zappaOne would be hard pressed to think of another pop culture figure more anti pop-cultural in his point of view, yet more iconic than Frank Zappa.

Frankie and Bobby - Growing Up Zappa
by Bob Zappa with Bob Stannard
CRZ Publishing 
356 pages

One would be hard pressed to think of another pop culture figure more iconic but at the same time more anti-pop-cultural as Frank Zappa. A musician, composer, film maker and social commentator, Zappa seemed to carve his own multi-facetted niche from which to satisfy his own interests while observing, criticizing, and - in his own way - striking back with mutual disaffection at a society he didn't quite fit into.

Those who chose to take a closer look at Zappa could see that there was, if nothing else, a strong intelligence behind the often intentionally-offensive veneer. His talent as an instrumentalist and composer was undeniable, his ability to captivate those he didn't drive away was legendary, and his lampooning of the straight culture was usually accomplished with a healthy dose of irreverent comedy.

One of the mysteries - for this fan, at least - was why the message in the later years of his career followed an arc that went from the musical exuberance of the Waka-Jawaka / Live at the Roxy period to the often bitter lyrical tirades of his mid-eighties work. In Frankie and Bobby - Growing Up Zappa, Frank's brother helps to humanize his famous brother and shed some light on the roots of some of the bitterness that emerged through the humor and the genius.

Frankie and Bobby - Growing Up Zappa describes a family trapped in a frustrating pattern of picking up and moving from town to town with enough frequency to make Bobby and his three year-older brother Frank the perpetual new kids on the block (an ironic description that wouldn't be lost on Frank). The additional burden of being naturally analytical and unusually intelligent eventually set the stage for Frank's often confrontational relationship with his father - a traditionally authoritarian 'Italian Dad,' who resented any questioning or deviation from his plans, regardless of their effect on the family.

Whether it was making up for the lack of stability in his formative years or a subconscious effort to show that he could be just as much 'in charge' as his father, Zappa became an unquestioned taskmaster with his various bands, driving them through hours of rehearsal until they could reproduce his complex music at the drop of a baton. Unfortunate incidents with authority figures from school, local politics and law enforcement, and the church, convinced young Zappa that these structures were out to get him and not to be trusted. He also was a man very much in charge of his inner life, to the point where emotional displays of any kind seemed rare (which is one reason why the band he formed in the mid-70s is so treasured, because he seemed to laugh more than at any other time in his public career). For good or ill, Zappa's projects were the result of an obsessive control and - on occasion - outlets for an adolescent humor that perhaps was never allowed expression in the Zappa household.

Above all else, Frankie and Bobby - Growing Up Zappa is the story of two brothers surviving an uneven childhood. Stories of how Frank looked out for Bobby humanize the composer and give us some insight to a side that only a brother could see. The author tells the tale with no signs of jealousy or bitterness and a good deal of affection and admiration for his gifted older sibling. The style of the book is episodic and conversational and, much like Frank's lyrics, is peppered with a good dose of four-letter words.

The bottom line to this story of an unusual but certainly not privileged family is that there was a bond between Bobby and Frankie - that frank Zappa, the icon, is really 'big-brother Frankie', and he's missed. If there's an underlying sadness to the book, it's that perhaps Frank became who he was emotionally as the result of survival tactics that just might have robbed him of some of the simpler joys of life. No doubt he would still have produced the genius-tinged body of work without having to build an emotional safe-guard around himself (my thoughts here), but he could have also enjoyed the rewards - as well as the hurts - of emotional connection.

I get the feeling Bobby, who obviously loved his brother, might agree.

– Bert Saraco