Never mind free and fair elections, independent judiciaries or respect for ethnic minorities, a country can only really be declared democratic if its leaders are big enough to allow the erection of a monument to the late, lamented Frank Zappa.
That, at least, is the theory of Saulius Paukstys, a 31-year-old Lithuanian photographer who, in his private life, doubles as president of the country’s thriving Frank Zappa fan club.
During a visit to California in 1992, Paukstys was actually granted a brief audience with the zany rock star, whose anti-establishment stance made him a cult figure in Lithuania and much of Eastern Europe during Soviet times.
Zappa’s death from cancer one year later hit Paukstys and fellow devotees hard and in a flash of inspiration he vowed to erect a lasting memorial to his great mentor.
“We have lots of busts and statues to long-dead Lithuanian poets and artists and I suddenly thought, ‘Why not put one up to Zappa’?” he says.
“Okay, so Zappa never visited Lithuania and had absolutely no connection with the country, but as far as I was concerned, this was a test of our new-found freedom. Lithuania had just proclaimed itself to be a democratic country. I wanted to test it and see if I would be able to realize my ideas.”
Having gathered numerous signatures from artists, writers and younger members of the Lithuanian parliament, Paukstys presented a petition to the city government requesting permission to build a bust of Zappa outside the Vilnius art academy. While surprised, the authorities did not turn the project down—as long as they did not have to pay for it.
Teachers at the academy, however, were less keen on the idea, fearing that a memorial to a man still revered for his anti-establishment songs could corrupt the innocent minds of their students.
In the end, the location was changed, but, with some one-thousand dollars raised for its construction, the stone bust on top of its 4-meter high stainless steel column was duly unveiled late last year.
Zappa himself would no doubt have enjoyed the irony of the ceremony, which included a stirring performance by the city’s military band, a firework display, and plenty of toasts to 70-year-old local sculptor Konstantinas Bogdanas, a man who was previously better known for his depictions of the likes of Lenin and other communist heroes.
Paukstys claims that the bust—which shows a pony-tailed Zappa in a rather sombre mood in the later years of his life—is the first of its kind in the world.
It is not, however, the first example of a propensity among Lithuanians to embrace the weird and wacky.
In 1992 the country’s basketball team achieved international fame by defeating Russia to take the bronze medal at the Barcelona Olympic Games—and then by turning up at the awards ceremony in psychedelic multi-coloured T-shirts donated by the legendary rock band, The Grateful Dead.
When the band’s former lead singer, Jerry Garcia, died last year, the Lithuanian Prime minister sent a personal note of condolence and his spokesman said that Lithuania had been proud to have such a famous band as a sponsor.
More recently, Vilnius has chalked up another first with the opening of a bar named NATO’s which is nothing less than a celebration of the western military alliance which Lithuania aspires to join.
When NATO Secretary General Javier Solana visited the Baltic states a few years ago, he was taken inside NATO’s which, in addition to a display of guns, grenades and mock missiles, has a menu which boasts “Red Mine Caviar,” “Demarcation Chicken” and “Remains of a Partisan.”
This would clearly not be the place to bring Russian President Boris Yeltsin for lunch, but Solana seemed quite impressed.
“This is a very particular place,” the NATO chief told local reporters. “Indeed, it is the first time I have ever seen anything like it in my life.”
Editor’s Note: The Frank Zappa monument is located at Kalinausko 1 near the Vilnius city center.