Conversation with Captain Beefheart by Eliot Wald

This interview was taken from the July 1973 issue of Oui magazine.

The introduction merely relates the Beefheart ‘legend’, however the interview itself is particularly interesting as the Captain discusses the formation of the Magic Band and the music which they produced, offering full credit to those involved and their contributions to the music.

Captain Beefheart is not a military hero, the star of a kiddie show, or the symbol of a brand of dog food. After spending some time with him, though, you get the feeling that he could, if he really wanted to, be any one of those things.

What he might be is the most unorthodox, most creative pop musician of this decade. If his fame is less than that of, say, James Taylor, it’s partly because he has – like many of history’s eccentric geniuses – disturbing capacity for being ambushed by reality. Beefheart, now 32 years old, is eight years into a musical career marked by incomprehension, incompetence, and deviousness on the part of those entrusted with his financial and artistic future. He is just beginning to gain acceptance beyond the cult level.

A Southern Californian whose real name is Don Van Vliet, Beefheart dropped out of Antelope Valley Junior College shortly after enrolling in 1959. He hung out with Frank Zappa before the Mothers of Invention were formed. Then, in 1964, Don Van Vliet rode into Los Angeles from the California desert, equipped with a collection of strange-looking musicians known as The Magic Band. He promptly recorded a single (his version of Diddy Wah Diddy, popularised by Bo Diddley) that became something of a local hit, but he was turned down by the same record company when he tried to convince them to release an entire album of his songs. They called the songs “too negative.” The album, titled Safe as Milk, was released later by another company. It joined that limbo of low-selling platters, becoming what Rolling Stone refers to as “one of the forgotten classics of rock and roll.” Strictly Personal was the name of his second album, but Don is reluctant to claim credit for it. He believes that it was ruined by an unapproved last minute re-engineering job that buried the music in layers of extraneous electronics.

Next he was offered “artistic sanctuary” by Frank Zappa’s Straight label (Warner Bros.). Beefheart spent only eight and a half hours writing an album called Trout Mask Replica. It then took him six months to teach his band how to play it. Rolling Stone described this one as “the most astounding and most important work of art ever to appear on a phonograph record.” However, it was not to everyone’s taste. The tunes are a weird mixture of free-form jazz, Mississippi Delta blues, and rock – often all three simultaneously. Rhythms are totally unpredictable; what starts out as a blues boogie may end up sounding like a surrealist waltz. Everybody seems to be playing whatever comes to mind, including Beefheart, whose sax, musette, and simran-horn solos (played through tubes that allow him to play two instruments at the same time) swoop and dive, mirroring his incredible four-octave voice. Lyrically, it’s absurdist poetry, with Beefheart adlibbing such lines as “A squid-eating doe [sic] in a polyethylene bag is fast and bulbous. Got me?” Trout Mask Replica was not an overnight sensation.

After splitting with Zappa over alleged double-dealing (the company countercharged that any man who’d hire eight tree surgeons at its expense was too much to handle), Beefheart settled down to make a series of albums with titles like Lick My Decals Off, Baby and The Spotlight Kid. His newest, Clear Spot (packaged in a clear-plastic envelope, a tactic adopted when Warner Bros. refused his request that the album be pressed on transparent vinyl) was written in its entirety during a two-hour auto ride to a gig. He hummed the tunes into a cassette recorder while dictating the lyrics to his guitarist.

Onstage, Captain Beefheart looks like the beefy ringmaster of some satanic circus, with his long cloak flowing as he raunches away on harmonica, saxophone, and gravel throat.

Listening to him talk has been likened to hearing the English language collapse. But his rap is the same as his music: after you listen to it for a while, it all begins to make sense.

OUI: You’ve been in the music business for some time now, and your music has changed a lot. Did you find it necessary to commercialise your approach, or are you still doing pretty much what you want to?

CAPTAIN BEEFHEART: I don’t think you have to make any compromises; just get to the basic play-what-feels-good-to-your-hands-and-sing-what-feels-good-to-your-voice. It’s all a matter of feeling good, and I think we have that in this band. Now, the group before was just experimenting. On Trout Mask Replica, Zoot Horn Rollo and Rockette Morton were people that had never played before.

