In 1995 a group of fans in Vilnius set up a statue of Frank Zappa near the center of town. It was sculpted by Konstantinas Bogdanas, and it is the only public statue of Frank Zappa in the world. Previously, Bogdanas had spent a great many years casting busts of Lenin, who was nowhere near as good a guitarist as Zappa. It should be pointed out that Frank Zappa never had anything to do with Vilnius, never set foot in Lithuania, and had not a smidgen of Lithuanian heritage. Needless to say, as I was to be in Vilnius, it was evident that I must find that statue and pay homage to the great weird one.
I arrived in Lithuania exactly one week after the country officially joined the European Union, an event that was greeted with a mix of joy and a kind of vindication by most Lithuanians (“Yes, we are part of Western Europe … we’ve always been part of Western Europe and are no farther east than Finland, which everyone says is part of Western Europe”). Due to other commitments, it was a couple of days before I could set out on my Zappa quest, but when the time came, I packed the necessary accoutrements (city map, sunglasses, pen and paper) and asked the hotel desk clerk where the statue was. She looked at me with her gray eyes (I have the impression that all Lithuanian women have gray eyes; the men may also have them, but I didn’t really notice) and sighed (I also have the impression that Lithuanians sigh a lot). She then took my map and indicated a spot just on the other side of the river.
“I think it’s here,” she said. Then she took the map again and indicated a different spot. “Or here. I know there’s a statue there.”
“Um, are you sure it’s Zappa? American guitarist, big mustache?”
She said she was sure, but I wasn’t so sure she was really sure. Anyway, what the hell. I set out across the river and walked up a pleasant, tree-lined street bordered by lots of trendy little shops. No Zappa. I decided to ask one of the gray-eyed ladies running a magazine kiosk. I began by asking her if she spoke English, or for that matter French, Italian, or German, but she just sighed and shook her head. I asked about Zappa, but I believe she thought I was referring to yet another language (where would one speak Zappa?) and continued to shake her head.
This conversation was repeated many times. I ask a Lithuanian kiosk lady or taxi driver whether they speak some language I speak, the person sighs and shakes his or her head, then looks puzzled when I say, “Frank Zappa?” while making a gesture near my upper lip that is supposed to indicate a bushy mustache. The problem is that many of these kind people so wanted to help me that they would take my map and indicate a place on it, although I’m quite sure they really had no idea what I was asking. It might be that the word “zappa” or something like it means “tree” or “grassy place” or “nondescript street corner” in Lithuanian, and that these people thought I was looking for the nearest one, because many of their directions led only to attractions such as these.
Thus, I wandered around Vilnius, which when all is said and done is not such a bad fate. The core of the old city is very nice, with a faintly Germanic or perhaps Scandinavian feel to it … lots of neat stone buildings, quiet squares, pale beige and yellow façades. The city also seems replete with green spaces. These, though, are not the green spaces of London, with grass cut by fastidious English gardeners wielding scissors … no, these are nearly feral green spaces, with grass that is itching to be free, grass that wants to grow big and become fat with seed.
It’s not that these little parks and such are sloppy, or anything so disagreeable as that. They seem like the parkland equivalent of a home owned by an interesting but not particularly organized family that might have a cat or two. No actual dirt, but not exactly a shine on the furniture, and the odd sock on the back of a chair. One such park seemed to correspond more or less to a potential Zappa location indicated by a gray-eyed kiosk lady, and it did indeed contain a statue … of someone whose name might have been Petras Cirkej, if I read the rather unusual script correctly. Not a bad-looking fellow, but most definitely not Frank Zappa.
However, near Petras I found someone who did speak a slight amount of English, which was refreshing. This young gentleman thought about it, then explained that Zappa was to be found in an area farther to the south, which he showed me on my map. I immediately struck out toward the area he had circled.
This brought me a little bit outside the city’s charming center, into a neighborhood of drab Soviet-style apartment blocks, where slablike brick buildings rise for a few stories out of concrete parking lots and expanses of dirt. I had vaguely heard that Zappa’s statue was in a kind of self-proclaimed republic of weirdness within the city of Vilnius, with its own flag and schools, and I wondered if perhaps this apartment complex might not be it. Not that it looked all that counterculture-ish. I therefore wandered around the dirt paths looking for a little square that might house Zappa, but to no avail.
