I’m writing a chapter right now on Stravinsky borrowings (quotations and the like) in Zappa’s music. The centerpiece of my analysis looks at the Petrushka fragments that make up Zappa’s guitar solo in the middle of “Status Back Baby.” Well, Stravinsky was a major influence on Zappa when he was young (see my post from October 23) and the lyrics of “Status Back Baby” are about life in high school, so I figured a little biographical sleuthing would be in order.
Barry Miles, in his biography of the late FZ, suggests that the lyrics are directly related to Zappa’s own high school experience:
The lyrics, though heavy with irony, are quite likely autobiographical: Zappa complains that the school pom-pom girls whispered things about him when they spent an evening together making posters; they did loads of them while he managed three.
Miles is referring to the second verse:
The other night we painted posters.
We played some records by the Coasters.
A bunch of pom-pom girls looked down their nose at me.
They had painted tons of posters I had painted three.
I hear their secret whispers everywhere I go.
My school spirit’s at an all time low.
When I first read Miles’ take on “Status Back Baby” his decision to focus on the poster scene in the lyrics reminded me of something else I had seen a long time ago:
The picture is of a ninth-grade Frank standing (and grinning) in front of a poster in which three sour-faced children (a propeller beanie adorns one of their heads) wonder why they can’t have a picnic. “Why?” Zappa’s poster asks for them. “No woods.” In my dual quest to be as thorough as possible and to procrastinate with an purpose, I thought it might be prudent to look further into this matter.
As it turns out, Zappa was quite the prolific poster artist in high school. In Cosmik Debris: The Collected History and Improvisations of Frank Zappa, Greg Russo reprints a newspaper article featuring the photo with the headline, “Grossmont Youth’s Fire Poster Wins”:
I would like to reproduce this photo in my chapter (and read the rest of the unfortunately damaged article) but Russo, wonderful though his book is, doesn’t provide a citation. “Hot dog!” I thought, and immediately began tracking down the article. (Curiously, the photo seems to have been doctored for print in the newspaper. Look at the “N” on Zappa’s jacket.)
Grossmont High School is just outside of El Cajon, where the Zappa family had moved by 1953 (in order for Frank’s father to work on the Atlas missile project). Frank’s poster was the winning entry in the California Division of Forestry’s fire-safety awareness art competition. If Frank was in the ninth grade when he won the contest, that would date the article to around 1955. I looked into finding out which local newspapers were in circulation at the time. (It seemed unlikely that a big time newspaper like the San Diego Union or the Evening Tribune would carry a story like this.) An email from Christine Straitt at the California Newspaper Project informed me that it was almost definitely The El Cajon Valley News.
I don’t disagree with Barry Miles. I think that, given Zappa’s self-identification as an outsider in his early years, the lyrics to “Status Back Baby” are highly biographical. I just think he picked an unfortunate choice of example (the poster painting scene) to illustrate his argument.
I’ll follow up when the newspaper comes in…