OUI: Have they left the band?

BEEFHEART: No, they’re still with me. They’ve been with me for over three years.

OUI: And they had never played at all before that?

BEEFHEART: Nothin’ – I got together with them and told them not to play – I taught them how not to play. I wrote Trout Mask Replica in eight and a half hours – words and music. The only reason I wrote words is that I knew the record company would make me put the album out, even though I didn’t want to. It was a rhythm exercise to get them to be able to do what they do now. On this new album, Clear Spot, they really get on that rhythm, like a shadow does on the ground. Oh, not so on it that it goes out of shape or bogs down. Not like some cowboy digging his pointed heels into the dirt, trying to stop the earth from moving.

OUI; Why didn’t you want to release Trout Mask?

BEEFHEART: I didn’t want to put it out for Straight Records. Even when they did release it, they didn’t push it or promote it, which is too bad because the musicians had worked so hard on it. Those guys were born on that album, and hardly anybody’s heard it. And the result is that one of the great art statements of all time was lost to the world.

OUI: Where are you from? I’ve always had the impression you might have come from the desert.

BEEFHEART: No, originally I’m from Glendale, that’s L.A. But, you see, I started out when I was three – sculpting. In the bathtub first, like everyone does; my genitals, then a bar of soap, and on out from there. When I was five, I really got into it. I used to lock myself in a room for three weeks and my mother would have to put the food under the door. I used to vacuum the carpet and get hairs from my Persian cat to put in my sculptures. I sculpted every animal on the Northern Continent, then I started on African animals. By the time I was 13, I had them all done.… aye-ayes, dik-diks, and all of these obscure lemurs. I love them all. After that, I did all the fish in the ocean, and that’s quite a feat. My folks thought I was insane, of course, but I had my own TV show at seven, from Griffith Park, on sculpture. By the time I was 11, I was lecturing in sculpture at the Barzell Art Institute of UCLA. Then I got a scholarship from Knudsen’s Creamery to go to Europe to study for six years, all tuition paid. I would’ve gone as soon as I was 16. Then my parents said, “All artists are queers,” and picked me up and moved me to the desert. Isn’t that funny? I tried to run away, but I couldn’t do it. I missed out on that big scholarship, but in a way, it’s better that I did, ’cause it really repressed me to be taken to the desert away from all my artist friends. My parents didn’t really mean any harm. They were just protecting their kid, so they took me away.

OUI: And you quit sculpting?

BEEFHEART: That’s the reason that it all came out later in music. I didn’t do any sculpting or painting or anything from the time I was 13 until I was 24. Nothing. I never even listened to any music. It embittered me so much. Look, if I was that dependent on it, they probably did the right thing. I probably would have burned out.

OUI: So at 13 you went back and became a Normal Kid?

BEEFHEART: I went back and became a baby. I was like an egg rolling through time until I was 24. Then the egg cracked and I popped out. Into music. I never really played music before that, other than going to one rehearsal that this group was having. I bought this saxophone and I thought, “I’m gonna go play something.” I don’t know why I got an alto sax, although I did have an extensive pipe collection. I think I must have gone through this pipe collection and wound up with a saxophone. Anyway, I took this sax and went into the studio, where they were playing this thing called Logan Incident, a song written about this incident in… oh… San Diego. Something really corny like the Death March, only hyped up, like the Fifties. So I grabbed the sax and started blowing how I felt about this thing. I was saying, “Hey, this is me playing.” They said, “Hey, look, it’s too weird.” “How can you say that to me in this day and age?” I asked, and they replied, “Well, we’re saying it to you. As a matter of fact, you’re fired!” Can you imagine that? They fired me the first day I went in – the same day!

OUI: What pushed you in the direction of music?

BEEFHEART: I was listening to the radio. I thought. “I can hear a place in there that I could be.” I’d always thought that music was too formal, and I thought, “Well, I’ll get into this and fix it.” Silly sculptor, going into music. What I am is not a musician but a sculptor, which is why my music sounds different. I put it together a different way.

OUI: How did you get started?

