Ben Watson, a self-described "Zappologist," begs to differ. "Frank Zappa: The Negative Dialecticts of Poodle Play" is his impassioned attempt to demonstrate that Zappa was not just a musical innovator but a wordsmith on a par with James Joyce and a philosopher on a part with Theodor Adorno. He doesn't quite achieve his goal, but he has fun trying.
Mr. Watson combines analyses of Zappa's recordings - all of them, including some that were never officially released - with snippets of biography, excerpts from previously published interviews and huge guests of opinion (the subject of which is usually, but not always, Frank Zappa). His book is by turns in formative, provocative, perceptive, reverential, ponderously argumentative (hence "Negative Dialectics") and deliberately silly (hence "Poodle Play"). Sometimes it is simply wrong - especially at those moments when Mr. Watson, who is English, wrestles with a reference to American politics or popular culture and just doesn't get it. And sometimes it is distinctly off the wall: Mr. Watson goes to excruciating lengths to explain why the album "Apostrophe(')" best known for the song "Don't Eat The Yellow Snow," is Frank Zappa's 'King Lear.'" But it is the closest reading Zappa is ever likely to get, and as such it is welcome.
Zappa's work certainly deserves serious attention. He is by any reckoning a major figure in the rock pantheon, although he was both too iconoclastic and too idiosyncratic to be embraced wholeheartedly by the rock establishment. His music deftly synthesized influences as diverse as Stravinsky and doo-wop, and his lyrics - often acerbic and often tasteless, but seldom less than clever - obliterated a wide range of targets, including the rock establishment itself.
But was he another Joyce? Mr. Watson, the author of two books of poetry, thinks he was, and isn't afraid to say so - over and over and over. "If Zappa were not in rock music," he writes at one point, "his poetic clusters would be generating Cultural Studies theses at the rate of 'Finnegans Wake.'" Elsewhere he observes that "like Joyce, Zappa mixes his own life into his work."
Even the most devoted fan may find this sort of thing a bit much. And yet there is something strangely appealing about the enthusiasm with which Mr. Watson keeps hammering home the analogies to Joyce, as well as to Adorno, Shakespeare, the Dadaists and the Situationists, in the process of delinieating what Zappa himself called the "conceptual continuity" of his recorded output. Late in the book Mr. Watson tells us that the cartoonist Matt Groening, who was a friend of Zappa's, has called his approach "demented scholarship." That seems about right.
Ultimately, through, Mr. Watson does a disservice to Zappa's art by focusing on the lyrics at the expense of the bracingly original music. He discusses the music, of course, but without much insight; he is good at telling us who influenced Zappa but not so good at explaining how. And all too often he falls back on banalities like "the tune is strained and scraping" or "It's a turgid, knotted song with boiling rhythm guitar," which tell us nothing at all. A musical force this powerful deserves better.
Frank Zappa: The Negative Dialiectics of Poodle Play by Ben Watson 597 pages New York St. Martin's Press $27.50 (USA)