"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 evidently a public sculpture of Zappa himself, and the strange tale behind the 15-foot statue that a public art panel accepted as a gift to the city last night is as incongruous as Zappa's genre-bending music career.
Most Baltimoreans 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 immigrants from Sicily.
His family lived in the 4600 block of Park Heights Ave., then moved to Edgewood in Harford County. Zappa's father, a chemist and mathematician, had a job nearby at Aberdeen Proving Ground. They moved to California when Frank was 10.
Until they met last 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 also unaware of Zappa's connection to Charm City.
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, the president of one of the biggest and arguably most dedicated Frank Zappa fan clubs in, of all places, the Republic of 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.
"Before 1990, you have to remember, [Lithuanians] could not criticize society," Paukstys said through an interpreter. "Frank Zappa was a voice of freedom."
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. Most were well-educated aesthetes who appreciated the fact that Zappa was more than a rock-and-roll star: He was a symphonic composer, a fact that appealed to a people whose love of classical music is part of their history.
In 1995, Paukstys was so determined to commemorate Zappa's creativity that he claimed to have enjoyed a personal correspondence with Zappa, whom he'd met on a visit to the United States.
The fact that such a correspondence never happened didn't deter the thousands of Lithuanians who crowded an exhibition of the letters in Vilnius, the nation's capital.
The event created momentum toward the Zappa fan club's main goal: getting 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, which 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, where her late husband's quirky views of life fit with the work of such great local artists as John Waters.
Anne Perkins, chair of the city's Public Art Commission, said last night that her panel, which was launched last August, is still working out formal criteria by which to accept gifts of public art. The city must fund installation and upkeep, decide what gifts are appropriate and select sites that work.
But the same commission that recently had numerous questions that stalled plans for a statue of former Mayor and Gov. William Donald Schaefer proposed for the city's Inner Harbor had no trouble approving the Lithuanian project. As part of his presentation, Paukstys screened a video of an April 10 concert at which Lithuanian jazz, classical and rock musicians performed Zappa's music in Vilnius.
"We're having a good time here!" Perkins exclaimed.
Board members satisfied themselves that the statue would call for limited maintenance and that Zappa was a true cultural native son.
"He's part of a rich history of musicians from Baltimore, some of whom the general public doesn't know about," panelist Steve Ziger said.
Ziger suggested making the monument part of a collection of similarly themed sculptures. Others suggested the cultural corridor near the Washington Monument, green space near the Baltimore Museum of Art and the North Station Arts District as possible sites. Panelists also supported the idea of a commemorative concert when the statue is unveiled.
As the credits on the film rolled, and the general applause died down, Paukstys and his interpreter, Arturas Baublys, who return to Lithuania today, said they could have the already completed statue packed and ready for shipping within 10 days.
"The only risk I see in Baltimore," Baublys said, "is the seagulls. That could be a problem. Otherwise, we couldn't be more thrilled."
1940: Frank Vincent Zappa is born in Baltimore on Dec. 21.
1964: The first edition of Zappa's long-running group, the Mothers - later the Mothers of Invention - performs in California.
1973: Over-nite Sensation by the Mothers becomes one of Zappa's most popular albums.
1974: Apostrophe becomes Zappa's second consecutive gold album.
1981: Zappa releases four albums on one day, May 11 - Tinseltown Rebellion, Shut Up 'N Play Yer Guitar, Shut Up 'N Play Yer Guitar Some More and Return of the Son of Shut Up 'N Play Yer Guitar.
1982: "Valley Girl," co-written by Zappa and his daughter Moon Unit, enters the Top 40 and later peaks at No. 2.
1988: The album Jazz from Hell wins Zappa a Grammy for Best Rock Instrumental.
1993: Frank Zappa, 52, dies of prostate cancer on Dec. 4.
1995: Frank Zappa is inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame for a recording career that included 60 albums.
Source: Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum