My first meeting with Don Van Vliet–whom I’ll just refer to as Beefheart–came on a rainy night about 12 hours before his wedding. It was November 1969; I was 19 years old.
I was at my parent’s home in Northridge, California when the phone rang about 9:30 p.m. I thought it was my girlfriend whose house I had left an hour before. But it was my friend, Jan Jenkins.
Jan had just been in a traffic accident while driving alone in Beefheart’s Volvo. She was not injured, but the Volvo had been towed. She needed a lift back to Beefheart’s house where she’d been living for the last 10 days. There was no phone at the house, and Jan knew Beefheart would be concerned when she didn’t return. She gave me an address on Ventura Boulevard, and I drove across the San Fernando Valley to pick her up. I was happy to do this because I hadn’t seen much of Jan since she met Beefheart at a party the month before. I missed her.
Jan was only 17 years old, but wise beyond her years, smart too, and shy. We had grown up in the same area of the north San Fernando Valley, even gone to the same junior high school, but didn’t meet until the fall of 1968. She was about 5’ 7” and a little stoop shouldered. She hid her slender frame in loose-fitting jeans and oversized shirts. She didn’t wear makeup nor do anything special with her long, light brown hair–except to try, unsuccessfully, to keep it out of her face and behind an ear. She was like a brainy ivy-league coed, as beyond fashion as she was boys her own age.
She had an older boyfriend who was away in the U.S. Navy, and I was between girlfriends. It was a good time to meet. I’d never known anyone like Jan. She was so well read, so passionate and so much fun to be around. We quickly became close. Not romantically close, something more unique, better. Our connection was Alice Bailey, Zen, J. D. Salinger, Kerouac, the Beats. We smoked Cool Menthols and drank Chinese green tea. We spent hours in the library of the Philosophical Research Society in Los Feliz. Jan’s dream job was to be the keeper of the Society’s world class collection of esoteric texts. Mine was to be a groundskeeper at nearby Griffith Park.
We were platonic hipsters, self-contained dharma bums, convinced of our advanced perspective on everything and in a constant state of incredulity at the low consciousness of all that we beheld. We were no doubt insufferable to be around.
We took spontaneous drives out to the high desert community of Lake Hughes and walked the dry riverbeds trolling for enlightenment and interesting shapes of rusted wire. Jan mentioned once that Frank Zappa, of whom I had heard, and Captain Beefheart, of whom I had not, had gone to high school near Lake Hughes. I think she knew this through her boyfriend who was a Beefheart fan. She wanted to leave some token on the steps of Beefheart’s trailer, which she said was somewhere in the vicinity. We never tried to find it, but I realize now that Jan already had some emotional connection to Beefheart.
Then one day in the fall of 1969 Jan called to tell me that the night before she had met Beefheart at a party. It was mutual love at first sight. Within two weeks she moved into Beefheart’s house in Woodland Hills. Because there was no phone at the house, Jan would call me from a payphone to see how her parents were holding up. I was in the unenviable position of liaison between them.
Her father, a principal at a public school and her mother whom I believe was a nurse, were distraught that their smart, talented, and pretty daughter had suddenly left home and was living with some weird rock ’n’ roll guy 12 years her senior. Jan’s parents called me several times, anxious for information. I didn’t know what to tell them; I had never met Beefheart either. That was about to change.
I retrieved Jan on that rainy night, and we headed back to her new home. She was full of manic energy. She felt terrible about crashing Beefheart’s Volvo. Would he be mad? How were her parents? Had she mentioned that she and Don were getting married tomorrow? How was I and on and on.
The eerie ambiance of winding up the narrow canyon streets was enhanced as much by the dark and stormy night as by its contrast to the flat, well-lit housing tracks of Granada Hills in which both Jan and I had been raised. Soon she pointed to a house and the headlights of my Renault illuminated a large figure pacing in the driveway. It looked like an enormous Doctor Suess character: the Cat in the Hat. “That’s Don,” she said.
