Abba Zaba song notes from Gary Marker

My musings on the meaning of the lyrics for that particular song aren’t my personal interpretation, I’m merely relaying what Don Van Vliet told me that the lyrics are all about. So, it’s the author/composer’s own interpretation of what the words mean, not mine.


The words are about human evolution, which Don somehow seemed to feel took place on the Indian subcontinent – not Eastern Africa. He apparently wasn’t familiar with L.S.B. Leakey and his various progeny and kin – or their discoveries at Olduvai Gorge.

“Babbette Baboon” is an ape-like creature on the brink of “comin’ over pretty soon” to a more humanoid existence – if she can survive being eaten by a tiger or choked to death by smoke and volcanic ash (tabbaco sky), or caught by a mysterious stalker.

The original lyrics went on for pages, but Don had the good sense to whittle them down to just a few puzzling lines and repeated phrases. But occasionally, the POV shifts to her fellow proto-human stalker (who can’t lose, with the stuff he uses – namely, tools), who eventually catches Babette, they copulate (go-zoom!), and go off for a walk in the sun (two shadows at noon) – a kind of furry Adam and Eve, the parents of the human race.

Lyric variations

The variations were from a typewritten copy of a hand-scrawled sheet of paper from a yellow legal pad, in the composer/lyricist’s own hand with a couple “stanzas” written out by John French – all of it done at my request.

Most of the variations are what Don wrote himself in the original. For example, sometimes he’d begin the song with: “Long before song, before song blues…”, or sometimes “Song before song…” Making things even more difficult, his voice is double-tracked – and on one take he’d sing “Long” and on a parallel track or subsequent take, he’d sing “Song,” and both were blended together in the final mix. Ditto for phrases such as “gonna catch her soon” vs. “gonna catch up soon.”

In neither case did Don clearly enunciate the consonants and vowels clearly – and when both vocal tracks were blended, you get a simultaneous, slurred “gone-uh-catcher soon” and “gonnuh ketchup soon,” at random points, which ends up sounding like he’s mumbling in another language. A lot of this happened because the ding-bat producers tended to ping-pong tracks, so old tracks were blended with new stuff and then locked in solidly. If a gaffe or mistake slipped by them, they couldn’t really fix it because there was little or no isolation in their four-track masters. And a lot of mistakes slipped by them.

Candy wrappers

The song is a SPECIFIC reference not necessarily to the candy bar of same name (which was indeed around in ’66 and many years before that), but to the ’40s/’50s candy wrappers and counter display boxes that featured silhouettes of simians hanging from palm trees. When he was a kid, impressed by the strong graphics, Don named one “Babbette Baboon” and invented a little story about her. The rest is history – with a little help from Herb Bermann.

Please note that the checkerboard pattern on the backside of “Safe As Milk” is a direct cop from the Abba Zaba black and yellow wrapper treatment, which survives until this very day. Originally, the album was supposed to be called “Abba Zaba,” the candy people wouldn’t grant permission for use of their name and logo.

November 2001


  1. On the ‘song before song before song blues’ line. It results very much in the evolution connotation. Might it be that Don tried to hint at the human narrative/musical tradition being part of our evolution?

  2. A little confusing, the earlier Abba Zaba wrappers actually depicted racist depictions of Africans next to a taffy tree. The manufacturers later kept the font but changed the packaging to the black and yellow taxi design which Captain Beefheart used on the back of Safe as Milk.

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