In April 2003 I received a message from Dave DiMartino, the author of the 1993 Mojo article “Yeah I’m Happy” featuring interviews with Don, various members of the Magic Band and Henry Kaiser.
This article caused John French to write a letter to Mojo expressing his unhappiness with the article and apologising for any upset to Don that may have been caused. Years later, Henry Kaiser wrote to me to say that he never conducted an interview with Dave DiMartino and that the quotes attributed to him in the article were made up.
Dave DiMartino contacted me around 1999 to express his sadness at John French’s reaction to his article. Now, in April 2003, Dave has noticed the comment from Henry Kaiser on this site alleging that DiMartino made up quotes from him. Dave wants to put the record straight…
Message from Dave DiMartino
I was checking out your site today and ran across the following statement from Henry Kaiser:
The author of this piece never spoke to me. I recall that he faxed me with some questions which I declined to answer or respond to. Any quotes or info attributed to me are totally from the imagination of the author. I wrote to MOJO at the time of publication to complain and they did not publish my letter. As I recall, they also deleted much of French’s original letter, including most references to the author’s fabrication of info from me.
I am not the sort that gets angry readily, but I essentially view Henry Kaiser’s comments regarding my work as not only deeply insulting but representing the very definition of libel.
I was and remain very proud of my Beefheart MOJO piece, and it horrifies me to think that someone somewhere might for a moment think that I made a single word up – let alone an entire conversation with Henry Kaiser, of all people.
John French’s letter to MOJO made me feel a little sad, I have to admit, but he did indeed say what he said (and has repeated his sentiments at greater length since then) and I merely printed what he said verbatim. Anyone who would like a full copy of our conversation is welcome to e-mail me and ask for it. I enjoy French’s work immensely, and will always respect him.
Henry Kaiser, on the other hand, is implying that I am a liar and I do not like that at all.
What follows is a cleaned-up transcript of the complete conversation I had with Henry Kaiser in September 1993. Please feel free to print as much of it as you like, though – as a professional courtesy – I would prefer you leave out the one part which he asks be kept off the record. Additionally I am attaching a two-minute real audio clip of the phone conversation that Kaiser alleges never happened.
I would greatly appreciate it if you would remove Kaiser’s comments regarding my piece. Further, I would like it to be fairly evident that this has been done; it greatly disturbs me that you’ve run Kaiser’s libellous allegation about my work on your site for what appears to be three or four years. And, finally, I would like you to run this letter.
I am generally very good humoured, but Kaiser’s comments particularly rankled me. As a final professional courtesy, I will not attach either an audio file or transcript passage in which his “involvement” with the Magic Band is discussed both by the Magic Band and Don Van Vliet. Henry Kaiser will know exactly what I mean.
April 15, 2003
Henry Kaiser interview transcript
via phone Sept 1993
Tell me about your recent liner notes about the respective contributions of Don vs. The Magic Band.
I knew people, and knew the band in 1972, and I saw the band from 1967 on – and I remember in the old days, guys were co-credited in the publishing on stuff, in the old, old days, though it’s not listed in the album. I saw the band rehearse, I saw them learn material – you know, it’s just as much the responsibility of the band members as Don Van Vliet. Which is really upheld by the fact that after the real Magic Band ended in 1972, there’s no new material – all the material is from tapes of old Magic Bands playing the songs they just learned, stuff from old rehearsal tapes. And a couple of things are recorded, I had a job of going through the Warner Brothers vault, looking at all the unreleased material, and did in fact find that everything there was done later, and a lot of those tapes were sent to Gary Lucas and Don, and then on Doc At The Radar Station and Ice Cream For Crow, they did many songs they learned from old tapes of Magic Band stuff.
What did the Magic Band think?
They knew they wrote the stuff as much as Don, if not more so.
Was there resentment?
If you talk to people in the Magic Band, it’s kind of like people who’ve been Vietnam veterans – it was a very unpleasant experience in many ways to be in, but an interesting, very different from the normal life experience. Also to be in it had its drawbacks and its good side, and that’s one of the drawbacks that they well know, not getting credit for their own work.
How much influence did it have on you?
It played a big influence, because it shows you can try to do things that nobody had done before, it shows that you can play completely composed music and still be very expressive within that format, because there were new ways of playing guitar and drums that hadn’t been before. And finally it did establish its own idiom, which is an enjoyable idiom to play within, whether playing those compositions or making up new compositions in those styles.
How did you get that Warner gig?
Because they know how much I know about this stuff, they know I’m special, they know I know what I’m doing.
Let me add a couple of things. One, when I say the music was from my point of view of having researched it for many years and knowing people in the band, I’d say it’s kind of like Mick Jagger and the Rolling Stones, as far as I can tell – it took all those people to get that particular thing, but look at Mick Jagger’s solo albums and look at Blue Jeans And Moonbeams, same thing.”
