Hungry Freak, Daddy-O
On 16 April 1959, the eighteen year old Frank Zappa sent a four-page typed ‘beat’ poem to publisher Grover Haynes. Haynes responded positively to L.A. Night Piece and asked Frank for some “interesting information” on himself. Frank supplied the following:
Thinks life is a big blast
Digs Pierre Boullez (sic)
and Muddy Waters
Digs eastern philosophy
and thick coffee
Otherwise normal . . . .
He then had a change of heart (possibly due to there being no ‘bread’ on offer) and wrote another letter to Haynes insisting it was “VERY IMPORTANT!” for his name to be changed to Vincent Beldon when the poem was published.
How did he come up with this pseudonym? Obviously Vincent was his real middle name, but why Beldon? I asked some of those who might know – including Lorraine Belcher and two of his siblings – but they couldn’t answer that particular question. Denny Walley wasn’t sure either, but pointed out that, “Belden is the name of the company that makes the best cable for guitar cords.” Maybe Frank slightly modified the spelling? Maybe we’ll never know?
My friend Deepinder Cheema acquired the original poem and covering letter some years ago, and got to show it to Gail Zappa backstage at London’s Roundhouse in 2010. He also enabled Frank’s brother Bob to catch sight of it, who recognised his father’s handwriting on the envelope. Deepinder said, “I was surprised by this revelation as FZ senior not only took an interest in whatever his son was doing but helped out when he needed to. As Bob was then the world’s most ‘senior Zappa’, I was glad to have done so as a year or so later we were shocked to wake up to Bob having expired. It is to my eternal regret that we never met.”
On 18 June 2017, Deepinder took the documents to the BBC’s Elstree studios for the recording of an Entertainment Special of its long-running Antiques Roadshow. He very kindly invited me along as his guest, and was duly filmed presenting these artefacts to Mark Hill outside the Queen Vic in Albert Square. Hill’s assessment was that it was worth five bags, but unfortunately the segment didn’t make it to the finished show (broadcast on 5 February 2018); instead it focussed more on memorabilia celebrating the history of film and television, like the axe wielded by Jack Nicholson in The Shining, as well as the strange collection of artefacts by a dedicated fan of the late Shirley Crabtree, better known as the wrestler ‘Big Daddy’.
It was evident that the BBC could add nothing to our research, despite a subtle plea by Deepinder to enlist people from FZ’s early adulthood that could solve a few mysteries about FZ and beatdom. Deepinder: “I was very disappointed with the BBC: it was in complete contrast to the superb PBS History Detectives episode about the ‘Drum Shop’ collage that FZ made a few years after Vincent Beldon. It had been found in a thrift shop and they explained the painting with the help of Gail Zappa, Calvin Schenkel & Bob, as well as the actual drum shop with members of the owner’s family.”
One interesting nugget we did ascertain from Lorraine Belcher was that Frank had used the same machine to type both L.A. Night Piece and the lyrics for Trouble Every Day, the original text of which she still has: “He mailed it to me after reading it over the phone during the Watts Riots. I, too, had been watching the whole thing on TV. It's kind of wrinkled after all these years, but still such a fantastic piece.”
L.A. Night Piece was published by the Three Penny Press – alongside ‘free verse’ by W. Maurice Lacy and Walter C. Brown – in a magazine entitled Split From Twinkling Hell.
The piece contains a number of conceptual continuity clues:
It mentions his favourite vegetable, in the guise of Kools and Lucky Strike cigarettes.
Name-checked are: R&B singer Johnny Ace, who had a string of hit singles in the 1950s and accidentally shot himself in the head on Christmas day, 1954; Little Julian Herrera, whose doo-wop group The Tigers at one time included future Mother Ray Collins; and R&B saxophonist and Freak Out! listee Joe Houston, whose playing style Frank described as, “Simple and savagely direct – he’d honk and wail as hard as he could, from any conceivable position: on his knees, lying on his back, etc.”
The final section of the poem is headed ‘El Monte Legion Stadium’, which was originally built for wrestling matches for the 1932 LA Olympic Games, and later became a popular venue for music shows and dances. The stadium was demolished in 1974, but was immortalised by FZ in The Penguins’ Memories Of El Monte and Dog Breath, In The Year Of The Plague.
‘Canvas bags’ appear as an underlined sub-title. In a 1970 interview with Jay Ruby for Jazz & Pop magazine, Frank talked about the US TV horror host, John Zacherle, who broadcast horror movies in Philadelphia and New York in the 1950s. He said, "He did a thing on television one Halloween night where he took two burlap bags filled with jello and then explained to the audience that these were two amoebas and he was going to force-mate them right there in front of your eyes – and for five minutes he wacked these things together, all this gelatine squirting out of the holes, you know!" This undoubtedly made an impression on him and may have inspired the track Khaki Sack, which he recorded at the Record Plant during sessions for Chunga's Revenge. This was one of the unreleased pieces performed by the Hologram band in 2019.
And finally, there’s a Jesus-looking guy wearing a “gray-green sweater that looks itchy” which brings to mind the 200 Motels piece, Little Green Scratchy Sweaters & Courduroy Ponce.
All in all, this brief foray into the kingdom of Beatdom is a very interesting but little known part of Frank’s Big Note. While we have seen much evidence of FZ’s greeting cards and artwork from this period, it sadly seems he was happy to bury Beldon. But we will continue to forage for clues.
Anyone out there able to help us?
All photos courtesy of Deepi.