Though it was drizzling, Beefheart was pacing back and forth across the driveway. He wore a coat and top hat, which were some protection from the weather, but his bare feet were in little girl’s strapped sandals at least one size too small. Even without the overcoat it was obvious that he was bulbous.
He was extremely happy to see Jan who all but disappeared in his embrace. His face was stricken. His gaze was inward, as if mentally reviewing the wake of swirling air that trailed the bullet he had just dodged. He was definitely in love.
He didn’t wait for an introduction. Turning to me he said, “I was waiting for you to arrive, man. I had a dream. Jan crashed the Volvo.”
He told us that he had the dream a couple of nights previously, but didn’t want to say anything to Jan because it scared him. It should have. Jan was kind of like Woody Allen behind the wheel.
The dark clouds drifted apart, briefly revealing a few stars. Beefheart looked up and gestured at the sky with a raised arm which he moved in an arc, “I want to paint a stripe across the sky,” he said aggressively. “I want to make the stars bark.”
I’ve always remembered these lines, but not just for the imagery (Jan and I often expressed ourselves in a similarly colorful manner). It was the almost feral and unrepentantly ambitious tone behind Beefheart’s words that made such an impression. I just wanted to pass my upcoming history test, finish my term paper, get laid. He wanted to redecorate the cosmos.
Jan introduced us, but I didn’t get the impression he heard or remembered my name. I was wrong about that, but for the most part I was addressed as “man.” They invited me in.
We entered through a door that opened into the kitchen. The counter was cluttered with a dozen harmonicas and snuggled into the dark, soft, velvet of an open saxophone case was a shiny Selmer tenor. My musical taste was Coltrane and Pharoah Saunders. I loved the tenor and envied the owner of the beautiful horn on the counter. It turned out to be Beefheart’s as were the harmonicas.
The living room was to the right. Shadowy and poorly lit, it was barren except for several dirty bed mattresses standing on end and leaning against the walls. At first I thought they were fold-out beds, but the mattresses were covering the windows. Beefheart said they had recorded some of his latest album here and the mattresses were in place to protect the trees around the house from the loud music. He said they even had a tree surgeon come out and check on the trees.
“It cost me two hundred and fifty bucks, man.”
I wasn’t sure if this was a testament to his concern for nature or a complaint about the surgeon’s fee.
“Trees have spirits, man,” he said looking right at me as if challenging me to dispute it.
That kind of pretentious statement always makes me feel edgy, on the defensive. That night was no exception. I believed trees had spirits, too. I didn’t need him telling me; especially not in a tone that implied I had never even considered the possibility, or as if he had experienced life on a deeper level than the rest of us and was sharing a little secret he had mined from the other side. Having just met him, I didn’t know that the illusion of tapping a vein in the ineffable was such an integral part of the Beefheart mystique.
His eyes were dark, inquisitive, his goatee jet black and jutting out from his chin. He was waiting for my response. My practical side was thinking, ‘Wouldn’t it be better to play music the trees liked?’ But to avoid a confrontation, I just nodded and said, “I agree.”
A longhaired guy came up a staircase from a lower level of the house. This may have been Bill Harkleroad, but there were no introductions. He and Beefheart conferred for a moment, and the guy went back downstairs. Beefheart asked if I had heard the new album. It was called Trout Mask Replica. When I said I hadn’t, Jan put on side one. We laid one of the mattresses on the floor and sat on it. Jan cuddled to Beefheart. She already seemed such a part of his life.
I was relieved that I liked the music because he and especially Jan seemed interested in my reaction. It was rock and roll deconstructed. Guitars used almost like percussion instruments, lots of rhythmic changes, aggressive, and funny as hell. I couldn’t stop smiling as I listened. I commented on the drumming. “You should hear our new drummer, man,” Beefheart said. “Art Tripp. Arty Tripp. He’s an art trip, man. He’s classically trained. The guy can play anything.” Beefheart said Tripp was the best drummer in music and the band was really lucky to work with him.
