Frank Zappa: The Maryland Years

By Rafael Alvarez [1]

The Baltimore Sun Magazine, October 12, 1986


The year was 1968, summertime, and I was a 10-year-old fifth-grader on vacation with my family in Ocean City. With long-haired, freaky hippies and psychedelic music grooving everywhere, it was hard to act hip wearing Bermuda shorts and a peach-fuzz wiffle haircut.

But the image of this strange, nearly nude man hanging from a Boardwalk souvenir shop provided yet another opportunity to jab the rock ’n’ roll needle into my parents’ sensibilities.

The poster — and the brush fire of scatological rumors about Zappa that grew fat and far beyond such indiscretions as being photographed on the john — went a long way in turning my head.

It went that much further in turning my mother’s stomach. “You can forget about buying that one,” said Mom.

Four years would pass until I finally became turned on to Frank Zappa, whose eccentric labors in contemporary music will be “legitimized” this Thursday night when members of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra perform one of his compositions at Westminster Church, Fayette and Greene streets.

Like most other Marylanders digging into Zappa’s long, varied career for clues to the man behind the sound track, one of the first things I was told by those in the know was that he was a local boy.

The truth usually stopped there, with the mangled information passed on something like this:

“Frank went to my high school, man. Oh yeah, he graduated from Glen Burnie High. He used to party up there all the time.”

“He grew up in Catonsville. My sister said he went to Catonsville High School but got kicked out for being weird.”

“Hey man, like Zappa grew up in Essex. It’s true. His father worked at Bethlehem Steel.”

Those succumbing to the lure of such lore have not exclusively been teenage boys hot for Zappa’s naughty lyrics and the lusty squeal of an electric guitar.

Dig the following true confessions of State Sen. John Pica, a Democrat representing Northeast Baltimore and longtime Zappa fan.

Mr. Pica, eager to make small talk with the composer last March 18 when Frank visited Maryland’s General Assembly to help argue down an obscenity bill aimed at sanitizing rock ’n’ roll, trotted out his own version of the old myths.

“For years I thought he was a Hamilton boy who went to Towson High School until I asked him myself,” said Mr. Pica. “I had always thought he grew up in my district, and he didn’t.”

Such tales — “complete fiction,” would be a favorite Zappa description — go on and on, with the locales ranging from one side of the state to the other.

The myths only added to the mystique of an adamantly anti-drug performer who is forever accused of being on some sort of substance to create his sounds, and who, for two decades, has had to put up with such lies as those insisting he once ingested human excrement on stage and that he is the son of Mr. Green Jeans from the old “Captain Kangaroo” show.

“I never set out to be weird,” he said. “It was always other people who called me weird.”

* * *

“Frankie probably doesn’t even know this but at his birth he almost didn’t make it,” said Maria “Aunt Mary” Cimino, the 85-year-old sister of Rose Marie Zappa, Frank’s 74-year-old mother.

Aunt Mary is sitting at the dining room table of her apartment next to Seton High School on North Charles Street. Spread over the table are old family photos and newspaper clippings about her famous nephew, the earliest from the time he won a fire prevention poster contest in the ninth grade.

“The doctor had delivered about nine babies that day and didn’t want to do any more so he gave Rose Marie some kind of drug to retard her labor,” she continued, noting that she had a front-row seat at Mercy Hospital for the entire episode on Dec. 21, 1940.

“The baby was born breech and it was going from bad to worse,” she says. “At one point it looked like they might lose mother and child, Rose Marie needed a blood transfusion.

“When the nurse finally brought him out he was limp and his skin looked black. Rose Marie’s husband was crying that the boy wouldn’t live, but Frankie fooled him — he made it.”

Today, 20 years and nearly 40 albums after his Mothers of Invention made its debut with the rocking satire of America called “Freak Out,” Zappa has made it in terms understandable to any American businessman.

That is, he succeeds in marketing his music and related projects to the tune of six digits a year while maintaining complete control over every aspect of his work from conception to consumption.

