Captain Beefheart by Roger Ames

This article appeared in September 1974, although the source is unknown. It focuses very favourably on the so-called ‘Tragic Band’ era, and includes a couple of the contradictory statements which Don has made about this time.

Beefheart has been called a genius and that is unfortunate. Geniuses for the most part are people who die poor and unrecognised only to then receive attention (No, this is not Jim Crotchetey we’re talking about). For the most part geniuses are not rock stars and if they are they’re the type who don’t tour and only come out of seclusion every few years to record an album before scurrying back into the isolation of the California hills or ‘the country’. It’s part of a mystique creating process that Beefheart has unfortunately been associated with. If the album is so crazy that no one can understand it, well that’s because the artist is a genius and humble you cannot reach ‘his level’. Bullshit. Beefheart may or may not be a genius: you can make your own decision by going to the Smithsonian institute or wherever and examining the sculptures of the animals of North America that he did before he was thirteen; you can even go find the weekly TV series that he did at this time with Portuguese sculptor Augistino Rodriguez, but you would probably be better off if you just made an effort to catch the Captain live on stage when he comes back from his European tour.

Tour? Yes, once again upon the my o my is being heard The Captain’s cry. It’s been almost two years since The Cap’n last let his voice be heard on these North American shores and by the time you read this he’ll already be gone, but he will be back. He’s not been idle during those two years. He’s come up with a new label, manager, and producer, and a ‘New electric ride band’ who are taking the music on the road to tell the world how The Captain’s been driven away from his own steering wheel, During his four month tour of Europe there will also be two albums recorded. One of which will be the follow up to his latest release on Mercury records. One of the albums will be a live recording which will probably just be, released by the U.K. label (Virgin), while the other album will be recorded at Manor (Live in) studios for release in the U.S. and Canada.

Why the sudden burst of activity? Augie Di Martino explains it this way.

‘He didn’t have the right people behind him before. His managers were an accountant and a lawyer. They could not go on the road and they did not understand the man. We went to Don and we said lets do it right, cause he was in semi retirement. We said we’re gonna put out an album and we’re going to go out on the road and promote it.”

While Don’s past managers may have been unsuitable when you meet Di Martino he does not strike you as a Beefheart type manager. He’s a New York pro with a nicotine cough and a tattoo peeking out underneath the sleeve of his sports shirt. His brother and himself formerly managed The Cascades (Remember them walking in the rain?), The Fleetwoods, and Buckwheat, and (gasp) Gary Puckett and The Union Gap. Whatever happened to them anyway. Did they get in trouble with a young girl?

“When Gary wanted to get weird with us and give us trouble we just said goodbye, you know, cause it wasn’t worth the trouble. Now with Don we’ve been working hand in hand towards getting him across to a broader audience. My brother Andy helped with the material on the new album and he produced it and I mixed it. We brought in a guy by the name of Del Simmons for the horn work but it’s basically Don, The Magic Band, and my brother on that album. It’s a good album that everybody, not just the cult following, can enjoy.”

And it is! It’s a rock and roll album and the Magic Band sound as though they’ve been laced with beer for a change. The guitars have an electric edge that’s never been there before and Don’s voice is clear and natural as it should have been all along. The Di Martino influence is obvious, and though the drums sound as it they were recorded underwater, the album still kicks and invites you to hum along. And that is different for a Beefheart album. Di Martino worked Don hard – sometimes recording from seven in the evening till the next morning and Don says he loved it.

“Di Martino demands tremendous energy. He’s the right producer; the cosmic mitt. Get it the way it really is and get it down is what I’ve always wanted to do, no fooling around and we can do that now. He got my voice better than anyone before. I’m happy with the LP. The other was the other and this is this. I like the other but I like this too.”

Toronto was the second stop on the Beefheart North American tour. The band walked on stage without Beefheart and kicked off with a tight instrumental that segued nicely into the funky Spencer Davis type organ line that signals the start of ‘Upon the my oh my, and is the cue for Don to appear. He came on in a red Captain Beefheart T shirt left over from the W.E.A. Clear Spot days, a pair of beat out black pants, and with a red scarf holding back his fairly long (above the shoulders) brown hair. His voice. when he begins does not belong to the man; it does not belong to a blue eyed Californian. It is the voice of an old black man, Howling Wolf mixed in with the Swampiness of Dr. John, but more powerful than is imaginable. It swamps the hall, overiding the guitarist who is stepping on the Captain’s lines, and immediately commanding all attention.

