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Frank Zappa’s favourite books about the occult

In 1971, Frank Zappa was asked by journalist Howard Smith what he made of audiences becoming increasingly political, to which Zappa replied in trademark fashion: “It’s superficial, it’s as superficial as their music consciousness. It’s just another aspect of being involved in the actions of their peer group.” 

When pressed for more details and whether he hadn’t noticed any changes coming from the political movements that began to entwine with his music, he replied, “Sure, I’ve noticed a lot of changes, but I think they’re temporary changes. Any change for the good is always subject to cancellation, upon the arrival of the next fad.”

That dialogue, in a nutshell, encapsulates large swathes of what Zappa’s persona was all about. He never seemed to be in the music business, merely playing with its participants whilst masquerading as a rock star. He was shrewd, erudite and often inscrutably ironic. 

In that same interview where he dismisses political movements as a ‘fad’ he’s asked whether a woman could ever be part of his band, “I don’t think there’s a girl around,” he says, “That could fit in with what we do,” unbeknownst to the interviewer the multi-instrumentalist Ruth Underwood was pretty much a fully-fledged member at that stage.

This playful zest and fierce intelligence reflected on his music. It was very much his own thing, but he himself was like a giant arty sponge. The term genre-defying is perhaps overused, in part because some people get so pernickety about categorisation that avoiding it offers a safe way to navigate the genre-classified terrain, yet there’s scarcely any artists out there more befitting of the term than Zappa. 

His music prides itself on non-conformity as did his character; for instance, contrary to how he may look, he was actually an ardent anti-drug advocate. But in all other areas, he was determined to meddle in the murk and retrieve whatever he could. In short, your music simply can’t sound like Zappa’s unless you have an electric mix of influences. This didn’t just apply to the percussion-heavy modern-classical music he loved, or the doo-wop that he adored, but also the literature that stirred him. 

Back in 2016, large assets of his estate were put up for sale, including a collection of Crowleyana and occult books. The description for the lot up for auction reads as follows: “A collection of esoteric philosophy books previously owned by Frank and Gail Zappa, including Znuz is Znees: Memoirs of a Magician by C.F. Russell (self published, 1970); The Book of Wisdom or Folly, in the Form of an Epistle of 666 the Great and Wild Beast to His Son 777… by Aleister Crowley (West Point, CA: Thelema Publishing, 1962) with an inscription in blue ink to the prelim ‘To Frank, I would be a slave to the slave, of your genius, neither tempting, nor restricting. You are, by far, the brightest star. No shadows shall remain’.”

The rousing list of spooky reams continues, “Satanism in America by Shawn Carlson and Gerald Larue (El Cerrito, CA: Gaia Press, 1989) with a typed letter to Frank Zappa on Satanism in America letterhead, suggesting the book may be of use in Zappa’s fight against music censorship, signed by the author; and Laments of Mulciber the Isagoge by Benjamin A. Franklin (Detroit: Society of the Isagoge, 1973) inscribed in black ink to the front endpaper ‘To Frank, from Andrew Flame …the Lucifer.’”

Needless to say, the man had an interest in the occult. His fascination, however, is delineating as such in his remark, “The only difference between a cult and a religion is the amount of real estate they own.” But he nevertheless saw the need to explore, as he once said, “A mind is like a parachute, it doesn’t work unless it’s open.” 

You can check out the full list of books in the Julien’s Auction lot below. 

Frank Zappa’s spiritualist and occult book collection:

  • Be Here Now by Ram Dass
  • 777 by Aleister Crowley
  • Aha by Aleister Crowley (Knowing me Alan Partridge, Knowing you Mr Crowley)
  • Book 4 by Aleister Crowley
  • The Book of Thoth by Aleister Crowley
  • The Holy Book by Aleister Crowley
  • Khing Kang King by Aleister Crowley
  • Liber Aleph Vel Cxi: The Book of Wisdom or Folly by Aleister Crowley
  • Znuz is Znees: Memoirs of a Magician by C.F. Russell
  • Satanism in America by Shawn Carlson and Gerald Larue
  • The Book of Black Magic and of Pacts by A.E. Waite
  • The Lancashire Witches by William Harrison Ainsworth

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