Zappa Days

By Erik Maza

The Baltimore Sun, September 17, 2010

Symposium, free performances planned for dedication of statue to music pioneer Frank Zappa, a one-time Baltimorean.

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.

About 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 Zappa said. Gail Zappa 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 to 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 Zappaheads, 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.”

Dweezil Zappa 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, formed 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 Zappa 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.

“Everything informs your life,” Gail said. “But at some point, you stop living under your parents’ roof. Things are left behind, and you put things of your childhood away” Other than the bust, the only remnants of his time here are the books on his life at the local libraries. The Southeast Anchor branch has six of them. Earlier this week, five were out on loan. Richardson says the bust will enhance Baltimore’s awareness of one of its better-known native sons, but Dweezil, though he thinks it’s a nice gesture, is more circumspect. “I doubt that there will be a little industry with school buses going around: ‘This is the house where Frank Zappa hung out after school,” he said. “I don’t know if it will spark a new generation of appreciation here. But it’s a good start.”

The bust will remain covered until Sunday, when Richardson will unveil it. For now, only a few simple words etched in metal are visible: “Frank Zappa was born in Baltimore.”

Read by OCR software. If you spot errors, let me know afka (at)