And then let me add one more thing, when I say nothing new was written after 1972 – there are a couple of exceptions to that – there are three or four, depending on how you count it, written for the unreleased Bat Chain Puller album, many of which were re-recorded on later albums, “Human Totem Pole,” “Good Morning Stanley,” or “Ode To Alex”. [inaudible]
I think that’s something that, the evidence shows me that Don couldn’t do it on his own, he had to have people who functioned as leaders in the old days, either John French or Bill Harkleroad do that type of work, that type of music. And then anything else, with the exception of “Skeleton Makes Good” on Ice Cream For Crow, is pretty much taken from old Magic Band tapes.
Banging it out on the piano – did he really do that?
“Not really. I mean, I’ve heard the piano tapes, I know how it’s Don. Don would play a fragment of something on the piano, sometimes he’d play a whole thing, and then as editor, Bill or John would look at that material, transcribe it into written music in John French’s case, or personal guitar language in Bill Harkleroad’s case, and re-edit and reorganise the material, put it together with other material like on Trout Mask, John would have a whole bunch of fragments or parts, he put them together in a song, by what was bass lines and what was what, but Don would make comments and sculpt it as it went along. But most of the time, Trout Mask in particular, the band worked on it and Don coming in yelling at them, and they’re trying to get him to go away so they can get some work done. And everyone else’s stories agree, except for Don Van Vliet’s.
So it was a purposeful building of a mythology?
That’s something which Don told the band members he was gonna say because it would make them more of a success, it was a calculated image, something that people could buy into. It’s simply calculated mythology – it’s very simple to see how Don contradicts himself on things, on what he can do on his own. People just believe that calculated mythology, which goes on and on because of the low level of journalism in the fan press when most of the writing
about this took place – the fan magazines just endlessly regurgitate what was said in a Rolling Stone article or something. Nobody’s really done any professional journalism or investigation of this stuff.
What did you think about writing about that in your liner notes?
“That would sure tick Don off – the best thing in there was the quote of Ry Cooder’s, which everybody I talked to in the Magic Band, that would describe what their experience was. You know the one about him playing with a Nazi. That’s what it was like to be in that band. There were good sides – sometimes they’d have fun on-stage, they played some great music – but there’s major downsides to it. And major differences with the image of the way that Don presented himself to the press to the way he treats the people in the band, that’s my observation.
I’m trying to talk to most of the band members
They’re burned out on it, they don’t want to be bothered about it anymore. They just get pissed because they’ll spend hours talking to somebody or correcting something, and they’re guys who are just getting along on a marginal successful level of making a living, and then it never comes out, nobody hears about it, or it comes out wrong.”
Book: “French and I went through that book and we made like 750 factual correction, simple factual things. He didn’t even pay attention in his next edition to most of them, left half of them out.”
Banging songs out in 8 hours: “Not true at all, not true at all. It was a nice image, it sold music really well, there might have been other ways that would’ve resulted in better success for the band. My personal observation is anytime there was the possibility of success, Don would sabotage it. I’m not one to analyse in psychology, but he’s a tremendously creative person who wrote amazing lyrics, he got that stuff done with those guys. But take those guys away, and you’re in Bluejeans And Moonbeams land.
What about Mallard?
I heard a lot of stuff that they did that was more like Trout Mask kind of stuff, if you wanted that kind of stuff – that’s not what the record company wanted them to do, or what they thought they’d do to be a commercial success at that time in the early ’70s. Everybody wanted to be like Carly Simon or something, and they had their funny ways of going about that.
Where are they?
Bill Harkleroad is in Eugene Oregon, he’s the manager of a record store. John French is in Lancaster. He’s kind of a tortured soul in some ways, as most of these guys are, if he’s not happy or not in a good mood about talking about it, be kind to him. I wish somebody would really research it and do a good book someday – Langdon’s supposed to be the official biographer, but he can’t write about it as long as Don’s alive, but he can’t tell a true story or Don will kill him. But Don’s health is very poor, and we might not see him for that much longer either.
Does he have lung cancer?
He has some kind of cancer; people won’t really talk.
Is it terminal?
I don’t know; some people have said that. Elliot called me, Elliot Ingber, but if it’s like history, Elliot won’t tell you. Ira’s pretty easy to find. Ry won’t talk. Mark Boston is in the Central Valley somewhere. Art Tripp’s a chiropractor somewhere, I don’t know where. I’ve tried to find Jeff Cotton in Hawaii a number of times. Jeff Tepper lives in Reseda. It just gets so complicated with some of the people who were in the band who try to stay on some kind of terms with Don, because’ they can’t talk about it, they cant say, or he’ll cut them off forever.
