Thursday, 23 April 1998

Ben Watson: Frank Zappa - The Negative Dialectics of Poodle Play (1994)

Edition: Quartet, 1994
Review number: 30

This massive volume, over five hundred pages, is a detailed analysis of Frank Zappa's life and work, from the point of view of a long-term dedicated fan. Even so, there is space for fewer than ten pages for each album released by Zappa, so the amount of analysis possible is a little limited.

The fan background means that Watson attempts to defend Zappa wherever possible, even in cases where many people (including myself) find his work pretty difficult to take (see particularly the information on ThingFish, for example). The author is also involved in the Socialist Workers' Party, and sometimes his politics get rather in the way of the music. (The criticisms throughout the book of Zappa for treating his band members as employees are an example of this.) The first five chapters were written earlier than the rest of the book, and some of the later parts do have a rather piecemeal look to them.

I enjoyed the book, despite these quibbles, and it made me want to go out and listen to some of the Zappa albums I haven't heard. I was particularly interested in the discussions of xenochrony (putting together bits of music with different time signatures, in Zappa's case using recording technology) and the contrast between extreme preparation in advance and the use of chance events, both of which are features in Zappa's music. In the latter context, Watson tells a wonderful anecdote, which I want to repeat here. When Samuel Beckett was working as secretary to James Joyce and taking down dictation for the carefully planned Finnegan's Wake, they were interrupted by a knock on the door. Beckett noted down the "Come in" uttered by Joyce; when reading the passage back made them realise that these two words had crept in by chance, Joyce decided to keep them, and wove them into his plans for the book.

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