One of the surprise features of the set is the appearance of Del Simmons, a short Italian man who looks to be in his forties and who is introduced as the man who sweet talked Sweet Georgia Brown. He blows clarinet, flute, and tenor sax and is featured in a mock battle with Beefheart on harp and Del on tenor. But Don chooses to get out his alto and turn it into a battle of the horns. It does not work. Don is too loud and the band falls apart until in desperation everyone stops and lets Del carry the show. He blows like a man possessed, this 50’s throwback dressed all in black, and manages to sound like three saxophonists at once.

There’s a standing ovation at the end of the first set and after a long time Don comes back out smiling and sits on the edge of the stage. The fans crowd around and he’s shaking hands and talking to them when he begins to sing a blues with no accompaniment. There is dead silence as this incredibly deep and powerful voice bounces off the walls. He breaks it off and laughs. ‘You know I’m not the black snake’ he says, ‘But the mascara snake is here, he’s always here.’ and from that into ‘Sugarbowl’.

Don is at a loss in the dressing room hustle and it takes Di Martino to stop him from going back to the hotel. Even when I manage to corner him away from it his eyes remain vacant, his answers vague: he’s still thinking about the music he says.

“That band got me going man, and I had to get the horn out, I had to see it, I couldn’t stand it. I didn’t plan it, I didn’t plan any of the things I did tonight. The show is worked out to a degree but I let the audience have a lot to do with it. I loved the audience. This is Grandmothers land isn’t it? That’s what the Apaches called it.”

I mentioned that there had been a little old lady in a yellow print dress in the audience.

“Did she dig it? Yeah! Good. I love touring you know love to meet people and writers. I did not do it before because I never had the right people. Now I do. Andy and Augie…. the cosmic mitt.… I’m trying to reach a larger audience to get money to save the whales. It’s the way I have to do it because before I never had enough money to do anything for the animals. I didn’t start touring until 1971 and that was mostly in Europe and England. They love me in England. They understood ‘Safe as Milk’ right away over there.”

Whales? Animal preserves?

“I wanna build an animal preserve in North California cause I don’t like hunters, see, and space is getting short on the planet and I wanna save as many animals as I can. It’ll be very open, however the animals want it. Paul Span in British Columbia. Project Jonah to save the whales. I’ve been doing that in Europe, passing out pamphlets about it. We’re also tryin’ to get Norway and Russia to stop killing whales. Needless slaughter. It’s absurd!”

The blue eyes blazed. His voice is low and comes from his broad frame with conviction. Why don’t people understand, he seems to say. Ah, it’s hard to think here. I change the subject to records. Had he been unhappy with his album for Blue Thumb?

“I was angry about that for a while because I produced it, arranged it, and while I was away they changed it. It’s like someone peeing on the Mona Lisa.”

How about ‘Trout Mask’?

“That was an important album for me and it was not promoted right. Then by the time I got to Warner Brothers the momentum was gone. Zappa wasn’t ready for me. Like ‘The Blimp’. That was recorded down the telephone line from my house to the studios in Glendale. And I’m saying ‘Hey Frank, get this down, get it like it is’ and he wasn’t ready for this, you can hear it in his voice before and after the song. A lot of the songs on that album were recorded in the house cause I just wanted to get them down without lying to the people.

“Dust blows forward, dust blows back” was recorded in the house on a cassette. It was just me with the cassette. That was an impromtitudinal poem. I used the clicks from switching the mike on and off to create the space. A lot of the songs on that album were poems. I’ve got seven and a half Queen Mary steamer trunks full of poetry, novels, screenplays. I still paint and sculpt too. Sculpted all the fish. The Whales man… whew… thirteen and a half pound brain! I wouldn’t record the whales though. I just want to help them. I mean, can you see a whale as a rock star heh heh. You know there is a family of whales in Trinidad bay near where I live and when we play the music, the album, late at night when it’s quiet they show up, they come and they dance man!”

As my 1 lb brain already fogged with Tia reeled I asked about the tree surgeon that had been hired during the recording of Trout Mask.

