WHAT DOES one say to a man who, at the age of three, used to talk with lions inside their cages? How does one cope with a greeting – ‘Haven’t I met you somewhere before’ ‘No, I don’t think so, actually.’ ‘Weren’t you at my concert last night? Weren’t you sitting up there (he points) in a group of seven in a box. That’s where I’ve seen you.’
It’s all very easy when one is talking to Captain Beefheart. My journalist’s paranoia which had been fed on extravagant media stories of the freakiness of the Captain very quickly disappeared. We settled down to the most relaxed conversation I’ve had with a rock star, and the ever-civil Beefheart (Don Van Vliet, if you prefer) proved that his effervescent imagination was not limited to his music or to his bon mots but extended to his everyday dealings with other people. ‘I should have met you the first day I came into town’, he exclaimed, and invited me, whom he insisted on calling a writer (‘I feel most comfortable in the company of writers. We’re not having an interview. This goes deeper than that. And I’m not performing. Frankly I prefer this to being on stage’) to join him and his coach on a trip to a concert in Brighton the following day.
He sat in a chair in his publicist’s office, and as the sun played through the window, it lit him up as one of his Dutch ancestors might have appeared in a painting by Rembrandt. His quiet and beautiful young wife sat opposite on a sofa reading Madame Bovary. Occasionally, Beefheart, who himself claims never to have read a book, would bring her into the conversation. The rest of the time he talked in his quietly authoritative and all-embracing manner, sometimes, as in his act, incorporating a piece of show business or stylised excess into his rap (such as his opening comment recorded above), often taking himself and his responsibilities very seriously, but never, as far as I was concerned, ego-tripping too violently or laying it on too heavily for my comfort.
A number of friends who saw him in concert over here disagree with me on this point. One found him oppressive and boring, another arrogant and patronising to his audience. That last view, I suppose, I can understand. There is no false modesty about the Captain (‘I am a super-star, only the record companies won’t allow me to be so.’) But such an opinion shows a lack of understanding of Beefheart’s humour, viz. leaving the stage after playing a short set, crowd shouts and thumps for more, Beefheart comes back alone onto stage and whistles the theme ‘More’ and goes off, crowd shouts and thumps some more, Beefheart comes back with the band and plays for 40 minutes more; and his desire to involve his audience in a far-out musical and poetic world which he projects in his concerts through a very personal and original rock ‘n’ roll, not through easy drug-induced imagery and technique.
Dope is a natural topic of conversation to turn to with Beefheart, since his second album – Strictly Personal – came on so strong as an acid album – lots of heavy phasing, song titles like ‘I Feel Like Ahcid’, packaging which referred pointedlv to the 5000 mg. persona of the Captain. It is a subject on which Beefheart has some interesting views.
He says that he himself has not smoked for some 10 years. ‘And as far as lysergic acid is concerned, I don’t like to say things like this because of the habit that people have of trying to make me over into a little capsule somewhere, but, yes, I did have lysergic acid slipped on me ten years ago in Honolulu. I don’t want to lie about it. And I thought that I had a horrible temperature and that I was really ill. It really didn’t feel like real to me. It was corny, man. Really like a cheap movie, like one of those American movies where all of a sudden the woman feels faint and the walls go wooor, wooor, woooor. But I’m a painter, so I’ve got better imagery than that.
‘It’s a dead scene, man. I think it’s over for that stuff and I wish it had never begun. It’s like a Disneyland trip. You know, all of a sudden great painters like Van Gogh are old hat. A fellow that painted the sun, dared to jump into the sun and out of it and paint it. I’m not going to sample every tablet on the table just because it might make me paint my stroke better. It might make me have a stroke. Maybe some people who think they’re getting high are having strokes repeatedly.’
He explains Strictly Personal away as something outside his control. He had mixed the album before he went away to England. When he came back, his cousin, the Mascara Snake, played it to him and he found that the record company had completely remixed it, supposedly to make it sound similar to the effects of lysergic acid, and also to hit a specific market that then existed. Beefheart was furious. And then all of a sudden Safe As Milk (his previous album) “now what I meant was milk wasn’t safe any longer; it had Strontium 90 in it. But it was interpreted as lysergic. All of a sudden everybody said, Oh yea man, really. Cool cat. I have never tried to be a hip cat.