His home contains a $2 million recording studio, and a universe of Zappa products — from T-shirts to videos to deluxe packages of his vintage albums — are available through a mail-order business run by his wife, Gail. They have four children.

Zappa’s fans — global, legion and as diverse as the musical styles he draws on — provide the cash and attention that allow Zappa artistic and business independence without the noose of fickle pop fashion.

“He’s into playing what he wants and not what people would like to hear,” said Richard Gill, a 28-year-old tuba major at the Peabody Institute. “He’s contributed more to music by what he is than he could have by ... going to a conservatory ... or playing lounge music all his life.”

Despised by some as a puerile pervert, loved by others for his guts, wit and guitar virtuosity, Zappa is acknowledged by both sides as an articulate, informed man of uncommon intelligence.

“I’ll put my brains up against anybody, any day of the week” he said. “I don’t wear a suit all the time, but I can put one on when I have to.”

His most recent opportunity to do both flashed across the nation’s consciousness earlier this year when Zappa appeared before U.S. Senate and Maryland legislative committees to give biting arguments against the labeling of rock ’n’ roll records considered obscene by conservative groups.

“We’ve got a bear by the tail here ...,“ muttered Sen. Ernest “Fritz” Hollings D-S.C., in an aside during Washington hearings where Zappa compared the proposed censorship of rock to “treating dandruff with decapitation.”

“He’s self-made and he can talk to anybody,” declared Frank’s mom in a phone interview from her North Hollywood, Calif., duplex. “He doesn’t mince words, does he?”

Still contemplating a generation’s worth of Zappa photos spread on her dining room table, Aunt Mary wonders how a baby “with such beautiful eyelashes,” grew into the outspoken, hairy ’60s freak of rock fame.

“Sometimes,” she said. “I look at them, and I say to myself, ‘Is that Frankie?’”

* * *

After leaving the maternity ward, Rose Marie and the infant Zappa went home with Frank Sr. to live with Rose Marie’s family, the Colimores, in a West Baltimore rowhouse at 2019 Whittier Ave., at the corner of Monroe Street. To this day, a fig tree planted in the back yard by the Colimore family continues to bloom.

Frank Zappa’s local roots, on both sides of his family, have their beginnings around Baltimore’s old industrial waterfront.

Rose Marie’s father, Charles Colimore, was a small-business man and native of Naples who owned a lunchroom called Little Charlie’s at 122 Market Place near Pratt Street, and an adjacent confectionery.

Careful to point out that he is far from a family historian — he reportedly can’t remember the year his father died — Zappa remembered his paternal grandfather as a Sicilian immigrant and pier-side barber who made a living separating stubble from the rough-skinned jowls of seamen.

“One of my father’s first jobs in life, he must have been about 6, was standing on a little wooden box in his father’s barbershop — he got paid a penny a day to put lather on the faces of sailors,” said Zappa during recent interviews in New York.

“What they said about my [paternal] grandfather was that he never took a bath, used to drink a lot of wine, and started every day with a full glass of Bromo Seltzer,” said Zappa. “And because he didn’t take a bath, he wore a lot of clothes, and put cologne on. He had a terminal case of ring around the collar, one of those kind of fat Italian guys who would sit on the porch.”

The Zappa family only lived at the Colimore home for a short time, probably less than two years, according to Aunt Mary, who remembers the year of Mr. Zappa’s death as 1973.

Mr. Colimore died in 1941, his wife sold the house not long afterward, “and we all went our separate ways,” said Mrs. Zappa, a 1931 Seton High School graduate.

Mr. Zappa, one of four children to survive his mother’s 18 pregnancies, was teaching math at Loyola High School not long after the birth of his namesake, according to Mrs. Zappa.

When the family left Whittier Avenue they took an apartment in the 4600 block of Park Heights Ave.

“I remember it was one of those rowhouses,” said Zappa, whose parents often spoke Italian in the home. “There was an alley in the back and down the alley used to come the knife sharpener man — you know, a guy with the wheel. And everybody used to come down off their back porch to the alley to get their knives and scissors done.”