“I got him to look at these two old Eucalyptus trees near my house because I was worried about them. They’re fine trees and I would not have wanted anything.… You know when I go up there they still shake for me.”

He held up his hands, shaking them, and with visions of Treebeard clomping onto the stage. I left to talk to Di Martino about the Magic Band. When Beefheart had asked about the Magic Band he had said that ‘The old band retired, they got tired and retired from music, fuck em’. Di Martino expanded on that.

“They were all living in the hills of California on salary and they didn’t want to tour. Zoot Horn had toured before and he didn’t want the strain. Not just the physical strain but the mental strain of going out thinking you’re going somewhere, touring for three months, then coming back and you realise you haven’t made it and you got nothing to show, see. The menial comedown – he couldn’t face it again. Also Artie Tripp didn’t want to be away from his wife for four months. They didn’t want to do the new material and they didn’t want to tour. They’re going to play local gigs. But we own the name ‘The Magic Band’.”

So there’s a New Magic Band with a keyboard player from Buckwheat, a drummer from Ricky Nelson’s band (Ty Grimes), a bass player from Bobbie Gentry’s old band (Paul Uhrig), and a throwback sax player who led his own band in Dixieland days. Dean Smith is on lead, Fuzzy Fuacaldo on rhythm.

As I walked back upstairs tokin’ fans attacked the new album I carried. ‘Is it out over here yet? Whew he looks different eh? Is the Old Magic Band on it? Is he going to play with them anymore? I hope he does! Want 15 bucks for it?’

The band had ‘tightened’ considerably in the dressing room by the time they came back on for the second show. They burned away for five minutes while the Captain stood by the piano, then slammed into ‘Upon the my oh my’, no one stepping on the Captain’s lines this time, his harp, soaked in Labaits 50, rocking the band on through the breaks.

The first three numbers were incredible displays of hard controlled playing but the band were in for trouble.

“Where’s the Magic Band?”

“This is the new Magic Band! This is our second stop. They’ve only been together eight days.”

“And they suck!”

Into another new song. Del Simmons comes onstage and the harp sax battle with Beefheart begins. Beefheart is the loser and he pours a can of beer into the sax’s mouth but Del continues blowing with the band rocking away behind him, hitting on the beat like a piledriver. Beefheart reaches back, grabs his Alto sax, Del makes the sign of the cross and the battle resumes, Beefheart blowing free for the thirteen pounders while Del’s honking for the one pounders. Incredibly, it works. Del can also blow the free Trout Mask stuff and he does; while Don fans his horn with his jacket. Then Beefheart starts up again and he and the bass player rushes to a close like the Turbo coming in late. Without a pause, out of the near silence following the cacophony, comes a flute spinning free above it, all easing the whole shebang into the slow, countryish ‘This is the day’. It’s magic and Don acknowledges it.

“Del Simmons ladies and gentlemen. He sucked a cosmic particle into the belly of his horn and it illuminated his brain.”

Del Simmons, still blowing the flute, takes a bow. But there is still this one jerk out there throwing insults and he gets to the Captain. “You gotta dig everything / Get out yer shovel / Throw out yer shovel” he improvises in the next song only to be met with another insult at the end of the song. Without saying anything he leads the band into ‘Sugarbowl’ but by the middle of it Don’s had enough. He shouts into the mike over the band “Someone out there – you make me really mad”, grabs his horn and blows three perfect farts with it into the mike, and leaves. The crowd stomp for fifteen minutes but it’s late and The Captain does not come back.

1 Comment

  1. Regarding woodwind player Del Simmons and his being Italian,…. he was actually James Simmonian, an Armenian chap from New York (I think). His brother Richard was also a musician. Del spent most of the last 50 years in Encino, CA. I met him about 1962-63, he’s been a long time friend of the family since. Learn a lot about musicianship from him over the years.

    I can understand an Armenian being mistaken for Italian, it happens to me all the time when I’m in London, England, UK. Which is okay, at least they don’t speak tp me in other languages that I don’t understand (like Farsi or Mexican-Spanish). Thank goodness for the sensibility of the English.

    Used to see Del (Uncle Del as we knew him) playing clubs around the San Fernando Valley,… top notch woodwind player and really cool guy. He passed on around 2008,… he’ll be missed and so will his playing.


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