June 27 marks the 49th anniversary of Frank Zappa’s 1966 debut album “Freak Out!” with his band The Mothers of Invention, and Zappa’s younger brother Bob is finally speaking up about their odd childhood. Bob Zappa is tracing back to what helped create one of rock’s legends. “Frankie and Bobby: Growing Up Zappa” is his memoir filled with stories and photos that have never been shared with the public.
I missed flower power and the summer of love, but my Dad was in radio and filled our Long Island home with music of all eras. We moved into that house in 1967, and my parents had decorated with a then-hip Peter Max knockoff loveseat next to rounded orange swivel chairs atop a thick orange carpet. LPs lined three shelves that spanned the width of one wall.
As a teen, I often went to the den and grabbed a handful of records — Hendrix and Joplin, Led Zeppelin and Pink Floyd and Frank Zappa. I’d bring them upstairs to my hot-pink room, then snuggle into my yellow beanbag chair beneath a wall of cork and rock posters. I spent a few years dropping acid and watching my teal lava light drip.
Hours were dedicated to studying the album covers and memorizing lyrics. I sang them into my hairbrush while I danced in front of the mirror practicing a sexy flip of my long dark hair. I needed to be ready for the nights when I’d packed Madison Square Garden and hundreds of thousands of fans chanted, “Dorri-Dorri-Dorri!”
OK, so that didn’t pan out, but my fascination with celebs never went away. So when I heard of Bob Zappa’s memoir, I had to get the scoop for TheBlot Magazine and met with him at his apartment on New York’s Upper West Side.
Dorri Olds: Tell me about your book.
Bob Zappa: It’s a memoir about Frank and my childhood in the 1950s through 1967. I was working for him then, and he and The Mothers were doing a show in Greenwich Village. That’s the year I realized I didn’t have the temperament for the music business and made the hard decision to leave him in New York. We still stayed close for the rest of his life. The aim of this book is to trace back to what might have made him into who he became.
What’s your age difference?
He was three years older than me.
Are you musical?
I bought our first guitar at a flea market when we lived in Lancaster, Calif. It was an old FO guitar, and I sanded it down and tried to learn to play it, but I’m not musically inclined. Frank was playing drums then, but he taught himself to play that guitar.
Do you still listen to his records?
Oh, sure. My close friend, author Ron Lanni, said he met you recently, and you remember many of the song lyrics. My son Jason is a musician. He knows the songs and can even read Frank’s complex music.
Would you say that 1966 through the early ’70s was Frank’s rise to fame?
Yes, that was the hottest period. But in 1971, he was doing a show in London when a guy snuck up on stage. He was high on drugs and delusional. The guy accused Frank of doing something with his girlfriend, but Frank had no idea who she was. Then he pushed Frank into the orchestra pit, 13 feet below. He broke his leg and injured his larynx — his voice got a third of an octave lower. That put Frank out of business for a year while he had to recover in a wheelchair. He had to walk with a brace for a long time. It’s amazing he still toured and made 60 albums.
How close were you growing up?
The closest. We were best friends. There are stories only I can tell. That’s why I wanted to write this book. I was the only witness to them.
Was he sick for a long time when he died at 52?
No, the prostate cancer came on suddenly. He realized there was something dramatically wrong. He hadn’t been in good health, though. He had terrible dietary habits and smoked a lot. He never abused any substance, though. He never did drugs.
Really?! Did he drink?
Occasionally. One time when he was doing shows in Italy, he bought several cases of Barolo, a hearty red wine he liked. He gave me three bottles. The wine was excellent. It came in numbered bottles and was very pricey. Once in a while he’d have a glass of Bushmills Irish Whiskey, but he really wasn’t a drinker. He said he didn’t have time to be unaware of what he was doing.
It’s hard to believe he wasn’t a druggie. Did he have any vices besides cigarettes? What about women?
Well, yeah. Everybody in the rock and roll business during that era had groupies. But really he was a workaholic and had to be in complete control. He also wouldn’t hire anybody who did drugs, regardless of how good they were. If they smelled of drugs or if they came to rehearsal drunk or stoned, he fired them immediately. He did that many times. Frank just had no patience with that. He couldn’t be up on stage and be the consummate musical director and performer and have some musician in his band slur words or fall down. He just wouldn’t have that. He was a perfectionist — especially the way he ran his band. He didn’t want anybody getting in the way of what he wanted to do.
“Freak Out!” was so psychedelic. So many of his records sounded trippy and aimed at “freaks” and “stoners.”
He used to call his listeners “hungry freaks.” You know the music of the ’50s, ’60s and even into the ’70s was sweet but mostly uninteresting to him because it was only four cords. Frank’s music was far more innovative, more sophisticated.
Have people asked you a million times if you’re Frank Zappa’s brother?
Yeah, at first I didn’t know how to respond. I’d say, “Yes,” then they’d say, “Noooo.” It happens in the weirdest ways sometimes. There was an incident this past January after I got out of the hospital from the operation I had from being hit by a car, where I ended up going to Roosevelt’s ER and somebody said …
Wait a minute! What happened?
I was walking on the sidewalk in front of a building in Paramus, N.J. An elderly driver was pulling into a handicapped spot when his cane hit the gas by mistake. The car jumped the curb and hit me, and I bounced off the car and luckily into a pole. If I had still been in front of the car, I might have lost a leg or two. But I had nerve damage and needed an operation. That was done in January of this year. Anyway, so after I got out of the hospital, I came here [to his apartment], and I had a full-body spasm and couldn’t move. When the EMT people came, they asked me my name and one said, “Are you related to Frank?”
Here I am, I can’t move, I’m in terrible pain but I said, “Yes.” I’ve had people from all walks of life ask me that. The doctor that did the operation wanted to know if I was related. I said, “Yes.” He said, “This is so cool,” and called one of his partners into the office. Then whenever I went for a follow-up visit, he said, “Guess who this is!”
That’s bizarre that both you and Frank had severe body damage from random events — Frank got thrown off the stage, and you were hit by a car.
Yeah, it’s a weird parallel.
I still can’t get over that he wasn’t into drugs. He must’ve been in clubs — there’s that song, “Dancin’ Fool” on the album “Sheik Yerbouti” where he imitates a lounge lizard trying to pick up women.
Here’s a funny story. Once when he was playing at the Whisky a Go Go on Sunset Boulevard in Hollywood, John Wayne and his entourage came in. John Wayne was drunk and came up to Frank. Frank was on stage wearing a hat. John Wayne went over and pulled the hat down on Frank’s head. Frank took it off and continued to play. When the band was done and Frank was walking out, he went over to his table and said, “I’m not even going to ask you to apologize because you are drunk.”
Also in “Dancin’ Fool,” he sang, “One of my legs is shorter than the other and both my feet’s too long.” Was one leg actually shorter than the other because of his accident?
Yes. When he recovered, one leg was shorter. He had to wear a leg brace for a long time.
When can people buy your book?
It will be out later this summer.
Watch a snippet from the interview:
Dorri Olds is a contributing journalist for TheBlot Magazine.