Bob Zappa on Frank, Smokes and Addiction

By Dorri Olds 07/08/15

The Fix Q&A with Frank Zappa's younger brother Bob.

Frank and Bob Zappa with Bob's son Jason courtesy Bob Zappa

Even though I’d missed the hippie generation, as a teen I embraced the ideology, the celebration of sex and drugs, and the psychedelic rock of the 1960s. I tripped to Hendrix, Joplin, Pink Floyd, Led Zeppelin—and, of course, Frank Zappa—and I assumed they were all drug addicts like me. Not so.

Zappa was, and still is, one of the most misunderstood of the psychedelic rockers. He didn’t take drugs and did not tolerate them in his band, The Mothers of Invention. He even did public service announcements, “Suzie? Suzie speed freak? You’ve got five years to rot your mind, rot your heart, rot your kidneys. Put speed down. Do it now.”

The irony is Zappa had another addiction; one that many say is harder to break and more deadly—he chain-smoked cigarettes. Even after he was diagnosed with prostate cancer, Zappa kept smoking. He died in 1993, two weeks shy of turning 53.

When I heard last month that Zappa’s brother, Bob Zappa, was writing a memoir with stories never told, I had to interview him. 

Photo by Dorri Olds

For anybody who isn’t as obsessed with rockstars as I am, here’s a bit of background. Frank Zappa (1940–1993) was self-taught and considered a musical genius. He wrote music in high school, played drums, then guitar, and by 1966 he put out a debut album with "The Mothers.” That first album, Freak Out!, launched a three-decade career during which Zappa put out 60 albums.

Sadly, he hit terrible luck in December of 1971. The first incident was at a concert in Montreux, Switzerland, when an audience member set off a flare. It started a roaring fire that destroyed the theater. (Deep Purple memorialized it with their hit song, “Smoke on the Water.”) In that same month, at another Zappa concert, an audience member nearly destroyed Zappa’s life.

He was doing a show in London when a guy snuck up on stage. The guy was high on drugs and delusional. He accused Frank of doing something with his girlfriend but Frank had no idea who she was. Then he pushed Frank into the orchestra pit, 13 feet below. Zappa broke his leg and his larynx was crushed, making his voice a third of an octave lower. That put Frank out of business for a year while he recovered in a wheelchair. Then he still had to walk with a leg brace; one of his legs was shorter than the other, which left him with chronic back pain.

After Zappa’s death, he was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and received a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award. His large fanbase still grieves the loss of this top-tier musician—who was also political and an advocate for freedom of speech.

The Fix landed this exclusive interview with Bob Zappa in his Upper Westside Manhattan home.

What made you decide to write a book now?

I realized that I’m the only one that knows these stories. It’s a memoir about a period when Frank and I grew up. It begins in the 1950s when we left Baltimore and ends in 1967 when I left Frank doing a show with The Mothers at Garrick Theater on Bleecker Street in Greenwich Village. The book includes stories and photos never made public before and it gives insight into Frank and how he became who he was.

What’s your age difference?

He was three years older than me.

There is so much smoking in the book—your uncle, dad, brother, and you, but you were the only one to quit. We know Frank died young, what about your father?

Yes, my dad died of a heart attack when he was 67. 

Did Frank smoke as much as your father?

More. Frank used to say tobacco was a vegetable. He was always smoking, drinking coffee, and not taking care of himself. He had terrible dietary habits and smoked all the time. Frank was a workaholic who smoked when he played, smoked when he rehearsed, he smoked on stage and he smoked when he was writing, which was all the time. When he died it was [tears up] so difficult.

How close were you growing up?

The closest. We were best friends. That’s why these are stories that only I can tell. It was tough when I left Frank in New York in 1967 but we remained close until he died.

When did you start smoking? 

I was 12. It was Frank who gave me my first cigarette, of course. We were living in Clairemont, near San Diego. He was 15 and smoking regularly. He said, “Here, try one.” I coughed. Then I got used to it, then it got to be a habit and then it became an addiction.

How much did you smoke?

I started that day and quit when I was 27. I smoked a pack a day until the day my son Jason was born, January 10, 1971. I stopped cold turkey and haven’t had a cigarette since. It was hard. It was very hard but I had learned discipline as a Marine and I’d made up my mind.

