From Lithuania, with love of Zappa

City to accept statue of Baltimore-born rocker from far-flung fans

May 08, 2008|By Jonathan Pitts | Jonathan Pitts,SUN REPORTER

"What's new in Baltimore?" Frank Zappa used to sing at the end of a long, characteristically off-the-wall rock jam he called Clowns on Velvet.

What's new in Baltimore, the city in which the late rock star was born in 1940, is evidently a public sculpture of Zappa himself, and the strange tale behind the 15-foot statue that a public art panel accepted as a gift to the city last night is as incongruous as Zappa's genre-bending music career.

Most Baltimoreans are aware of their hometown's claim on Edgar Allan Poe, H.L. Mencken and John Waters, but fewer know that Zappa, who made more than 50 records between the late 1950s and his death in 1993, was born in Baltimore, the son of immigrants from Sicily.

His family lived in the 4600 block of Park Heights Ave., then moved to Edgewood in Harford County. Zappa's father, a chemist and mathematician, had a job nearby at Aberdeen Proving Ground. They moved to California when Frank was 10.

Until they met last night, some members of the Baltimore Public Art Commission, which voted unanimously to accept the gift of the bronze sculpture - valued at about $50,000 - were also unaware of Zappa's connection to Charm City.

However, the donors of the bust, who come from much farther afield - in fact, from a nation Zappa never visited - are well aware of his background.

"We're honored to have a chance to present this Frank Zappa monument to the city of Baltimore," said Saulius Paukstys, 43, the president of one of the biggest and arguably most dedicated Frank Zappa fan clubs in, of all places, the Republic of Lithuania. "As an artist, and much more than that, he has meant a great deal to the Lithuanian people."

If Zappa has been something of an unknown prophet in his own land, people like Paukstys, a photographer, have long held him in high regard as a symbol of free expression in the post-Cold War former Soviet bloc.

"Before 1990, you have to remember, [Lithuanians] could not criticize society," Paukstys said through an interpreter. "Frank Zappa was a voice of freedom."

After 1990, when Western music became available in their home country, Paukstys and friends like Saulius Pilinkus, an art historian, often gathered to listen to Zappa's music. The fan club they started eventually numbered more than 300. Most were well-educated aesthetes who appreciated the fact that Zappa was more than a rock-and-roll star: He was a symphonic composer, a fact that appealed to a people whose love of classical music is part of their history.

In 1995, Paukstys was so determined to commemorate Zappa's creativity that he claimed to have enjoyed a personal correspondence with Zappa, whom he'd met on a visit to the United States.

The fact that such a correspondence never happened didn't deter the thousands of Lithuanians who crowded an exhibition of the letters in Vilnius, the nation's capital.

The event created momentum toward the Zappa fan club's main goal: getting a bust of the musician made and put up for permanent display. In 1995, the Vilnius city council signed on to the plan. Kontantinas Bogdanas, the nation's best-known sculptor, created a bronze Zappa head, which was mounted on a stainless steel column in a Vilnius park.

"It was a test of Lithuania's [new] freedom," Paukstys told Rolling Stone magazine in 2002. The Zappa monument is still the second most popular tourist site in Vilnius.

In time, the fan club decided to commission a replica of the piece and donate it to Zappa's home country. Their first idea was to offer it to Los Angeles, where Zappa lived for many years before his death, at 52, of prostate cancer.

But by the time the replica was complete, Carlos Aranaga, a State Department official who grew up in Baltimore, was working at the U.S. Embassy in Vilnius and got wind of the project.

"I'm proud of Baltimore's cultural heroes," said Aranaga, now stationed in Washington. "Mencken, Eubie Blake. To Lithuanians, Zappa is like the Mencken of rock - a true iconoclast."

At Aranaga's suggestion, a contingent headed by Paukstys targeted Baltimore.

Gail Zappa, the musician's widow, has said she avidly supports placing the sculpture in Baltimore, where her late husband's quirky views of life fit with the work of such great local artists as John Waters.

Anne Perkins, chair of the city's Public Art Commission, said last night that her panel, which was launched last August, is still working out formal criteria by which to accept gifts of public art. The city must fund installation and upkeep, decide what gifts are appropriate and select sites that work.

But the same commission that recently had numerous questions that stalled plans for a statue of former Mayor and Gov. William Donald Schaefer proposed for the city's Inner Harbor had no trouble approving the Lithuanian project. As part of his presentation, Paukstys screened a video of an April 10 concert at which Lithuanian jazz, classical and rock musicians performed Zappa's music in Vilnius.

"We're having a good time here!" Perkins exclaimed.

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