We listened to several songs, and then somebody knocked on the kitchen door. Beefheart went to answer. It was two male fans, students from UCLA. They just dropped by to see Beefheart. They were total strangers and it was the middle of the night, but Beefheart was gracious.
“I’d invite you in,” he said, “but I already have company. Maybe next time.”
The invitation to drop by again seemed to satisfy the two guys, and they left. Jan, Beefheart and I retired to the only room in the upstairs part of the house that contained any furniture: the bathroom.
In the bathroom Beefheart sat in a large stuffed chair. He filled it out completely and in the small confines of the room he was the whole show. He held out a hand full of pills. About 20 different shapes, sizes and colors filled his palm. Is this another test? I thought to myself. Another trees have spirits moment?
“You take vitamins, man?” he asked. He wasn’t offering any vitamins, just showing them to me for some reason. He said the food supply was devoid of nutrients due to all the chemicals used in production, and vitamins were needed to make up the difference. Since he looked about 220 pounds, I assumed he hadn’t given up food entirely. Then, in a gesture that would permanently imprint his nutritional advice, he put the whole handful of pills into his mouth at once and washed them down with water.
He was ready to talk. He was a good talker. Much has been made about Beefheart’s singing voice, but it was his speaking voice that could really draw you in. It was hypnotically supple, and resonant with a fake intimacy that belied an intuitive and predacious grasp of every nuance of manipulation. The unwitting became his pets.
He had an opinion about most subjects. His most persistent subject that night was himself. This is not a criticism; I respected his achievements and was interested in what he had to say, but it was kind of like the six degrees of separation from Captain Beefheart.
“I was raised in the desert,” he said with the elegant vagueness of one who has refined–over many years–the telling of his own story.
Raised by whom? I wondered, his parents, Bedouin mystics, a den of rabid Gila monsters? But that wasn’t the point. Such details not only impeded the flow of the story, but could puncture the aura of mystery, tarnish the veneer of significance that he had created around a childhood in the east Mojave desert.
He studied art with a sculptor, he said. At age 13 he won a scholarship to study art in Europe, but his parents had not allowed him to go. He got into music, but art was still his first love.
He said he had a four and a half octave vocal range, and that people were ready to throw money at him if he would just sing the blues.
“Why don’t you?” I asked.
“It doesn’t interest me,” he said.
About the new album, Trout Mask Replica, he said, “I wrote that in eight hours at the piano. Sat down in the morning and didn’t get up for eight hours.” He grunted disparagingly and added, “Then it took me two months to teach it to the band.”
He talked about Zappa producing the album. He said they had recorded some of it at the house to save money.
“Phil Spector wanted to work with us, man. Yeah, he’ll produce your album then send you a bill for eighty thousand bucks.”
At the moment Beefheart and Zappa weren’t speaking. He said Zappa advised him not to marry Jan.
“He said I should just ‘shack up with her.’” This was hurtful to Jan and galling to Beefheart because, “He [Zappa] hasn’t even met her yet.”
He talked about his goatee. “I’m going to pull out my goatee hairs with tweezers, one at a time. I’m gonna put them in an envelope and send them to (he named some reporter) at Rolling Stone.”
He seemed very proud of the fact that when the Beatles first came to the United States they had asked to meet him. “They wanted to meet me, man.” His point was that he had little interest in meeting the Beatles.
On the subject of drugs: He was done with them, he said. He told a story about being at home with his parents watching television. His cousin who was visiting that night brought him a cup of tea, but didn’t bother to mention that he had surreptitiously spiked it with LSD. About a half an hour later Beefheart felt the unmistakable tingling and looked at his cousin whose wide grin seemed to say, “Gottcha.” Apparently the cousin had done this to him before and vice versa. It was a little game between them. Beefheart said that for two hours, until his parents went to bed, he sat beside them on the couch experiencing an early incarnation of interactive television.
When he found out I was attending nearby Pierce College merely to avoid being drafted and sent to Vietnam, he said college was a waste and besides getting out of the draft was easy. He had advised many people on how to do it.