And then I heard a guitar riff, one that I thought I recognized as being from “Shut Up ’N Play Yer Guitar.” Ah! This was undoubtedly coming from the boom box of a Zappa fan, probably sitting under the statue listening to old albums, just like all those sorry souls who desperately wish they had lived in the ‘60s and who linger at Jim Morrison’s grave at Père-Lachaise in Paris. I slogged through the mud toward the sound, running into a dead end or two, until I managed to get to the general area. By the time I got closer, it had stopped, and the statue was nowhere to be found. Who knows, maybe Zappa had been playing with my head from the great beyond, which is just the kind of thing you would expect his ghost to do if it could. Or perhaps it had just gotten late and I was tired and hungry and becoming disturbingly obsessive about the whole thing.
Given the latter possibility, I decided to eat and drink, so I headed back toward the town center to Zemaiciu Smukle, one of the few places that serves Lithuanian cuisine in Vilnius (as usual, I have left out myriad squiggles that my keyboard is incapable of reproducing). I had discovered the place a few days earlier, when a Lithuanian friend took me there. When deciding on a restaurant, he had asked:
“What kind of food do you want to eat?”
“You’re kidding, right?”
Despite his evident lack of enthusiasm for his native cuisine, we had gone to Zemaiciu Smukle, of which it must be said they have excellent beer. One can also sample such delicacies as boiled pig ears, which are considered a pub snack in Lithuania, as well as “zeppelins,” which are so named because they are shaped like zeppelins, although they are nowhere near as light. Zemaiciu Smukle is full of tourists, while the French restaurant next door is full of Lithuanians, which is kind of a hint, I suppose. The French place, though, does not have very cool little vaulted dining rooms—in which one sits at a heavy wooden table—spread throughout it, nor does it have so much weaponry on the walls.
I’ve reached the conclusion there is a “weapons on walls” belt extending from the Rhine to the eastern edge of Europe. Restaurants east of the Rhine seem to have a penchant for hanging their walls with bows and swords and halberds and such. At the end of our small dining room hung crossed battle axes that were far larger than one would imagine necessary, while above my head hung a morning star that was not as securely fastened to the wall as would have been my wont. This is not uncommon once you cross into Germany and head east. I’ve never seen so much as a slingshot hanging on a restaurant wall in France or Italy.
While eating my duck soup (I just had to try duck soup—in homage to Groucho; it was not good), I thought of asking the waiter about Zappa. His first response was that the statue was in Kaunas, not Vilnius, but I knew enough to insist that he was wrong. He therefore said he would ask his colleagues and get back to me. After a while he returned with a map. “Here!” he proclaimed, with such confidence that it didn’t even occur to me to doubt him. Since the here to which he referred was not that close to where I was, and since it was getting late, I hailed a cab and pointed out my destination on the map to the cab driver, who answered with an enthusiastic “Sure, boss!” and then sped off as though we were delivering a fresh heart to a waiting transplant patient. During taxi rides such as these, I have a personal survival strategy, which is to close my eyes. When you do that, the swaying of the car is actually quite relaxing, and while you are still just as likely to die in a horrific automobile accident, you are far less likely to develop stress-related chronic illnesses such as high blood pressure.
This time, I found a statue of a man named something like Giurtonaz. He wasn’t as good-looking as Cirkej, but at least he had a nice big bushy mustache, which was a step in the right direction.
The next morning, I had a very early flight home to Paris, and so I assumed that my Lithuanian trip would end without my having met Frank Zappa’s bronze effigy. In one last desperate attempt, I asked the desk clerk as I checked out (a different desk clerk). He sighed, and explained exactly where the statue can be found, then asked which was my favorite Zappa album (for the record: Weasels Ripped My Flesh, for the title as much as for the music). I instructed the taxi driver to drive, slowly, to Zappa, then on to the airport, which he did, except for the part about driving slowly.
And there was Frank. The statue is a bronze bust on a high steel column just off of Kaulinausko Street. Zappa seems a little too majestic, more like Rodin’s Balzac than a man who named his children Moon Unit and Dweezil. But then, it must be remembered that Bogdanas had spent something like fifty years sculpting Soviet political leaders. The statue is appropriately surrounded by walls covered in artistic (and some less artistic) graffiti with musical themes (except for the South Park figure). There are a couple of small brown benches near it in case anyone gets pensive.
I had no time to sit, though—I was already running late, and while Vilnius was actually a nice place to visit, it was about time to get home, put Burnt Weeny Sandwich in the CD player, and remember what Frank Zappa sounded like when he still graced the planet with his presence.