John Corcelli can’t be faulted for writing a FAQ on one of America’s most beloved composers. There are no doubt countless fans and would-be fans who don’t have the time or temerity to wade through the various websites, webzines, books, magazines and faded newspaper pages it would require to really know the man. So, they will have to rely on Corcelli or someone like him to give the quick and dirty. He does that well enough across these pages, and though one is often tempted to find fault with his brevity on certain matters or the nature by which he’s handled the precious FZ discography, it’s hard not to like the manner in which this book is structured or the information it contains.
Stalwarts can rest easy: These pages contain references to Zappa’s early influences, including Igor Stravinsky and Edgar Varese. There are references to the mustached guitar maestro’s early forays into visual arts and his early friendship with Captain Beefheart. The studios he called home over his decades as a composer, performer and recording artist are dealt with in ample detail as are his attitudes toward kids, drugs and rhythm and blues. There are chapters that follow key alumni (Steve Vai and Mike Keneally, for example), the ill-fated 1988 touring band (almost everyone hated bassist Scott Thunes by the end; he hated them in kind; it’s all well documented and long over), and Zappa’s latter-day forays into the political arena.
Corcelli treads gingerly on picking through the discography, organizing and sub-organizing the more than 100 official releases into categories that will appease the ficklest Zappa aficionado. He takes a quick jaunt through the darkened alleyways of bootlegs (though, indeed, a whole volume could be dedicated just to those unofficial recordings) and gives some play to Zappa’s many musical send-ups.
There’s a list of key television appearances, from the time that a young FZ played bicycle for Steve Allen to the moment when he was interviewed for the Today show roughly half a year before his death. It’s a far from comprehensive list, though, as Corcelli misses one monster one, the time that FZ visited The Tonight Show and rapped with Jay Leno about tearing down a certain wall in Berlin. That happened sometime in 1988 and Zappa’s ideas about the hows and whys of the crumbling proved prescient. It’s surprisingly hard to come by that clip today, even after scouring YouTube for a bazillion hours, and the recent documentary Eat That Question skips over it as well. Pity, though an excellent addition to the next edition of this work.
We are given plenty of ink about FZ’s afterlife, including the many tribute bands that have sprung up in his absence. Dweezil Zappa receives a fair amount of credit for carrying his father’s flame, though the book appears to have been finished before all hell broke loose between the Zappa children with a variety of open letters and disturbing claims lobbied back and forth in the press. Maybe it’s not the place of an author such as this to step in and talk about such things. Or, maybe, that’s a whole other book in and of itself waiting to happen.
All of that, and a foreword by the always remarkable Ed Palermo, makes for good reading. So, too, does the author’s exploration of other books about Zappa, a list that should be wider and maybe more comprehensive than it is given the late musician’s influence. Maybe those authors have been treading gingerly on a legacy that was fiercely protected by a family that loved its patriarch deeply and is reluctant to have hacks poking here and prodding there. Fair enough. But unfortunate, too, because there are a wealth of topics to explore in the man’s life and music and none of them would do anything to destroy what he had created. He was a man who was deeply aware of his own faults and the many criticisms lobbied against him. He was open about his failings and, at times, the first to point them out. Why not, then, have a wider discussion?
Read and enjoy John Corcelli’s book, and consider the morsels it gives us. But please don’t stop seeking broader and deeper answers when it comes to Zappa. His story is one of nuance and one that deserves to be examined more thoroughly now and in the future. He’s a man who held complex views on issues of race, gender and class and each of those were reflected in and through his music, though not without contradiction. It seems imperative that we seize this moment to examine those issues as Zappa saw them before the moment slips away. Many of his contemporaries and many of the people who worked with and for him remain and no doubt can offer some deep insight into a man who deserves more than quick cuts and easy answers.