Friday, February 17, 2012

Freak Out! My Life with Frank Zappa by Pauline Butcher

(Lexus) LAST YEAR WAS HELL ON FRANK ZAPPA, and he wasn’t even around to enjoy it. His major releases in the ’60s and ’70s are out of print & available only in expensive used copies, still unavailable for digital download (his widow is pretty sure he’d be against it); his most prominent fan, Czech president Václav Havel, died; Andrew Greenaway’s Zappa the Hard Way, documenting the disastrous last concert tour, came out; and Pauline Butcher, the pretty, poised British secretary who went to work for him in 1968, released her memoir of their four years together, the most intimate portrait to date of the difficult & enigmatic man who gave birth to Pop Culture.
It’s an incredible scene: a girl typist shows up at a hotel to do a job for some boring businessman, and the door opens to a wild man in an orange t-shirt & pink trousers, flowing witch-like hair & piercing eyes. “I showed your lyrics to a girl at work,” she reports after her first batch of typing. “She thinks this song is about incest.” “Does she have big tits?” Zappa asks. But Butcher follows him to Laurel Canyon & his new life in the famous ‘Log Cabin’, to assist in his writing a political manifesto & working on the fan club he dreams of turning into the base from which he’ll run for president. Very unhappy with the world, he tries to create a new one, but his dreams crumble, as all she has left to do is watch, and as he often encouraged her to, write about him.
Zappa made his first mark in 1962 with the soundtrack to The World’s Greatest Sinner, Timothy Carey’s independent film about an insurance salesman who quits his job to form a rock band, giving ecstatic performances to frenzied crowds, forming a political party & then religious cult, calling himself ‘God’. Popular in midnight screenings throughout the ’60s, it set the template which Zappa wanted to bring to life. His Freak Out! album in 1965 transformed rock ‘n’ roll from ditties into a vehicle for broad artistic statements. In later albums like Absolutely Free, he’d wake everyone up, wake up the sleeping body & mind (he’d live his life mostly at night), and with his outpourings of comic, dissonant, disconnected music, shatter all existing orders. (His music would be popular in Eastern Europe, in cells of resistance to communism.)
Not that anyone but him would use rock that way. His interviews are often occupied with dismissals of his musical progeny. “I may be popular, but he is the real thing,” John Lennon said of him, but to Zappa the Beatles were merely a “good, commercial group,” as the Sgt. Pepper album was a mimicry of him. He mimics them back in We’re Only In It For the Money. The Stones, likewise, he considered little more than employees of “a record company waiting for records.” Hendrix he liked, until he fell into guitar tricks, but had no regard for Jim Morrison, who’d dated Zappa’s muse, Suzy Creamcheese, and hung around in his shadow in a formative period. The works of David Bowie, who got his start doing covers from Freak Out!, are “a piece of shit.”
In the end, there’s only him, sitting in a dirty cabin in California surrounded by freaks & hangers-on, to varying degrees maddened by greed as rock music is exploding in popularity, trying for his next big statement. He’d talk up his presidential run even as he lets his book fade away. Butcher doesn’t make the correlations, but exposes his interviews as mostly talk, at times, nearly delusional. “We try to screen the ones that look like they’re strong personalities and put them in touch with other people in other parts of the country,” he says of fan mail, which, in Butcher’s telling, sits in dusty boxes, until she, amid power struggles with Zappa’s young wife, who’d confiscated them as part of an ongoing effort, it seems, to undermine her husband’s mission, grabs them, so she’ll have something to do.
Zappa’s views on women are a fascination of the book, and of a broader cultural history. His first wife was a secretary, and he was clearly drawn to the type. (“Do you think if we fucked, you could still work for me as my secretary?” he asks Butcher.) His clear respect for her, however, is at odds with his commentary in interviews. “They’re supposed to do what they’re told, like clean the house,” he says of the wife. “That’s part of the rules. They ought to accept what they have to do.” Even as, in 1968, he works to launch the groupie as role models for the new generation. They’re “freedom fighters at the avant garde of the Sexual Revolution that is sweeping Western Civilization,” he’d tell Rolling Stone. They’ll inspire wives, he envisions, to keep house & their husbands sexually satisfied, via blow jobs. He put a group of girls together as the ‘GTOs’ and released an album documenting their way of life, which involves all of the above.
Butcher’s narrative is eye-opening. As her husband liked a neat house (in his solitary spaces, everything was tidy), his wife was an indifferent housekeeper, and even her selection of the log cabin (where cleaning of the filthy & decrepit structure fell to their frazzled nanny), seems a battle in an ongoing marital war, to which Zappa brought his own formidable weapons. As his daughter wrote recently: “Our rock royalty of a dad toured for nine months out of the year, cheated on my mom when he was away, but always came back to us, to sleep all day and work all night.” As he was continually at work, even when home, they’d creep around him, lest he “leave us for a groupie and we can keep food on the table and a roof over our heads.” He needed his wife, though, as in a bizarre scene, when amid fighting she leaves him for an impromptu vacation, he appears in women’s clothes, sexuality oscillating weirdly.
There would be, however, a cult of admiration for his attacks on the ‘emancipated’ woman. It was called feminism. Germaine Greer was a young Australian scholar, studying early Shakespearean comedy & writing about rock musicians, slumming as a groupie & searching for her big statement. She liked strong men, looking to Mick & Jim & everyone else and dismissing them as homosexual or otherwise wanting. She wanted to do battle with a real man, in the vein of The  Taming of the Shrew, which results, she’d note, in “the forging of a partnership between equals.” Enter Zappa, alone of musicians to receive her praises. His comments on groupies were the clear provocation for her famous article on the subject which, in 1969, first made her a star. “I fancy him like mad,” she writes, riffing off the prevalent rumors that he’d ingest excrement on stage. “Nevertheless, because I really respond to his vibes, I want him, shit or no shit, because that’s how it is if your body and soul and mind are hooked up.”
Shortly after, she’d enter a six-month fevered mode from which emerged The Female Eunuch, which radicalized a generation of women. (Mick Jagger’s girlfriend, Marianne Faithfull, who’d both visited the log cabin, left him after reading it.) But laying down a savage case against men was intended as a provocation. She was waiting for them to strike back, a war that would result in her finding a mate. (A biography of her, still-single, is titled Untamed Shrew.) When they finally met, in 1973 in Los Angeles, Greer’s famously penetrating insight was utterly disabled. “I thought he probably helped himself to the heaps of groupies that were lying around – he didn’t,” she says, in a worshipful commentary. “He loved his wife and the children he had with her too much for that.”
That was in 2005 in The Guardian, when Greer was fresh off a radio documentary for the BBC, which began as Pauline Butcher’s first efforts to tell her story. “I began with the producer and we had three episodes in draft form,” she tells Roctober. “Then Germaine Greer who was on the same grape-vine as my producer, got commissioned to do an hour-long documentary on him.” Her project stolen from under her, Butcher began work on her book instead, and in the battle over his memory, is every bit the victor. In the riveting final pages, she sits opposite him, surely among the few times in his life when he knew he was facing an equal. Why, she asks, did he sleep around even as his wife could not? “He looked at me oddly,” she says. “Inscrutable. I could not tell if he was amused or annoyed.” As he replies: “When you get right down to it, when you look at it for what it is, at what’s really going on, sex is just fucking silly.”

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