It was with great sadness that I heard Alex had died from a massive heart attack. He was 64.
One of the original Magic Band guitarists, Alex can justifiably be known as the original ‘Captain Beefheart’, being the prime mover to get the band together and the musical director and organiser in the early days. In an interview in 1973 Don was asked how it all started and he had this to say:-
Alex St. Claire called me – you know, the fellow who was on ‘Safe As Milk’. He had a great influence on Jimi Hendrix when he was in England. Anyway, he calls me and says: ‘I’m putting a group together and we’re gonna play tonight. You’re gonna sing, van Vliet’. He is a real Prussian, you know? I said: ‘give me a minute, will you? I never sang anything. I don’t know anything about music” and he says: ‘Tonight you’re going to sing’. I must have sounded like a burro or something. And he says: ‘That’s horrible, man’. I say: ‘I told you’. But he says: ‘We’re gonna do it anyway, and it’ll get better’.
Known as ‘Butch’ at school, the teenage Alexis Clair Snouffer, had a reputation around Lancaster as a tough nut. He wasn’t someone you messed with. Playing trumpet in the high school band he befriended the drummer, Frank Zappa. Within a short time both had acquired guitars and were furiously practising so they could play the R&B and blues music they both liked.
Zappa formed a band called The Blackouts which Alex may or may not have played with. But when it disbanded in 1958 Alex got together with some of the ex-members to form The Omens, a good time partying R&B group. Alex would also hang out at Zappa’s Studio Z in Cucamonga which had become a focal point for many Lancaster musicians and weirdoes including all of the early Magic Band members. They’d meet there and jam, some of which would get recorded.
When The Omens folded in 1962 Alex played in a number of short-lived bands, including the Solid Senders with Jerry Handley. He then got a job looking after slot machines at the holiday/gambling spot in Lake Tahoe and a gig with a covers band playing at dances each night of the week. However, the boredom of the job and the unchallenging music drove him back to Lancaster at the end of summer 1964. On his return he called up his musician friends, Doug Moon, Jerry Handley, Paul Blakely and Don Vliet, and invited them to form a band with him.
The band took the name Captain Beefheart and His Magic Band with Don as the frontman/singer and Alex the musical driving force and nominal leader. He was an organiser and knew what needed to be done and this determination forged these desert musicians into a solid blues band that developed a reputation locally, and was soon creating interest in nearby Los Angeles.
Don Aldridge, who knew the early Magic Band and used to hang out at their rehearsals, once told me that “There were two driving forces in the band at the beginning: Alex Snouffer and Don Vliet. Alex was the hippest thing on two legs, with a dry, caustic wit. He was popular with the bikers.”
Winning the Teenage Fair at Hollywood Palladium in 1965 meant Alex got to collect a new guitar from the nearby Fender factory. This was his guitar of choice although an early photograph from the time shows the band all playing Vox guitars as part of an advertising deal. Despite being the main guitarist Alex was nevertheless happy to move to drums when Blakely left and his replacement, Vic Mortensen, was ordered to active duty. The band called in Rich Hepner, a B.B. King inspired player they’d seen in a Denver bar, as the new guitarist.
It was around this time he started calling himself Alex St Claire, while Don became known as van Vliet.
During 1966 the band the recorded and released their first single, Diddy Wah Diddy, followed by Moonchild. It was probably during this period that the signs of a split between Alex and Don became more obvious. Alex was down to earth and practical. He realised that for the band to become well-known and begin making some money (an important consideration now he was married) they may need to make some compromises. Once established they could then play what they really wanted to. Don, however, supported by money from his mother had no financial concerns, he wanted to maintain his ‘artistic integrity’ and wasn’t interested in compromising.
But Alex was shrewd enough to know that Don’s talent was a huge asset … if it could be controlled. Which is why he was able to step back from his musical director role during the recording of Safe As Milk. But other things were also happening to separate Alex from Don. Alex preferred a beer to chill out with although he wasn’t averse to speed now and again, but he never allowed it to interfere with the music and rehearsing. Don’s, and some of the band’s, prodigious intake of grass and LSD was at odds with his disciplined work ethic.
