Captain Beefheart Knows He’s A Man by Billy Altman

This piece was taken from Creem magazine of April 1979

Don Van Vliet has just spent the last fifteen minutes wandering around the conference room at Warner Brothers’ New York headquarters, investigating the possibilities of undoing the corporate environment. He has painstakingly adjusted and readjusted the dimmer switch until the lighting in the room matches the twilight outside, and he has also managed to pry open one of those standard office building windows, the kind that no one who works in places like this ever even gets near for fear that if they do try and get some fresh air in, some alarm will ring and a team of security guards will haul them away (“Mr. Smith, why would you want to tamper with the scientifically designed heating and cooling system of this structure? I mean, you have a window to look out of, don’t you? Which is better than many other employees here. A window with which to see the building next door, where other people work hard all day for their firm, just as you should for yours. Why do you wish to spoil things, Mr. Smith? Perhaps a talk with the company psychologist . . .”).

The Captain finally sits down, the two of us engage in the ancient Beefheartian ritual of cigarette exchanging – Don’s eyes light up when he sees that I’ve got a pack of Chesterfields and I am ecstatic when a tin of Balkan Sobranies materializes out of his travel bag – but soon he is up again, moving towards a corner of the room where a cardboard cut-out of Shaun Cassidy is standing. Don’s eyes move up and down as he takes in Shaun’s toothy grin, the long scarf, the open necked shirt, the tight slacks. “Can you imagine?” he exclaims. “That kid has more money than all of us. Well, so what? He deserves it. You know what I mean?” And with that, he assumes a John L. Sullivan stance, bobs and weaves a bit, waits for the opening and lands a lightning quick solid right jab to Cassidy’s jaw. “I like this place,” he laughs. “You know what I mean?”

TO BILLY, LOVE OVER GOLD – DON VAN VLIET reads the inscription on the front cover of my copy of The Spotlight Kid, a momento of my first meeting with Captain Beefheart back in early ’72. I’ve since seen him hand out autographs to admirers and give signed sketches to friends, and that little statement usually accompanies his signature. It is one of many phrases that Beefheart has graced the universe with over the years (“Earth – God’s golf ball, “”I’m not even here; I just stick around for my friends,” and “You can tell by the kindness of a dog how a human should be” are three other favorites), but in lieu of his unique relationship to both the world of music and the music industry itself (I hesitate to use the word “career,” since writing and playing music is just one of many things this man does brilliantly; if pressed, I’d have to say that his career is living and on that account, he’s got roughly ninety-nine percent of the rest of his race beat), it’s most assuredly the one that means the most. It has often been a struggle for him to do what he loves to do, and his refusal to be manipulated by the “accepted” rules and regulations of the music biz (x amount of records recorded during y amount of time; z number of tours per annum; etc.) has probably had a big hand in preventing him from becoming a household word, and has resulted in plenty of strange dealings with a number of record companies. But you wind up coming right back to that little slogan and it explains just about everything you’d need to know about Don Van Vliet.

“Beefheart freaks. I know the kind too well – ‘I just love Captain Beefheart. Wouldn’t want him over at the house, though!’ ”

The closest that Beefheart came towards trying it their way was towards the middle of the decade. In 1972 he’d given Warner Bros. Clear Spot, an album which, produced by Ted Templeman, was hoped to be the one to bring the Beefheart sound to a bigger than cult-sized audience. It didn’t happen, and after its commercial failure, Beefheart moved over to Mercury. 1974’s Unconditionally Guaranteed sported a cover showing him clutching dollar bills in each hand, with a mock warranty printed underneath the picture. One part stood out for me, though; it said: “Warning: Could be harmful to closed minds.” And so, even though the credits on the back were enough to let me know that something was indeed amiss here, what with producer Andy DiMartino getting not only coarranging credit with Beefheart for all the songs but also cocredit for the songwriting, I gave the record a chance and was rewarded by an undeniably subdued, but nevertheless often captivating, set of songs. Ballads dominated here for the first time on a Beefheart album and odd time signatures were non-existent. But as I pointed out in my review of the record here in CREEM when it was released, ballads were certainly not without precedent in Beefheart land. Spotlight Kid has had them, as had Clear Spot, and I, for one, found no problem at all holding up songs like “Neon Meat Dream Of A Octafish” and “Her Eyes Are A Blue Million Miles” side by side and enjoying the different glow from each of them.