‘The idea of being called a genius because somebody thought me a really heavy tablet is kind of corny. It doesn’t put me off. But it makes me worry about people that do that. That’s really scary. The idea of somebody going like that and all of a sudden my whole being is put into a capsule and thrown over and put under a set category. You know, while you’re watching TV you can be booglarised. Your chair can be taken from underneath you. Isn’t that terrifying, catatonic? But I can enjoy a good TV programme – well, maybe I can’t do it successfully – but I’ve got enough of the explorer in me to try to do it even if it radiates me. But if your chair is stolen from underneath you, the high point of the programme falls down, and you fall down and break your tail bone. That’s usually what happens to people who take too much drugs and all of a sudden they say they don’t have any imagination and that that pill is their imagination. That’s absurd, man. Too much vested interest in any one point is varying degrees of disconnection which is insanity.’
Of course, Strictly Personal is not Beefheart’s only album, although it played a considerable part in establishing him as a star, albeit on false pretences. The Captain still hopes to put it out as he intended it to be. ‘There are a lot of diamonds in the mud. I think it is important to show them.’ Before it there was Safe as Milk which Beefheart spent two years hawking around the record companies before it was finally signed up and released. In the meantime he put out a number of single records – ‘Who Do You Think You’re Fooling’ (‘about the government, using the Statue of Liberty as a symbol’), ‘Out Of The Frying Pan Into The Fire’ (‘about the lesser of two evils’), ‘Diddy Wah Diddy’ (‘the old Bo Diddley number’) and ‘Moon Child’ (‘about the lighter and darker side of the light, I guess.’)
Beefheart reckons, quite rightly, that if he had continued playing this kind of music, he would have been a super-star much quicker than he was. We had been talking about his painting. “Ornette Coleman – he’s a good painter. Have you heard his Sci-Fi album? Nice, real nice. Writing, music, painting – they’ re all painting to me’. (I told this to a painter friend of mine, and she said, ‘Funny, they’re all music to me.’)
‘As far as my painting is concerned, I just did it as it took me. That’s why I sometimes appear to be late in being a hit. Far be it from me to force my way up into whatever the hell it is.’ Sorry, I wasn’t quite with you there. ‘Well, I have the mental facilities to have been a super star a long time ago. You know that as well as I do. Safe as Milk. If I’d wanted to push it after that I’d have done a record just about like it. But I won’t do that. I mean, that is sick, in my opinion. That just breaks off all art. It makes another footpath leading to a Coca Cola. That’s a little too sexy for me.’ Say that again. ‘Think about it. Isn’t it a little too sexy to keep an erection all the time?’
‘But I am a super star. As a matter of fact I ‘m writing an album called Brown Star. I have it done now, and it’ll be the next one out. It’s not avoiding being a super star that I saw Brown Star. At the end of the poetry or whatever you call it, it says, ‘You ask a child if he’s seen a brown star around, And he’ll laugh and jump up and down and say, I found a brown star right on the ground.’ I think we’re living on a brown star. I think this planet is as bright as Ceres. But I think it is the other side of the fence the grass is greener element that is ruining this paradise. And even with people. They say, Boy, wouldn’t I like to be like him, and he says, Boy, wouldn’t I like to be like him. When everybody’s perfect anyway, as long as they don’t try to cut off all these blood flows and things which go to make the brain do what it does. You know, like all those weird postures that people adopt. Do you know what I mean?
‘That kind of thing is very hard to deal with, I’ve been a victim of it myself, I got extremely fat. But I got fat as an experiment to find out what people think at that weight. I mean, you have to know before you can say anything about it. But I don’t think it’s worth getting into the bullshit to find out what the bull ate when it comes to poison – hard drugs, narcotics and things like that.’
So Beefheart did not consciously push for superstardom those four or five years ago. He took things easy (or difficult, one might almost say), and produced a double album of the music he wanted to play on Trout Mask Replica. Again there were great hassles getting the record to be released. But now things were beginning to go his way at last. He managed to withdraw himself from his association with Frank Zappa, at which name he still grimaces horribly. ‘He couldn’t face you man to man. He could never talk to you like I am doing. He would crawl out of the room.’
