to speak or that he was asleep.
IB: He wasn’t particularly interested in how he would be remembered, but what do you remember most of all about him?
BZ: That as children, teenagers and young adults, we were the closest friends and shared so many experiences together that I still have vivid memories of the good and the bad times, which is why I wrote the book. The Frank Zappa I knew is not the same person that so many people think they know. He was so much better and so much smarter and his untimely death should have been prevented.
IB: Do you think you'll ever write a sequel - Grown Up Zappa, perchance?
BZ: My wife, Dr. Diane Papalia, is a retired researcher and psychology professor and the author of several widely used text books on human development. She encouraged me to finish Frankie & Bobby: Growing Up Zappa and we have been talking about projects that involve other periods in Frank's life and mine. For now, though, I'm just hoping people will find this book worth reading.
IB: Well I certainly did: it’s a truly
fascinating read – a must for any Zappa fan.
Thanks for your time, Bob.
Photo of Bob (right) – with Bill Harris (left) and Dick Barber (centre) – at his wedding to Diane in September 2015 taken by Maggie Yurachek.