Not much happened with the album, though, and Beefheart’s lone New York appearance that year proved to be one of the most depressing concerts I have ever attended in my life. The Magic Band had broken up shortly before this particular tour had begun and Beefheart, assembling what musicians he could under the circumstances, went through the tour like a man whose feet had been cut out from under him. The band tried hard to accompany Beefheart as best they could, but as he himself will tell you, it takes a lot of “unlearning” to play his music correctly. The audience that night was the kind that, unfortunately, I’d seen too many times at Captain Beefheart shows. Mostly Zappoids, coming doped up to see the ‘bizarre’ Beefheart be weird. They yelled and screamed throughout all the slow songs – and many grew hostile when it became clear that this wasn’t going to be an evening of Dadaist entertainment. I only made it through about half the set and finally I just became so overwhelmed by sadness that I had to leave.

“I own some land in California – as if anyone can own land – up north near the Oregon border; I think it’s a quarter of an acre or a third, I’m not really sure. All I need is a window looking on the ocean.”

A second Mercury album came out in ’75 and to Beefheart it was the final straw. Entitled Bluejeans and Moonbeams, the record was mostly outtakes from the previous record and rough takes with instruments overdubbed. Beefheart didn’t want it released and it went out without his approval. Beefheart had suddenly disappeared and the company was going to make sure that he honored his contract, one way or another. Where he disappeared to was home in Northern California, where he and his lovely wife Jan simply went on with their life together – painting, writing, reading, loving, breathing.

In 1976, a new Magic Band started to get assembled and, as with the original Magic Band, it got pieced together slowly and without any real kind of search. The right players just started appearing. Jeff Tepper had met Beefheart years before and Beefheart had given him a drawing which Tepper had framed and put up on the wall of his house. The two of them met again and Tepper, a sensitive guitarist, began playing with Beefheart. Richard Redus, the other guitarist, was a visitor at Beefheart’s house during the recording of Trout Mask Replica (“We talked about the beautiful eucalyptus trees in Woodland Hills,” Beefheart recalls) and he joined the fold after a stint with Zappa. Drummer Robert Williams and bassist/keyboard player Eric Feldman formed the rhythm section, and the Magic Band was back in business.

Late in ’77, the new band went on tour, performing a set of old and new songs. All skepticism that I may have had was wiped out as soon as I heard new songs, like “Floppy Boot Stomp and “Bat Chain Puller,” (or not only was Beefheart in amazing vocal form, considering his lengthy exile, but the band sounded completely attuned to the textural and rhythmic slants and turns of Beefheart’s decidedly singular muse. The Captain seemed more relaxed onstage than I’d ever seen him, and, when he finally took out his horn for “Veteran’s Day Poppy” and let loose that shrill shrieking cry of humanity, I knew all was well with the world. After a few months of negotiations, Beefheart had a new recording deal worked out with good old Warner Brothers.

“I’m totally happy with this album. I just had a blast, and I mean a blast, doing it. Glen Kolotkin, the engineer, is just brilliant. This is the first time you can hear my voice the way it really is. Glen did Stravinsky’s last record. I’ve always used my voice as an instrument but these people never realized that. What a job he did. When I heard ‘Bat Chain Puller’ it just knocked me down. He got my voice the way it is. You know what I mean?”

Shiny Beast (Bat Chain Puller) is an extraordinary achievement, considering both what Beefheart, has been through the last few years and the fact that the new Magic Band was put together basically from scratch. It’s perhaps the most well rounded Beefheart album ever, letting loose all facets of Beefheart’s extraordinary personality. One doesn’t hear much truly sensual music these days, and it’s a joy to hear “Tropical Hot Dog Night,” with its swirling melodies and counter melodies mustering up sweet jungle fever, and “Candle Mambo,” filled with such simple and beautiful imagery (When I’m dancing with my love/The shadows flicker up above/Up above the shadows do the candle mambo”). The album as a whole just soars and frolics, filled with humor and love. And with the addition of trombonist Bruce Fowler, the Magic Band’s sound takes on a whole new dimension. (“Is he too much?” laughs Beefheart. “Slide trombone and two slide guitars is it! You know what I mean?”).

“You know they’ve found a use for cockroaches and it’s pretty good. What it is is that they predict earthquakes by their behavior. Is that hip? I knew they were worth it. They are beautiful things.”

If the new wave has been good for anything, it’s been the opening up again of various ways of expressing oneself musically and a break way from the creeping, emotionally deadening blandness 6f mainstream 70’s music. Don Van Vliet was new wave before there was a new wave, and he was playing fusion music before there was fusion music. Captain Beefheart is a person whose life and art are one and the same. Simply put, he is a man who is free. You know what I mean?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *