The bronze head of Frank Zappa has landed at the corner of Eastern Avenue and Conkling Street in Highlandtown.
The 15-foot tall bust, a gift of music lovers in Lithuania, will be unveiled outside of the Enoch Pratt Free Library on September 19th in a ceremony attended by the Zappa family but dominated by people for whom Frank had nothing but contempt: politicians.
That’s how many moons have come and gone since the days of “We’re Only In It For the Money,” the 1968 send-up of “Sgt. Pepper” in which Frank intoned: “American way … try to explain . . . scab of a nation, driven insane …”
Back then – when Frank was alive and his only monument was the poster of him sitting naked on a toilet — no politician worth their election day walk-around money would have aligned themselves with the man who urged America’s youth to “Freak Out.”
“Mr. America, walk on by your schools that do not teach
Mr. America, walk on by the minds that won’t be reached
Mr. America try to hide the emptiness that’s you inside
But once you find that the way you lied
And all the corny tricks you tried
Will not forestall the rising tide of HUNGRY FREAKS DADDY!”
And Joe “JP” Paplauskas – a Highlandtown boy of Lithuanian heritage and 1971 graduate of Mount St. Joseph High School — couldn’t get enough of his fellow Baltimorean, who has deep roots in the city.
“In other parts of town there was usually at least one Zappa fan and he was the oddball,” said JP. “In Highlandtown there were at least of dozen of us.
“The first time I heard Frank’s music was in my friend Dave [Mack’s] basement on Fagley Street” about four blocks from the statue. “We were listening to ‘Freak Out’ and ‘Absolutely Free.’”
At home in his parents’ house at 2913 East Baltimore Street, JP began his own collection of records by the Baltimore-born Zappa. An indelible memory is the day his father – Tony Paplauskas, a long-time waiter at the old Miller Brothers Restaurant on West Fayette Street downtown – came home while “Just Another Band from L.A.” was on the family stereo.
Among Zappa fans, “Just Another Band …” is legendary for the mock rock opera, “Billy the Mountain” performed by members of the Turtles pop combo. Toward the end of the epic comes a liberal dousing of the F-word.
“Dad told me, ‘Never play that [filth] in this house again,” chuckled JP. “But Frank was also saying a lot of important things and we thought we were socially conscious.”
In truth, much of the time JP and his pals were rock and rolling themselves unconscious, a state they were often on the verge of when stumbling into the Highlandtown Little Tavern on any given night.
At the Tavern – next to the Grand Theater [R.I.P.] in the 500 block of South Conkling Street, both buildings razed to make way for the library where the Zappa statue stands — waited a savvy saint by the name of “Miss Bernadine.”
The boys had the munchies and Miss Bernadine – long gone, her full name out of reach – had the burgers.
“We grew up with lots of substances and were usually drunk,” said JP. “The Tavern was our docking station. By the time we hit there, we knew we were home. Miss Bernadine – geez man, she was old back then – knew how we liked our burgers. If we were too messed up to talk, she’d just look at us and knew what we wanted.”
Once they were fed, JP said, the conversation would always “circle back to Frank.”
And, like Zappa’s “Excentrifugal Forz,” it has now come full circle.
“When I heard they were going to put a statue of Frank 20 yards away from the old Little Tavern, the whole shrunken cosmos of my youth came together,” said JP, who saw Frank perform about a dozen times, including a $4-per-ticket gig — May 19, 1973 — at Great McGonigle’s Seaside Park in Annapolis.
And then in early December 1993 – almost 13 years to the day of John Lennon’s murder in New York City – Paplauskas awoke to learn that the tea-totaling Zappa had lost his battle with prostate cancer at the age of 52.
“I was shocked because I didn’t know he was sick,” said JP, now a supervisor for the City of Baltimore and older than Frank was when he died. Paplauskus can be seen driving around Crabtown, serene in his graying ponytail, smoking a cigar and listening to any one of Frank’s more than 60 albums.
“It was a sad day, very sad,” said JP. “But the thing that really pissed me off was that same day or maybe the next day, a guy in the Gin Blossoms [Doug Hopkins] killed himself and the radio pushed Frank aside to make some huge deal about some pathetic bastard who wrote two pop songs no one will remember.”
Anyone with even a passing encounter with Zappa or his music – be it an outraged parent, an elected official trying to preserve the First Amendment for everyone but artists, or the legions of long-suffering girlfriends and wives enduring a loved one’s obsession with Frank – will never forget it.
“People will come to Baltimore from around the world to see that statue,” said JP. “And Frank will be remembered in his hometown.”