For Baltimore musician Warren Cherry, Frank Zappa was an inspiration — an artist who stubbornly went his own way and fought to protect artistic freedom.
Sunday, Cherry and several hundred other Zappa fans went to Highlandtown to pay homage to the late rocker.
"I've been a fan of Zappa since I was a teenager," says Cherry, 57. "He was just such an iconoclastic guy, and so unique. I mean, my gosh, just with the way he looked, with the hair and the goatee. I was an outsider, I was an artist, I was a musician. … He was our hero."
There was a lot of hero worship going on in Highlandtown Sunday afternoon. A crowd massed at the corner of Eastern Avenue and Conkling Street to cheer as a bust of their hero was unveiled, to rest forevermore atop an imposing pedestal outside his hometown's newest library. Most, it seemed, were wearing T-shirts adorned with Zappa catch phrases such as "Are you hung up?" "You are what you is" and "The world's most plentiful ingredient is stupidity." Though smaller than the 5,000 people organizers had expected, the audience made up in enthusiasm what it lacked in size.
All cheered loudly and lustily as, first, the Lithuanian benefactors who donated the bust of Zappa were introduced, followed by Zappa's wife, Gail, and three of his children, Dweezil, 41, Ahmet, 36, and Diva, 31. The crowd whooped as Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake credited Zappa and his legacy with Baltimore's vibrant alternative music scene, proclaiming, "It is on his shoulders that you stand." And they roared as Dweezil and his band, Zappa Plays Zappa, kicked off a tribute concert with his father's "Stinkfoot," possibly the only ode to smelly feet in the annals of rock 'n' roll.
"Welcome back to Baltimore, Frank," shouted Carla Hayden, CEO of the Enoch Pratt Free Library.
Few had a problem explaining their devotion to the man who fronted the proudly disreputable Mothers of Invention and famously warned people, "Watch out where the huskies go/And don't you eat that yellow snow." It had been 25 years to the day since Zappa's testimony before Congress against music censorship.
"I've been a fan since '73, when I was 17 years old and went to my first Frank Zappa concert," said Larry Cecchetti, of Owings Mills, who came to the dedication with his 24-year-old son, Alex. "What people need to do when they listen to Frank Zappa is, not get caught up into the theatrics and get distracted with that. Look past it, look at the composition, look at the structure. You'll really appreciate him for the composer he was. He was just awesome."
Zappa, who died of prostate cancer in 1993, lived on Park Heights Avenue and left Maryland before his teens. While he didn't embrace his Baltimore roots with the same enthusiasm and visibility as John Waters and Barry Levinson, he made no secret of it, either. He included a song, "What's New in Baltimore?" on his 1985 album, "Frank Zappa Meets the Mothers of Prevention." He even returned to Maryland in 1986 to testify before the state legislature.
"He had a real attachment to Baltimore and to Maryland, and he was very excited to appear before the Maryland legislature and give his views about freedom of speech and freedom of artistic feeling," said lobbyist Bruce Bereano, who brought Zappa to Annapolis. He met with the family Sunday morning after their talk at Highlandtown's Creative Alliance, where a wrap party was set for Sunday night.
"He talked fondly about his roots and about being from Baltimore," Bereano said.
Baltimore City Circuit Court Judge John Prevas smiled proudly and waved his arms emphatically when introduced from the stage as a Zappa fan of long-standing. The judge recalled first hearing Zappa's album "Freak Out" in a fraternity brother's dorm room in 1966. He's been hooked ever since.
"I fell in love with both the music and the social commentary," Prevas said. "I've been proselytizing about Zappa and Zappa music and Zappa's defense of freedom to people everywhere I go ever since.
"He's one of us, just like H.L. Mencken and Edgar Allan Poe and Babe Ruth and Billie Holliday," Prevas added. "He's one of us, he's our kind of guy."
While Zappa's family members were greeted with warm applause, the Lithuanians responsible for erecting a bust of Zappa in their country and sending a copy of it to Baltimore might have received the day's loudest ovation. For many Lithuanians, Zappa represented the struggle for artistic freedom during the era of Soviet oppression. One of them, Saulius Paukstys, exuberantly waved a Lithuanian flag during and after the ceremony.
Zappa, Paukstys said, represented the struggle for freedom and expression to many people in Lithuania. Zappa showed, he said, that "if you have got desire, strong character, you can do everything."
Not surprisingly, however, the people most affected by yesterday's ceremony were Zappa's family. When the bust was unveiled, Ahmet Zappa blew a kiss to the audience while a beaming Dweezil shook hands and prepared to take the stage for his concert. The crowd responded in kind.
"I couldn't have predicted how emotional this would be," Gail Zappa said after the unveiling. "It was brilliant."
Added a tearful Diva Zappa, "I'm just totally surprised at how overwhelmingly amazing this all is. Thank you so much for just loving my dad."