Celebrating Frank Zappa’s legacy

  • 2011-07-06
  • Interview by Matthew Garrick

The riverside tavern of Vilnius’ eccentric artistic neighborhood, Uzupis, seemed the perfect location to meet prominent photographer and founder of the (now legendary) Frank Zappa Fan Club of the early 1990s, Saulius Paukstys. Back in the day, Paukstys wore the leader’s hat as part of a ramshackle artistic revolution: breaking out after Soviet creative repression, he, along with a bunch of young Lithuanians, digging from a well of wild ideas, petitioned the government for the construction of the Baltics’ oddest landmark: a sculpture of American sixties and seventies rocker, Frank Zappa’s head. It was erected in 1995, and still stands today in Vilnius, on Kalinausko Street, near the city center. Nearly two decades later, Lithuania has expanded the Zappa legacy abroad. Paukstys was present last year at the opening of a replica of sculptor Konstantinas Bogdanas’ original Zappa head, in the city of Baltimore, USA. The celebrations were hosted by a free concert from Frank’s own son, Dweezil Zappa, as Lithuanian flags lit up the footpaths. So how did Lithuania become responsible for holding this Zappa flame? And how has the art scene changed since a group, posing fraudulently as the ‘Frank Zappa Fan Club,’ constructed their homage to the leader of bizarre band The Mothers of Invention? And what’s all the talk about building a golden John Lennon in the mountains of Kyrgyzstan? These secrets and more were revealed, during a conversation with The Baltic Times.

It’s been twenty years now since Lithuanian Independence, and nearly the same length of time since the erecting of Zappa’s statue in Vilnius. Political and social upheaval has calmed since then, so how do you think Lithuania’s artistic scene has changed?
In our artistic ideas there was more soul. Like a child who makes everything just for fun, just out of interest for himself, without thinking about money, or about the political situation and so on, this is how it was. Nowadays, if you want to realize an art idea, you must have sponsors who’ll fund it. Art has become a real business, and maybe it wasn’t so, fifteen years ago. It is difficult for ideas to materialize these days. It costs more money, and it is difficult to find sponsors. If you want to create a strong art project, you must be a strong art businessman. Maybe the same has happened around the world, but in Lithuania, fifteen years ago everything was easier to do.

There were a lot of interesting ideas which were materializing during this time, such as the Zappa statue. What do you think it was which made the nineties such a creative period for the country?
Because it was interesting. There were changes in the economic situation and the political space, from Soviet to independent Lithuania. Everyone began moving around, everything was new and there was a huge exchange of free ideas. Now everything is turning to the business side, and nothing can be done without deals, money, and so on. But anyway, places like the Vilnius Academy of Art [in the car-park of which the Zappa statue stands] are still very popular today.

Over the years your name has become synonymous with the Frank Zappa legacy. Does the Lithuanian Frank Zappa Fan Club continue to operate?
The Lithuanian Frank Zappa Fan Club was a mystification. When we proposed building the Zappa statue to the government of the city, petitioning under the club name worked for us. Instead of saying, “I, Saulius, want to build a Zappa monument,” we worded it as, “We, the Zappa fan club, with 1,000 members, need to do this project.” It sounded different. So we just used this mystification to help for a bigger movement.

What do you think it is, or was, about Zappa which appealed to the Lithuanian psyche?
I think now it’s more interesting for foreign tourists, not for Lithuanians. A lot of Lithuanians don’t pay attention to it. When we built the statue in Vilnius, it was very strange, very interesting, and extravagant. Now, a lot of people don’t pay attention. Maybe it’s time for closing the case. A lot of friends ask me why we don’t make business from this statue, and why we don’t make other statues. But, we just don’t need it.

If you were given another chance, to build any kind of statue, who would you consider commissioning a sculpture of today?
We would like to make a gold statue of John Lennon in Kyrgyzstan, in the mountains, up near the clouds. A whole golden figure, with a golden guitar. It was a good idea, but also it’s just a joke. But anyway, Kyrgyzstan needs peace, it needs an end to civil war, and in this case maybe John Lennon, with his ideas about peacefulness triumphing over war, could be perfect.

Back to the Zappa statue: its sculptor, Konstantinas Bogdanas, who earlier in his career constructed statues of Vladimir Lenin during Soviet times, is now in his eighties (and reportedly of ill health). Do you have anything to say about him?
A lot of people ask about Bogdanas’ statue of Lenin. He maybe made one or two statues of Lenin, but in Soviet times, the government was asking for statues of figures like Lenin only from the best artists. Not every artist had permission to do this, make art about Lenin. So when he made Lenin, it’s a statement of how he was one of the best artists in his generation.

