No Commercial Potential: The Saga of Frank Zappa and the Mothers of Invention

By Andrew Gordon

Rolling Stone, September 14, 1972

No Commercial Potential: The Saga of Frank Zappa and the Mothers of Invention by David Walley
Outerbridge and Lazard
184 pp., $6.9S hc.; $2.95 pb.

People are scared of Frank Zappa. John Lennon was so 1972 awed during his first audience with the Head Mother he was afraid Zappa would snap off his head like a fox gobbling up a chicken. Critics are scared of Frank Zappa, and this has been an obstacle to understanding him as a figure. For years, Zappa has floated coolly above the scene, a hip puppet-master, untouchable and beyond criticism because everyone knew he was a fucking genius. The Mother Superior.

Now David Walley's biography has done for prophet and pop idol Zappa the job that Anthony Scaduto's book did for Dylan โ€“ assessed the evidence, looked behind the myths and the masks at the man and his art. No Commercial Potential condenses a lot of information โ€“ it is a sort of lawyer's brief, the case for the defense and the case for the prosecution. Walley is healthily skeptical about the credibility of his sources and open-minded enough to listen to every point of view on his subject. The result is a well-balanced, well-rescarchcd view of Zappa as enigma, as culture hero, as artist, and as human being.

This is no mean achievement, because Zappa is as difficult to write about as Kierkegaard. The cat is aloof, intricate, probably paranoid, and very possibly a genius. His music is simultaneously put-on and totally serious, a weird pastiche of Edgard Varèse and Ritchie Valens. "For someone who makes a point of not being serious he sure works hard at it," writes Walley. Zappa is an intellectual who is anti-intellectual, a dedicated artist who assembles his music with great technical expertise and immense care and then presents it as a joke, a man hooked on control who delights in freaking out others.

Misfits, creeps, and assorted freaks identify with him, but his attitude toward them is cheerfully sadistic and lovingly snide. He has remained a majestic imperious and commanding figure for some time now, a ringmaster cracking the whip at the freak show, a satirist and iconoclast who has the power to give his audience the finger and tell them, "Wow, are you lame!" And they love it.

Some think Zappa's real ambition is to make a hit single, but if so, he mocks even that ambition. In Ruben and the Jets, he parodies the hits of his adolescence with loving care and mocks the ossified idiocies of the Fifties as a mirror to our own stupidity. If he revels in shocking us with the crass and the vulgar, still, "Frank really does get the point across ... he lets people in on the fact that it is just pure garbage that they're injeting into themselves ... even though he's a hypocrite because he does the same things they do." So says ex-Mother Lowell George. Frank's fnend, Tom Wilson, speculates that maybe after Zappa gets his hot single, he'll "stop rubbing their noses in their own music" and start playing his own music.

The book gives us a picture of the forces that shaped Zappa. We get a portrait of Frank as a lonely teenage creep suffering through high school in the wasteland of Southern Calofornia small towns in the Fifties, idolizing Edgard Varèse, and then leaping into the only freedom available to him at the time, as a rock & roll musician. Along the way, there are close-ups and some remarkable personalities, such as Ernie Tossi, vice-principal in charge of discipline when the incorrigible Frank attended Antelope Valley High, and Francis Vincent Zappa Sr., a domineering, upwardly-mobile immigrant father, designated in the book by the symbol of a porkpie hat. Their statements about Frank are played off against Frank's statements about them.

As well as being a biography of Zappa and his band, No Commercial Potential also serves as a slice of cultural history, as a portrait of the period and the milieu out of which the Mothers sprang, of the strange leap from L.A. drive-in hot dog culture to psychedelic freak power, and of Zappa as an important figure in that cultural transformation.

At the book's end, we find Zappa closeted alone in his basement workshop, working, endlessly working, manipulating time and reality. "Frank Zappa can do anything he wants," concludes David Walley. "It is not an enviable position for anyone, even for a catalyst like him ... Maybe when you are a genius people expect more from you ... The Seventies need leadership again or they will stagnate in their own media swill."

Ironically, Zappa tried to suppress this book at the last moment by refusing permission to quote his lyrics. Ironic, because Zappa himself has felt the effects of censorship and is so hot for free speech that he reprinted the Bill of Rights on some of his album covers. Maybe free speech just for Frank Zappa? Anyway, this is a serious and thoughtful book about a contemporary culture hero who wants to be taken seriously as an artist. It deserves to be read.