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Frank Zappa: The Negative Dialectics of Poodle Play Hardcover – January, 1995
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There is probably no figure of modern popular music who so deserves the sort of scholarly exercise undertaken by Ben Watson in this book, and I am personally convinced that Zappa will be regaled by 21st Century music historians as a "crux of the biscuit" of 20th Century music.
And this 700 page tome will certainly be cited by our music historian descendants. In fairness, it may confound today's Zappa fans with it's copious references to Adorno, Freud, and Marx, but is likely to delight the erudite with its excerpts of the playfully situationist lyrics of Zappa, completely deconstructed by Watson. There is no doubt that Zappa was a genius--albeit a peculiarly American sort--and there is no doubt that no book has yet attempted such a thorough (albeit peculiar) analysis of his genius. Highly Recommended.
From Publishers Weekly
Frank Zappa's manic energy and weird lyrics may make him seem like a rock-cult eccentric, but to British journalist Watson, Zappa (1940-1993), founder of the Mothers of Invention (which disbanded in 1969), was a pioneering composer who forged a third stream between classical and rock music, a radical visionary whose works attack class oppression, the conformity of mass culture and the hypocrisy of conventional morality. Fusing musical analysis, cultural criticism and biography, this overblown, provocative study discusses Zappa's music in the context of avant-garde art, William Blake, Wyndham Lewis's Vorticist prose, punk rock and the Marxist politics of the French leftist group Situationist International. Watson unravels Zappa's formative influences as he discusses the ex-Mother's film 200 Motels, Broadway-musical parody Thing-Fish, sonic experiments conducted by Pierre Boulez, freewheeling orchestral scores, electronic synthesizer compositions and recent iconoclastic songs. Including a 1993 interview with Zappa and a discography, this is the ultimate book for serious Zappa fans.
Copyright 1994 Reed Business Information, Inc.
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Top Customer Reviews
This book is a very serious, crowded work of Zappa deconstruction and analysis, definitely not for someone looking for an introduction into the Zappa cosmology. Watson certainly knows his stuff, whether it comes to the music, its construct and content, band membership, the history and context, but his overwrought analysis, increasingly haughty tone, and his curt dismissal of virtually all other Zappa writers and historians comes off as nothing but intolerant ego.
I got this book as a work-up to Watson's Frank Zappa: The Negative Dialectics of Poodle Play. Being a solid FZ fan and prophet for a good 30 years now, I'm just a few releases short of the complete library, and have been reading up. And in reading about FZ, you can't miss the references to the massive, intimidating Ben Watson magnum opus, his Mother of all Zappa biographies/interpretations. At the same time, while these references make it clear that it's no Ulysses, one has to have a certain level of background and knowledge of FZ's work and larger issues of music and its criticism to be able to access it. This was my seventh Frank Zappa book, having read the FZ/Occhiogrosso autobiography, and the Walley, Courier, Kostelanetz, James and Lowe works. I figured I was ready to get into Watson, at least at the introductory level. But, reading this book has changed my plans; I don't think I'll be reading Negative Dialectics.
Watson comes across in this book as the worst kind of expert, the one who has complete command of the facts, never lets you forget it, and then heaps condescending scorn on every single aspect of your outlook which does not conform perfectly to his own interpretation. You get that with his snide comments on "peanut-brained `hardcore [FZ] fans'" and almost universal condemnation of authors of other FZ books, sarcastically deriding their works. I got the feeling from reading this book that the two of us would not get along, despite the fact we're both lifelong Zappa fans.
Watson's increasingly frequent references to himself and his work at first were quirky, but by the end of this short little book were just plain intrusive and egotistical. His first mention uses the journalistic third-person convention ("The author observed..."), but as the book progresses it's more and more "I," "my" and "me," with extended first-person narrative on his actions. We get more than enough references by Watson to what he wants us to know is his personally defining 1993 meeting with FZ, talks with Gail, and meetings with others in the inner circle, right down to Frank playing Watson selections from Civilization Phaze III, in Frank's living room of course. For a book with such a high gloss of academic rigor and discipline, this increasingly frequent first-person intrusion seems a desperate and needy attempt at legitimation.
As for the density of this work, it seems Watson is over-qualified to write a guide like this. His wide-ranging, reference-rich approach and his analytical touchstones are so esoteric and academic that they're going to leave most readers weary, if not totally lost. This book has Marxism, feminism, Kafka, Plato, Samuel Beckett, Shakespeare, Goethe, the vilification of "the `political correctness' that expresses the condescension of the rich and powerful," and the loneliness of pornography, among many, many other issues, concepts, persons, movements and philosophies. I mean, seriously: "Zappa's confrontation of accident and rigour bears comparison to John Cage and Jackson Pollock and their fascination with `chance.' However, although the neo-Dadaists of Fluxus liked to say they were demolishing `high art' values, the discourse that surrounded them elevated them to a plane Zappa could not aspire to." Wut?
Early on, it's pretty clear Ryko has been involved in the preparation and/or publication of this book. Watson gives clear thanks to Ryko for its decision to re-release the entire FZ catalog. And whaddaya know, all of the Rykodisk catalog numbers are listed, but all we get for the original vinyl releases is a date. For a "complete guide," this deliberate lack of release detail is unforgivable, and smells to me as coming strictly from commercial. Go to the Billy James book for a more comprehensive discography. (The James book also is better on appendices on band members and concerts, although restricted to the MOI years.)