BEEFHEART: Alex St. Clair called me – you know, the fellow who was on Safe as Milk along with Ry Cooder. He had a great influence on Jimi Hendrix when he was in England. Anyway, he calls me and says, “I’m putting a group together and we’re gonna play tonight. You’re gonna sing, Van Vliet.” He’s a real Prussian, you know? I said, “Give me a minute, will you? I never sang anything. I don’t know anything about music.” And he says, “Tonight you’re going to sing.” I must have sounded like a burro or something. And he says, “That’s horrible, man.” I say, “I told you.” But he says we’re gonna do it anyway, and it’ll get better. So that’s how I went onstage in Lancaster, California. Out of paranoia, I took some of my art things with me. I took a Hoover Superchief Vacuum Cleaner one of those really heavy ones with a Mars light – and plugged it into the amplifier during the intermission. I had these Mexican ducks, you’d call them jumping beans, and I got a single spotlight on them and even unveiled them with a little curtain I brought. I was doing an artistic show, and the people dug it. That’s what got me on the wrong track, because I went on into that.

OUI: You consider that a mistake?

BEEFHEART: The worst thing I’ve ever done was to try and sculpt the people in the group. That’s why the first group broke up. Now I’m much wiser and I’ve apologised to everybody and they all agree that I wasn’t that mean or anything. I could be a millionaire now if that band had stayed together and I had had to listen to Alex. Now he’s come back with the band and we play what feels good, and goodbye to all that phony art-statement shit: the vacuum cleaner, jumping beans, single spotlight, all that crap.

OUI: How did you come by the title Safe as Milk for the first album?

BEEFHEART: Well, I’d gone down to L. A. to find somebody to put out this group. First we were with A&M and did Diddy Wah Diddy before Safe as Milk. The name meant the strontium-90 content of the woman’s breast and not acid, as it was taken to mean, as everything was taken to mean at that time. That’s one of the reasons I split for a while. I didn’t want people to think my imagination was due to… something external. I’m a very pure type of -ist. I eat health food and I don’t use anything.

OUI: Did problems with the group crop up while you were making the record?

BEEFHEART: The group had a difficult time relating to me because I had these… ideas. They just wanted to play what felt good. I should have stuck with them because they were right. Where your fingers go is where it is. I had this idea to pull a wild hair out of the sky, or something like that. You know, thinking about that album, I used a theremin on it – that’s an electronic-impulse instrument invented by this Dr. Theremin. The guy who played it on the album was a friend of Dr. Theremin’s, also a doctor – a psychiatrist. Now this was seven years ago, and people thought I was out of my mind for using a theremin, and this fella walked into the studio and did Spellbound, which is an old record, a beautiful, eerie thing full of sea-foam-green imagery. This fella was able to relate to me because I wrote out what I wanted like a graph – I don’t write music – and snap, first cut, he did exactly what I had been thinking of.

OUI: Trout Mask Replica was also pretty weird. What were you trying to accomplish with that one?

BEEFHEART: I wasn’t doing the art statement on Trout Mask, but it was a little bit outrageous. I mean, we were flinging so much paint that it took people this long to get into it. That album is getting popular now. I guess I did do my art statement on Trout Mask. We gave them everything we had. We flung all of our paint, all the colors. We’ve all grown. We got into this house and stayed there for three and a half years. I didn’t go out of the house for three and a half years. What I remember most of all is a pair of male and female eucalyptus trees. We’d play music to them, and they were really thriving, although they hadn’t been when we got there. But it started raining terribly and I was really worried about them. I suddenly decided, “God, I’ve got to get something done about this.” So I went out and got eight tree surgeons and we saved those trees. Then we had this whole weird thing with that Zappa cat and Herbie Cohen from Straight Records because I got eight tree surgeons and billed it to Straight. Well. what do they care about eucalyptus trees?

OUI: Listening to Trout Mask, you sense a relationship to certain forms of free jazz. Were you influenced at all by people like John Coltrane and Archie Shepp?