Alex never really forgave Don for blowing the Mt Tamalpais Festival gig which ruined their plans to appear at Monterey and the possibility of a lucrative career further supported by the release of Safe As Milk.
As Don grew in confidence as a composer and singer he took on the persona of ‘Captain Beefheart’ effectively relegating Alex to a sideman in the band. Also Alex knew you had to stand up to Don, and was willing to do so. He could do this because he was a strong character and was about the same age as Don. Don resented this challenge, and it would only be a matter of time before Alex had to go while Don surrounded himself with younger players who were willing to devote themselves to his whims.
Alex put up with this until the end of the European tour in 1968. The lack of money didn’t help at all when you have a family but he had no intention of shutting himself away to learn Don’s new music. So he quit.
For a while Alex was living a kind of middle-class working-man’s life having a “night out with the boys” on Wednesdays to go bowling. Although it seems he may have spent some time working on the Reno/Las Vegas/Lake Tahoe circuit. According to one source this was “a fairly wild existence: plenty of drinking, a lot of promiscuous sex, a general style based on earning quite a lot of money by playing fairly conventional bar-type music – and spending it in as lawless and uproarious a way as possible.”
It was during this time that Alex was involved in the recording of the Evil Wind Is Blowing album (released in 1972) by another Lancaster musician working on the bar circuit – Denny King. Well worth checking out this is a great blues-based album with many Beefheart/Magic Band overtones. Doug Moon appears on harmonica. Alex, as ever plays fine slide guitar, plus some trumpet as well as getting a production and co-writing credit.
At the end of 1972 Alex was asked by Don to rejoin the Magic Band replacing Elliot Ingber on the tour of the US, Canada, UK and Europe in 1973. Elliot had quit because he didn’t understand why Don wanted three guitarists (Mark Boston was also playing guitar while Roy Estrada laid down the bass) but Don needed someone he felt could anchor the band and to whom he was more bonded. Alex was happy to return having heard and liked the Clear Spot album, this was a more commercial sound he could relate to.
I was privileged to see the band perform on this 1973 tour. Not only was it a great thrill to see Beefheart and the Magic Band but there was an extra special excitement that Alex, one of THE original musicians, was there. I know I wasn’t the only one to feel this.
Alex was also involved in the recording of the ill-fated Unconditionally Guaranteed album, and was rehearsing for the upcoming extensive 1974 tour. But he found that things had not really changed. Don was hanging onto the money while the band were kept in financial straits. He’d been through this before and this time led the rest of the band in challenging Don and demanding a decent share of the money. Unfortunately Don failed to realise how important the musicians were to him and allowed them to quit leaving him to embark on a musically disastrous tour with a poorly rehearsed group of session players.
Once again Alex returned to the club circuit playing often with Denny King. But eventually this way of earning some money began to dwindle away and he had to find other work. During the ’80s he worked as a bartender in Idaho, and a chef in a Denver hotel. Moving back to the Lancaster area in the ’90s he took a Computer Technology course but little came of it. He drifted into small-time jobs working in kitchens or as a gardener and generally fell upon hard times. Despite a couple of spells in rehab he was unable to win his long battle against alcohol.
His body was discovered in his apartment in early January 2006.
In 1978 Don released the Shiny Beast album which included the song ‘Owed T’Alex‘ written back in the ’60s about Alex’s visits by motorbike to his mother in Carson City.
Beefheart fans have a lot to thank Alex for. It’s a pity we’ll now never get the chance to say it personally.
I don’t know about you but I’m now going to watch the 1968 Cannes Beach footage. That close-up of Alex playing the intro to Sure Nuff is one of my favourite musical moments.
-Steve Froy, January 2006
The UK daily paper, The Independent, published quite a lengthy obituary by Pierre Perrone. It draws heavily on the piece above (without acknowledgement!).