Both of Frank Zappa's grandfathers had close ties to the Baltimore waterfront. Just before World War I, one of them ran a barbershop near the old city fish market around Pier Five, while the other, Charles Colimore, owned a lunchroom called Little Charlie's at 122 Market Place. Those two businesses—a pre-Roaring '20s shave-and-haircut joint and a workingman's diner near the Fallsway, neither visited by Frank—are the only historical connections between Zappa and the waterfront.
But it's the waterfront, somewhere around the square at the foot of Broadway in Fells Point, that has emerged as a likely spot for a proposed statue of the Baltimore-born composer, who recorded 60 albums and influenced legions of followers—including film director Terry Gilliam, actor/writer Eric Bogosian, and Simpsons creator Matt Groening, who claimed, "Zappa was my Elvis"—before his death from prostate cancer in 1993.
The statue, a bronze bust by artist Konstantinas Bogdanas, is a gift from zealous Zappa fans in Lithuania, where one just like it sits in a public park in the capital city of Vilnius, reportedly the second most toured landmark after the local KGB museum.
The gesture was enthusiastically received last year in Baltimore—the Public Art Commission voted last May to accept the gift—and made international news for more than a week. In the U.K., The Guardian reported that the statue "will perpetuate the memory of one of the greatest artists of the [20th] century"; a spokesman for Mayor Sheila Dixon told The Los Angeles Times that "it's a big deal that Zappa is from Baltimore"; and Dixon herself declared December 21 "Frank Zappa Day in Baltimore."
The Public Art Commission recommended that the sculpture be in place by the end of 2009. But until a site is officially approved, the sculpture will sit dockside on the Baltic.
No matter where Crabtown decides to put the no-strings-attached gift from Vilnius, one thing is for sure: Legions of Zappa fans from around the world will come here to pay homage, and the statue will become one of the city's most visited landmarks. With that in mind, is Fells Point the most suitable spot for it?
A visit to the handful of dots on the Zappa map of Baltimore reveals deep family ties, but a more tenuous personal connection to the city than most people assume—his family had moved to California by the time Frank was 10—and a few other possible sites for the statue. It also dispels some of the falsehoods generated by decades of urban mythology that have surrounded Zappa since he became a rock icon.
Perhaps the most fascinating aspect of Baltimore's relationship to Zappa is how baby boomers from across the metro area are convinced that he's a homeboy from their ZIP code. Any Baltimorean with even glancing knowledge of local music history has heard such talk.
"No kidding, man, Frank grew up in Dundalk."
"Frank went to Fallston High School with my cousin."
"He's Jewish. Didn't he grow up in Pikesville?"
The misinformation endures to this day.
In 1986, I conducted a series of interviews with Zappa focusing solely on his Baltimore roots, double-checking Frank's memory against those of his first-grade teacher, third-grade girlfriend, and relatives like his mother's sister, the late Mary Colimore Cimino.
Frank Vincent Zappa (not Francis as he long believed) was born to Italian-Catholic parents at Mercy Hospital on Dec. 21, 1940. But it's doubtful that the good Sisters of Mercy would welcome a Zappa statue on St. Paul Street, given the guitarist's stated views on Catholicism, the impure lyrics of his 1979 song "Catholic Girls," and his contempt for religion in general.
Zappa considered himself a devout Catholic until his late teens, when he rejected all of the dogma and theater he'd embraced as a kid in Baltimore. "I think the most stunning memories [of Baltimore] he might have had, would be [related to] the influence of the Catholic church," says his widow, Gail Zappa, adding that a statue marking Frank's religious roots is unthinkable, "unless it's barring the entrance."
Zappa spent his first year of life with his mother's family, the Colimores, at 2019 Whittier Avenue near Monroe Street in West Baltimore. There, he was doted on by his Aunt Mary. And after the Zappa family moved West, Frank visited Aunt Mary—after he graduated high school, in 1958—at her home on Loch Raven Boulevard.
Over that summer, Aunt Mary wrangled an introduction for her nephew with Massimo Freccia, then conductor of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra. At the time, Zappa believed he had "invented something new in the way of music" and showed Freccia a score he had written.
"I was naïve and thought [Freccia] could play it," Zappa told me in 1986. "He looked at [my greaser] appearance and couldn't believe I was writing orchestral music."
Instead of commenting on the composition, Freccia peppered the kid with technical questions—"What's the lowest note on the bassoon?" was one, Zappa recalled—and the conversation ended.
When Zappa's grandfather Colimore died in 1941, Frank and his family moved to a rowhouse apartment in the 4600 block of Park Heights Avenue. Zappa remembered there was "an alley in the back and down the alley used to come the knife sharpener man—you know, a guy with the wheel. And everybody used to come down off their back porch to the alley to get their knives and scissors done."
Though they were poor—"I don't remember receiving a single Christmas present," he said—the Zappa family scraped up the money to eat at Haussner's a few times during Frank's childhood.
About the time Zappa was ready to start first grade, the family moved to Harford County. Because the folks in Vilnius are adamant that the statue be located in Zappa's "born place," it won't land in Edgewood, where the family lived in military housing while Frank's father worked for the Army at the nearby arsenal and proving grounds.