BEEFHEART: No way. There is just no way – even though I’ve always believed that everyone is coloured, or else you wouldn’t be able to see them – that us little cream puffs could ever feel the repression of being the Chosen Colour on the Hit Parade in this silly world of bullshit. There’s no way that I could have felt what any of those people felt, so I just didn’t pay any attention. I just told the group to let out who they are, what would you call it, middle-class apple turnovers. We just got together and stirred it up.

OUI: You mentioned the incident with the tree surgeons before – stories of your run-ins with record companies seem to abound. Was the first hassle with Buddah Records?

BEEFHEART: It was really corny. I should have known better, right? They really have their nerve. I mean the idea of what they’ve done. I should have had five million dollars in the seven years I’ve been in this business. I signed with Buddah because Bob Krasnow was there. When I brought Safe As Milk to A&M in 1965, Jerry Moss said it was too “negative.” Can you believe that? Krasnow was the only person who didn’t get shook up at the idea of using a theremin on the album, so I recorded with them. Buddah turned out to be so wrong…. Do you know that in all this time, since 1967, I’ve never ever received a royalty statement from that album, much less any money? That album was a smash in England. But nobody here dug it. They didn’t push it. It was a very ecological album. I was just trying to eke out a little logic.

OUI: The next album was on Blue Thumb. Did that go any better?

BEEFHEART: God! I even named Blue Thumb Records. Bob Krasnow, who became president of Blue Thumb after leaving Buddah, didn’t. I did! All right, I’m over in England. We mixed the album Strictly Personal before we left on tour. Krasnow had produced, I produced, and Alex St. Clair helped with the production. Now, while we were gone, Bob Krasnow went in and remixed the album. We get back from Europe and my cousin, the Mascara Snake, who later played clarinet on Trout Mask Replica, walks in the door with this album. I ask, what’s this?” I’d just gotten back and he’d had my car, a big old Jaguar that he’d take out and run around like you would a greyhound. So he hands me the album, and there’s the album cover I did with the stamps and manila envelope. Everything just as I did it. So I put the album on and, my God, it’s not the same album! He had put psychedelic Bromo-Seltzer all over the tapes we’d made – you know, phasing, whooooosh. The music – there are diamonds in the rough tinder there, but it sounds like some kid’s got a hold of a Mona Lisa. A mean little kid. All of a sudden I find this album a shambles with psychedelic Bromo-Seltzer all over it. I didn’t know what to do. That’s when the group broke up. The other people, who didn’t want to do so much of an art statement, said, “Forget it, we’ve had enough.” I just said, “Man, I agree with you.” What could I say? He’s gonna make me commercial! Now, maybe he had good intentions, but I still haven’t gotten any money for the album.

OUI: What did you do after the demise of that group?

BEEFHEART: I retired for a while. I had to put together another group, so I was looking for people. Getting away from Krasnow to another similar person who I didn’t ever think would be that way.

OUI: You’re referring to Frank Zappa?

BEEFHEART: Did you know that I picked up Frank Zappa on the street in my ’49 Olds back in 1958? I couldn’t help it; he looked so woebegone. Zappa wanted to pretend that he had done Trout Mask Replica, on which he’d done nothing but go to sleep at the mixing board. It was way over his head. Not really over his head, just too unstructured and telepathic for him, because he’s so formed and regimented. These guys had only been playing for six months when they did that album. You know, Krasnow did that, Zappa did that – it’s all these guys wanting to cop a feel off Don Van Vliet. Years ago, I was taped by Frank Zappa, and a lot of ideas on a lot of his records started out with me. Like Susie Cream Cheese, What’s Got into You?, and Brown Shoes Don’t Make It. Hot Rots is my title. Lumpy Gravy – I was referring to the ups and downs of life, the lumps in the sperm and the gravy.

OUI: If you had this tremendous battle with Zappa, why did you record Willie The Pimp on his album?

BEEFHEART: I just thought to myself, “All right, man, you had your hand in my album and messed it up. I’m gonna come over and do a song for you as good as I can do it, and maybe that’ll show you the difference.” I wanted especially to show him that bygones could be bygones. I couldn’t believe that he could do what he did. Frank Zappa sent me in the night to Warner Bros., and I didn’t even know it. I’m talking about the way the Indians were sold on the reservation. I suppose that’s what you get for dealing with old fools you meet in the desert.

