Beef Encounters – Gary Lucas, John Peel and Craig Scanlon on Captain Beefheart

This first appeared in the 21st August 1994 Independent on Sunday.

Gary Lucas

First saw Captain Beefheart play at a New York club in 1971. Their acquaintance was years old before he plucked up the courage to reveal that he played the guitar. Then Lucas’s wife became Beefheart’s manager and he was given an instrumental to play on ‘Doc at the Radar Station’ (1980). By 1982 Lucas was a full-time member of the Magic Band. It was at this point that Beefheart decided he didn’t want to make records. Lucas now has his own band, Gods and Monsters.

[wp_quote]The first time I saw him perform I was just transfixed. To me it was the pinnacle: so complex and yet so beautiful and effortless and fun-loving. And Beefheart himself was a magical personality: he had a very refreshing iconoclastic attitude -like an early punk – and his comments to the audience used to crack me up. I remember him yelling at people who were sitting down: “Get up, get up, I’m older than you.”

He had a very unusual way of putting music together. He didn’t write it down. He’d either send you tapes of him playing it on the piano, or put tapes together of him singing the parts, or whistling. You’d spend hours, weeks, trying to translate the stuff on to the guitar – I’d learn five seconds a day, about two bars. Then he would give vocal instructions, he’d whisper in my ear “play like you died”, or “play like you’re balancing a tray of red jujubes”. You would do whatever he told you to, there was no improvisation allowed, and some-times he would pick on each person in turn to intimidate. It was unpleasant – like going to school and he was the professor – but if you loved the music enough, you put up with it.[/wp_quote]

John Peel

Airwave overlord of the musical underground, drove Beefheart around on his first UK tour, and has been playing his records on the radio ever since.

[wp_quote]The first time I saw him was at the Whiskey A Go Go. I was working for a radio station in California, and Beefheart was supporting Them. He came over to London when Safe As Milk came out, and I actually burst into tears on stage – I was so excited at being able to say “put your hands together, ladies and gentlemen, for Captain Beefheart and the Magic Band”. At this time he had some strange saxophone he’d been given by Ornette Coleman – a shahnai I think it was called. A lot of his numbers consisted of a great deal of rather tuneless blowing through that. A lot of the audience were understandably fairly alienated by this and would leave. But somebody like that is so manifestly ahead of you in the game, it seems impertinent not to enjoy it

On that first tour I actually hired a car and drove him to all his gigs. There was one which was legendary at a place called Frank Freeman’s Dancing School in Kidderminster. That was not some kind of groovy hippie name: it actually was a dancing school, run by a Frank Freeman. He and his wife used to make sandwiches for the bands, and they’d sit and chat as though receiving you in their drawing room. They were really sweet and Beefheart responded to this. I found a tape of that show a couple of months ago and it’s stupendous stuff.

He is an extraordinarily productive man. If you spend time with him, his conversations can seem rather impenetrable, but this is just because his thought-processes are not those of anybody else you’re likely to meet. A lot of his verbal jokes are quite innocent – you’ll think to yourself “why did he say that?” Then a few days later you’ll see what he meant.[/wp_quote]

Craig Scanlon

Guitarist and songwriter in Salford soul institution The Fall, has never met Beefheart, but this band would not have sounded the same without him.

[wp_quote]The first record I got of his was Trout Mask Replica. The parental reaction was very satisfying: ‘What is that rubbish?’ At first I thought what the rest of the band still say if I put it on in the tour bus – it sounds like five people playing different songs at once. But there are so many different layers to it; a lot of really beautiful stuff’s going on. People think it’s improvised, but it isn’t, it’s very carefully structured.

Beefheart has influenced my guitar-playing – just in a liberating way, I wouldn’t dare try to copy him. We were asked to play on a tribute album, but there’s no point. It’s a shame he stopped making music. I went to one of his exhibitions. It looked like he was painting Bambi decomposing, but then I suppose that’s the kind of thing he was doing with his music.[/wp_quote]

Independent on Sunday

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