As a youngster, Zappa suffered near-constant childhood illnesses, including asthma. He spent a lot of time in bed, surrounded by stacks of books, inventing things in his mind.
Confessing that he had a seldom-acknowledged soft spot for his hometown, Zappa said in 1986 that his memories of living here were "connected mostly to ill health. My best friend growing up was a DeVilbiss vaporizer with a big snoot blowing steam in my face . . . all my life I'd been seeing things in black and white while living in Maryland."
But after the family moved, said Frank, life "was in Technicolor."
During an area show in 1981, Zappa performed the song "What's New in Baltimore?" which included the lyric: "Better go back and find out . . ."
But except for that cross-country train trip to visit Aunt Mary, Zappa only returned to Baltimore to perform at the old Civic Center, Towson University, Painters Mill, and, early on, Eastern High School. (He did, famously, travel to Annapolis in 1986 to testify against the inclusion of music recordings in an anti-pornography bill before the State Legislature.)
Whenever he was in town, his longtime bodyguard and Baltimore native John Smothers would point out landmarks such as the Parks sausage factory near Camden Yards and Mt. Vernon's George Washington Monument. Zappa said Smothers often noted that the first president's extended arm made it appear that "George was [urinating] on the city."
A suitable site for the Zappa statue lies around the corner from the Washington Monument. Because Zappa was a self-taught musician and constantly promoted independent thinking, Gail Zappa notes that it would be poignant for the statue to grace the lobby of the Enoch Pratt Free Library headquarters on Cathedral Street.
"Frank was a fanatic about libraries," says Gail. "He felt libraries were a great resource because they're free and a fabulous place to find out about stuff."
Gail, who lives in Southern California, also has no objection to Fells Point, where three decades of gentrification have not reversed the magnetic pull of the eccentric and the bohemian. "It sounds perfect," she says. "A lot of tours went off from that point, different kinds of tours over the ages."
In Fells Point, aging freaks, their offspring, and people outside the "excentrifugal forz" of the Zappa universe will encounter a musician they are unlikely to stumble upon on the radio. And a man of a certain age will be able to put his arm around his grandson as the kid licks gelato on a Sunday afternoon and say with pride: "Sonny boy, there stands a great Baltimorean."
But the plaza across from the Meyerhoff Symphony Hall, reportedly on a short list of sites considered by the Public Art Commission, might make an even better site. Zappa's symphonic compositions—such as "The Perfect Stranger," conducted by David Zinman a week after Zappa's death—have been performed there and some members of the BSO count themselves fans.
"It fascinates us that there are some out there who think at a level so far beyond our own—Zappa was that to the music world," says Christopher Dudley, the BSO's principal trombonist. "Zappa's brilliance was composed, performed, and recorded in a medium that can be conveyed to anyone with ears who cares to listen."
Early on, Zappa didn't consider himself a rock musician. "Until I was 20, the only stuff I was writing was chamber music and orchestra music," Zappa told me, "but I couldn't get any of it played."
He turned to rock 'n' roll, not only because he loved the R&B groups of his youth, but because he reckoned that if he wrapped his adventurous compositions in a rock motif, he might find an audience.
He most surely did, one that has spanned the globe and—to gauge the recent success of his son Dweezil's Zappa Plays Zappa concerts in the last several years—is holding fast more than 15 years after Frank's death.
A recording from the Zappa Plays Zappa tour, a performance of the wondrous 1970 composition "Peaches en Regalia," won a Grammy this year for best rock instrumental. Dweezil, who spent two years relearning the guitar to do justice to his father's challenging music, dedicated the award to his old man, who received a posthumous "Lifetime Achievement Award" Grammy in 1997.
Along with his compositions turning up on the odd symphonic program both here and in Europe and his songs in regular rotation on the iPods and imaginations of fellow musicians—from Alice Cooper to Trey Anastasio of Phish—it adds up to a legacy gaining momentum.
Having a statue delivered to his hometown through the love of fans in Eastern Europe only burnishes that legacy, no matter where the statue sits.
There is, however, one other site that makes sense; one more in demographic and gastronomic harmony with the facts of Zappa's life.
Italian on both sides of his family, Frank was a regular customer at restaurants in "the neighborhood" after his Civic Center shows in the 1970s.
"When I was at St. Joe [high school], my cousin Mario and I waited in the rain outside of Sabatino's for him to finish eating," says Willie Matricciani, who grew up on South Exeter Street. "The thing I remember most was how soft his hand was when I shook it. I was used to shaking hands with men who laid bricks for a living."
And what did they say to Zappa? "We told him how proud we were that he was Italian," recalls Matricciani.
Matricciani's cousin, Vince Pompa, another St. Joe boy from Little Italy and longtime chef at Chiaparelli's, catered Zappa's May 3, 1975, show at the Civic Center.
Pompa's then girlfriend and soon-to-be wife Susan had no interest in dishing out a buffet of ziti, meatballs, and garlic bread. But she was keen to get backstage and meet the star.
Zappa, she says, was "unfriendly and standoffish . . . he got his meal delivered to his dressing room" and didn't hang out.
As for "Vincie," he had one question when reminded of that evening from 35 years ago: "Frank's from Reisterstown, isn't he?"