Layout: Major sections are the introduction, "The Verve Years," "The Bizarre Years," "Discreet," "Warner Brothers versus Laether," "The CBS Years," "'Classical' Projects," " Barking Pumpkin," "Digging the Archive," "The Final Masterpiece," (that's "Civilization Phaze III") and "Posthumous Existence." Each FZ release gets its own write-up. There are no individual write-ups for each track, although certain tracks do get extensive coverage within the album descriptions/deconstructions. There's also a very interesting and helpful appendix on which Zappa recordings are most treasured and rare.
The index is a track index only. If you're looking for specific references to your favorite track, you can find it easily. But, with all of the places, studios, personnel and musicians and academic references noted here, a comprehensive index would be extremely helpful. Note to editor: upgrade the index in the next issue.
I also note for this book, as I did for the Steely Dan guide, that the print is too small. Note to editor: up-size the print for the next edition.
Bottom line: If you're new to the world of Frank Zappa, the MOI and conceptual continuity, and are looking for a book that'll give you clear background on and observation of Frank and his music, don't choose this one. This book is written from the point of view of total familiarity with FZ and all of his music, words, performances, etc. This overly dense and distractingly author-centered work is not an entry-level book on FZ; read the Real Frank Zappa Book, the word from the original hungry freak.
1. THE REAL FRANK ZAPPA BOOK by Frank Zappa and Peter Occhioigrosso
2. MOTHER! THE FRANK ZAPPA STORY by Michael Gray
3. FRANK ZAPPA: THE NEGATIVE DIALECTICS OF POODLE PLAY
4. ELECTRIC DON QUIXOTE: THE DEFINITIVE STORY OF FRANK ZAPPA by Neil Slaven
5. NECESSITY IS... THE EARLY YEARS OF FRANK ZAPPA AND THE MOTHERS OF INVENTION by Billy James
6. COSMIK DEBRIS: THE COLLECTIVE HISTORY AND IMPROVISATIONS OF FRANK ZAPPA by Greg Russo
7. NO COMMERCIAL POTENTIAL: THE SAGA OF FRANK ZAPPA by David Walley
8. THEM OR US by Frank Zappa
9. UNDER THE SAME MOON by Suzannah Thana Harris
10. BEING FRANK: MY TIME WITH FRANK ZAPPA by Nigery Lennon
When I started reading FRANK ZAPPA: THE NEGATIVE DIALECTICS OF POODLE PLAY, I found myself having flashbacks to the days of my doctoral studies and to the philosophical debates emerging from the 60's liberation movement. While a Ph.D. student I studied Postmodernism, Feminism, Liberation Philosophers, etc. You know, all the stuff you'd think would have no application outside of graduate study. As a result, I was fascinated because reading this book was the first time I had to actually reflect back to the philosophies I studied. I actually found myself reading POODLE PLAY in the manner that I read my required readings as a Ph.D student. I checked and read some of the citations; I searched for more information on topics for which I was unfamiliar (i.e.," Situational International"); I discussed major themes and ideas with colleagues who were professors of economics, philosophy, sociology and political science. After reading the several chapters, my first impression was that Watson's book was intellectually challenging - more challenging than any recent research I have been reading.
Two critical points can be made. First, I was profoundly struck by Watson' critique of Feminist Theory within Zappa's work. I never read such an analysis and found it refreshing. I saw Zappa much more of a deep thinker and an intellectual giant. Second, some of Watson's later analysis of Zappa's work seemed to be pushing the envelop to absurdity. I began to see Watson as a pseudo intellectual particularly when he equated KING LEAR with Zappa's APOSTROPHE('). Watson writes: "In 'Nanook Rubs It' Nonook blinds the fur trapper by rubbing his eyes with snow discoloured with ... [you know]. Blindness is also central to King Lear." (page 243). I almost stopped reading.
Somehow I managed to continue to read and I'm glad that I did. When I reached the epilogue, the entire book was made clear. Here, Watson describes his meeting with Zappa and his wife, Gail, after they read the prepublished manuscript of POODLE PLAY. At that time, Zappa had terminal cancer and the book made him laugh! Clearly, this was Watson's intent for his book. I finally got it! In an attempt to define the humor found within, I spoke with Dr. Bowman who specializes in the study of humor and recreation. Currently, there seems to be no formal label for Watson's brand of humor. Bowman came to the conclusion that Watson's work can best be described as hyperbolic or benign fabrications - descriptive terms that were derived from the work of Erving Goffman. Essentially, through a series of intellectual gyration, Watson takes classical literature (throughout the ages) and draws parallels with Zappa's work. In many cases the linkages are fascinating, but other times they are absurd. It is like a very good April Fools joke. It is like tugging a barely fitting rubber band over the head of a jar.
The big question is how was Watson able to pull this off? First, it is obvious that he studied philosophy and knows the subject matter. Second, he intimately knows Zappa's work. Third, Watson discovered reoccurring themes in the history of humanity. Thus, the blindness we find in APOSTROPHE(') can be defined with the same symbolic value we see in King Lear. Did Zappa create this deep symbolism in his lyrics? Of course not! Is there some kind of collective unconsciousness within humanity in which general themes for the understanding of the meaning of life continues to surface in a unique manner for each generation? Well, that sounds like a theme for Watson's next book.
In general Watson's assertions, while cogently argued and often compelling, serve to espouse theory--especially Freudianism and Marxism--at the expense of the subject, Zappa's art. This creates the unfortunate problem of teaching the reader a lot about theory but little about Zappa's music. Watson, despite a very noble attempt, is unsuccessful at demonstrating a strong link between his chosen theoretical approach and the complexities of Zappa's art which tend to resist mere reduction to Marxist and Freudian interpretations. But, as a reader, it is enjoyable to see Watson try. In fact, Watson demonstrates a lot of courage in his attempt to do so, and that in itself makes this book a worthwile purchase.
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