Arts, Culture & Media

In the former East Germany, Frank Zappa lives on as a beacon of freedom

zappa top - 1.jpg

Bad Doberan, Germany is the home of Zappanale, an annual summer festival inspired by the life and work of Frank Zappa.

Credit:

Patrick Cox/PRI

Wolfhard Kutz has lived two lives.

Player utilities

Listen to the Story.

One before the Berlin Wall came down. And one after.

While the wall was still in place, he was a citizen of socialist East Germany, where he was spied on a lot.

Soon after East Germany ceased to exist, Wolfhard was allowed to read his Stasi file.

"I read that I have a tape recorder and a turntable and played records," he tells me in the latest episode of the World in Words podcast. 

The Stasi, of course, were East Germany’s secret police. They enlisted ordinary people to report back about their neighbors, their friends, their family. Most people’s files are absurdly mundane. You read a book, you go a café, you listen to a musician.

Wolfhard Kutz grew up in the former East Germany where he became a Frank Zappa fan. After the Berlin Wall came down, he founded the Zappanale festival.  

Credit:

Patrick Cox

 

In Kutz’s case,  21 people informed on him and his listening habits. He says his Stasi file branded him a decadent young man influenced by propaganda from the West. Worst of all, he says with a rueful laugh, "I influenced young people with the music of Frank Zappa." 

The main stage at the 2017 Zappanale festival in Bad Doberan, Germany. 

Credit:

Patrick Cox

Today, Kutz runs Zappanale, a festival dedicated to the life and rock of Frank Zappa. It takes place every summer in Wolfhard's hometown, Bad Doberan, a couple of miles south of Germany's Baltic coast.

Peter Görs, another East German-raised founder of Zappanale, with his wife Kerstin.

Credit:

Patrick Cox

It may seem laughable that Frank Zappa preoccupied the Stasi so much. Zappa was no revolutionary, though he was critical of American politics and culture. But mainly, he was a guitar virtuoso who commissioned orchestras to play his music, and who had a taste for salacious lyrics. 

But the Stasi were on to something. Even if they didn’t understand Zappa, they understood that people who liked Zappa were trouble. 

Credit:

Patrick Cox

In the former West Germany, Zappa's records were freely available. He was a star, but no better understood than in the East. One of his more notoriously offensive songs, "Bobby Brown," was a huge hit, but the words were lost on most German listeners. 

Jim Cohen talking to a couple of fans during a break in his presentation at Zappanale. Each year at the festival he presents annotated lectures on Frank Zappa songs.  

Credit:

Patrick Cox

Enter Jim Cohen, an American Zappa fan living in Germany who delighted in informing his German roommate what the song was about.

"When I told him about the bondage and the discipline and various gender-mixing going on in the song, he was just aghast." 

And so began Cohen’s career as a cultural interpreter. He was the original rap genius long before rap genius existed. He was just getting going with his day job as a technical translator. It wasn’t long until he had an evening gig too — at a seedy Munich bar. There he delivered boozy lectures about Zappa songs. 

Svenja Greier is a regular at Zappanale.

Credit:

Patrick Cox

Cohen's lecture style is casual. Beer in hand, he takes his German audiences line-by-line through cultural tours of Zappa's America. At this year's Zappanale, he explained references to Jerry Lewis telethons, Jack-in-the-Box restaurants, frozen beef pieces from Boney’s market, a Dudley Do-Right wrist watch and a Southern California car dealership that leases Cadillacs — all in the name of explaining the meaning of an epic Zappa song called "Billy the Mountain."

A fan at the 2017 Zappanale festival, Bad Doberan, Germany.

Credit:

Patrick Cox

It sounds much better in the podcast, so give it a listen by clicking the play button above. Better yet, subscribe at Apple podcasts.

You can follow The World in Words stories on Facebook or Twitter.

With support from the National Endowment for the Humanities