Had you ever tried to quit before?

Sure, lots of times, especially after I got out of the Marines. I was in college and had a growing awareness that it wasn’t good for my health but I didn’t really have any incentive. I think you have to have an incentive to quit.

How long would your attempts at quitting last?

Once I stopped for a month. But then I’d be at a party and everybody was drinking and smoking and I’d bum a cigarette and be back on again.

Did girlfriends ever tell you they didn’t like the way cigarettes smelled on your breath? 

Yes, my wife. When we first got together she said, “Smoking is just stupid and it smells bad.”

Bob and Frank, back in the day

Did she nag you to quit?

Not constantly, but she was a nurse so she realized that smoking was bad for you way before a lot of other people realized how bad it was.

Is she the one who said secondhand smoke is bad for the baby, or did you figure that out on your own?

Here’s the interesting thing: I didn’t quit because I was concerned about how it would affect my son. That didn’t occur to me. It was that I wanted to be healthy enough to be around to see him grow up. Neither Frank, nor I had a good relationship with our father—that’s all in the book. But you’re absolutely right it would have affected Jason if I smoked in the house when he was a child so I’m glad I never did that. The day he was born I just said, “That’s it.”

Are you positive Frank wasn’t into drugs? His music was so trippy.

[Laughs] Yes, quite sure. You can ask any of The Mothers. He fired anyone who abused drugs and alcohol.

 Bob Zappa’s memoir, Frankie and Bobby: Growing Up Zappa, will be out this summer. 

Talking To Two Mothers

“His attitude was that the cigarettes and the cancer had nothing to do with the other,” Tom Fowler, an ex-Mother, told me. “We didn’t know how bad cigarettes were, not in the '70s anyway. I mean, you could smoke anywhere. You just put your cigarette out on the floor of a coffee shop. Butts were everywhere. All over the airport, and we thought nothing of smoking on planes.”

Fowler said he never quit smoking marijuana but chuckled when he told me he qualifies for medicinal pot now. “I double-qualify,” he said. “I had cancer a few years ago and unrelated meningiomas, a type of brain tumor. But I’m alright for now.”

I asked another ex-Mother, Arthur Barrow, if he knew why Zappa didn’t take drugs. He said, “He thought it was stupid and that people shouldn’t do it. I asked him one time what he thought of Jimi Hendrix. He said, ‘Well, he was a whiz, but there’s another example of a guy who should’ve stayed away from drugs.’ It wasn’t a moral thing with Frank. He just thought it was a dumb thing to do. In the ’60s, he did a bunch of public service announcement ads on the radio. You’d hear him say ‘speed kills’ or ‘speed fries your brain,’ but he was probably smoking when he recorded them. He was always smoking.”

Barrow said, “The biggest reason Frank didn’t do drugs was that he didn’t want anything to alter his consciousness because he liked being the guy in charge. Frank was always the center of attention and always the dominant alpha male in the room.”

When I asked how much Zappa smoked, Barrow said, “At least a pack and a half, or two, a day and he never tried to quit. He said he didn’t want to. After he got prostate cancer, I went to see him. He was really sick and still smoking. I said, ‘God, I can’t believe you’re still smoking.’ He said, ‘That doesn’t have anything to do with the other thing.’”

Barrow said, “One of Frank’s legacies is how smart he was—and he was. But he had some really dumb areas, like he had plenty of money but no health insurance. He got to where he couldn’t go to the bathroom. Pretty soon he couldn’t pee at all. Does he go to the doctor? No. He finally collapses. They take him to the emergency room and find out that he’s got this severely enlarged prostate. Then, he refused to get the surgery that might have done something about it because maybe it involved cutting some bits off that he didn’t want cut off. He also refused to go to the dentist and he had bad teeth; lots of horrible toothaches. So, yeah, he was anti-drugs but he still didn’t take good care of himself.”

Dorri Olds is an award-winning writer whose work has appeared in book anthologies and numerous publications including The New York Times. 

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Dorri Olds is an award-winning writer whose work has appeared in many publications including The New York Times, Marie Claire, Woman’s Day and several book anthologies. Find Dorri on Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn.