[alert_box type=”info”]This interview is from the January 1979 edition of the New York Rocker. The informal chat covers topics such as New Wave, cleanliness, and Don’s selling of a vacuum cleaner to Aldous Huxley.[/alert_box]
The stars are matter. We’re matter. What’s the diff, Zoot?
Don Van Vliet, aka Captain Beefheart, has emerged after six years of semi-retirement with a great album. Since the release of Clear Spot in late ’72, offerings from the Beefheart camp have been both infrequent and less than heartening. Even Van Vliet dismisses outright the two muffed Mercury albums, Unconditionally Guaranteed and Bluejeans and Moonbeams, and apart from guest shots on Frank Zappa records and ”hard Workin’ Man” from the Jack Nitzsche produced soundtrack to Blue Collar, there’s been precious little “product” to keep the faithful going. Yet the past year has seen a number of artists and musicians come forward to sing Beefheart’s praises: Pere Ubu, J. Rotten (rhymes with cotton), etc. Mark Perry even used Clear Spot to rest his laurels on the cover of ATV’s The Image Has Cracked. So Shiny Beast (Bat Chain Puller) was an important release for another stiff would have made three strikes, and even the loyalist ranks might have dwindled into nothingness. But hark! It’s a homerun smasheroo!
With strains of all of Beefheart’s best work running through it, and the cleanest, most accessible production he’s ever had, this LP is a smooth shot of Van Vliet for the die-hard fan, as well as a fine introduction for the young pop initiate. Stylistically, it’s probably most similar to The Spotlight Kid (especially on Side One), and the only tune that seemed weak upon repeated listening (“Harry Irene”) was more that; redeemed by live performance. So, if you haven’t seen ’em, get out there and do it – then everyone of these great numbers will have a well deserved place on the song list of your heart. Yay!
The current band (Robert Williams – tubs; Bruce “Old Hat” Fowler – trombone; Jeff Tepper – guitar; Richard Redus – guitar; Eric Feldman – keyboards, bass; Doc Beefheart – vocals (yeah!), harp, soprano sax; Mary Jane Eisenberg – maracas, choreography) puts on one heck of a nice show, romping through a peck of old favourites (“Abba Zabba”! “Old Fart At Play”! “Blue Million Miles”! et al) as well as showcasing the new album. It might be noted that Eric Feldman’s near-perfect recreation of Mr. Rockette Morton’s tres tricky bass solo in “Bellerin’ Plain” sent more than one old fan into spasms of ecstasy. All in all, the new band seems comprised of youngsters (with the exception of veteran Fowler, of course) who were once staunch Beefheart fans themselves and, as such. are content to play the older material as close to the originals as they can. This makes for a much more cohesive stage unit, as the lads seem to have less of a yen to go off on their own tangents, and do pretty much as Don directs them. You shouldn’t infer, however, that this band doesn’t put its own distinctive mark on everything it plays – it does. But the sound this time around, is cleaner, the complex rhythms much less jarring, the guitars less bitingly metallic – in whole, a somewhat ”sweeter” sound – and Don’s pipes have never sounded better. I was impressed. This is the kind of band / sound / tour / album that could win the Magic Band the huge following they so richly deserve.
With the help of Gary Kenton [former ace writer / rooster for the late, lamented Fusion, now hotdoggin’ promo flak-catcher for a starstudded major record label] I was able to breach the backstage area between sets at the Bottom Line. So I was poking around there, hoping to bestow my kudos on the band, when voila! A door opened and there sat Bruce, Rick, Eric, and Robert. I popped in, hopingto score some Brownie points with my hearty “You guys were really great tonight.”, but … what’s this? Eric counters with, “No, we were really drunk tonight.” What? Oh, I get it – these guys have a sense of humour! Terriff! I hung around jawin’ for a while, when out comes the fact that Eric and Rick went to high school together. Gosh, it really is a small world – I went to high school too! I bummed some money from Rick, and in two shakes of a lamb’s tail it’s time for the second set. It was every bit as good as the first, and most of the older songs included were different from those in the earlier set. Rick Redus told me they’ve got 54, 55 numbers “down!”
