An Ego Flyin’ – review for Lunar Notes by Bill Harkleroad by Ed Baxter

This article was first published in Resonance magazine (London Musicians’ Collective). Many thanks to Ed for sending me this and granting permission to feature it. This is his ‘controversial’ look at the book Lunar Notes which takes a less-than favourable view of the personality of Don Van Vliet.

Bill Harkleroad with Billy James
151 pp, illustrated
SAF Publishing Ltd
1SBN 0 94671921 7

ONE OF THE GREAT MUSICAL MINDS OF THE late 20th century, Don Van Vliet was a greedy, violent, spiteful, manipulative, self-important, lazy, cowardly control freak with a taste for flashy cars, hard drugs and expensive clothes. Bill Harkleroad played guitar for him and this is his story.

It’s one thing to be ripped off by record companies – a staple part of any rock ‘n’ roll story – and Beefheart and his Magic Band suffered as much as anyone else. But worse, propelled by the imp of the perverse, Van Vliet himself ripped off his friends, repeatedly lying to them, exploiting their hopes and dedication, never giving them the credit they deserved, sucking the life out of them, spitting them out. The guy was full of shit. But he was a visionary with a coherent and radical aesthetic – a powerful singer who wrote often extraordinary lyrics and set them within some of the most vivid and exciting music of the 1960s. Above all perhaps, Beefheart was lucky to have to hand some of the most capable players rock has produced, notably drummers John French and Art Tripp, and guitarists Jeff Cotton and Bill Harkleroad. Harkleroad joined the Magic Band as a dope-smoking teenager and stayed on (under the name Zoot Horn Rollo) through his mid-20s, putting up with the bullshit because the music was so great. He eventually bailed out when the poverty had gone on too long and when maintaining the slave mentality which Beefheart expected had just become too much. His career as a professional guitarist was over before he was 30.

None of the Magic Band made any money from their music. Beefheart took the lot, then let them down by screwing up his live performances, dodging rehearsals, blaming everyone except himself for the band’s inability to get ahead. We glimpse him performing in Paris at a rare gig soon after the release of Trout Mask Replica: John French had already left the band, scandalously left off the credits of an album of which he was musical director; Jeff Cotton had quit after being beaten up in Beefheart’s house. Instead of having the tight unit that had been rehearsing 15 hours a day for the best part of a year and presenting the gig of the century, Beefheart had a shambolic outfit (with Harkleroad, Frank Zappa, a roadie and the ridiculous ‘Mascara Snake’, Victor Haden) which played five numbers – an event surely symptomatic of Beefheart’s lack of any sense of proportion in all things except his art. On other occasions he walked away from concerts, spooked by whimsical inner demons. Band members came and went, few able to put up with the mind games and abuse.

Beefheart’s eloquence, general weirdness and flair for self-promotion chimed in with record industry wishes to get hip and make money at a time when, as Harkleroad says, all you had to do to get a contract was to be able to stand up and tune your guitar. But that rock music could be ‘art’ seemed to require that artistry be presented as a sleight of hand, as divine inspiration, the operation of genius – a hodge-podge of outdated romantic notions that disguised the labour that went into the music. Beefheart played the clown, shaman and poet when it was required, then had to live up to the outlandish image he projected. Most contemporary music appears in the guise of myth and few musicians were so bathed in the aura of the mythical as Captain Beefheart. He began to believe his own baloney, even as his music deteriorated into tiresome self-parody and dedicated musicians and audience alike drifted away from the beached whale of his ambition.

After Clear Spot Beefheart dried up. In the latter half of his career his voice sounded increasingly tired and he made risible efforts to turn out ‘commercial’ albums. There was a brief (but unheard) return to form with the unreleased Bat Chain Puller, a poignant, focused record (like Trout Mask Replica, it was produced by Zappa and musically directed by French), but on his six last albums there was little that was really convincing. Harkleroad meantime formed Mallard with other Magic Band players, but their records too were interesting merely as footnotes. He retired, let down in the grand rock ‘n’ roll tradition by Virgin Records, another casualty of the music industry. He went and got a life.

Though it made me want to go back and listen to those great albums again, ultimately this is a disappointing book. Harkleroad is personable, fond of anecdote, but short on facts. His opinion of the albums he played on are judicious and useful (he has no opinions about those he didn’t play on – his break with Beefheart was evidently final). His modesty is disarming: he points out, for example, that the Trout Mask Replica version of “Moonlight on Vermont”, generally hailed as some kind of classic, wasn’t as good as another version played by Alex St Clair and Jeff Cotton which he’d heard before joining the band. He still likes the superb Lick My Decals Off Baby, which contains his finest moment in “One Red Rose That I Mean”. He dismisses The Spotlight Kid as a complete failure. He’s frank about the material that hasn’t stood the test of time. The bulk of the book is a track by track commentary on the records, with a few amusing asides about band life, but little sense of how the music was created and how it developed (or not). Somewhere lurking behind this lightweight story – which you could read in an hour or two – is something deeply poignant, which stays unstated. Harkleroad never really gets to grips with the contradictions of Beefheart’s personality, just moans a bit then puts it all behind him as an extended episode of adolescent angst. One wonders how many other musical careers have been exactly that. I admire his philosophical strength of mind, but wish he had told us more.

Dozens of critics, mostly dismal, have obscured his work ever since Beefheart turned him into a “guitar hero” on “Big Eyed Beans from Venus” (the famous “long lunar note” of which was surely a portent of Beefheart’s descent into a decadent, bombastic phase – a highly theatrical, formalised echo of the kind of thing Jeff Cotton was doing years before Harkleroad joined the Magic Band). This book does little to rescue Zoot Horn Rollo from the gradual process of ossification. I closed the page and went back to the records, trying to learn something.

– Ed Baxter

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