“You fill the crotch of your underwear with peanut butter, man. Then you ask to see a shrink. When the shrink asks you what’s the problem you say, ‘there’s no problem, man.’ Then reach down in your underwear and bring up a handful of peanut butter and start licking it off your fingers.”
It makes me smile to remember him telling me this. I stayed in college.
It was after midnight. I prepared to leave. It suddenly dawned on Beefheart that he and Jan had planned to get married the following day, but the Volvo was in the body shop. They would need a ride to the Los Angeles County Court House where they planned a civil ceremony. Could I possibly drive them?
I wondered why he didn’t have a friend drive him or simply postpone the wedding until he could rent a car or repair the Volvo. It wasn’t as if he and Jan had reserved a church. No caterer was holding a deposit. The mental image of Beefheart squished into the passenger seat of my little blue Renault was comical, but I agreed to drive them if it could be done in the morning. It was Beefheart who suggested 9:00 a.m. I was pretty sure they wouldn’t even be up by 9:00 a.m., but I said okay and left.
Beefheart had a contagious energy and personality to waste. I could see why people were drawn to him. And yet his imperious, psychic-bully persona, while effective in masking the true depth of his insincerity, would no doubt make intimacy challenging. His cosmic smirk suggested an inclusiveness that his supercilious eyebrow consistently rendered mute.
In Beefheart’s defense, I’ll acknowledge that it had to be stressful trying to stay a personal course while navigating between those who worshipped you as an avatar of the inscrutable and those who dismissed you as a poster boy for the weird. If that level of mindfulness on the cultural sextant induced a kind of sadistic jocularity, well, what did I care? I didn’t have to live or work with him. Nor was I worried about Jan.
Jan was not only willful, but, like her fiancée, she had the soul of an artist. Jan grasped “Captain Beefheart” immediately, intuitively and completely, but she fell in love with Don. “He’s so cute,” she told me shortly after meeting him. It is hard to convey how totally right they seemed for each other. Perhaps it is more accurate to say that I have done a poor job of it. It is just that Beefheart was the draw. My attention was on him. With Beefheart it wasn’t “look at me, look at me.” It was much more: “I dare you to look away.”
By the next morning the storm had passed. The sky, as it is so rarely in Los Angeles, was blue. I arrived back at the house in Woodland Hills around 9:00 a.m. I stood for a moment before knocking on the kitchen door and admired the primeval lushness of the backyard, something I hadn’t been able to appreciate in the dark of night. It was like a miniature botanical garden, grown fantastically verdant with inattention, and after the storm, moist as a rain forest.
Beefheart answered the door. I was impressed that he was not only awake, but also dressed and ready to go. I remember him in a dark velvet jacket. I was in my standard outfit of work boots, blue jeans and a flannel shirt–still my standard outfit. A really tall guy entered the kitchen. I say really tall because I’m 6’2” and he seemed a couple of inches taller. Beefheart introduced him as “Bill.” This was Bill Harkleroad, the Magic Band’s guitar player. Beefheart said Harkleroad and Harkleroad’s girlfriend, whose name I don’t remember, would also be going with us to the wedding.
I would never have guessed that Harkleroad and I were the same age. He wore sunglasses even though the windows were covered with mattresses and the house was nearly dark. His hair was long. He wore a billowing captain’s shirt and a cape. His black pants were tucked into black leather boots. He was pale, unhealthy looking, unsmiling, uninterested, and so unbelievably cool, the epitome of psychedelic chic.
I thought Harkleroad was older because I assumed he no longer lived at home. I assumed he no longer lived at home because my parents would never let me in the door looking like him. He seemed a little put out to be awake at 9:00 a.m. Unsure if he blamed me for the early hour of departure, I wanted to say, “It was Don’s idea to go this early,” but his silence didn’t invite comment.
When I bought my own copy of TMR and could listen to the album in depth, it was Harkleroad’s furiously tight guitar playing that most impressed me. As with our ages, I would never have guessed that the person standing before me in the kitchen was capable of that level of energy and concentration. He went back downstairs.
