|Bob Thompson Music|
I went to elementary school with Dweezil Zappa. Being in Studio City - which is named for CBS Studios - I was in classes with kids of the famous like Sally Field and Leslie Ann Warren. There were also famous kids like the Batemans and those pushed into commercials by their parents, like the boy in the vintage 1970s Malt O Meal commercial who heard a disembodied, sing-song voice in his kitchen saying "Edgar, this is your tummy speaking...."
Dweezil in primary school was way ahead of his age. He could draw exceptionally well and was incredibly good at handball. In LA, handball meant ricocheting a medium sized ball off the ground and on to a wall. If you let the ball almost touch the ground and hit it so that it could not be returned it was called a "slice-y." Dweezil was good at those. He seemed almost...sexy...in his composure, olive skin, and wavy locks. In our class picture he looks a little stoned with a sash around his neck; and I am making a silly face in the back row.
Mike, a friend of mine who went to high school with Dweezil, used to make fun of the title of Dweezil's solo album: Havin' a Bad Day. We figured that was the worst thing that could happen in this poor kid's life being the son of Frank. Art was certainly about being a suffering saint or some kind of intellectual artistic genius like Mark from Devo, or so I thought. I heard through Mike that Dweezill's brother (allegedly) "boiled their cat." Recently, I saw Moon Unit on TV lamenting the lack of boundaries in the Zappa home - sex and drugs - that went on before her eyes when she was 12.
The Artistic Personality
Luckily, my dad was never as famous or crazy as Frank, and now has what estimate to be about 10,000 fans, although I am not sure how I arrive at that number. But, like Frank, he was obsessive about music, unconventional, highly musically literate, and a real artist (whatever that is).
"The Artistic Personality used to be classified as a mental illness," my mother used to say with some bitterness. What that means to me is that they have scary focus and will do it "their way." They want artistic control and maybe the most important thing is the control part. Artists are defined by what they can do and also what they cannot do. The more they cannot do something else, the more they can work harder than anyone else. Along the way, they become true individuals that seem crazy among the herd.
The number of artists that make significant financial gains from their art is infinitesimal. It is so small that it must be statistically insignificant or simply non-existent. What I call my father's artistic work - arranging for Rosemary Clooney or writing the MMM Nice! LP (both within RCA's constraints), or arranging Gershwin for string quartet in his 70s - were all-to-brief and made no money. It was his scores for 1,000 commercials that gave us a house in the Hollywood Hills and more than a few Cleo advertising awards on his wall. (We also got to live on the same street as the guy who wrote the theme to Laurel and Hardy, as my dad would point out each time we passed his house, as well as a truly great arranger named Ralph Burns who arranged a Tony Bennett double-LP called Jazz that I only wish my dad could have arranged.)
Bob had a New Yorker cartoon on his bulletin board that showed a long-haired rocker lounging by his boat and remarking to his girlfriend: "The Blues have been good to us, Binky." This totally incongruous, statistically impossible, and sacrilegious situation was one we knew; but came to an end when my dad's career died. I soon witnessed the money worries and creative blocks that make me an official artists' kid.
The Unlived Life of the Parent
There are a couple of scenarios for children of artists - be just as good if not better (Jeff Buckley), try to be and be terrible (Sinatra's Kids), be the same (Ziggy Marley), promote them (Tony Bennet's son), or go on strange campaigns to rescue them from obscurity (that would be me).
There is also a scenario where the child goes a different direction. As the psychologist C.G Jung said: "Nothing has a stronger influence psychologically on their environment and especially on their children than the unlived life of the parent." As one example, the son of a cultured Harvard philosophy professor that was a good friend of my dad’s, Stanley Cavell, became a boxer. He did, however write a book about it: Rumble Young Man, Rumble.
When your dad is obsessed with high-brow literature but cannot finish a book to save his life, you may wind up writing a book like Jeanie Darst's hilarious and complex autobiography Fiction Ruined My Family. Darst lives the unlived life of her parent, or perhaps more accurately finishes it. She is frustrated by but indebted to his obsession and tutelage (recommending Proust and Keats) and the way his obsession "ruined" a game of catch by turning it into a monologue, a "lively portrait" of the Jazz-age pitcher Dizzy Dean. Although her dad was a journalist and essayist for some snooty publications, he stopped working on, and never got past, "the finishing touches" of his book...for decades.
It is as if getting Fiction Ruined my Family published took not just one life of sacrifice, but two. By getting her act together and getting sober she is able to finish the work of her alcoholic father and avoid the apparent ills of the Artistic Personality. "Living the unlived life" of her father by two measures. A few kids of the famous showed up in Darst's life. One was a relative of Buñel, the "slicing up eyeballs" film director referenced by Frank Black, who said:
"I’m a half-artist. I’m smart and talented but I’m not tough enough to go the distance. It’s a curse being a half-artist, caught between being a normal person and a real creative person. I’m nuts like a good artist, but I don’t have anything to show for it.”
When you are the child of an artist, you are literally "half artist."
When my father appeared to be spacing out, my mother would say "Bob..Hey, Bob..Earth to Bob. What are you thinking about?" He would say, "Oh I was thinking about a way to arrange a Jerome Kern Song." The great thing about having an artist parent that turns you on to Mingus et al. and one that makes music, is that you have two ways of being with them. All The Things You Are was our song, although it was never spoken, and did not have to be.
Spenser Thompson shares anecdotes, music, and videos from Bob Thompson's music career plus thoughts on artists from Duke to Devo.