In a way, it could be said his work represents a lifetime of Lithuanian artistic change.
Of course, he didn’t just make statues of Lenin. He has made many works without political thinking behind them, a lot of statues of historical figures from Lithuania, historical monuments, and so on. He’s really one of the best portrait sculptors from Lithuania, and maybe the whole [former] Soviet Union. It was very, very good he did the Zappa sculpture for us.

To yourself now: these days you spend much of your professional time focused on photography works, and on your idea, the Fototeatras (a photo theater project). Can you tell us a bit about these?
Fototeatras is a photo studio for when people throw a celebration, for example a birthday, with a photo session. We have a lot of decorations: caps, jackets, and so on, and people dress up as they wish, and then can improvise some theater moments, while we make photos of this. We have a lot of military uniforms, guns, Middle Age dresses for the girls.

And people dress up like this for their weddings?
Weddings also. We also do children’s birthdays, family celebrations, company functions, and so on.

Last year you travelled to Baltimore, Frank Zappa’s birthplace, for the unveiling of a replica of the Bogdanas statue from Vilnius. Did you ever think, when you created the original, the legacy would go so far?
Well, it’s been going for over fifteen years, and we thought in those years someone would make a mark about Zappa in the USA, but it never happened. So we figured we could create a replica statue in his childhood city. At first we were thinking about Los Angeles, but our friends from the U.S. government, from the embassy, told us LA is like a big village, with millions of people. A small statue in such a huge city wouldn’t make a big resonance. They told us Baltimore was the place. It’s one of the oldest cities in the USA, and has a very strong community, and the monument would be very important for the city. So, it happened, and they opened the monument last year, on September 17.

How did you find the reaction over there when you opened the new monument in Baltimore?
It was very impressive. Zappa’s son, Dweezil Zappa, performed a free concert near the monument. Police closed the traffic in a space of around five blocks, and about 5,000 people came to the opening ceremony. Everybody was out on the street, a lot of people were shaking our hands and saying “Thank you Lithuania, thanks for the monument.” It was like a little euphoria there in Baltimore. We were feeling very important (Laughs). The mayor of the city presented us with honorary citizenships of Baltimore city.

Do you think the Americans were surprised at Lithuania’s interest in Zappa?
They are happy the statue of Zappa is standing in Baltimore. It is a point to celebrate, and a point of attention. This September they are planning an anniversary event around the monument, the Baltimoreans, and it looks like Dweezil will play another free concert nearby. So, if you have the time and money, go to Baltimore on September 17.

Do you get on well with Dweezil (Frank Zappa’s oldest son)?
Yes, of course. Two years ago he played in Vilnius, and we met him there, and in Baltimore also, last year. His concert in Vilnius was interesting, nice music. There were around 2,000 people there. We showed him the statue [of Zappa in Vilnius] together. All his family was in Vilnius: [his widow] Gail Zappa, and his daughter Diva Zappa. His other daughter, Moon Unit, was not there. I’ve never met Moon Unit Zappa. In Baltimore, Ahmet Zappa was also there, another brother of Dweezil. The whole family was there in Baltimore, except for Moon.

Before Frank died, you had the opportunity to meet the man himself. How was it? Were you like a kid in a candy store?
It was a long time ago, around 1990. I don’t remember exactly… it’s difficult to tell. For me, Zappa is not like a Jesus Christ. He is a good, stylish musician who had a lot of nice ideas about music and art, and that’s it. But, of course, he was friendly. This was before we built the statue.

One of the most original things about Zappa seemed to be his talent for naming things. Some of his song titles include My Guitar Wants to Kill your Mama, and Don’t Eat the Yellow Snow. Do you have a personal favorite?
A favorite for me is his guitar album, Apostrophe [from 1974, DiscReet Records]. The music was so good, new. I’m always very impressed how he made all this music without computers and without different mechanical devices. It’s all live and breathing instruments, with nothing fake or electronic. It was more sincere in those times.

How do you find the Lithuanian music scene these days?
Of course we have a lot of interesting music, but like everywhere, pop music is like garbage on every corner. But it’s happened all over the world, it’s nothing really new.
I’m not a big fan of modern music… I don’t exactly know names of groups.

As president of the Frank Zappa Fan Club, have you ever called one of your pets Moon Unit?
(Laughs) No, no. But we called our boat Zappa the Frank. The boat still docks in the river Neris. You can see it, near the Baltas Tiltas [the White Bridge, in Vilnius].
The boat has travelled from Florida, Miami, all the way to Lithuania. It’s a one-ton boat, a fishing boat for ten people.

Any plans for the future?
If everything goes well, we will go to the anniversary of the monument in Baltimore this year. It costs a little bit of money, so that’s the biggest problem, like everywhere. I think, otherwise, the Zappa monument case is closed, and we don’t have plans to make ten more monuments of Zappa in different countries. Maybe Kyrgyzstan, for John Lennon.