After Harkleroad left the kitchen Beefheart turned to me, and in a confidential tone said he was going to be asking them–Harkleroad and the girl–to move out soon. I hadn’t even realized they lived there. Beefheart said the girl was scaring him. He said she would leave objects on the stairs “hoping someone would slip.” The most recent incident happened only two nights before. There was an empty bottle of soda pop on one of the steps of the staircase.
“It didn’t get there by itself,” he said.
He described how the bottle was “positioned” on the step in such a way that it was hard to see, but if you stepped on it you were in free fall down the stairs. He was convinced she had put it there on purpose.
“Why?” I asked.
He implied she was “into the black Arts” and may have been a “witch.” I gathered they didn’t get along.
Jan’s name came up and then this bizarre exchange:
“So, are you her boyfriend, man?” he asked with more than a hint of smugness.
A huff escaped me. I was stung by his megalomania. He hadn’t even given me the courtesy of the past tense. But didn’t this make me–at least in his mind–some loser cuckold delivering my girlfriend at the altar of the genius stud? It was too much. In the vernacular of the Valley Lacrosse Club, for whom I ran midfield, I wanted to ‘forearm shiver’ him into the refrigerator.
“If I was her boyfriend,” I said, trying to conceal my disgust, “why would I be driving her to get married to you?”
Now a huff escaped him, a guilty little chuckle. He smiled, seemed to realize what an egocentric comment he had just made.
“If you’re asking me if we slept together,” I said, guessing at the motivation behind his off-the-wall question, “No.” But surely he knew this already.
We could hear people coming up the stairs. Beefheart was particularly energized as they filed into the kitchen. Like Harkleroad, his girlfriend was also wearing a cape. Hers had a hood that she had pulled up over her head. She was pretty, about 18 or 19 years old. She had thick dark hair and her dark eyes projected an exotic disinterest that was very sexy. I don’t know whether she chanted in front of a candle while sticking pins into the forehead of little Beefheart dolls or not, but her poutiness seemed to spring from sadness more than darkness.
Jan wore a pretty vintage dress that she had bought for the occasion. It was the first time I had ever seen her in a dress. Her hair was brushed back and held with a clip or something. She looked young and beautiful and a little overwhelmed. What a wild new direction her life had taken in the last month. I admired her resolve.
As we headed out the door Beefheart said with an exaggerated relish that could not disguise his almost palpable concupiscence, “I’m marrying the last virgin in America.”
I knew Jan was a virgin before she met Beefheart, but was she still a virgin? Had she made him wait for the wedding night? Or had Beefheart insisted on waiting? I don’t know the answer. It only occurs to me now, that simple lust might have been the reason five people were squeezed into a little car built for two on a 40-minute drive downtown.
Beefheart rode shotgun. Harkleroad, legs bent like a crane, sat in the backseat behind him. Harkleroad’s girlfriend was in the middle and Jan was behind me. The little Renault, with only 50 horsepower, struggled under the weight. The normally precise rack and pinion steering was about as responsive as a 20-ton front loader, but we made it.
We parked the car in a garage and walked a couple of blocks to the Los Angeles County Courthouse. We waited in line to get the license. I remember the couple ahead of us because the guy was in a sailor’s uniform. I wondered if Jan had already notified her ex-boyfriend–the sailor–that she wouldn’t be able to see him on his next shore leave. I knew she wasn’t looking forward to giving him the news.
Beefheart and Jan filled out their paperwork, and we were directed into an auditorium. It was empty except for a man in a suit and tie standing by the first row of seats. He beckoned us to come down the wide center aisle. As the man directed them where to stand I took a seat in the front row. Now, bear with me a moment. I always sit in the aisle seat wherever I am– always. Call me a Boy Scout, but I like to be ready to hit the exit. Even on this day, when we were the only people in the 500-seat room, I started to take the aisle seat.
The seats were theatre-style with pull down bottoms. But on this day the bottom cushion of the aisle seat was already in the down position. The leather seat cushion was worn and cracked and had a deep indentation probably caused from years of use. I didn’t care. I gripped the armrests and began to lower myself into the seat. I hadn’t reached the cushion yet when, with what can only be described as an impossibly prescient impulsiveness, I suddenly swung around and plopped into the next seat over. The ceremony began.