Still in the sway of this great night of music, I gut the glad tidings that I’d be able to interview Mr. Van Vliet that following day. My coach and I spent the night writing down the questions that had plagued our brains for so many years. and then .. . whoosh! I’m the same room with The Man. Yep, there he was, sitting in the dark, surrounded by notes, sketches, and pack after pack of cigarettes. I was only a little nervous – after all, I was well-researched and everyone had said how easy the Captain was to interview. This is a lie! He’s very easy to talk to; he is not easy to interview. Don pretty much talks about whatever he feels like, and since he speaks at such an even, unhurried, well-modulated pace, it’s nigh on impossible to change his course in the middle of one of his raps. Still, he was great to talk to. Quite a guy, I must say. And here, in edited and restructured form, is what transpired:
Do you mind if I ask you some questions I thought up?
Hell no, man. Go ahead.
How did you get this current band together?
Oh, thank you for calling it a current band. The thing is I really think they have a current going, don’t you?
You play as though you’ve been together a long time….
There’s one thing about them – they won’t work, which is fantastic! My other groups, in the past, have fallen into work patterns. And when that happens, that’s it – I leave. These guys just play, it ain’t work to them. I’m in 7th heaven. Did you see me over there (The Bottom Line)? Maybe you were there the night before the monitor machine went kapoot.
Your poor soundman looked so harried.
He’s a nice guy, but you know you know how sound is, for god’s sake. (to photographer) That’s why you take pictures, you know how sound is. Sound is shit. (A lengthy discussion of cigarette brands and their comparative merits ensues…)
Actually I think there are some good American cigarettes.
I like Chesterfields.
Chesterfields are good, definitely.
And I’m saving the coupons, I’m gonna use ‘em for a big house.
Ya oughta get an iron lung with ‘em. You know, once Stravisnky called me to his house, when I was doing a thing called Trout Mask Replica. Laura Huxley called and said, “The master must speak to you.” And I didn’t go. I didn’t go due to the fact that I was deeply involved with the album and the people I was with would’ve probably run right out the doors if would have left at that time. I didn’t go and I’ve never forgiven myself for that. But, I did sell Aldous Huxley a vacuum cleaner in the desert, in Lano. An Electrolux.
Really? Was it any good or was it a bum cleaner?
Oh yeah, very good. I wouldn’t have done it other wise. I have a hard time selling anything. But that was one thing that was really worth it, because at that time it had a bag, a little paper bag, and it sealed off and you could dispose of it very easily.
Did you go out there especially to sell it to him, or were you a vacuum cleaner salesman?
I didn’t know it was him when I met him. But after being there for a minute I thought, “This fellow is an awfully powerful, unusual individual.” He could hardly see, you know, he was very tall, and he looked down like this and said, “I want that”. I said, “Well I assure you sir, this thing sucks.” Something corny like that, because by this time I had recognised him from a book cover or something. That’s the way it happened, in Lano, California.
Up near Pearblossom, in the high desert. And he wrote that thing The Crows of Pearblossom. That guy wrote some stuff. An Englishman coming that far out of himself is amazing. You’ve been to England? Well then, you know what I mean. The idea of him being able to get through all of that school…
What kinds of influences do you see on your music?
Never. You know why? Because it would be a distortion of the prism. You know, colour distortion. I think that an artist should be exactly what he is, or she is.
But these days everyone takes in so much information.
