Zappa takes his place in nation for the wacky

Never mind free and fair elections, independent judiciaries or respect for ethnic minorities. A country can only be declared truly 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 up as President of the country's thriving Frank Zappa club.

In a visit to California in 1992, Mr 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 Mr 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 realise my ideas."

Having gathered 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. Perhaps surprisingly, the authorities agreed.

Teachers at the academy, however, were less keen, fearing that a memorial to a man still revered for his anti-establishment songs could corrupt the innocent minds of students.

In the end, the location was changed, but, with a $1,000 raised for its construction, the stone bust on top of its 4-metre 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, 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 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 whacky.

In 1992 the country's basketball team defeated Russia to take bronze medal at the Barcelona Olympics - and then turned up for the awards ceremony in psychedelic 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 sponsor.

More recently, Vilnius has chalked up another first with the opening of a bar named "Nato's" - a celebration of the Western military alliance which Lithuania aspires to join.

When Nato Secretary-General Javier Solana visited the Baltic states last month 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 to lunch, but Mr Solana seemed cheerfully bemused. "This is a very particular place," the Nato chief said. "Indeed, it is the first time I have seen anything like it in my life."

Adrian Bridge

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