Harkleroad, as best man, flanked Beefheart. Harkleroad’s girlfriend, as the maid of honor, flanked Jan. I was about eight feet behind them. The man asked about the rings and Beefheart pulled out two plastic rings that he and Jan had bought out of a gumball machine for a nickel–actually, Jan said it took a couple of dollar’s worth of nickels to get the two rings to drop down the dispenser chute. But something was wrong.
The man was studying the plastic rings and shaking his head. No, he didn’t care for these rings at all. Apparently he was willing to go along with the Hollywood-wardrobe-department outfits. Those didn’t bother him. After all, hadn’t he just finished marrying some guy in a sailor’s outfit? One could only imagine the assortment of perfervid couplings that had paraded before him over years of courthouse weddings. Equanimity was a job requirement. But for some reason those little plastic rings were too much for his mirror. They weren’t serious enough for him. They might even be dangerous. Like a teacher confiscating an item from the desk of a recalcitrant child, the man suddenly pocketed the rings. I couldn’t believe it. It seemed so disrespectful. What if plastic rings were all a couple could afford?
I expected Beefheart to say something, protest. Perhaps he was about to, but the man suddenly held out a quart-sized clear plastic bag. He held it by the neck and jangled the contents like a bag of coins. It contained about 200 cheap, unadorned metal rings–the kind you get out of a gumball machine for a nickel. He held open the top of the bag and told Beefheart to choose two. The idea of choosing was ridiculous; all the rings were identically gumballish. But Beefheart reached in took two and the ceremony continued. It was mercifully short.
Following the kiss, Beefheart looked in my direction. His eyes got suddenly wide. He pointed to the empty aisle seat beside me–the seat I had started to sit in but for some reason had not.
“Look!” he said. “The chair breathed!”
We all looked at the worn leather seat. Then, suddenly, inexplicably, the indentation filled out slightly as if an invisible person or some spirit with mass had adjusted its position. Don’t ask me what it means, I don’t know. It excited Beefheart though. He mentioned it twice on the way home.
As we exited the courthouse a black man in a light-colored suit approached us. He was some kind of last chance wedding photographer. He worked the newlyweds as they left the courthouse. He held a Polaroid camera and asked if we wanted our photo taken for $5. We assembled and he took the shot. Beefheart paid the guy and we gathered around to watch the picture magically materialize. What a strange wedding party we made. Harkleroad and his girl looked like characters out of Lord of the Rings. Beefheart looked like a prosperous German immigrant circa 1890 with Jan as his new immigrant bride. I looked like some1950s Beat lumberjack poet. Beefheart was pleased with the photo.
“I’m gonna send this to Jann Wenner at Rolling Stone,” he said. It seemed a strange even cynical destination for the only photographic record of Beefheart and Jan’s wedding day. I never again saw that photo and don’t know what became of it.
We headed back to Woodland Hills via Laurel Canyon. Beefheart wanted to make a stop. He wanted to introduce Jan to the Magic Band’s new drummer, Art Tripp. “Arty Tripp. He’s an art trip, man,” Beefheart said. About half way to the top of the busy two lane road, on the east side of the canyon, was–and still is–a cream colored house. We angled into a tiny driveway and parked. Beefheart turned to me.
“We won’t be staying long,” he said. “I know you have to be somewhere this afternoon.”
It was a small, personal, comment. It acknowledged that I had done him a favor, and that he wouldn’t abuse it. I was surprised that he remembered I had afternoon plans, impressed that he was trying to stay on schedule for me, and touched that he finally addressed me as a person instead of an audience. I don’t want to make too much of it, but of all the words “Beefheart” spoke in the few hours of our acquaintance these would provide me the greatest insight into the endearing reservoir of humility that was at the core of Don Van Vliet. Beefheart was humble?! No, Don was humble.