While living on Park Heights, Mrs. Zappa and Aunt Mary would take young Frankie to the Lexington and Howard Street shopping districts on the weekends.

“He was about 3 years old and he saw three nuns on the street,” said Aunt Mary. “He pointed to them and said: ‘Look at the lady penguins.’ We looked at him and said, ‘Where did he get that from?’”

The bulk of Zappa’s Maryland memories, “are connected mostly to ill health,” he said. “In my earliest years my best friend was a vaporizer with the [expletive] snout blowing that steam in my face. I was sick all the time.”

Mrs. Zappa said that in addition to being prone to severe colds, her son was asthmatic, which kept him in the house a lot. She credits this for the fascination with reading developed by the oldest of her four children.

“The whole time he had to stay in bed and rest he would have all his books on the bed,” she said. “He was always creating something or inventing, he never liked sports. Every month something new would come for him in the mail.”

Early and wide reading, supported later by independent study at public libraries, satisfied a hyper curiosity that possessed the young boy.

“I never thought it was a bad thing to increase my amount of knowledge,” he said. “But my seeking for different kinds of knowledge was being conducted at a time when it was completely unfashionable to be intelligent.”

About the time that Frankie was ready to start school, the Zappa family moved from the city to Harford County.

Mr. Zappa, who earned a history degree at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill while supporting himself as a barber, had landed a job as a government researcher, and began a career in meteorology and metallurgy at the Aberdeen Proving Ground.

The family settled in a neighborhood of Army housing in Edgewood. Frank remembers the address as 15 Dexter St., located in a now- demolished project.

“We were living in a house that was made out of cardboard almost,” he said. “They were duplexes made out of clapboard ... real flimsy stuff, real cheezoid.

“In those days they were making mustard gas at Edgewood and each member of the family had a gas mask hanging in the closet in case the tanks broke. That was really my main toy at that time. That was my space helmet. I decided to get a can opener and open it up.

“It satisfied my scientific curiosity but it rendered the gas mask useless. My father was so upset when he found out ... he said, ‘If the tanks break, who doesn’t get the mask?’ It was Frankie up the creek.

“I was fascinated by [poison gas] ... The idea that you could make a chemical, and then all you had to do was smell it and you die ... For years in grammar school every time we had to do a science report I would always do mine on what I knew about poison gas.”

Zappa remembers his early home life as “fairly poor,” to the point that taking a Sunday drive to see the shop where his grandfather cut hair would have been considered “a rather large waste of money.

“I swear I don’t remember a single Christmas present” from the Maryland days, said Zappa, who recalled a trip to the Shot Tower and a rare visit or two to Haussner’s Restaurant in East Baltimore.

Once in Harford County, Zappa was enrolled in Edgewood School, which is no longer used but still stands on Cedar Drive. His first-grade teacher, Mary H. Spencer, an Edgewood resident, recalls a boy who, “was fairly mischievous, but he wasn’t naughty.”

A colleague of Ms. Spencer’s at the time was Cybil Gunther, who holds sharper Zappa memories.

“I had him in the third grade,” said Ms. Gunther. “And sometimes when I tell people I had Frank Zappa in class their mouths just fall open.”

She said she taught Zappa at a time “when we had 40 or more in a class and kids could get lost in a crowd. Frank didn’t get lost in the crowd but it wasn’t music he was into — he was big on drama.

“For any reason I had to leave the room, I could turn to Frank and he would hold the whole class enthralled with something,” she said. “I never did figure out what it was, but there never was any trouble with the class because Frank was doing something that never really made any sense to me.

“It was some sort of drama ... my impression [of Zappa’s act] would be some sort of cowboys and Indians. I don’t know that he liked the attention, but he liked doing what he was doing.”

Actually, said Zappa, he was attempting to recreate the crashing temple scene from the movie “Samson and Delilah.”