I called up Don, I said, “Hey, I’m going to use French on this record, is that OK?” He said, “Sure, go ahead, my blessing.” I said, “Don, you’re weird about this, are you sure it’s OK?” I shouldn’t have to ask anyway, because John’s his own man – we’re not using the name Drumbo, which belongs to the group. “No, fine, go ahead.” And then he’s making the record Doc At The Radar Station and has a fight with French, and French quit just before the tour, because Don wanted him to learn to play guitar parts for like 20 songs he didn’t know – it was like “Now learn “Japan In A Dishpan”, then learn this” – and there simply wasn’t time to do it. And Don kept insisting and French said, “I quit.” Then Don calls me, “That fucking French quit, you can’t use him on your record.” I said, “Don, you said I could, the record’s already at the printing plant.” “Well FUCK YOU, asshole, you send back that painting I gave you.”
It’s just typical. Typical. Its liked dealing with a little kid. He used to be a lot of fun in the older days, sometimes, but …
Regarding authorship – is the material registered in all the band’s names?
Mirror Man and that stuff on Strictly Personal is registered in all their names; you could go look it all up. French used to get cheques for that, but then they stopped coming out after a while.
You can see that we’re just going back to beat an old dead horse here. You can see that with [the new Sequel compilation]
How many personal encounters have you had with Beefheart?
Oh, I spent a bunch of time with him back in the early ‘70s, 10 or 15 days total, a lot, watched Magic Band rehearsals, watched songs being written.
Were you playing then?
I just had started to play, Harkleroad was very helpful.
Why do you care so much about this stuff?
“I just enjoy it, I’m a fan, I just enjoy the stuff.”
How do you think he’ll be perceived in history?
I just think that the story that’s in place is the story that’ll go down in history – it’s too late now to find out very easily what really happened. And it was highly influential music…”
What happened to Grant Gibbs?
I don’t know, good question. Whatever happened to the film – there was a feature film documentary made on the tour with Ry Cooder which John French saw a finished 90-minute cut of – it was taken out of the Warner Bros. vault, it was never replaced. Don may have it, I’ve always wanted to have that. That’s one thing I look for. The Trout Mask master tapes were destroyed – six months too late, after they were destroyed, I found out what storage facility they were in, that was a sad thing. I spent years looking for those. They found the Strictly Personal master tapes.
And there’s no electronic effects on any of that stuff?
There are multitrack masters, they were out, a particular company was going to remix them, I forgot who that was. I don’t know if we’ll ever see those. There are several things at Warner Bros. that if I was charge of making a greatest hits CD, there are 4 or 5 unreleased tracks that are quite good, as good as anything on the records that they haven’t put out – I wish that they would. Don will never approve anything unreleased. He’ll make it hell for anybody trying to put out anything. When I went through stuff in the Warner Bros. vault, because Warner Bros. wanted to do a project like that, Don said, “OK, it’s fine, go ahead, everything’s cool.” And then they got it all ready to send off, and then “I’LL sue you if you do this, I’LL kill you.” That’s a great pattern – recently Denny Wally had some old tapes that he’d made with Don, and Don had agreed to let them put it out, then it went to a week before shipping. And then Don flipped out and called him and stopped it.”
How is it with his wife?
“I can’t really say. I just saw [her] years ago. It’s a complicated relationship. She doesn’t control him, he doesn’t control her, they both try to control each other. They’re basically trying to maximise their income and hold on to what they have.”
I guess his music hasn’t really made much money.
No, no, no. Very little. He was always so badly managed, you know. They’LL never see any money. Maybe they can be nice and let him do cover art, but that was the only way they could’ve given him money. He owes the record company money on paper in the case of Warner Bros., I’m sure it’s the case at Virgin. I wish somebody had the nerve to release the unreleased Bat Chain Puller. Twice I’ve seen that with record companies, where they’ve talked to Don, and Don says, “Fine, go ahead, it’s all right, send me the money” – then they get ready to send him the money and then his cheque doesn’t get cashed, and he goes “No, you can’t do it.” It happened twice.
My pal Matt Groening went to the DGA trying to track down the director and he didn’t want stuff forwarded to him. Which is really frustrating, I’ve spent a lot of effort to find everything interesting that wasn’t findable, things are just about dry, all we can hope for are individuals who have rehearsal tapes for things like that. If Don does die, Jan does have a whole storage area of incredible stuff – and what’LL happen to it, if it’s covered with mould and is all wet, who even knows?
Do you think he’ll ever perform music again?
Oh no, no, no, no. Health is gone. Health is totally gone.
You can also hear the first couple of minutes of this telephone interview, as further proof that the interview DID in fact take place.
© Dave DiMartino, 1993