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March 2024
Vol. 23, No. 6

Yesterday And Today

My Brother Was a Mother: A Zappa Family Odyssey

by Raul SandelinApril 2018

Frank Zappa with his sister, Patrice “Candy” Zappa.

Frank Zappa at Grossmont High School, 1955.

There have been countless books written about Frank Zappa, who remains one of the greatest enigmas of rock ‘n’ roll. Attempts are made to understand his thought and artistic processes. Was he even a rock star? Jazz-prog musician? Avant-garde composer? Performance artist? Vaudeville troupe leader?

He rose to the status of philosopher king and rock politician as his “libertarian” ideas were seriously queried by fans, biographers, and congressmen in Washington.
Zappa was a disciplined musician, businessman, and band leader, who could read and notate music. Even more ironic: Zappa was vehemently anti-drugs and alcohol, except for the perpetual cigarette that he was seen holding (and smoking) from the ripe young age of 11.

Yet, as “mature” as he appeared, Frank Zappa liked playing with fire. He was the guru of the LA “freak” movement, which rivaled San Francisco’s hippies for 1960s, counter-cultural status. “I provide reinforcement for people who are different,” he told Larry Rogak. Young Frank also had brushes with local police (and fire) departments. Zappa became Zeus… but of the Sunset Strip and Hollywood Hills.

In order to understand the eclectic Frank Zappa, one needs to retrace his peregrine upbringing. The Zappa family moved nearly a dozen times before Frank turned 18. Of all the Frank Zappa biographers, his sister Patrice “Candy” Zappa-Porter had an across-the-dinner-table view. (Brother Bob Zappa also wrote a memoir Frankie & Bobby: Growing Up Zappa.)

Patrice’s book, My Brother Was a Mother, was first published in 2003. She issued a Take 2 in 2011 and Take 3 just last year. “I had to write three versions,” Patrice says, “because there was so much more to tell and new pictures!” These three editions capture the Zappa family at home, in the living room, in the backyard, moving from house to house. The stories are filled with warmth and humor, both within the family and between Frank and Patrice. In addition, My Brother Was a Mother is a family photo album with plenty of pictures to accompany each story.

The book begins with a history of the extended Italian-American family. Patrice says, “My parents’ families were large, my mom’s especially. She came from a family of 11 children. I never got to meet my grandparents but both sides came from Italy and Sicily.” There were lots of aunts, uncles, and characters from the Old Country. In particular, Frank had asthma as a kid and his parents were always sending him to “Italian doctors.” One even put radiated pellets in his nose. Later, Frank speculated if the radiation could have contributed to his cancer.

Frank and his siblings were all born in Baltimore. Their father, Francis, was a meteorologist who worked as a contractor for the US military, which meant the Zappas moved a lot. When Frank was 11 and Patrice was a newborn, the Zappas moved to California in 1951.
Southern California was a melting pot, where post-War America came looking for its Holy Grail in the many small towns and suburbs that spread out like waves from LA’s epicenter. Once in California, the family moved extensively: Monterey, Claremont, San Diego County (including El Cajon and Pacific Beach), Lancaster, Montclair, Burbank, and short moves to Sarasota and Jacksonville, Florida.

Frank was the oldest at home, although an older half-sister lived with her mother. And Patrice (or “Candy”) was the youngest, with an 11-year gap between them. As bookends, they became kindred spirits.

“I really loved Frank’s biting wit,” Patrice explains. “I believe that’s why mom would get frustrated with me and say, ‘You’re just like your brother!’ I was pleased with the comparison.”

And it was out of the Southern California melting pot that Frank found the snapshots for his songs. “Frank’s lyrics were like a musical book report. Letting people look at themselves, their quirks, social diseases, and even their enemas. He observed and reported.”
After a couple of stops, the Zappas moved to San Diego, spending three years here. Frank went to Grossmont and Mission Bay high schools. Patrice was still not in school.
“I was about four or five, living in San Diego. Every Saturday, I would sit and eat liver and onions with my dad. I loved it! Then we’d go to the local auditorium for Roller Derby. It was exciting to watch the skaters go around in a circle blocking the skaters from the opposite team.”