He started to find the musicians that he wanted and they all moved into different houses on his 110 acre rented estate at Eureka on the California-Oregon border. (One of the hits of the world’ – Captain Beefheart.) ‘This group – the way it is – has been together three days before we came here. So this group has a long life ahead of it. This group will eventually be around each other the real way, will be able to do free music telepathically. I’m not looking for a flash in the pan. You see, it’s taken me five years to get this group together. They’re men and they’re honest and I can appreciate that. I think it’s important that children and older people see a group like that. IÃm not saying that I want to be a baby sitter because I’m an artist, because artists, writers, painters and musicians usually become baby-sitters in a society like this, in a society as turbulent as – as it isn’t. Because it isn’t that turbulent. It’s just become too intellectual. I think that there should be some faster moves going on. Like moves to stop people poaching on all those beautiful animals in Africa. What if your child, if you ever have one, grows up and has to intellectualise a giraffe?’
At the moment Beefheart writes the music for every instrument in his band there is nothing in the act that is not scripted beforehand, except for his own particular screeching horn solo. ‘That’s the dolphins speaking through me, man. Like I speak through them. Like all my act is a reflection of everybody I ever met. I got it from them. That’s why I like to play big concerts. I don’t want to shove anybody out because I got it from them. My thing is open-ended. If they praise me, they’re only praising themselves.’
I asked him why he didn’t play any of the music on his first two albums at the Albert Hall. ‘Well, I don’t mind playing it, because I did it then. But there is no way to go back. That cuts off now, and a lot of butterflies end up like Jesus pinned to a wall in a collection. And I don’t think it’s fair to emulate something that doesn’t have blood. Far be it from me to bring up that old blood. I did do Abba Zabba, and I thought that sounded way better than it did before, because now I have musicians who are men and much nicer men.
He certainly doesn’t have much respect for antiquity, in spite of his eulogy of Van Gogh. Later, on the bus down to Brighton, I showed him some colour pictures of Tutankhamun from a paper I was reading. ‘What you like them?’ he exclaimed. ‘Man, you must be hard up, You must be really hard up to like that when there is so much that is better around today.’
He really doesn’t like that needling lock-you-up-in-a-museum-case mentality, and this, in a way, carries over to his ideas about the dangers and restrictiveness of concert halls. ‘It’s way difficult to go to a concert for somebody in an audience, I think they should stand up and get into it with the musicians I don’t think that people should want someone to sit there like that.’ Are you playing any dance-halls, or something like that then?’ Well, I don’t know. But then again, the way it’s set up and everything, if there weren’t seats and that amount of organisation in it, where somebody sits down, they might tear each other apart. You know, just accidentally, because of being that out of the form. Not many people can escape out of the form successfully without backtracking themselves. What they have to do is let the form come out in everything they do until it doesn’t come out any more, then they’re there. School sets that up. Then what happens if somebody needs to have oxygen or the ambulance? That’s why you’ve got to have organisation. But it’s whether a guy is nice that organises something.Ã
Again he said that, just as I was leaving, just as we had finished discussing the Beatles and he had put down Lennon and commended McCartney for playing his free concerts without any fuss, ‘Its whether a person is nice that matters. That’s all that matters.’
Just to prove it a little Beefheart saga to end. When I went down to Brighton I was amazed to meet a friend of mine, Gina, and her father behind the stage. Her father is a personable English gent of the best sort. He had just come from Goodwood where he had been advising on some improvements to the Earl of March’s estate. Apparently they had been to Wheeler’s, the restaurant the previous night and they had been wedged between Beefheart and his wife and a French couple who knew the Captain. Beefheart handed the French people a pad on which he had been drawing some pictures. They handed it back through Gina and Mr Cresswell, who piped up, ‘On a sketching holiday, are you?’
‘No,’ says Beefheart, with his usual lack of modesty, ‘I’m Captain Beefheart.’
They talk for a while and the Captain invites them to his concert in Brighton the next day. Mr Cresswell watches politely from the wings and Gina really gets into it. After the concert Beefheart comes up to him and takes him aside for a few words which are, as I later learn, ‘There’s no business like show business.’ Far out, Captain.
Still, there is literally no music or show around today that can quite come up to Beefheart and the Magic Band. I believe that.