By Adam B. Ellick
When a group of quirky Lithuanian artists who dubbed themselves the Frank Zappa Fan Club erected the world's only Zappa statue in 1995, their heartwarming story received worldwide media attention.
The story started a year before Zappa's death in 1993, when club president Saulius Paukstys met the zany rock star while visiting America. The encounter inspired Paukstys to build a bust of Zappa, despite the fact that Zappa had never stepped foot in this tiny Baltic nation.
"It was a test of Lithuania's freedom," said Paukstys of the statue's being.
Six years later, while the Zappa statue still stands strong in the Lithuanian capital Vilnius, organizers have finally come clean on the untold truth behind this artistic oddity.
It goes like this: In the early Nineties, a determined group of Zappa-admiring friends gathered regularly in a local cafe to swap records. Communist rule, which suppressed American culture, had recently collapsed, opening the doors for Lithuanian music lovers to get their hands on previously inaccessible Western albums.
Paukstys, thirty-seven, and his friends sought to spread their love of Zappa, who was all but unknown to Lithuania's 3 million citizens. But with no personal connection to the American legend, the club resorted to bluffing its way into the limelight by creating two bogus Zappa exhibits at a local art gallery. The first featured letters supposedly written by Zappa to his Lithuanian admirers. Widespread reaction in Vilnius inspired a second exhibit titled "Memorial Objects of Frank Zappa," featuring clocks, knives, pens and clothes claimed to have been owned by Zappa. But none of the items had traveled further than Paukstys' apartment.
The made-up exhibitions were a massive hit with the Lithuanian public, most of whom -- due to the political situation -- readily embraced anything American. When local journalists inquired about the exhibitions, Paukstys promptly fabricated his widely published story about his brush with Zappa.
"We just needed a story," says dry-humored, mild-mannered Paukstys. "We never saw Zappa, but nobody ever saw God, and they still go to church," says partner-in-crime Vytautas Kernagis, a respected Lithuania musician. "Lithuania is a nation of mythology, legends and fairy tales. Everything is mystified. People believe really quickly, and one of the myths is that independence is good for everyone, with no exceptions. That's why, in such an environment, the Zappa seeds were so successfully planted."
Paukstys tested the phenomenon's limits by proposing a Vilnius-based Zappa statue to the city council. He accumulated more than 300 signatures from bandwagon Zappa fans and offered to privately finance the project. The cash-strapped state deemed it absurd, but nonetheless approved the measure.
To many, the Zappa project symbolized a chance for Lithuania to distance itself from Russia while boasting its Western aspirations. Thanks to concerts and donated art works sold for cash, the Club raised nearly $3,000. Konstantinas Bogdanas, the most renowned Lithuanian sculptor who made his living casting portraits of Vladimir Lenin, donated his skills. The owner of a big business construction company installed the 4.2-meter high bronze bust in exchange for a bottle of liquor.
The only detour came when the original plan to plant the monument near a city art school incited outrage from school administrators, who feared a statue of Zappa, known for his anti-establishment lyrics, would corrupt its students. So Paukstys proposed a new site, and today a somber, pony-tailed Zappa rests in a peaceful park, just a thirty-second walk from one of the city's main drags. Thanks to a French art club, a Zappa portrait looks on the statue from an the adjacent wall.
Zappa surely would have appreciated the irony of the statue's opening ceremony, when a military orchestra played his tunes. The company that owns the rights to Zappa's songs in the country donated the entire oeuvre and heaps of books on the skilled guitarist to the fan club. All of this authentic paraphernalia was housed in an art gallery, but since some collectibles soon disappeared, Paukstys now stores the materials at home.
Today, the statue is mainly a tourist attraction and a site for radio stations to do remote broadcasts. "It was a bluff and it turned into an art," says Kernagis.
"This movement has brought together a lot of people from different social surroundings, from both Lithuania and abroad," says Saulius Pilinkus, an original Zappa supporter.
But with no funds and Western culture no longer a novelty, the Zappa Fan Club has withered: only fifteen of the original 300 members still meet on occasion to listen to Zappa tunes -- "Bobby Brown" is a favorite -- and talk about life. The meetings take place at a cafe in bohemian Uzupis, an independent republic within Vilnius that boasts its own council and an army of seventeen.
"It might sound a little bit paradoxical, but in 1994 and 1995 we were more open," says Pilinkus. "There was more euphoria and people were more enthusiastic and today we are divided. We were more open to all things and events that were coming from the West, and today people are more critical of Western values."