Patrice remembers Frank getting into a good share of trouble here. Once, Frank threw smoke bombs into the school trash cans during Parent Night. The family was sent to the El Cajon Fire Station so Frank could receive a lecture. As part of his punishment, he was sentenced to designing a fire prevention poster for a contest at El Cajon’s Grossmont High School. And he won!

In San Diego County, Frank began exploring the Arts. He bought his first record player at El Cajon’s Valley Music and his first Varese album at Alan’s Music in neighboring La Mesa. This was the era of the “generation gap.” The Zappas were no different than many American households. “Frank played his Varese album in the living room until mom yelled at him to turn it off. Dad wanted him to be an engineer,” says Patrice.
Frank began playing music halfway through high school. He played the drums in San Diego. But, it wasn’t until the family moved to Lancaster in the desert that Frank picked up the guitar and formed his first band: The Blackouts. And Patrice began grade school “in 1957 at Sacred Heart Catholic School.”

In Lancaster, Frank met the musical eccentric Don Glen Vliet, AKA Captain Beefheart, and began writing his own musical compositions.

But the Zappas moved again. And the family was soon back in Clarement, where Frank met his first wife while attending Chaffey Junior College in nearby Ontario.

Then, when the family was ready to leave for Florida, Frank moved out at 19 to LA’s Echo Park. When the Zappas returned to the LA area, Frank’s career was now taking off. “I was very proud of him,” says Patrice. “I remember bringing his Freak Out album to class and playing it at Pomona Girls School” to the chagrin of the nuns.

In fact, Frank’s music brought new attention onto the Zappa family. “Our house was vandalized by jocks in Jacksonville, Florida. Living down south was pretty scary. And the neighborhood kids weren’t allowed to play with us in several places we lived.” Frank looked very wild. Patrice remembers one of Frank’s concerts and there were the Zappas in conservative, family dress entirely surrounded by hippies.

But, ultimately, Francis and Rose Marie Zappa fully accepted their rock star son. “One concert in 1971, Frank sent a limo and I went with dad. When the man sitting next to dad tapped his arm and pointed to one of the musicians on stage and said, proudly, “That’s my son!” Dad looked at the man and pointed to Frank and said “That’s MY son!” He was so proud!”

Francis was proud of his son but also protective of his daughter. Patrice seldom got to visit Frank unless one of the Zappa parents was chaperoning. (Later, this would change as she grew older.) “One time, dad and me went to Frank’s house on Woodrow Wilson Drive, and there was a man Frank was talking to. Frank says, ‘Come here, Candy, I want you to meet someone. This is Jeff Beck!’ What did I know, so I pleasantly said, ‘Nice to meet you.’”
Patrice’s book shares many stories, about Frank’s early fascination with film and home movies, correspondences throughout the years including when Frank was sick, and family tidbits that come together in a three-volume scrapbook.

“One day, he was recording me singing and playing guitar on a song I wrote for my daughter. He asked me, ‘How do you do that?’ I said what? He said, ‘Play guitar and sing at the same time.’ I explained that I played to accompany myself while I sang, but his playing wasn’t designed to sing along with. I just found it amazing that he thought that what I did was amazing!”

Following Frank’s encouragement, Patrice has built her own musical career. “My musical journey began when I was 11, picking up my dad’s guitar and having Frank instruct me on what chords to play. I started writing songs and singing in groups, performing in shows, one of which Frank attended. In the ’80s, I had a cult following in the San Fernando Valley. I’ve worked with the Secretarys, Paul Hilton, Coco Montoya, and Alvin Lee. I’ve performed with Denny Walley and the Muffin Men and Ed Palermo’s Big Band at Zappanale, a three-day Frank Zappa music festival in Germany.”

Today, Patrice “Candy” Zappa-Porter performs with her husband and R&B artist Nolan Porter. “In 1999, I met Nolan. We’ve been together for 18 years. We do shows around Los Angeles and Southern California, including the House of Blues in Hollywood. Nolan and I performed at the 2017 Zappanale. Our next adventure is the UK at the Soul Festival in Blackpool, June 15—17.“

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