Vilnius is wild about Zappa

May 09, 2008|By JEAN MARBELLA

The letter arrived, mayor to mayor, wishing the newly elected Sheila Dixon the usual "cordial congratulations" and wishes of "great success" on the "demanding and challenging" task she faced.

Then the note veered from boilerplate municipal correspondence into far stranger territory: The mayor of Vilnius, Lithuania, wanted to send his Baltimore counterpart a statue of someone he considered among the greatest artists of the 20th century, someone with ties to both their cities, someone who would unite the citizens of two otherwise far-flung towns in a lasting bond.

Frank Zappa.

Frank Zappa? Even if you know - and few do - that the wild-haired purveyor of both outrageous rock songs and serious symphonic music was born in Baltimore, that wouldn't explain why a city Zappa had never visited was now offering to send a statue of him to his birthplace.

Luckily, the chief of Mayor Dixon's office of correspondence, Jeanette Garcia, happens to be a Zappa fan. Enough of one, in fact, to begin unraveling the thread, a process that led to the city's saying, essentially, thank you very much, yes, we'd love to have it.

"Very good," Saulius Paukstys said gravely after Wednesday's meeting of the city's Public Art Commission, which voted to accept a replica of a bust of Zappa that stands over a square in Vilnius. For this devoted fan of the late musician, it brings Zappa full circle, back to what Paukstys calls Zappa's "born place."

Paukstys didn't trust his English enough to say too much at the meeting, instead letting a friend, Arturas Baublys interpret for him. But, even sitting silently, peering through cool rectangular glasses, his passion for the musician was endearing, and it just as clearly charmed the commission, which, as far as city-appointed boards go, is pretty hip, what with a membership that includes artists and architects.

The board - most recently in the news for its reluctance to approve another sculpture, a proposed larger-than-life statue of William Donald Schaefer at the Inner Harbor - voted unanimously and with a round of applause to accept the bust after listening to the Lithuanians speak about how Zappa came to represent their freedom from the former Soviet Union.

"Zappa is like the messenger ... about love, about freedom," said Roma Matiukiene Kursvietis, a Lithuanian who lives here. "[This is] to say thank you, Baltimore, for making this big personality."

It was a revelatory view of the musician, who is known in his native country more for his jokey songs - including "Don't Eat the Yellow Snow" or, with his daughter, Moon Unit, "Valley Girl" - than for inspiring artists and revolutionaries such as Vaclav Havel, as he does in Europe.

Paukstys, a photographer, heads a Zappa fan club in Vilnius that got its own city to erect a monument to the musician in 1995. Eventually, he thought the bust, created by the country's most famed sculptor, should be duplicated and offered to Zappa's native country.

As Paukstys' tale unfolded, it was obvious that this unlikely monument was meant to be. At every step along the way, the whole plan could have fallen apart or otherwise withered away, into the bowels of the bureaucracy of one city or the other, but instead, Paukstys was able to find willing collaborators at just about every turn.

When Paukstys approached the U.S. Embassy in Vilnius for assistance in his quest, for example, he met Carlos Aranaga, a foreign service officer who happened to be from Baltimore. Paukstys initially planned to offer the replica to California, where Zappa spent most of his life - his family left Maryland when he was 10 years old - but Aranaga made a pitch for their shared birthplace.

The request happened to arrive at City Hall in July of last year, a month before one of Zappa's sons, Dweezil, was about to perform his father's work here as part of a concert tour called Zappa Plays Zappa. And, the person who received the correspondence, Jeanette Garcia, happened to have tickets to attend.

"I've always been a Zappa fan," said Garcia, who is also a poet and whose fiance is a composer. "When I heard his music, I kind of woke up. It was funny, and genius too."

About the time the letter from the Vilnius mayor arrived, Garcia also received another request, this one from the Zappa family for a citation commemorating the concert. That led to Dixon's proclaiming Aug. 9, 2007, Frank Zappa Day.

Garcia hopes to make the day an annual event and switch it to Dec. 21, Zappa's birthday. She would love to see the bust erected by then. (The commission still has to select a site and go through several more hoops of approval before the statue can be installed.)

For now, little trace of Zappa remains in his "born place." Except, that is, among those for whom Zappa still lives on in his music, including the young man who waited on the Lithuanians when they stopped for steaks at Milton's Grille in downtown Baltimore - and turned out to be as big a fan.

"He immediately told us where he lived," Baublys said of the musician's one-time home in the 4600 block of Park Heights Ave., "and which bar in Baltimore still plays Frank Zappa on the jukebox."

jean.marbella@baltsun.com

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