Captain Beefheart: Don’t Drink the Tea

by Don R. Aldridge, December 2010

Before I go into the details of my visit to Captain Beefheart’s home in Woodland Hills, early in 1969, I want to spend some time laying the background for the circumstances that brought about the visit in the first place.

I hadn’t seen Don Van Vliet in a few months but I knew he was working on a project and that the moment probably wasn’t ripe for a visit. My instincts proved to be on target; in all of the years of our friendship, my visit to the Trout Mask Replica house on Ensenada Drive was the only time that I did not feel completely welcome. Here is how the visit came about.

Two years after Merrell Fankhauser and I, along with my other singing partner, Gary Lotspeich, recorded the tracks that would anchor what became the Fapardokly album, Merrell and I reunited in Hollywood. I had received a call from Merrell in early spring 1968 to come to L.A. Lotspeich had married, I didn’t have a project, and I decided to take up Merrell on the offer.

Russ Regan had signed Merrell to a deal with Universal’s Shamley Records imprint with his band HMS Bounty, and the band’s first album had bombed. As it turned out, Shamley was giving him a last shot. Merrell said, “Aldridge, come write me a hit, man.” As it also turned out, I had just written a song that I thought might be good for Merrell, entitled “Tampa Run”.

I arrived in May of 1968, and was almost immediately signed by Merrell’s managers, Jack Hoffman and Norm Malkin. I should preface this by saying that I already knew that the Fapardokly album had been released without giving Lotspeich or myself proper credit. Merrell and I had initially agreed to partner on songs we had written individually, and six of those tunes ended up on the Fapardokly project, however Gary Lotspeich and I did not agree to the release of any of that material.

Neither Lotspeich nor I had ever been associated with a band called Fapardokly, nor would we have ever consented to be Merrell’s or anyone else’s backup singers. The songs, which Fankhauser and I had previously agreed to partner on for the earlier project, were recorded as the three-man vocal ensemble, Aldridge, Fankhauser and Lotspeich (AFL). In fact, Merrell took lead vocal credits on two songs that I sang lead on: “Mr. Clock” and “Glass Chandelier”.

In his All Music review, critic Richie Unterberger notes these inconsistencies: “… the early material is more pop-oriented and doesn’t fit in as well … “. The reason for these inconsistencies has of course become obvious: three or four different groups recorded the material over a span of five or more years.

Although Merrell has made the claim that all of this was due to pirating by a man named Glen MacArthur, who had previously produced him on other projects, Merrell has failed to rectify the erroneous credits on subsequent worldwide releases over the years. Many years later I learned that my song “Mr. Clock” had been registered with ASCAP under Merrell’s name only. I am still waiting for Merrell to straighten that out.

Incidental to all of this, Merrell has said that the musician line up on four of the AFL songs on the project included Beefheart drummer John “Drumbo” French. I have spoken to French about this and he agrees with me that he and I never have worked together.

Still, irrespective of his rather low old-school industry shenanigans, I have always considered my professional relationship with Merrell Fankhauser profitable and generally beneficial in furthering my career as a songwriter. It resulted in my induction into ASACP in 1969, and my contributions to both the Fapardokly and HMS Bounty projects have proved successful over the years. Also, “Tampa Run” became a regional hit in the U.S. and has received much airplay over the years.

Throughout the year I returned to Woodland Hills, where Merrell was holed up with his wife Josie and drummer Randy Wimer, in a beautiful hillside home on Avenue San Luis. On the weekends Merrell’s band would play lonely hearts club parties in Los Angeles, and during the week he and I continued to write. We called those gigs jet set parties but in actuality mostly date-challenged rich kids attended them.

On one occasion, however, a couple of the group members and I managed to crash a Playboy party next door to the gig at the Century Plaza. The place was wall-to-wall bare-naked ladies! I don’t recall Merrell being present when we invaded the California Room (I believe it was Jack Metzler, Randy Wimer and me) but believe me when I tell you that Hef knows how to throw a real jet set party.

By the spring of 1969 my visits with Merrell had largely become social occasions. HMS Bounty had broken up and he was between projects. Often I would bring a girlfriend to round out the occasion. One time I remember bringing Jane, a girl who had secreted her way into the country from England with the Richie Havens entourage.

With Merrell up in the air as to his next venture, I wasn’t too surprised when he asked me to join him on a trip up to the Beefheart rehearsal house on nearby Ensenada Drive. I figured at the time – correctly as it turned out – that Merrell’s reason for visiting Don Van Vliet was to re-recruit his old Exiles lead player, Jeff Cotton. I arrived at this conclusion because Van Vliet and Fankhauser had never been especially close. In fact, in late 1966, when I informed Don that Merrell and I intended to record together, he was particularly critical of the association. “Lame” was the word I recall him using when I told him.

So when Merrell asked me to accompany him to visit Van Vliet I wasn’t too surprised. But in discussing the trip, Merrell told me that bizarre happenings were going on at the TMR house. He said, “Whatever you do, don’t drink the tea, man. They’re dosing it with acid”.

I was dubious, since on more than one occasion, Don Van Vliet had warned me against taking LSD, insisting that it was dangerous and that I wouldn’t derive any benefit from it. And one thing I was absolutely certain of was that Don would not under any circumstances drop it in my tea. We had never shared anything other than the most amicable of relationships.

However, the trip would precipitate the one and only serious fracture in the entirety of my near two-decade-long friendship with Van Vliet. For years I had refused to repeat rumors about Don or his work, and I had enjoyed his complete trust. But on the way to this visit I irreparably damaged our friendship, albeit quite unintentionally.

On our way over, and in response to his warning, I told Fankhauser of an article in a fan magazine I had read, an interview with Frank Zappa in which Frank reportedly claimed that he and Don Van Vliet had dabbled in black magic. It was a story I would have cause to regret repeating almost immediately.
Shortly after my visit to the Trout Mask Replica house, Don contacted me and asked why I was spreading vicious rumors about him. Fankhauser had told him that I had reported the story to him as either first hand on my part, or as true; I have never been certain which.

I was both astounded and humiliated. Merrell had told me they were dropping acid into the tea up there, and my comment had been in response to his misgivings. I did not believe the article and told Merrell so at the time, but the damage was done. To this day I don’t understand why Fankhauser would have told Don such a thing, but I stand guilty of repeating the story.

Don and I were able to straighten out the tale a few months later, and I have always regretted that I repeated it in the first place, but I’m not sure I ever regained the same level of trust I had enjoyed with Don Van Vliet.

If I had one thing I could do over in all the years I knew Don Van Vliet, I would never have visited the Trout Mask Replica house.

Next time I recount my visit to Ensenada Drive.

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