Rock & Roll Books

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Rock & Roll Books

Zappa: A Biography

by Barry Miles

Grove Press, 320 pp., $25

With little in the way of original interviews or illuminating research, the best thing about Barry Miles' biography of Frank Zappa is that it's a mildly compelling literature review. Even casual fans will scoff at the notion of this being the definitive word on Zappa's prolific musical catalog and tragicomic personal life. While the jacket blurb says Miles knew Zappa "personally," his writing never embodies a sense of acquaintance, let alone intimacy. The fulcrum of Miles' book is that Zappa was a man of troubling dichotomy, sabotaging ambitious compositions with poop talk, espousing civil liberties while snickering at gay sex, and staying married while partaking of groupies. Miles trumpets such banal hypocrisies as juicy insights into Zappa's mindset. While the author provides some useful context through details of Zappa's ancestral roots in Sicily and his formative stomping grounds in Southern California's Inland Empire, it's not enough to flesh out his character. Like a kangaroo court judge, Miles strings together third-hand anecdotes to create first-hand indictments. He states Zappa had no respect for his fans, but the majority of data Miles uses to confirm this only indicates that Zappa had no respect for what he perceived as idiocy in his audience or anyone else. Zappa's railings could just as easily be construed as more respectful than typical artist-fan relationships. No one would deny that Zappa often exhibited calculated, misanthropic tendencies, but Miles eagerly paints the musician as a cold monster with no capacity for empathy. If that had been the case, it seems likely that Miles would've garnered more original interviews from those spurned by Zappa in the decade since his death from prostate cancer. Some of Miles' bold assertions may well be true, but it's going to take more than a pile of press clips to appease the skepticism his approach engenders.

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