This article / interview first appeared in Sounds 14th April 1973. Many thanks indeed to Simon Sergeant for typing it up and sending it.
I must confess I didn’t expect Captain Beefheart’s reply to “Hello, how are you?” to be that he felt fine but was very angry about the Muhammad Ali fight: “Look what they have done to him man, I mean he won that, and they took it away from him.”
Don Van Vliet and his wife Jan joined us for a lunch a couple of days after he flew in to London for his biggest and potentially most successful tour here. With him is the Magic Band almost unchanged since last year, but with Alex St. Clair (now Alex Pyjama St. Clair) from the Safe as Milk days on guitar as well.
The Captain is a big man physically tall and powerful looking, and imposing in his presence. He’s a man, playing man’s music for women although he says, “of course, other men can enjoy it too.”
He’s an uncompromising artist, a man who has seen or rather just knows what he can and must do in music, writing and painting, and in the way he lives.
In that way he’s strong, but he’s also gentle and in a way he’s an innocent in that he would be horrified or outraged if someone suggested he went against what he felt naturally was right just to make money or something. All this is tempered by a delight in puns and a sense of humour that makes his music and his company among the most rewarding ways I know of spending time.
People think he’s weird, that he’s either consciously or unconsciously a crazy man or a freak but listen to ham and think about it. Maybe he’s just a natural man traveling in a world where most people have formed themselves into tight clubs to fight against their natural feelings: he’s not a schooled idealist, just a man who’s never believed in anything else.
He once quoted a Beatle’s lyric to me “I’d like to turn you on” and almost spat the words out in disgust. “I was on from the moment I hit air”
Oh c’mon, people say when I try to explain how I feel about the Captain, surely you don’t believe all that stuff? Well, sure ‘nuff and yes I do.
But boxing? “Well, my favourite percussionist is Muhammad Ali.” He said, shuffling ant tapping his feet under his chair. “you know? I think that boxing behind the scenes, as it is with a lot of record companies, is really terrible, but I think the sport is really nice. In Muhammad Ali’s case I think the object is just to get points, not to murder anybody or anything. That’s really nice. He’s done a lot for his people . For people, period.
“You know what they just did to him I mean he won that fight. Of course, he went against the draft and they’ve never forgiven him for that I mean he never wanted to shoot anybody, that he didn’t know. And now they’ve finally got their wish. They have a marine boxer, a war boxer. Disgusting.
He won it. I know he did. I saw it, and a lot of people know that. But the army always wins not really because they defeat their purpose in the first place if they start a war but now they’re trying to get into that section of the media. I mean why isn’t John Lee Hooker number one on muzak? Why isn’t Roland Kirk number one on muzak? Or Lightnin’ Slim?”
At concerts in America, the Captain has been handing out leaflets and talking to people about killing whales. He’s working with an organization that’s trying to get all whaling stopped for ten years. “If they stop it for ten years than I don’t think they’ll continue – they might see how silly it is. How ridiculous man those things have a 14½ pound brain compared to our two or three pounds, I mean we could use all that knowledge.
“All we got to do is stop hunting them and be nice to them for 10 years and I think they might tell us a few things, things they haven’t been able to. I mean even here you eat a lot of whale meat don’t you?”
I said, yeah, they put it in dogfood. “Well, that’s ridiculous man, dogs don’t want to eat whalemeat, dogs can’t go on the ocean.”
He said that there’d only been two attacks by killer whales on man, one of them after some guy in British Colombia rolled a log down on to a female killer whale and paralysed her. Then the guy and a friend went out in a canoe, and the female’s mate attacked.
“He didn’t hurt the guy that didn’t do it, he grabbed the guy’s arm who did do it out of the water, pulled him under and just drowned him. He didn’t disturb the other guy or rock the boat. I think that’s fair, because the guy did it viciously – what a jerk, what an imbecile. I think that was justice”.
I remember at the end of his last tour here, he stood around after the gig slightly puzzled but very pleased. “You know something, ” he said, “I think we’re getting famous.” It’s true, Beefheart and the Magic Band are now known to a lot more people here and in the States than they were a year ago, and that can only be good.
Running parallel with this increasing fame, the records have been getting a lot more direct, much more immediately accessible, and I asked if he’d done that deliberately, made Clear Spot as direct as he could.
“Yeah, as direct as possible – that’s what I was wanting to do all along, with every album, but usually I got waylaid by by the angelfruit cake people, I guess.”
How did he feel now about things like Trout Mask Replica and Lick my Decals Off Baby? I like them a lot, but I’m more comfortable with this one. What can I say? Listen, a lot of people are worried about me going commercial, Y”KNOW, WHAT IS COMMERCIAL? I mean what is commercial” If somebody could tell me what commercial is I could make a lot of money and stop all wars- put money into that, save the animals.
“But the group now is together, and they’re able to control whatever it is they want to control. I mean now they go up and play, they don’t just go up and throw themselves out into ego and things. It’s freer now, they found their water. It was all going toward this kind of music anyway, and now it’s there.” Obviously, he said, that applied to playing on stage, more than to records, because it was almost impossible to capture the music in a studio.
I’d only heard the Clear Spot songs on record, but from that I felt that stuff sounded more formal than – say Trout Mask. He looked surprised. “Yeah? I thought the other way around. I thought the other stuff was more formal. Now there’s more interplay, as opposed to people just playing out to someone who can never accept it. A lot of people could never relate back to that sort of music, they were trembling in a lot of cases. ‘Course, muzak has done that to them, it’s made them all on one level.”
“But it’s the same like this time I’m saying “Big eyed beans from Venus, don’t let anything get in between us”. I’ve said the same thing all along really in a lot of different ways.
“It’s just a shame that the disc jockeys won’t allow things to get out things they don’t understand. It’s usually the disc jockeys that don’t understand things, and if they don’t they sure as hell won’t play it.”
Over lunch he’d been talking about John Lee Hooker and Lightnin’ Slim, and some of his music, especially early stuff, seems to me to be heavily rooted in the spirit, if not the form of the blues. Had he ever thought of himself as a blues singer?
“I’ve been forced to sing the blues, because everything’s so .. I mean all of these houses and all this cement, the world’s mouth has been covered over by cement. But then the world sometimes has an upset stomach, belches and does these earthquakes, or just small cracks, does its original brown earthsmile.
“People get really upset about that, but whadda they expect? We belch but it doesn’t knock things over, the earth belches the same I mean, it has to, it’s a living thing.”
– Steve Peacock