Wednesday, July 15, 2015

No Commercial Potential

I found this 1972 biography of Frank Zappa in a Half Price Books, and I had no idea what I was getting into when I picked it up, as I'll get to later. I've been a Zappa fan a long time, but somehow I had never heard of or seen this book, so I picked it up. Hm -- how long have I been a Zappa fan? I have to think about it... I guess the first Zappa song I heard was "Valley Girl", which I heard on the Doctor Demento show, sometime in the 80's. That album "A Ship Arriving Too Late To Save a Drowning Witch" was also the first Zappa album I bought, largely because I was won over by the cover. Next to the precious Peanuts books in my parents' library was weird little book I was obsessed with when I was about five years old, Droodles by Roger Price. He would take abstract little drawings, and give them humorous titles, and made them into a kind of puzzle book, where you had to guess what each drawing was. And so, naturally, I recognized "Ship Arriving Too Late" instantly, and was immediately interested. Over time, I gradually listened to most of the Zappa oeuvre, which is so varied, and developed my likes and dislikes. But I'd never thought too much about how it all happened. I'd read The Real Frank Zappa Book sometime in high school, I think, but it didn't really tell me much about how Frank Zappa really became what he became. In other words -- I wanted show business stories.

And this book does an okay job of telling those stories. Since it ends in 1972, it only has about 12 years of Zappa's career to cover. And I did get those showbiz stories - about how many of Zappa's ventures were money losing, about how his early band members couldn't read music which limited his ability to give them complex material, and most importantly about how listening to the records was far away from a full experience of The Mothers. Each show was a kind of performance art, and to fully appreciate the band, one would have had to see many, many shows, as well as listen to the albums, and watch all the weird films they made that never got released, and probably follow them around and hang out with them, as well. I think the right way to think of it is that the existence of the band was a kind of performance art. I very much hope to some day be a part of a performance troupe that is like that -- although some would say that I am, possibly of more than one!

It's a kind of goofy book, not especially well-written, and kind of sloppy, but to my mind that gives it something of a quaint quality. Someone else has a different opinion, though, and that's where things get weird.

Throughout my copy of the book are detailed margin notes, written in a red, felt-tip pen. They are on most pages of the book, and they are frequently furious. Even the title page has rude names written next to those of the author, David Walley, and they give him a subtitle, "alias 'Cretinous, the biographer". As I read the book, and read these notes, the persona of the red-pen annotator started to come into focus. Clearly it was a super-fan, irritated with Walley's minor mistakes. Further, the annotator must be fairly educated, as she (feminine handwriting) has many detailed comments about Walley's journalistic, stylistic, and grammatical failings. On rare occasions, she would pause her vitriol to be impressed by a subtle point of Walley's, or just be completely silent when Walley would present never-before-released interview copy, but mostly she was completely furious that the book was unfitting tribute for FZ, her idol. I was getting ready to just shrug it all off as amusing but mysterious, but then I got to the end of the book.

In the back of the book, Walley presents a copy of "Data for Sensitive or Critical Sensitive Position", a somewhat dada-esque job application form, which I believe was what you filled out if you were joining "United Mutations", the Zappa fan club? It is already filled out by Zappa, which is amusing and interesting to see. But, much more interesting was to see that the annotator had the... gall? arrogance? enthusiasm? time on her hands? to fill out all the questions herself, and as a result, I learned a great deal about her. Let me share some of it.

Her name was Janet Elizabeth Azich, and she filled out this form in 1973. She was 5'8", weighing 125 lb. As to "sex", she puts "yes", the wit. She is not married, but was born on April 18, 1954, at 10:06AM at Rochester General Hospital. She visited Canada, "the Northeast", California (LA twice), and lived in England from '71 to '73. She was editor of her high school newspaper. She got a handwriting certificate in 6th grade. She skipped a year in elementary school. She was "by acclamation most notorious house groupie of Darwin Team '72" (whatever that might be) and "also potential member of Mensa". She had a nervous breakdown at some point. She never had an allergic reaction to penniculun (sic). Her favorite kind of ravioli is ricotta cheese, but she prefers veal cordon bleu to ravioli. This information goes on and on, painting a picture of a nineteen year old girl who was something of an aspiring intellectual, who had been going to college in England, who worshiped Zappa and the Mothers, and who was somewhat full of herself, feeling very worldly from her two trips to LA and her time in the UK. After reading all her many (there are many, many more in the book) personal details, I became fascinated with Janet Azich. Was she really as bold an interesting as she seems in her marginalia? Did she change when she got older? What became of her? She'd be in her early sixties now... I was very tempted to try to find her, and as I had tracked down Jane Roberts, I thought maybe I'd try tracking down Janet. It would be really cool to show her this old book of hers, which surely has been bouncing around old book stores for years, and get her reactions to her nineteen year-old self. That would be awesome, to get that commentary, to have sort of bookends on a life.

But it didn't work out like that. With all her many personal details at my disposal, a web search was easy, and it turned up what I should have expected in the first place:

Janet Elizabeth Azich, age 59, of New Sewickley Twp., died on October 24, 2013 in Good Samaritan Hospice, Beaver. She was born on April 18, 1954 in Rochester and was the daughter of the late Dan and Martha (Tepsic) Azich. 

And so, there it was. After spending hours gradually building up an image of a fiery, funny, iconclastic nineteen year old, and then imagining what an entire life might transform her into, I suddenly watched her die before me. My fantasies of her long-lost reunion with this book that she had such a love-hate relationship were shattered. For a moment I cursed my luck at receiving the book too late to be able to meet her, but then I quickly put the pieces together -- likely her books were disposed of by her family after her death, and so the only reason I got to meet her at all was because she had died. All this time I'd been reading the comments of a dead reader on a dead writer on a dead musician. I've been tempted to track down her surviving friends and family members (all listed in the obituary)... but is that too much of an intrusion? Is it too weird? It's a hard thing to explain. Why would I do it, anyway? I guess it's because I feel like I know Janet now -- she's like some long-lost college friend I never got to meet. If I'm going to do it, I better do it soon -- none of us is around forever. I'll let you know if I do.


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  2. How very strange. I knew Janet for a while when she worked at the Beaver County history center in the Carnegie library in Beaver Falls, Pennsylvania. Really nice woman. I wish I had stayed in touch.