BOOK REVIEW / Idol speculations: 'Frank Zappa: The Negative Dialectics of Poodle Play' - Ben Watson: Quartet, 25 pounds

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The Independent Culture
BEN WATSON loves Frank Zappa. 'The most brilliant (and least understood) artist in rock,' it says here, 'one of our great 20th-century composers'; and that's just on the book-jacket. For those of us who, faced with the choice between listening to any of Frank Zappa's recordings and eating a large piece of mouldy cheese, would start to feel distinctly peckish, Watson has got a good deal of convincing to do.

He does not make things any easier for himself, or for his readers, by approaching his subject from a doctrinaire, hard-left political perspective (Watson is a member of the Socialist Workers Party and he doesn't care who knows it), which would seem to be the very antithesis of Zappa's free-market seditioneering. This apparent contradiction is not a problem for Watson.

His basic argument is that 'Zappa's art, though necessarily underpinned by a petit-bourgeois belief in cottage-industry economics, is just as much part of a protest against the divisions of capitalist society as the music of Charlie Parker or Kurt Weill'. If you were to substitute the word 'my' for the second 'a' in this sentence, Watson's thesis would be unanswerable.

This book is not an easy read, but the author's total involvement with his subject is infectious, and there is something pleasing about the way he mingles the testimony of his intimidating posse of expert witnesses - Freud, Marx, Theodor Adorno and Phillip K Dick prominent among them - with personal reminiscences of his own. A conversation he had with John Peel while hitch-hiking, a tape recording of him heckling a Zappa show and begging Frank to stop playing 'Dinah-Moe Humm', a lewd recording once made for him by a mercifully unnamed girlfriend - all are grist to the author's interpretative mill.

'Poodle play' seems to be a critical scheme for approaching the idea of obsessive Zappa fandom, gradually built up by Watson in the series of articles for the underground press on which this book is based. It is to his credit that when he actually gets to meet the object of his fascination - an epilogue recounts his visit to the Zappa family home in California, where he reads from the book to the generous approbation of his ailing hero - his critical principles do not go out of the window.

'Just because my daddy done work for the government, I've changed schools until it's a crying shame.' These words were part of a rock opera Frank Zappa wrote while still a teenager, and this book is full of such sudden glimpses of humanity amid artistic and conceptual over-reach. Moments like this make you feel you ought to want to listen to some of those 57 albums, and there really is no higher tribute.

(Photograph omitted)