I don’t. There are lots of things that I’d like . . . there are books that I would love to read, but I’m afraid that they would influence me, and that could stop me. It might give me, like, a restriction on tuning. People like to hear music in tune, because they hear it in tune all the time. I tried to break all of that down on an album called Trout Mask Replica. I really tried to break that down, I untuned the piano I wrote it on. Then one musician, I mean really “a musician”, Art Tripp, came in and said, “I’ve got to fix this” and I said, “No”. He had gone to the Manhattan School of Music, and he was going to join my band. So, I got an erector set and I said, “This is the test. Take this erector set” (I’d built a little thing) “Now, squeeze this erector set.” Because he’d gone to the Manhattan School of Music and was very form-minded, which is better than Julliard (those people just make a mould), but. . . So, I said, “How does it feel?”. He says, “It’s horrible”. I say, “Am I right, then?”, like that. And he says, “I’ll try it.” I’m gonna start lecturing at colleges and stuff and tell people the way I do music. Because I have a different way of doing music. I’m a sculptor and it’s definitely formed from that.
Do you think people will get it?
I think it will go into their minds. I think everyone hears everything, I mean, we all hear those horns (indicating car horns on the street below), you hear them.
Well then, of course they hear my music. Everybody hears my music, but the thing is, it’s a matter of whether they want to or not. I don’t know how people can say they don’t hear, like that horn, when that horn is there. That’s what gets me. What the hell are they doing, man? What are they doing? I mean, people must know they’re wrong. They must know that some of the things they’re doing are so far back that a train don’t go there.
I’ve been wondering. Who played drums on Trout Mask?
Well, you know the fact about that is that Herbie Cohen didn’t put down who played drums on Trout Mask, kind of casual.
So now nobody knows? It’s a mystery?
It’s Drumbo, of course.
Oh. it is Drumbo.
Obviously. I mean, if anybody doesn’t know that – you knew that – you know you knew that.
Drumbo was John French?
Of course, yeah. God, anybody’d know him.
How do you like covers of your songs? Like the Tubes’ “My Head Is My Only House Unless It Rains.”
I thought, at first, that it was awfully nice.
Did you play harp with the Tubes?
I played on a thing called “Golden Boy” and they turned it way down. I also played soprano on “Cathy’s Clone.” I like the girl who wrote it, I think she wrote a good song. I told her I really liked what she had done and that I’d really play for her, and I played it. I thought it would be on there, but again it was turned way down. I don’t want anyone to govern me. That I didn’t like too much.
What about “Alice in Blunderland” by (New England band) Monster Island?
Well, that was originally done for Elliot (Ingber). I put together that composition and I gave him complete freedom to play what he wanted on the guitar, which I thought he should get. You know he never got it with Frank. He’s really great. He wrote “Don’t Bogart That Joint” (by Fraternity of Man).
What else has Elliot done?
Well, right now he lives on a corner across the street from a windows-darkened-up bookstore. You know, one of those places with the gynaecology shots and what-not… trophies. He lives down the street from the Pink Pussycat – now there’s a place – and he just plays all the time. He’ll play with me again.
Oh, boy. I hope so, he’s a demon.
He is. I think he one of the greatest melodicists of the guitar that ever lived. I think he’s been a tremendous influence.
In your current set you play a lot of your older material, along with recent stuff. Don’t you think that people will see this band standing in the shadow of Rockette Morton or Zoot Horn Rollo?
I don’t think so. I just thought that it would be a nice idea to have people see a band, playing some of the things. I did on Trout Mask or Lick My Decals Off Baby, and smiling and laughing. Because those other guys were having so much work playing that stuff that they were brittle. And it was part of the mystique. you know, the fact that they were like this, (makes gesture indicating rigidity) with the exception of Rockette Morton.
Then. do you think that after this tour you’ll be dropping a lot of the old stuff and relying more on new things?
Oh. definitely. But, it’s kind of hard not to play a few old ones, because people…. you heard the hollering for a certain request and all I could say was, “C’mon, you didn’t pay six dollars to hear a jukebox”. I’m trying to weed out those older things. There are so many new things that it would be absurd to play the old ones much longer. I didn’t do “Big Eyed Beans From Venus” and, I mean, that’s quite a thing right there, to get by with not doing that.
Yeah, there was a real chorus for that during the late show. Your new album seems to be a return to previous styles. Do you see it as that, or are you taking off in a new direction?
