The Real Frank Zappa Book: Notes & Comments

Writing The Book

Peter Ochiogrosso, "The Real Frank Zappa Audiobook," Peter Ochiogrosso, July 6, 2023

It was Fall 1987 and a busy time for me. Over a period of two months, my first hardcover book, Once A Catholic, had been published, and I had embarked on my first author tour, opening for Pope John Paul II in selected cities (literally at times; if the Pontiff was saying mass later that day in Detroit, I'd be on the local morning news show along with some priests or nuns). I had finished the manuscript of the first of two books with Larry King (Tell It to the King, Putnam), and then I had flown out to L.A. to start work on Zappa's autobiography.

The previous year, I had interviewed Frank for Once A Catholic— in which he spoke openly about his Catholic upbringingthe difference between religion and spirituality, his admiration for Gregorian chant, and music as "sculpted air." (As far as I'm aware, this is the only time he ever discussed his religious background and his feelings about spirituality, other than his loathing of all televangelists.) Coincidentally, my friend and colleague Paul Slansky recommended me to Frank's publisher to coauthor his impending autobiography. Frank subsequently called and began by giving me a detailed critique of everything that was wrong with my rendition of our interview!

I figured that was it for my participation in the project. But then he pivoted and said he felt he could get along with me well enough to make it through what he presumed would be the arduous process of writing his autobiography. Arduous because, as Frank acknowledged above, he hated to read or write and thought books were a waste of time. The publisher offered me a sizeable advance, however, so I flew out and rented an apartment in Sherman Oaks, close enough to Frank's house in the Hollywood Hills that I could commute there daily to work on the book.

To say the least, our work schedule was Zappa-esque. Frank was in the midst of rehearsing his band for an upcoming tour, and his daily schedule went something like this:

• 4 PM to 12 midnight, rehearse his band in the studio;

• Midnight to 6 AM, return home and work on the book with me.

When Frank descended from the "dangerous kitchen" to start work, he sometimes brought along a hot dog or some other foodstuff, but most nights he appeared with only a large portable thermos—the kind with a push-down top that you still see in delis and convenience stores—loaded with black coffee. As he consumed its contents during the course of our work each night, he also smoked cigarettes—a lot of cigarettes. I had quit smoking a few years before and found the smell detestable, but hey, I was under contract and Frank was Frank. He considered cigarettes to be food ("Tobacco is my favorite vegetable"), and didn't understand why people were so uptight about secondhand smoke.

I would show up at Frank's home around 11 PM, hoping that Dweezil or Moon Unit or Gail would be there to let me in and show me down to the basement. The room contained Frank's recording studio, which held both his prized Synclavier III synthesizer ("the same one Michael Jackson uses," he said proudly) and a Bösendorfer piano! In the center of the room was a large black leather sofa positioned for viewing TV or, more importantly, videocassettes, with the audio coming through stereo speakers. This was the first time I'd seen a stereophonic VCR played through a hi-fi system, and I determined to set up one when I got back to New York. Frank usually left instructions for me to view certain videocassettes so that we could discuss the subject matter later that night when he got home—in part because he wanted me to understand the lengths to which his fans would go to impress him.

[...] True to his reputation among fellow musicians and band members of being an extreme control freak, Frank insisted on completely revising the first draft, which I had sent him in both typed form and on floppy discs (remember those?). Frank's first response to my draft was to tell our editor that my draft was unacceptable, and he implied he might not authorize the remainder of the advance I was due. But then he apparently sat down at his computer and started to play around with all those computer files. And there were plenty of files. I had recorded some three dozen 90-minute cassettes (a little over 50 hours), and I took the best material from those tapes, put it into files, and arranged them chronologically, but also by topic.

So, Frank had a lot to play with. He also hired an illustrator and added strategically placed boldface type and made the book more fun to look at than most all-text books.


Chapter 2—There Goes The Neighborhood

[p. 37] Don [Van Vliet] was also an R&B fiend, so I'd bring my 45s over and we'd listen for hours on end to obscure hits by the Howlin' Wolf, Muddy Waters, Sonny Boy Williamson, Guitar Slim, Johnny "Guitar" Watson, Clarence "Gatemouth" Brown, Don and Dewey, the Spaniels, the Nutmegs, the Paragons, the Orchids, the etc., etc., etc.

Every once in a while Don would scream at his mother (always in a blue chenille bathrobe), "Sue! Get me a Pepsi!" There was nothing else to do in Lancaster.


Chapter 3—An Alternative To College

[p. 57] Once I got out, I went to see Art Laboe. He had released some of my material on his Original Sound label ("Memories of El Monte" and "Grunion Run") and got an advance on a royalty payment, which I used to bail out the girl.


Chapter 4—Are We Having A Good Time Yet?

[p. 90] In 1966 and '67, the L.A.P.D. and the Sheriffs Department went to war with the freaks in Hollywood. Every weekend people were rounded up (with no warrants presented or charges stated) as they walked on Sunset Boulevard, forced into Sheriff's buses, driven downtown, held hostage for the evening, then let go—all because they had LONG HAIR.

The places where they used to eat (Ben Frank's on Sunset and Canter's Deli on Fairfax) were under constant surveillance. The city government threatened to take away Elmer (Whisky-a-Go-Go) Valentine's liquor license if he didn't stop booking long-haired acts into his club. There was no place left to work in Hollywood.

[p. 94-95] On another occasion, Jimi Hendrix sat in with us. I didn't know him before then, and I can't remember how I was introduced to him—probably met him at the Tin Angel. A few days later he came to visit our cubicle on Charles Street with his friend, drummer Buddy Miles. Jimi was wearing green velvet pants—all decked out—on his way to a party with Buddy. (The only thing that Buddy said was "Hi, Frank," after which he sat on the couch, leaned back and passed out, snoring.) They were there for about an hour and a half. Buddy had a nice nap, and Hendrix ripped his pants at the crotch while demonstrating a dance step. Gail sewed them up for him. When it was time to leave he said, "Come on, Buddy." The snoring stopped, and they left.


Chapter 5—The Log Cabin

[p. 104] Included in it is a tape of Cynthia Plaster-Caster talking on the phone to Miss Pamela (now known as Pamela 'I'm With the Band' Des Barres), comparing notes. They both kept diaries, so they had cross-references to the same guys. Noel Redding, bassist from the Jimi Hendrix group, also kept diaries, intertwined with the other two. It would have been great to see them all in one book.

[p. 106] When Hendrix was cast, Cynthia told me, he liked the glop so well, he fucked the mold.


Chapter 6—Send In The Clowns

[p. 117]
The Real Frank Zappa Book

Craig Edon Pinkus, interviewed by Bob Dobbs, June 24, 2016

I have photographs of him, I was out there for a week. He was in the wheelchair. He was rehearsing, I did a large number of black and white photographs, some of which—without credit, which is fine—made it into his book, you know, The Real Frank Zappa Book. [...] The black and white shot of him in the wheelchair in the rehearsal room is mine.


Chapter 8—All About Music

[p. 179] Although I wouldn't say I could play a Guitar Slim lick sitting here today, his mangle-it strangle-it attitude provided an important aesthetic guidepost for the style I eventually developed. My two other influences were Johnny "Guitar" Watson and Clarence "Gatemouth" Brown.

[p. 194-195] Pierre Boulez

[p. 196-197] The Perfect Stranger


Chapter 18—Failure

[p. 346] Other characters include: Galileo, Tesla, Newton, da Vinci, Mussolini, Hitler, Stalin, and Elvis Presley as THE DEVIL.






Research, compilation and maintenance by Román García Albertos
This page updated: 2023-11-01