Whatever it was, Ms. Gunther was able to hit a clear key into Zappa’s career without the benefit of seeing any of his professional performances:

“I always had the feeling that he was doing it for himself,” she said. “That it was rather immaterial to him whether people really sat there and listened, but he was happy in what he was doing.”

“His papa was a character, too,” said Ms. Gunther of the proud man who rode the New World work ethic to become a scientist. “Mr. Zappa wanted to have the whole school screened so that flies wouldn’t get in. I think eventually the cafeteria was screened.”

Zappa’s memories of the Edgewood years include catching bugs in the woods, learning how to make gunpowder, and playing with laboratory stuff — flasks, beakers and vials his father brought home from work.

His interest in arts and crafts would grow beyond the cardboard tubes from rolls of linoleum that he used as pillars to be knocked down in his Samson act and became more involved with drawing and the building of puppets.

Through it all he continued to be in poor health, particularly susceptible to flus and viruses. When he was about 7, his parents decided to move to Florida in the hope that a warmer climate and having the child’s tonsils removed would help.

“You know what it was like?” said Zappa. “Suddenly I was in a state that was entirely in Technicolor. All my life I’d been seeing things in black and white while living in Maryland. And here I was down there and it was flowers, trees, it was great. It seemed like suddenly, BOOM!, here’s Technicolor.

“So then they thought I was OK, we moved back, and I got sick again. It was just totally bleak.”

On their return, Zappa entered the third-grade and became smitten with a fellow 8-year-old by the name of Marlene Beck, “a nice girl,” according to Zappa.

“Jesus God Almighty,” howled the present Marlene Baer between belly-laughs after being told that Frank Zappa had named her as his original grade-school sweetheart. “I don’t believe this.”

“I don’t remember being his girlfriend but he was a cut-up ... kind of like being the class clown,” she said. “He was a very nice person, but he was always kind of strange. We were just teeny kids.”

As Frankie’s illnesses continued, Mr. Zappa decided the family would leave for a warmer climate permanently. This time, said Frank, his father “decided to go West. One day he came home with pictures, and said, ‘What do you think about going here to the desert?’ And he shows us more of these cardboard houses.... I was going, ‘No. I don’t want to go there.’ But he thought it was nice.

“My father was so nostalgic for where he used to live in Sicily. [The village] Partiniko is about a 45-minute drive outside of Palermo, and the terrain looks like Arizona. It’s got that same kind of desert and mountains.

“... Any time he would see cowboy movies or anything to do with the desert he thought it could be a really wonderful place. He thought the desert was great, but I didn’t, and my mother didn’t either. So he took a job in California at the Naval Post Graduate School in Monterey.”

The family — which now included a second son, Bobby, with two more children to follow in California — left Maryland in November 1950, and made the rounds of goodbyes to family and friends.

“It was sad,” said Aunt Mary. “Rose Marie thought it would just be for a while.”

Zappa said that the family, “remained in the poor category even after we moved to California. We drove across country in a Henry J. There is nothing more uncomfortable than the back seat of a Henry J because a Henry J didn’t have a trunk in the back. You got to the trunk by pulling down the back seat to throw your stuff in there.

“That seat was a piece of wood with covering. To spend 3,000 miles riding in the back of a car like that with all your worldly possessions piled on top of you, that is not a terrific experience.

“So my father had these fantasies about California, how wonderful it was, how warm. We took off in the middle of winter and took the southern route, going down through South Carolina.

“...there was this black family out in the field working. He said, ‘Wait a minute!’ He stops the car, and goes over to these people and handed them every stitch of winter clothing that we owned, every bit of it: ‘Here, take this with our blessings’ and then we left. They were very grateful.

“However, by the time we got to Monterey, which is in northern California it was raining constantly and we didn’t have any coats. My dad thought all of California was like cowboy movies — he didn’t know.”

