I'm not a Frank Zappa fan, though I agree he was an interesting personality. If you ARE a fan, you'll probably enjoy Neil Slaven's biography of FZ, ELECTRIC DON QUIXOTE (1996), which is the first book on music that's held my interest all the way through in quite awhile.
There've been other books on Zappa. FZ wrote one himself, THE FRANK ZAPPA BOOK, which I thought was a little silly and scattered, along with skipping whole sections of his life. Barry Miles's ZAPPA, which I read and reviewed here a couple of years ago, wasn't bad -- but it soon bogged down into recapping album-tour-album-tour-album-tour until Frank died. It could have used more detail, more interviews.
But Miles was great at catching Good Stories -- one leads off his book, a story from Frank's early years that maybe explained the direction FZ went for the rest of his life. It's such a great story that Miles repeats it again almost word-for-word a few chapters later.
Slaven -- a producer at Decca/Deram in the early '70s -- maybe doesn't have such a nose for great stories, but he compiles a ton of period quotes from newspaper and magazine articles, and adds a ton more info from interviews he did with Zappa. Slaven also comments in some depth on the music itself, something Miles never did. Slaven gets across some of the obsessiveness that would push a man to record and release more than 60 albums in a nearly-30-year career.
Slaven also picks up some of the sarcasm of his subject. He clearly has his own opinions on how Zappa was treated, which of FZ's albums are worth re-hearing, and how much of Frank's work will continue to be heard.
There's also detailed coverage of FZ's later trips to DC to argue against rock censorship. This section made me think it's too bad FZ and Hunter S. Thompson aren't around today to call "Bullshit!" on so much of what's coming out of DC. Actually, I think FZ and HST woulda made a great ticket for Prez and VP.
But hypocrisy, fascism and greed never die. Musicians do. There's a long chapter on all the work FZ got done while his health was declining.
There's also detail on the many fine musicians who performed as FZ's backing bands -- among them Terry Bozzio, Adrian Belew, Steve Vai, George Duke, Jean-Luc Ponty, Ian and Ruth Underwood, Mark Volman and Howard Kaylan, Eddie Jobson, Patrick O'Hearn, Johnny "Guitar" Watson, Captain Beefheart, the Original Mothers, and many more. Their opinions -- usually very favorable about FZ -- come across strongly.
None of this changes my opinion of FZ's music -- for most of which, I've never been able to get past the stupid, silly, grade-school-level lyrics. They seem too close to the things FZ was trying to make fun of. But maybe I've just heard the wrong stuff. I heard a chunk of HOT RATS while in a Tacoma record store awhile back, and it sounded pretty good. Maybe I need to hear more of that and the WAKA/JAWAKA-GRAND WAZOO period....
I've also been eating up parts of the annual BEST MUSIC WRITING series from DaCapo Books. Each volume I've found so far has something in it worth holding on to -- a long piece about a guy who discovered "numbers stations" on short-wave radio and ended up compiling a four-CD set of what they broadcast, which turned out to be code-messages to spies -- some of this stuff was later used on a Wilco album; a hilarious/disgusting piece on how Warner Brothers Records treats artists who never earn back their advance; a long piece on how Bob Dylan's "Masters of War" still works today, 50 years later; looks back at Phil Ochs, Bettye LaVette, Nina Simone, Anita O'Day and others; meeting The Shaggs; the importance of Big Country; an obituary for great English DJ John Peel; and much more.
Well worth your time if you find a copy at Goodwill.