Captain Beefheart: Brave New Twirl

The Transcendency of the Magic Band

by Don R. Aldridge, August 2010

In the early, what I will call formative years, of Captain Beefheart and His Magic Band, Don Van Vliet would bounce ideas off me. I don’t believe for one moment, and didn’t even then, that he was seeking my advice, but I’m still not sure why he chose to share some of these revelatory thoughts with me. The best I can say, by way of analogy, is that my relationship with Don Van Vliet was something like Jim Morrison’s friendship with Danny Sugarman: for some reason I am still at a loss to explain, the guy took a liking to me.

Almost nothing we ever did took place before 3 P.M. in those days (we were both as nocturnal as bats), and since I worked nights during the first year or so after we became acquainted, I would drop by the Carolside house after midnight, three or four days a week. This, incidentally, is how the song “Plastic Factory” came about. Don went on a bit about my “straight” job.

On many of these nights, Van Vliet would share his (what I now know were more than idle) ruminations with me on music, often standing for rather prolonged periods in his living room, and often I came away scratching my head. Sometimes he would reflect on his vision for Captain Beefheart and His Magic Band.

The original band showed evidence of being a democracy. I am fairly certain that they all, initially at least, had a vote. One example I witnessed was the week or so when they were deciding to dump Leonard Grant Associates and Dorothy Heard as their management team. Everyone expressed an opinion, and they were all negative, as I recall. But they all had a vote in that instance. An Aside here: Honestly, I never figured out why anyone would think standup comedian Frank Gorshin’s managers would be a fit for Beefheart. I wanted to jump up a sing, “Ding Dong the Witch is Dead,” when I realized Dorothy was getting the ax.

But Don Van Vliet always seemed just a few steps ahead of real time when it came to the disposition of the Magic Band. I began to realize this when other members of the band would share their perceptions with me as to the group’s future. In the two first years or so, when Don would bring me along to a weekend party or we would do something like drop by 10,000-watt KUTY, where the young disc jockey Don Imus wreaked havoc on the Antelope Valley, at least some members of the band were along, but as time passed that became less the case.

Fairly early on I knew that, short of some Beatles-esque landing on the Top 40 charts, some of these guys wouldn’t be around for long. I saw bass player Jerry Handley’s departure coming way upstream, after meeting Sue, the young woman who would become Jerry’s wife. I won’t betray any confidences regarding Van Vliet’s opinion on the subject of Sue Handley, but suffice to say that I formed the belief that he and Sue weren’t simpatico. Which put me in an awkward position because I thought Sue was – in a word – hot.

Quite often, Don and I would climb in either my Rambler or his Jaguar-a magnificent old beast-and run the desert on 3 A.M. “joint breaks,” much as he and Zappa had done a decade earlier. We were almost always by ourselves, and it was during these times when he might choose to share a thought with me.

His relationships with most musicians-and I want to stress that this was merely my impression – were insouciant at best, and his relationships with the various Magic Band members seemed based on their abilities to get the job done. I certainly was not privy to every relationship he had within the Trout Mask Replica band, but that was my take on those I witnessed. I should say here, that I only knew Bill Harkleroad very slightly, and have never met Artie Tripp.

I met quite a few musicians with whom Don was acquainted in the early years, including Jim Morrison, Van Morrison, Animals lead singer Eric Burden (who I got uproariously drunk with one night at the Whisky a Go Go), Lovin’ Spoonful drummer Joe Butler, and members of the Buffalo Springfield. Musicians in general didn’t seem high on Van Vliet’s list of important people, and his views on Magic Band members, from my perspective, waxed and waned by the project. Of course there were exceptions in both cases.

The biographies, memoires and websites are lavish with stories of Don’s love-hate relationship with Frank Zappa, but you had to be there when he shared the first Mothers of Invention album, “Freak Out!” with me. I recall this was in Hollywood, after a Beefheart show one night.

Van Vliet was like a proud papa. “This s_ _ _ ‘s heavy, man,” he instructed me, as though if I listened carefully I would learn something. “This cat is a m_ _ _ _ _ f_ _ _ er on that guitar, man.” He provided a running commentary on the album for me as the tracks unfolded, saying things like, “Listen to that f_ _ _er on those drums, man,” – speaking of Mothers drummer Jimmy Carl Black – and so on.

Another exception was, I believe, John “Drumbo” French. Over the years John – we’ve known each other since adolescence – and I must have had dozens of conversations about Don, and I believe their relationship transcended the artist-musician utilitarian alliances I witnessed between Van Vliet and other members.

However, to the casual observer, Don’s relationships with his band members could be deceptive and may have at times been so, even to the particular member he was showering his attention on at the moment. There was, after all, a seduction period with every recruitment I witnessed, as one original member after another peeled away, and new ones came aboard.

Although Don might be inclined to take my head off for this, I believe I noticed a distinct transformation in him after Zappa’s initial success with “Freak Out!” Recognize that that success took a while to percolate up to the “mainstream” and find an audience in Upper West Side and Beverly Hills society, where it first gained attention. But when it became clear that Frank had broken a wall, from my point of view, Van Vliet began to ascend to another plane, as it were, and his thoughts on Captain Beefheart and His Magic Band began to change. This is when I believe Don made a serious decision to move into the avant-garde genre.

Also I had the impression that Don believed that Zappa’s commercial success, eventually at least, amounted to a sell-out on Frank’s part. I was having trouble rationalizing how either Frank or Don could be successful without garnering some commercial attention, but Don was the genius here. I learned to take his ruminations and occasional rantings in my stride.

Whatever Don Van Vliet’s intentions were for Captain Beefheart and His Magic Band, and just what his thought processes were as those ideas evolved, I am not certain that he felt that he achieved his goal. In 1984, when I saw him for the last time, he assured me that he would eventually return to the stage as Captain Beefheart. That to me suggested that he had more he wanted to say. Sadly, that was not to be the case.

Regarding Don’s cooperate work with the Magic Bands I must say that I am appalled that the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame has not inducted them. I suppose I shouldn’t be, since this august body didn’t recognize Chuck Berry until 1986, but I am nonetheless. Captain Beefheart and His Magic Band has had a dizzying influence on modern music, and I cannot imagine what mainstream pop would be today without them.

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