"My mother's parents had a restaurant...on the Maryland waterfront. She used to tell a story about a guy who came in and started a fight. I believe it was my mother's Dad who took one of those big forks they used for taking potatoes out of boiling water and stabbed the guy in the skull with it. He didn't die — instead, he ran off, with the fork sticking out the top of his head like an antenna."
Frank Zappa, from "The Real Frank Zappa Book," by Zappa and Peter Occhiogrosso
OK, so I couldn't resist opening a post about Frank Zappa with an amusing quote from a man known for his acerbic observations. The great composer/guitarist/social theoretician has sometimes been called the H.L. Mencken of rock, a reference to his fellow Baltimorean.
Zappa was born in the city's Mercy Hospital on December 21, 1940. Yesterday his hometown honored him with a bronze bust perched atop a tall column outside a library — Zappa loved books — more on that later.
Yesterday marked the 25th anniversary of Zappa's Congressional testimony against censorship, prompted by the efforts of the Parents Music Resource Center — a group founded by several prominent Washington wives (among them Tipper Gore) — who proposed a labelling system for records similar to the one used by the motion picture industry. Zappa's pointed, fact-based testimony — along with that of Twisted Sister's Dee Snider and John Denver (don't laugh - he established himself as an unflappable champion of the First Amendment that day) helped undo the PMRC effort.
Zappa's stance (and likely his music) endeared him to people all over the world battling against oppressive governments. The Czechoslovakian band, Plastic People of the Universe, named themselves after a Zappa tune. The musicians' imprisonment in 1976 led to the drafting of Charter 77, a human rights document (whose signatories included playwright and future Czech President Vaclav Havel) that helped plant a seed for what ultimately came to be called the Velvet Revolution and the collapse of the country's Communist government in 1989 (this is an extremely streamlined version of a very complex story). When Zappa visited the country in 1990, he was greeted at the airport by an estimated 5,000 cheering fans.
Zappa also became something of a hero to the north in Lithuania — a country also struggling against Soviet occupation. In 1995, a group of fans proposed erecting a statue to Zappa in the country's capital, Vilnius, even though Zappa had never visited Lithuania. It was sculpted by one of the country's leading portrait artists, Konstantinas Bagdonas, and went up the following year. Some of those same fans came up with the idea of erecting a statue in the composer's home town. Together with the city of Vilnius, they raised the funds to have a copy of the original made and donated it to Baltimore. As the Lithuanian fan club's president, Saulius Paukstys, told the Baltimore Sun last year, "Frank Zappa was a voice of freedom."
Frank Zappa stands tall in Baltimore.
Frank Zappa stands tall in Baltimore.
Were the seeds of Zappa's social awareness sewn in Baltimore? That's probably a bit of a stretch, but consider the following factoids.
Zappa was born at the advent of World War II to a family of Sicilian-Greek-Arab-French ancestry. During the war, unfortunately, many foreign-born Americans were viewed with suspicion. Zappa's father was from Sicily. After Mussolini entered the war on the side of the Nazis, things got worse here for Italian-Americans.
His father was a teacher who moved the family to Florida during the war to work for the Navy. The family returned to the Baltimore area when he was around four or five. They moved into a rowhouse in the city and young Frank "hated it."
Then the family moved to Edgewood, Maryland, northeast of the city. His father got a job at the Edgewood Arsenal's Army Chemical Center.
Zappa describes the work this way in his autobiography:
"My Dad was employed as a meteorologist at the Edgewood Arsenal. They made poison gas there during World War II, so I guess it would have been the meteorologist's job to figure out which way the wind was blowing when it was time to shoot the stuff off."
The family lived in Army housing about a mile from tanks filled with poison gas, so every household had a gas mask for every member of the family. Zappa wrote, "I used to wear mine out in the backyard all the time — it was my space helmet."
His father brought lab equipment home for Frank to play with:
"...beakers, Florence flasks, little petri dishes full of mercury (italics are Zappa's) — blobs of mercury. I used to play with it all the time ... One of the things I used to like to do was pour the mercury on the floor and hit it with a hammer, so it squirted all over the place. I lived in mercury."
Not surprisingly, Frank spent much of his time in Maryland sick in bed. He suffered from sinus problems, colds, asthma. He spent his sick time at home reading and drawing. One of the reasons Zappa's bust was erected outside a Baltimore library was because of his love of libraries.
Still, he remembered his time in Maryland with some fondness:
"Edgewood, Maryland, was sort of out in the country. It had a little woods and a creek with crawdads in it, just at the end of Dexter Street. I used to play down there with Leonard Allen. Even though I was sick all the time, Edgewood was sort of fun..."
In part because of Frank's poor health, the family decided to move west in 1951.
The rest is history.