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Zappa could have put this to music

A Lithuanian fan club gives Baltimore a statue of the musician.

May 08, 2008|Jonathan Pitts | The Baltimore Sun

BALTIMORE — "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 a public sculpture of Zappa himself, and the tale behind the 15-foot statue that a public arts panel accepted Wednesday night as a gift to the city is as incongruous as Zappa's genre-bending music career.

Most residents of Baltimore 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 Italian immigrants from Sicily.

Zappa's father, a chemist and mathematician, worked at Aberdeen Proving Ground. The family moved to California when Frank was 10.

Until they met Wednesday 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 unaware of Zappa's connection to Baltimore.

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, president of one of the biggest and, arguably, most dedicated Frank Zappa fan clubs -- in, of all places, 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. "Frank Zappa was a voice of freedom," Paukstys said.

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.

The club's main goal was to get 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 that 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.

Paukstys said the completed bronze of Zappa will be ready for shipping from Lithuania to Baltimore within 10 days.

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