Zappa comes home

Symposium, free performances planned for dedication of statue to music pioneer

September 16, 2010|By Erik Maza, The Baltimore Sun

At the corner of Conkling Street and Eastern Avenue in Highlandtown, a head looks over the neighborhood like a bodiless sentinel.

The olive-toned, mustachioed bust takes in a colorful panorama: a pizzeria to the north and a pawnbroker to the west. Starting this weekend, when you hock that gold watch or grab a quick slice of pizza, Frank Zappa will be watching.

Two years after Vilnius, the capital of Lithuania, donated a $50,000 bust of the Baltimore-born rocker to Charm City, it will be installed Sunday at the Southeast Anchor Library in a daylong celebration. The audience, which organizers expect to number in the thousands, will include Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, Zappa's widow, Gail, and one of his sons, Dweezil, who'll be performing with his tribute band, Zappa Plays Zappa. Rawlings-Blake will designate Sunday as Zappa Day, Gail Zappa will host a Q&A and the Creative Alliance at the Patterson will throw an afterparty.

Some 70 years after Zappa grew up here (he lived for a time in the 4500 block of Park Heights Ave.), the dedication caps a series of events that started a decade ago in Lithuania. There, a Zappa fan club wanted to honor a 30-year career that included some 60 albums and a place in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. The fan club erected a statue of Zappa and raised money to donate a replica to Baltimore. The city considered several locations for the bust, including Fells Point and Mount Vernon, but settled on Highlandtown.

When asked where the bust should be placed, Gail Zappa said she picked a library because her husband was a self-taught man who loved libraries.

"He always said, 'If you want to get laid, go to college. If you want to learn, go to a library,'" she said.

For Zappa's family members, who have a tenuous connection to the city, the monument is a long-delayed acknowledgment of the rocker's musical legacy.

"What is surprising is that a small town in Lithuania would want to have a public statue of Frank before the city where he was actually born," Dweezil said.

Gail added, "Aren't we all a little tired of walking around and seeing statues of people who marched in the Civil War? Don't we want see someone who was more recent? If you're a 12-year-old, you can see this statue and then go buy that guy's record."

Frank Zappa is a sort of musical Rorschach test: avant-garde to some, wacko to others. In Lithuania, he was a beacon of freedom of expression during Soviet occupation, at least to the 300 fans who eventually joined the fan group that donated the bust. For American Zappa-heads, he was a lyrical rabble-rouser.

John Richardson, the chief of facilities for the Enoch Pratt Free Library who will be unveiling the bust, started listening to Zappa when he was in college.

"I've been listening to his records since 1972," the 55-year-old said. "His music and his satirical wit and his civil liberties have inspired me. "

But Dweezil said that for most of his time growing up, his father's music was misunderstood and overlooked.

"In general, the casual listener hasn't even scratched the surface of his work," he said. "Frank made over [60] albums. But people who think they know his work have only heard a couple of songs, like 'Valley Girl,' that they think of as novelty music, like Weird Al Yankovic."

There's some truth to this. Though he was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1995, Zappa's offbeat persona, novelty songs and genre-jockeying overshadowed what Rolling Stone magazine writers once called "his eccentric genius."

Dweezil, who was 13 when his father died, created a cover band, Zappa Plays Zappa, 10 years ago to "re-educate audiences" on his father's far-reaching back catalog.

"I wanted to break open the catalog and have a newer generation to be confronted with the music, but not the stuff that they know," he added.

On the other hand, Gail zealously protects the catalog's intellectual properties.

"Frank didn't really care about being remembered," she said. "But I care about his identity. My motto is like the Los Angeles Police Department's: to protect and to serve."

Incidentally, Zappa Records will release a CD containing the rocker's testimony before Congress against obscenity laws.Strict protection of the catalog and the publication of unreleased material — like the CD of Zappa's congressional testimony — is what family members hope will keep his memory alive, more so than the bust.

"A statue does not have the same ability to introduce you to the music as a cover does," Gail said.

With the bust, the city will forge a permanent bond to a musician who left hardly any traces behind when he left the area in his youth. There's no childhood home here, and he died in Los Angeles in 1993, stopping in Baltimore only when he was touring. Though relatives remain, Dweezil and Gail say they're not in touch with them.

If there was any Baltimore in Zappa, Dweezil said it was in his love of crab cakes or his occasional Baltimorese inflection.

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