I’m sure there are people who would dispute that, even fall on the floor laughing. At the risk of sending them into apoplexy I’ll add this seemingly paradoxical observation: His humility was the source of his formidable power.
Though it was nearly noon our arrival awakened the people who lived there. A guy let us in, and we waited in the living room as he went to get Tripp. I don’t know how many people lived at this house, but unlike Beefheart’s–which was the band’s practice space–it was comfortably furnished with couches, chairs, end tables and lamps.
Presently a guy appeared dressed in a one-piece pajama suit patterned in tiger skin. The pajamas had enclosed feet like a baby’s sleeping suit, and in keeping with the tiger design the toes had little black plastic claws that protruded out. I wondered if he actually slept in this outfit, and if he did were his sheets all shredded from tossing and turning? This was Art Tripp.
He had a great warm smile that never left his face for the five minutes we were there. He looked like a former jock, as if he might have played football in high school. His eyes, though squinty with sleepiness, were clearly discerning. This was a person who noticed things. His face was full of wonder as he looked at Beefheart and Jan together. He seemed sincerely happy for his friend.
Beefheart really came alive around Tripp. He was almost solicitous of Tripp’s attention as he related with enthusiasm how “the chair breathed” following the ceremony. They had an obvious camaraderie and a mutual respect that was not evident between Beefheart and Harkleroad. I wondered why Tripp had not been invited to the wedding.
I don’t know what age Tripp was at this time, but I do remember that I envied his confidence and carefree demeanor. I imagined some beautiful girl still asleep in his bed.
I deposited the wedding party back at Beefheart’s house in Woodland Hills. Harkleroad and his girlfriend headed straight for the house–they were going back to sleep. Jan invited me to come in, but it didn’t seem appropriate. I opened my arms and offered my congratulations.
She put her arms around my neck and squeezed so hard I yelped. But she wasn’t letting go. Then I realized for Jan, this was not a, thank-you-for-taking-us-to-our-wedding hug. It wasn’t a see-you-soon hug or even a stay-in-touch hug. It was a hug that said with unmistakable poignancy, ‘good luck, dear friend, and farewell.’
About five months later, in the spring of 1970, I dropped by the Woodland Hills house. I hadn’t seen Jan or Beefheart since the wedding. They might have had a phone by then, but I didn’t know the number and couldn’t call in advance. It was around 8:00 p.m. Harkleroad and the girl no longer lived there.
Beefheart and Jan were sitting on a mattress in the living room watching a Clark Gable movie on a small black and white television. I’m not sure what I expected to find them doing, and I don’t mean this pejoratively, but watching television would never have entered my mind.
Beefheart was compulsively drawing on a sketchpad with pencil or charcoal. Dozens of sketches lay in loose heaps on the floor and mattress. He and Jan were pleasant, but not intimate nor engaged. I was clearly imposing. I stayed ten minutes and left with a valuable piece of social etiquette: it is one thing to drop in unannounced on your single college friends and another to drop in on your married acquaintances.
As an adult I have to laugh to think how I would handle an unannounced visit from my teenage wife’s teenage friend. I would greet him at the door–then sick the dog on him. Of course I knew when Jan married Beefheart that our unique friendship would not endure. That was a natural transition. Besides, I had my own life and friends. And while I never expected nor asked to be a part of the Van Vliet’s social circle, the denouement was a tad ignominious. Jan and I would talk by phone once more, a brief and touching closure that I won’t share here. But I would never see either of them again.
All this was 32 years ago. It’s like Teddy’s orange peels now. My 26 year-old daughter recently asked me if I would want to see Jan and Beefheart again.
“No,” I said. “But I would be interested in seeing Jan and Don again.” I thought about it a moment. “I don’t know. What would there be to say anyway?”
Perhaps I’ve said some of it in this brief memoir.
I’ll conclude by noting that I went on to have a wonderful life full of adventure and rich in insight. I sincerely wish the same for all the people I’ve mentioned.
By Mike Bugbee © March 2002
Michael Bugbee is the author of Notes from Hotel Misterioso, from Mline Books.