On the West Coast, Frank’s attention slowly began to turn away from art and toward music. He said he originally began to compose music because he liked the visual images of the notes, and enjoyed drawing them. This would lead to crude attempts at composing chamber and orchestra music, which he largely taught himself through books.

While boogie rhythms and do-wop lyrics were gobbling up entire generations of young people during the early days of rock ’n’ roll, which coincided with Zappa’s high school years, he would not merely be another grease mop obsessed with imitating Elvis.

Instead his intellectual adventures on the printed page would put him under the spell of experimental composer Edgar Varèse and black bluesmen like Johnny “Guitar” Watson.

Throughout his career such seemingly incongruous mosaics — like his sticking a kazoo into dissonant orchestral pieces — have marked his work.

“I think [the motivation was] a curiosity and tolerance for different styles — which some people are trying to legislate out of human behavior,” said Zappa. “Others should try this instead of narrowing their viewpoint”

Frustrated by his inability to get his compositions played, he turned somewhat reluctantly to rock ’n’ roll, forming his first band in high school and calling them the Blackouts.

“It’s not that I happen to dislike rock ’n’ roll music and was just doing it to while away the time. I happen to like it,” he said. “Musically, I started off when I was 12 playing the drums, started writing when I was 14 and changed to the guitar when I was 18.

“And all the time, until I was 20, I never wrote a rock ’n’ roll song. I listened to it, I liked it, I played it, but I never wrote it. The only stuff I was writing was chamber music and orchestra music, but I couldn’t get any of it played

“So if you can’t get your music played what do you do? Go where the action is ... so I started writing rock ’n’ roll music.”

The Zappa family spent three years in Monterey, lived in Pomona through 1954, spent a year or less in San Diego, and finally settled in the Mojave Desert town of Lancaster where Zappa graduated from Antelope Valley High School on Friday the 13th in June of 1958.

In school, Frank did well in the classes he enjoyed, such as music theory, but not so well in the ones his father the scientist believed were important, like math. Acknowledged by his teachers as exceptionally bright, but rebellious academically, Zappa was given a diploma despite a lack of required credits.

After graduation, he wanted to see some of the world, and his mother suggested a trip back to Baltimore to visit his relatives. Frank wrote Aunt Mary to get the OK.

“Besides sending thanks, this letter is going to be kind of a questionnaire,” he wrote. “The question being, ‘Could you find some space for me if I were to come and visit you and Uncle Robert?’ ... The reason for the trip is two-fold. Firstly, I would like to see the East again and all the relatives (most of which I probably couldn’t recognize by face at all) back there.

“The second reason is that I think I have invented something new in the way of music (probably not) which I would like to take to the conservatory back there for investigation. If I did come I would not stay long, and I would help out around the house any way I could, so please consider this request and write soon.”

Aunt Mary opened her home at 4805 Loch Raven Blvd. to her nephew and soon Zappa was traveling the length of the country on a train. Finally emerging from Penn Station, he said that:

“My relatives were shocked to see the way I looked. They were all so horrified that I think I was an embarrassment to them.

“I was accused,” he said, “of rampant drapery.” Which is to say he looked like a “drape,” a Baltimore term used to describe what Californians, according to Zappa, simply called juvenile delinquents.

Inspired by the fashion of his Mexican friends, the look included pants so pegged at the ankles that one could hardly get his foot through (some hipsters actually installed zippers), longish greasy hair combed in a barely controlled pompadour, sideburns and a wisp of a moustache, a zoot-suit inspired jacket, and Cuban-styled shoes.

In this costume he passed the time in such classic Baltimore pursuits as sitting on the front porch, shooing mosquitos and meeting relatives. He also wanted, but failed, to meet girls.

“At the time I got back [to Maryland] the girls were very, very Catholic and tended not to be stimulated by people who had [my] kind of appearance,” he said.

Zappa also endeavored in such non-traditional activities for white Baltimoreans in the late 1950s as taking a bus into the heart of black West Baltimore to search for stores for rhythm and blues records.

And then there was his cameo appearance with Aunt Mary in the tea room at Hutzler’s downtown department store.

