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Culture & Artsby Rafael Alvarez4:21 pmSep 20, 20100

Frank Zappa Day in Baltimore

“This is as close as we’re ever going to get to Frank . . .” — Jeff Griffin, Hamburg, New York

Above: Baltimore’s new Zappa bust. The statue was donated to Baltimore by Lithuanian nonprofit organization ZAPART.

It was a family reunion of black sheep, flocks of them.

[And there was dental floss in the trees . . .]

Every clan, it seems, has at least one Frank Zappa fan in the fold. Sometimes it’s that guy you call “uncle” who really isn’t a relative, sometimes it’s dear old dad and sometimes it’s YOU!

This past Sunday some 3,000 Zappa fans — from as far away as Montreal and as near as Baylis Street — made it to Highlandtown to keep the memory of their late hero alive. They showed up outside of the Pratt library at the corner of Eastern Avenue and Conkling Street to celebrate Zappa’s life and music during the unveiling of a bust of the guitarist, composer and Baltimore native.

The 3700 block of Eastern Avenue in Highlandtown on

The 3700 block of Eastern Avenue in Highlandtown on "Frank Zappa Day" in Baltimore (Photo by Dave Pugh)

It’s the rare day in Baltimore when you’ll see more people wearing Frank Zappa t-shirts than Ravens jerseys and that day was Sunday. Zappa threads on view were both homemade and vintage — from the “Pipco” cover of “Lumpy Gravy” to the pants-around-his-ankles toilet portrait — and included bootlegs and those officially sanctioned by the aggressively litigious Zappa Family Trust.

The great musician’s son — guitarist Dweezil Zappa, age 41 — wore a plain brown V-neck and his heart on his sleeve. Every member of Frank’s immediate family but daughter Moon was present at the dedication — widow Gail, 65; son Ahmet, 36; and daughter Diva, 31 — but Dweezil was the most visibly emotional throughout the long day of accolades.

Asked during a morning Q&A at the Patterson Theater about the difficulty in learning to play his old man’s music, Dweezil took a deep breath, welled-up with tears and spoke of the father he called “Frank,” a workaholic family man who died in 1993.

“The hardest part was the mental approach, especially for the improvisation,” said Dweezil, who was 24 when he lost his father to prostate cancer and in 2006 named his first child, a girl, Zola Frank Zappa.

“Frank described his guitar playing as ‘air sculpture.’ He thought of [the notes] as shapes. He spontaneously composed when he played guitar, standing on stage reacting to the situation. Frank could play [a solo] for ten minutes and never repeat himself. That’s the intellectual side of it and it’s a challenge.”

It takes a lot of courage and twice as much talent to stand in front of legions of hard-core Zappa fans, people obsessed with Frank and his music to the point of being insufferable. There’s very little that is casual about the typical Frank Zappa freak and today — some 70 years after his birth at Baltimore Mercy’s Hospital — that ranges from teenagers to senior citizens. These people simply will not accept a product inferior to the original. And Dweezil, a guitarist since childhood who took two years off to re-learn the instrument in order to play his father’s work, satisfied them all.

“I was very impressed,” said Joe Paplauskus, a longtime Zappa aficionado. “He brought a talented crew of multi-instrumentalists with him. Dweezil did a real nice job.”

Zappa fan and Highlandtown native Joe Paplauskus with Baltimore author Rafael Alvarez before 'Zappa Plays Zappa' concert. Of the show, Paplauskus said,

Zappa fan and Highlandtown native Joe Paplauskus with Baltimore author Rafael Alvarez before 'Zappa Plays Zappa' concert. Of the show, Paplauskus said, "I really liked how Dweezil transitioned from "Peaches en Regalia" to "Echinda's Arf (For You)." (Photo by Cindy Deken)

During a nearly three-hour show, Dweezil’s “Zappa Plays Zappa” combo rocked the neighborhood with “Blessed Relief,” “Apostrophe,” “Florentine Pogen,” “Broken Hearts Are For Assholes,” the 17-minute jazz jewel “Big Swifty” from 1972’s “Waka/Jawaka” album, “Bamboozled by Love,” “I’m the Slime,” the 1970 instrumental “Peaches en Regalia” (a composition both whimsical and pastoral used in wedding ceremonies when the bride is especially hip) and for the hometown crowd, “What’s New in Baltimore?”

In the original “What’s New” — released in 1985 on the “Frank Zappa Meets the Mothers of Prevention” album documenting Frank’s fight to keep the government from labeling and potentially censoring music — the answer to the question was, “I don’t know . . .”

On the Conkling Street stage Sunday, the answer to “What’s New in Baltimore” rose 15 feet above the crowd on a stainless steel pillar, Frank’s dead-serious bronze visage higher than the large “dental floss” ornaments — made by local fan Dave Paremske — hanging in the trees.

“I walk my dog by the Highlandtown library everyday,” said Stacy Spaulding, a Towson State University journalism professor from the 700 block of Baylis  Street. “The day the workmen placed the statue on the pole, I went out and bought ‘Hot Rats,’ my first Zappa album. I’m so happy to welcome the statue to my neighborhood. It’s opened a whole new world to me.”

Herman Meyer bought his first Frank Zappa album when Frank released his very first album: “Freak Out” in 1966 on the Verve label. Meyer brought the double-LP to the pre-concert Q&A and Dweezil signed it for him.

Herman Meyer with his original copy of

Herman Meyer with his original copy of "Freak Out," circa 1966 (Photo by Macon Street Books)

“I bought it at the Hecht Company in Reisterstown,” said Meyer, a 59-year-old guitar teacher. “I tried to get my friends to listen to it, but they weren’t interested. All they said back then was, ‘Sure Herman. Right.’ And then I read a Hit Parader [magazine] interview with Frank and he said his goal was to destroy Top 40 radio because it was ugly. That inspired me.”

A militant defender of the rights of the individual — a well-known aspect of Zappa lauded by Baltimore mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake when she declared September 19, 2010 “Frank Zappa Day” in Crabtown — Frank would become something of a spiritual as well as musical hero to the adolescent Meyer.

“I took a lot of flack from authority figures when I was younger — all these people telling me to straighten up and change my attitude,” he said. “When I started listening to Frank it made me realize that they were wrong. It was the beginning of my real education.”

For every one of these reasons — along with an enduring musical legacy in which there may be more unreleased material coming out of the Zappa family vaults than the 60 or so albums already in print — thousands of people converged on the corner of Eastern Avenue and Conkling Street on a bright autumn afternoon to honor a man whose likes will not be seen again.

‪”We’ve talked to the Zappa family and the Pratt library about doing this again next year,” said Chris Ryer, president of the Southeast Development Corporation which co-sponsored the festival.‬

“Now we know we can count on Zappa fans in Baltimore to help us pull it off and make this an annual event.”

For most of the day, Diva Zappa subtly consoled her still-grieving brother Dweezil with big smiles and a rub of the shoulders. But when it was Diva’s turn to address the crowd just seconds before the veil fell from the statue, she too was overcome.

Sobbing, she said: “I just want to thank all of you for loving my father . . .”


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