Well, I’m gone, man. I’m off and gone. You see, they wouldn’t even let me put out an album. After you do something like Lick My Decals Off; Baby, meaning get rid of the labels, the labels get rid of you. Pete Johnson is the one who, fortunately, signed me back onto Warners.
What happened when you went off Warners before?
Terrible things, terrible. It was a power of attorney thing: I had signed a p of a deal to an attorney in LA, and I had a corporation called God’s Golfball – which was, you know, the game of business. But he signed me off of Warner Bros. In the middle of the night, the son of a bitch!
Cheap son of a bitch.
Not so cheap, it’s taken me a lot of dough and I don’t have a lot of dough.
After you did “Dropout Boogie” the other night. you made kind of a pointed remark towards the new wave, DEVO in particular…
What’d I say?
“Have you heard this before, does it sound like anything people ore doing now?” Just stuff like that.
Oh, but I was teasing. I wouldn’t stop progress.
Cause so many bands have sighted you as a primary influence, especially… have you heard Pere Ubu?
No. But they’re pretty good. What about the Weirdos?
The Weirdos? I don’t know, I personally don’t like them that much.
I don’t either. What I heard the other night about Nazism and Fascists remind me of that woman. That orange juice chick. What’s her name?
The thing is though, Pere Ubu, they’ve used musettes…
Some of their older stuff has a real 25th Century Quaker-type sound.
Really…. I’ve got to hear some of that stuff.
It’s real good.
I haven’t heard it, man. I can’t afford to buy it. Are you kidding? Me?
I can’t either, but . . . Anyway, it seemed as if you were saying that they’re picking up on your Safe as Milk period. when I think they are looking much more at Trout Mask.
I think DEVO was looking at.. . well, they have one of my entire drum parts, obviously, in one of their songs. But why do they have to put the Rolling Stones on it? “Satisfaction?” You’ve heard that. You know what it’s off – “Ant Man Bee,” if I’m not mistaken. What do I think of the punk rock movement, is that it? I think it’s a damn good idea to get rid of that fixated heartbeat, but I hope they don’t avoid the fact that the heart is what pumps the blood.
Gets it around.
Gets it around and around. But I think it’s nice that they’re delving into the fact that most new music has no investigative qualities and no word transformation. There’s just no regard for any kind of research or breaking down the cataracts. I may get hardening of the arteries, but I’ll never get hardening of the eyes. You can quote me. Just let’s hope that this new wave doesn’t become fixated. That is the one thing that worries me about it. Maybe they will fixate themselves within trying to sell their records and what-not, and use too much shock-value, which I think is not the answer.
It’s over with pretty quick, too.
Yeah, right. And it would be a pity if they let this one fall, too. I mean if they drop the ball this time. You know, like these people (makes peace sign) did. Ooh. That’s a shame, because they had some good ideas. Soap is not one of them, though. Cleanliness is next to godliness, with that I agree, and I think they were wrong about that. I mean, not too much cleanliness, because your skin would fall off. I’ve had to take so many showers after coming off stage on this tour that my skin is getting so dry. I find myself just putting on this cream, and the only one I can use is Tom’s and it’s so damn expensive, you know, $1.75, $2.00 for a little tube. The good things cost so damn much that only a few of the wrong people usually get them. The higher you get, the rarer the vegetation. Salvador Dali said that, although I don’t know where he got it. I think I’ve read it in an older classic. What do you think about that? Am I right or wrong? Although there really is no right or wrong. the truth has no patterns.
I guess it has its merits, but I’m afraid I see it in terms of hair and since I’m going bald myself…
Going bald? You mean you won’t be able to get a new wave?
Here we ended the interview in favour of a photo session. But while being snapped, Don told a story about putting a washerwoman into hysterics at the Royal Albert Hall, in London. It seems the Captain got her when he said, ”An architect is someone who wants to crawl up your penis, pull down the shades, turn off the lights, and type all night.” What a great fucking quote.
-Byron Coley with Robert Carey