No Commercial Potential
By Jonathon Green
No Commercial Potential – The Sage of Frank Zappa and the Mothers of Invention, by David Walley, published by Outerbridge & Lazard (Import now, should be in the shops soon). At a time when the majority of rock music seems to be the product (and distinctly not the creation) of a bunch of so-called artists whose main influence appears to be the trendo ephemera of the Kensington Market, its reassuring to know that some of those luvable genius weirdos who thrilled us through the Sixties are still churning out their inimitable work. Among these perennial creators must rank the wizard of Laurel Canyon, Mother in chief, Ruben Sano himself – Frank Zappa. And now, in addition to Frank's ever increasing personal output, comes his biography, the product of the researches and love of David Walley, sometime Fusion hack and potentially the slumgod of the Lower East Side.
What NCP does give us is a portrait of an artist who, forgive the generalisation, is rock's iconoclast. It's 1967, the streets of the world are clogged with hippies, loving, doping, searching for ultimate truths. Even the normally acidic Stones were prey to the malaise, while most groups grabbed their kaftans and swung those beads. Zappa and his weirdo Mothers offered us: 'I'm hippy and I'm trippy, I'm a gypsy on my own. I'll stay a week and get the crabs and catch the bus back home. I'm really just a phony, but forgive me cos I'm stoned ...' It was hardly guaranteed to endear Zappa to the Children of Love. Nor was his follow up: Cruisin' with Ruben and the Jets, a pastiche of those greasy punk songs that had dominated Zappa's generation in the American high schools of the fifties. Walley's interviews with Frank Zappa Snr and Frank's high school mentor Ernie Tossi cast new light on what might have been put down to nothing more than a penchant for what h s recently gained the dubious acclaim of the camp followers. Theses days the combo has been given even more of that pep rally falsetto with the inclusion of the two ex-Turtles (remember 'Happy Together'?) Volman and Kaylan.
Frank Zappa tried to have this book suppressed. He didn't actually succeed, but he tried to refuse permission for inclusion of any of his lyrics. His efforts were successfully repulsed, but the very act reveals an alarming side of the artist. I once met Zappa and I discovered, by the time my interviewing him was over, that I'd been sold a great con. The rap that Zappa had given me was no more nor less than his 'underground press' interview, amuzing, a few bitches, some insights, but nevertheless almost word for word identical to the rap he's offered another mag a mere three months previous. And a quick rundown of the straight muzak press revealed the same thing: they too had a basic Zappa chat. Geniuses have traditionally been allowed greater leeway for freakiness than the mass of people. And Zappa must be considered among that select crew. Perhaps, as the book reveals, its because he knows it that he less appealing side of his character comes out. As Walley points out, the whole is always the sum of its parts, and no doubt the Zappa whom we admire and whose creativity we continually applaud, would not have the same effect were he oozing charm from every pore.
It's a good thing that Zappa's attempted clampdown on No Commercial Potential was unsuccessful. Even Suzy Cream Cheese – Pamela Zarubica – Zappa's longtime amanuensis and confidante, has assured its author that there is nothing for its subject to worry about. It's a pity that Frank has to make such a fuss. But as he has stated himself: 'As far as explaining myself to a larger audience that's something I'm not interested in doing.' Fortunately for Zappa fans everywhere, Frank's decision has been overruled by this book. Biographies of artists still well into their prime may be a mistake, but read No Commercial Potential. Zappa may remain an enigma, but this book helps us to discover even a few of the elusive sides of one of rock music's foremost artists.
Read by OCR software. If you spot errors, let me know afka (at) afka.net