OUI: In other words, when Zappa started his label, it wasn’t part of Warners?

BEEFHEART: No, it was just Straight Records – Bizarre and Straight, actually, two separate entities. And then, after promising me that he would not, he put me on the same label as Wild Man Fischer, the GTOs, and Alice Cooper. I said. ‘I don’t want any part of those people.” I’ve heard of this Alice Cooper using live animals in his act, throwing them into the audience. Chickens! Do you know how disgusting that is, using an animal for sensationalism? I think that’s just disgusting. I mean, I’m an animal lover. I’m an animal. A humal animal, but the animal may he better than the human in my case. It’s the animal that paints, the animal that makes music. The human part is me losing one of the best groups that ever was by being an art-statement-oriented fool!

OUI: Do you feel that being into the art statements had something to do with your hassles with the record companies?

BEEFHEART: Definitely! I was a chump. When you’re playing what feels good and they try to get it away from you, you say “uh-huh.” When you’re doing the art statement and avant-garde – you know, the cold place where they sometimes find icicles on the clouds – they say, “What’s that?” and “He’s weird!” They don’t want to hear you, but they get the money. And that’s how they did it to me. The group kept telling me, “C’mon, let’s play,” but I guess I had some kind of an axe to grind due to having quit art when I was 13. I’m telling you the truth. I guess today I feel better than I ever have. I have this group together now but l don’t have it together; they’re really together. I’m just out there playing the harmonica and singing. I’m in the group rather than being Captain Beefheart with the group hiding behind the cape of the mystery man. Now it’s called Captain Beefheart and the Magic Band instead of his Magic Band – that was never my idea, anyway – and I’m glad of it. I don’t want to lead the damn group, I just want to blow.

OUI: Do you think you were naive?

BEEFHEART: Oh, yeah, I still am. And I will retain that naivete if naivete is just loving other people and thinking, “Well, why would they want to step on me?” I got rid of naivete to some extent, so I guess I’ve paid my doo-doo dues. If I had the money now that I should have, I would be doing a lot of good things. I swear, I would make my ink sing for everybody. Now I’M getting hip to this, but I’m not gonna get bitter and I’m not gonna get hard. They’re not gonna get me into that hard fuckin’ army they’ve created. They look out and point and say, “He’s a chump!” They can think I’m a chump, but I’M an artist. They’re the chumps because they don’t go to the toilet easy like I do, and they don’t breathe easy like I do. I will not be a party to this country’s bullshit, all the regimentation. That cartooning of animals, like Disney, where he makes the timber wolf into the Big Bad Wolf. There’s nowhere in history where a timber wolf has ever attacked a man. No way, I looked it up. That’s disgusting! Or they’ll have a cute little animal like a sloth with a machine gun. Or a kangaroo with a machine gun! Hell, they’d pee on a machine gun, they wouldn’t know what to do with one. I ain’t buying that shit! I don’t want to be a selfish asshole who sits in his lavatory and goes to the toilet in color, like Zappa or any of those flamboyant blunt erasers… those blunt instruments!

OUI: Are you totally disillusioned with the business end of things?

BEEFHEART: When I was in the house so long, I wrote thousands and thousands of things. Not out of spite – I’ve written hundreds of pages every day for the last seven years of my life. I’ve got it all in Beacon Van & Storage, and as soon as I find an honest publisher, I’m going to put it out. But I want some money for it, and do you know why I want money for it? So I can have some ink to write some more, that’s all. I’ve got a company, God’s Golfball Productions. It may not score a hole in one every time; it might make a few divots; and it might not bounce as high as the Washington Monument. It’s the human kindness I like. I don’t mind doing straight-out, 50-50 business if you can breathe in it. I’m not looking to start another little America with skyscrapers.

OUI: Any thoughts on the state of music today?

BEEFHEART: Well, I was just thinking – did you know I used to wear a dress on-stage? Seven years ago in England, we used to dress in what they now call drag. I think that’s where it’s all coming from. They saw us doing all these things, and here they come again, see? Just like they copped Chuck Berry.

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