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Spirit of Frank Zappa returns to Baltimore

The rocker's exploits are rooted in L.A., but a twist of fate sends a special statue to his hometown.

September 20, 2010|By Richard Simon

Reporting from Baltimore — You're, like, totally not going to believe this but Baltimore declared Sunday " Frank Zappa Day," dedicating a bust in his honor.

Grody to the max.

Seventeen years after the rocker's death in Los Angeles, Zappa drew a large, fittingly eclectic crowd to a ceremony in the city where he was born.

"It's about time he got the recognition he deserves," said Greg Stinson, 50, accompanied by his 16-year-old son Matthew, also a Zappa fan.

The festivities included a concert by Zappa's son Dweezil and his band, Zappa Plays Zappa; a library exhibit, "Zappa's Baltimore: Rebels and Iconoclasts in the Land of the Free and Home of the Brave"; and a temporary name for the street in front of the library, "Frank Zappa Way."

"The spirit of Frank Zappa is alive and well in Baltimore," Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake said.

The bronze bust of the mustachioed Zappa — one of rock's great iconoclasts — was donated by Zappa fans from Lithuania, which has had its own Zappa sculpture in the capital, Vilnius, since 1995. Although Zappa never visited the Baltic country, he was admired there for his advocacy of free expression as well as for his music.

Zappa's widow, Gail, attended the ceremony, along with Dweezil and two other children, Ahmet and Diva. A group of Lithuanians flew to Baltimore for the event.

Among those in attendance was the chief judge of the Baltimore City Circuit Court. John N. Prevas, 63, a Zappa fan since 1966, called the bust "a wonderful symbol of Baltimore's cultural heritage and the fact that Frank was such a paradoxical icon for freedom."

"We're glad that he was born here, and even though he didn't spend much time here after the age of 10, we've always felt he was one of us," he added.

Zappa, who died of prostate cancer in 1993 at age 52, spent much of his life in Southern California, where he and his family moved when he was 10. Zappa's L.A. exploits include getting thrown out of the Antelope Valley High School marching band in Lancaster after he was caught smoking in uniform, and recording with his then-teenage daughter, Moon Unit, the 1982 hit "Valley Girl," a riff on San Fernando Valley culture.

The Zappa bust might have ended up in Los Angeles — if not for a cultural attache at the U.S. Embassy in Vilnius who happened to be from Baltimore. He suggested the city when the Lithuanian Zappa fans offered to donate the statue.

"I thought in L.A., it would kind of get lost," said Carlos Aranaga, who was the cultural attache.

"Baltimore is the kind of the city that resonates with Zappa's work," he added, citing another iconoclastic Baltimorean, journalist and social critic H.L. Mencken.

The ceremony came 25 years after Zappa appeared at a Senate hearing to rail against censorship of rock lyrics and calls for an album rating system.

Though Zappa left Baltimore long ago, relatives there turned out for the dedication.

"I was a teenager the last time I saw him," said cousin James A. Colimore Jr., 66, who came with his four adult children, who never met Zappa.

Colimore recalled "Frankie" visiting Baltimore and spending the summer at "Aunt Mary's house" two doors away when Zappa was 16 and Colimore 14. "He came to Baltimore by train from California with" a stack of records that he played frequently, he said.

"He was cool back then," Colimore said, recalling Zappa wearing shorts, a T-shirt and sandals when the East Coast was wearing jeans and high-top tennis shoes. He also recalled Zappa writing esoteric classical music on blank sheets of music paper with a quill pen.

Zappa has a street named after him in Berlin as well as an asteroid, Zappafrank, that orbits between Mars and Jupiter. He is also in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame as "rock and roll's sharpest musical mind and most astute social critic."

Asked what her husband might have said about getting his own sculpture, Gail Zappa responded: "Frank might have said, 'Preposterous.' ''

richard.simon@latimes.com

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