“They wouldn’t let me in because I wasn’t properly dressed,” said Zappa, relishing the memory. “But they said if I wouldn’t mind, they had a seersucker coat in the closet that they saved for occasions like this and if I’d wear this they would let me sit down.

“So I put on the seersucker jacket. I’d started smoking when I was 15, and before we went to this place I stopped at a tobacco shop. I totally love tobacco, no question about it.

“And I went to this place, they had cigarettes of the world, and I bought all these different kinds, including something called ... Imperiala or something they were Russian cigarettes [with a little] tobacco and the rest was a long, hollow, cardboard tube in a fancy box. I thought after lunch I would light up this Russian cigarette in the tea room. Have you ever smelled Russian tobacco? Ho-ho, boy — I hadn’t.

“It was the most nauseating smell, and the minute I lit it, chairs began moving away while my aunt was trying to be polite. And I’m sitting there with this long, really elegant-looking but vile smelling Russian cigarette in my hand with a seersucker coat on — ha, ha, ha — having tea with Aunt Mary.”

Zappa hoped to travel to New York to visit French-born composer Edgar Varèse (1883-1965), an early and perhaps most major influence, during his East Coast trip, but the older man was not available.

Known as a pioneer of works for electronic sound, Varèse, like Zappa was very fond of rhythmic complexity and unpitched percussion. He is listed in musical histories as “an adventurous explorer of techniques and conceptions far ahead of his time.”

Varèse would die before Zappa could meet his idol. An insufficient consolation, however, was an introduction to Massimo Freccia, at the time the conductor of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, now in retirement in London.

He brought along his “new” music, a foreshadowing of the trademark Zappa pastiche of this and that, culled from here and there.

“I had brought manuscript paper to Maryland and was writing orchestra music at Aunt Mary’s house,” he said. “I was naive and thought [Freccia] could play it. He looked at [my appearance] and couldn’t believe I was writing orchestra music.”

Instead of discussing the earnest but somewhat crude Zappa compositions, Freccia instead quizzed the youngster with questions like: “What’s the lowest note on the bassoon?” The relationship ended there.

Returning to California after the two-week visit, he entered and dropped out of junior college, had several false starts of living on his own, appeared on Steve Allen’s “Tonight Show” to coax music from the spokes and wheels of a bicycle, and made his every dime from some form of music or musically related entertainment.

In 1964 he hooked up with a group of musicians who would become the outrageous Mothers of Invention.

Zappa’s considerable spot in music history — equally reserved by those who find him worthy of high praise for the intricate exactness of his classical, jazz, electronic and rock compositions, and those who hold him in contempt for too often applying those talents to the theater of smut — is assured despite total disregard for commercial and critical considerations.

“I like to be able to earn a living from doing what I like to do — without compromise,” he said. “I could be way more popular by doing formula stuff — there’s plenty of other things I could do that would make more money than what I’m doing. But who could stand to do it?

“There’s other people who like doing that, who enthusiastically write love songs, and do choreography and believe in it. Let them do it. I just want to do odd stuff that appeals to me. And if somebody likes it, great, and if they don’t like it, that’s great too. Just don’t get in my way.”

Hey, you gotta like a guy with such titles as “Bossa Nova Pevertamento.”

And now, almost 30 years later, the BSO — like a handful of other American and foreign orchestras — will finally perform a work by the hometown boy. The piece to be performed Thursday is titled “Dupree’s Paradise.”

“It’s a terrific upbeat piece, very well crafted,” said David Zinman, the BSO music director, who called Zappa “the exception to the [rock] rule.

“It’s not an easy piece — it is very tricky rhythmically, but I find it rewarding. It’s driving. I’ve enjoyed his rock music and he was always classically bent”

“I just hope,” said Zappa, deadly serious. “That they play it right.”

1. Rafael Alvarez is a city reporter for The Sun who frequently writes about music.

Read by OCR software. If you spot errors, let me know afka (at)