An Original Canter’s Deli-Wrapper Van Vliet by Bruce Kirschbaum

Bruce Kirschbaum told us his tale of woe in 1999.

The only time I remember Beefheart having played L.A. was, (I believe), in late 1979 or early 1980 at a gig at the Whiskey. Naturally, I was there.

Several months later, I’m writing for some piece of crap “hip, late-nite comedy show” called “Fridays”. After the show one night, the lady who does publicity for the program, (I think she’s currently Arnold Schwarzenegger’s P.R. person), suggests we go to Canter’s for something to eat (a famous local all night deli). I hardly even knew this woman, but since I had vague hopes of maybe getting laid, I figured what the heck.

Twenty minutes later, I’m sitting there bored out of my mind as she rambled on about her life’s problems, when I look up. Who should I see walking into the place but Beefheart and his wife! I’m not even listening to this woman as I watch The Captain and Jan approach the deli counter and order something to go. I instantly realize this will be my one and only chance to ever speak to one of my musical idols, so mumbling a quick apology, I excuse myself and hurry over to the Captain.

I introduce myself and explain what a fan I’ve been, on and on. Beefheart was cordial but almost bemused that anybody was all that impressed or interested in him. The one thing I will never forget is that his wife kept saying, “You actually know who he is?”, as if unable to believe that anyone was aware of her husband’s career and musical contributions.

She then told me that things were “very rough ” for them financially at the time, that they were “living in a small place in the desert” and that the record company had ripped them off. Beefheart seemed resigned about the matter. I told him how much I had always loved his music and how I had recently seen some art work which had knocked me out as well. Of course I asked if I might have an autograph. Beefheart had a pen but neither one of us had a piece of paper. Looking around, I found a Juicy Fruit wrapper on the floor. He turned it over and on the white side, signed it and did a great, original little doodle for me (I still have and treasure this piece).

He then turned and asked a question which to this day haunts and destroys me. “You want a piece of art?” What? “I’ll do one for you right here.” Here?? Now remember, we’re standing in the ugly midnight fluorescent glare of a deli in front of a case of white fish and pickles. Where are you going to do art? He turns to the woman behind the counter and asks for her to “tear off a piece of that wrapping paper, a big one.” He was referring to the write roll of paper they used to wrap lox and what-not – I couldn’t believe it. I was going to get an original Van Vliet standing right here in Canter’s deli!

The lady working behind the counter rips of a sheet off a huge sheet of paper, maybe three feet by three, and the Captain takes his pen from his pocket. He had no more than put the tip to the paper when who should suddenly storm up enraged and teary-eyed for being left alone at the table, but the P.R. woman from Fridays! I had forgotten all about her! And here she is screaming at me, Beefheart and his wife that she had never been so humiliated in her life. Who do we think we are to leave her sitting there alone? (and remember, I hardly even knew her!) I remember Don and his wife sort of jumping back, stunned by this startling onslaught, Don even said “Woa”, as she raged at the three of us, turned and tearfully marched out the front door.

Now many, many times over the last twenty years, I’ve asked myself why I did what I did next. Just let her go! But no. Instead, I stupidly turned and ran after her (why? WHY?). I remember Don even saying “Sorry, man”. But for some idiotic reason, I chased her down and tried to explain that this was Captain Beefheart. One of my favorite musicians. When was I ever gonna get the chance to talk to him again? And look, I got this incredible autographed Juicy Fruit wrapper. And I’m just about to get and even more unbelievable deli-paper drawing, and please, won’t you come back inside? (See what the possibility of sex with make a young man do?)

It took a minute or two but I finally managed to calm her down and steer her back into Canters, just in time to see Beefheart PICKING UP HIS PACKAGE AND TURNING TO LEAVE. “Catch you next time, man”, he smiled as they headed for their van. I blinked, turned and saw the blank piece of wrapping paper, waiting unused on the counter. With a wave and a puff of exhaust, they were gone. And so was my chance of owning an original Canter’s deli-wrapper Van Vliet.

Well, twenty years have passed, and as they, time heals all wounds. But it hasn’t. The lady went on to work for Arnold, the Captain signed with Virgin and I didn’t get laid that night (I don’t think I was in the mood). And although life goes on, I sometimes still find myself in bed at night wondering about what might have been, and if maybe that’s the reason I’ve never eaten at that deli again.

– Bruce Kirschbaum (August 1999)

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