The official publication date is April 1, 2007, but beginning in January 2007 prepublication copies are available through www.mlinebooks.com, $14.95 U.S. or $17.95 Canadian plus shipping.
Inquiries to: firstname.lastname@example.org.
I lived down the street from that house. Rios Street in Woodland Hills during the early 90’s. The widow across the strew showed me the vinyl copy of TMR that Don had given her daughter as a gift. She went on to say how she remembered the album being recorded in that house. ah, to have been there during those years.
Love this post. One of my favorites across this entire site. Only 4 other people could have retold that story, and sadly only 3 left still living.
I met the Captain a few times. Once, when Frank Zappa was playing some of his orchestral music at UCLA. Beefheart showed up for the encore, “Strictly Genteel” playing his soprano sax. Afterwards, I ran into him outside on the way to the parking lot, smoking a cig. A very open, quite at ease person, talkative and seemed genuinely interested.
Later, my other guitar player (who dealt in suspect and illegal nostrums, stopped by Bruce Fowler’s house (this is when the “Bat Chain Puller” thingy was going on) in Echo Park to sell him some suspect. And there was the captain, puffing on his ever present cig. I had an interesting conversation with him. He spoke about when he was in New York with the Mothers (probably 67) and Ornette Coleman asked him how the Magic Band was able to execute complex rhythms live, and the Captain said “Telepathy”. Ornette asked one of the Magic band the same question – “Telepathy”. He also explained to me that “Japan is a Dishpan” off of “Lick My Decals Off, Baby” went up in stair steps. A very pleasant and interesting conversation.
Thanx Chuck, I will check out the stairsteps!
Hey Chuck – You mention Ornette Coleman meeting up with Don. Did Don ever mention any other free jazz musicians? Does anyone else here know if John ever considered using Ornette or any other free jazz musician on any of his tracks or did he jam with any of them?
This is an awesome story about the Captain and his Mrs. Wow, married for forty years. Most celebrities have been married a half dozen time or more in that stretch of time. That’s true love an dedication. Does anyone know how Jan is doing these days?
Anyone know how Jan is doing these days?
I’d like to know if the author Mike Bugbee, is the same Mike Bugbee who grew up on Kalisher Street in Granada Hills? If it is, get a hold of me Mike.
Dave, Kalisher is gone to the 118. Haven’t seen you since that bar in Venice, CA in 1973.
How do I connect with you?
One of the greatest pieces written about beef heart ever! Huge gratitude to u Mike.
I met both Jan and Beefheart in 1972 in philadelphia after release of LICK MY DECALS OFF BABY album.
Will never forget that moment.
Any idea how Jan is doing?
What a wonderfully-written reminiscence. A piece filled with insight and one of the best “beefheart encounters” I have ever had the plesure to read. Thank you, Mike.
This has nothing to do with the article, but it’s my only Beefheart moment, other than shows. In about ’74, I went early in the afternoon to get tickets to a show at a small theater in DC. They had just finished the sound check, and I went in and saw the Captain alone. I cornered him and talked his ear off for 10-15 minutes. He was very amusing. The musicians weren’t the same players I had seen before–it was all new guys. I asked him what happened to his other band. He said they left because they wanted to play rock and roll. I asked him if Trout Mask was rock and roll. He gestured a stage whisper and said “No, that was rocking hole.” My own Beefheart quote.
Haha I also saw your comment on YouTube.
Good thing its now pretty much confirmed, judging from your enthusiasm in sharing it, nice story :D
I’m somewhat surprised they had to rely on an almost stranger to ferry them to a marry occasion on a moment’s notice.
Did he ever say “thanks”?
Also somewhat disappointed by Don’s rudeness.
Seems marrying as Zappa hinted , might not be for the “drop outs”? Might be Don decided to tie Jan to him. He might not have survived without a housekeeper ?
Some great low yo yo stuff! Well written and very much enjoyed! Really captured Don’s spirit. With a name like Beefheart it’s gotta b good!!!