Don talks to Bono, introduced by Anton Corbijn

This is an interview / conversation between Don Van Vliet and Bono from U2 which appeared in a Christmas special of Dutch magazine Oor in December 2001, double issue 25/26.

This Christmas special was laid out by Anton Corbijn, hence the Bono / Beefheart connection. The conversation took place around October / November 2001.

Many thanks indeed to Rob van der Kroef for taking the time and trouble to translate the interview from Dutch back to English. Since this text has been translated from English to Dutch and then back again, you may expect all kinds of peculiarities to have worked their way in there, however, it reads very well indeed.

All pictures on this page are by Anton Corbijn.

Introduction by Anton Corbijn:

Finally the time has arrived… Bono will meet Captain Beefheart! Albeit from a distance – Bono is staying in a hotel in Hollywood, in the middle of the second part of the American U2 tour, performing for about 30.000 people. Don Van Vliet, alias Captain Beefheart, is at home in the north of California where he has lived for so many years now.

He´s not that fond of humanity and has practically no companions except for his wife, Jan. He retired from music in 1982 and is now a well-known and gifted painter.

This conversation is something I was looking forward to for years and via “the conference call system” the three of us would meet. Bono and I made contact and now we´re waiting for Don…

Anton: Hello Don, are you there?

Bono: We´re waiting for your spirit.

Don: All hands under the table.

Bono: Anton´s table is in London, mine in LA and we´re holding each other´s hand via the cyberworld, searching for your spirit. Are you with us, Don, are you with us?

Don: Little Donnie D Little Dynamo.

Bono: Last night I saw a lot of stars flying across the sky, it was incredible. Did you see it?

Don: They ignored us.

Bono: Really?

Don: God ignored us.

Bono: Yeah, God isn´t so trustworthy with agreements. In fact we have to wait for him…..[laughing]

Don: I was pleased when you took off your sunglasses and handed them over to the Pope, saying he had a devilish smile.

Bono: That´s true. I told him he was a great showman.

Don: Well, he was.

Bono: And at the same time a holy man because Catholicism is the glamrock of religion.

Don: You took him in.

Bono: Yeah, well…

Don: No! I mean it, it was perfect!

Bono: Unfortunately the courtier did´t have the same sense of humor as the Pope, so pictures of him with sunglasses never reached the world, but I´m glad you noticed it from that far away.

Don: I enjoyed it.

Bono: It´s getting cold in the desert around this time of the year, isn´t it?

Don: Well, I´m here in the north.

Bono: The north? I always pictured you in the desert like some John the Baptist.

Don: Oh … [laughing]

Bono: Just like John the Baptist with honey and locusts.

Don: And no Bin Laden.

Bono: ..(laughing) Hanging around with Don Van Vliet. He must want a portrait of himself.

Don: Tell you what, that song of yours “One”… very good. It was unbelievable.

Bono: Well….I was……eh, that´s the biggest compliment I can imagine. I´m going to repeat it for a whole week, thank you. My favorite painting of yours is “With Twinkling Lights and Green Sashes”.

Don: Ah, thank you.

Bono: Great, extraordinary! My father was a painter. I would like to paint and I think…

Don: You´re doing that already.

Bono: Pardon?

Don: You´re painting already.

Bono: Maybe you could see it like that, I never thought about it that way.

Don: You´re doing something very unusual. You´re able to stir a song and shape it.

Bono: Yeah, that fits. The way U2 works has something of a painter. We don´t have a structure or anything, we just start to improvise and discover a song, in the proces of singing and I think… A painter works that way too? Or do you have a clear idea? I know you have clear ideas about your songs but isn´t painting more of a discovery or is it already set up in your mind?

Don: It isn´t a Van Gogh.

Bono: I´m not that sure and I think that this work of yours is just as bright, just as radiant.

Don: Thank you.

Bono: Pleasure is the hardest to establish, happiness the easiest to construct, with sentimentality as it´s neighbour. To transmit anger is pretty easy, just as indulging in melancholy. But pleasure is the most difficult one and there is so much pleasure in your paintings just like your music. It´s like lifting up a stone and discovering what´s crawling and swarming underneath.

Don: Oh, oh.

Bono: Does that fit?

Don: Yeah, that´s right

Bono: It felt like you had fun, but it was the happiness of seeing things.

Don: Of fucking around.

Bono: Yeah, that´s a great one to look at. There´s another one from around ´84. It´s a painting with a horse in the background, raising its legs up in the sky. Maybe it has no title but that´s another one I really like.

Don: I appreciate it, but I can´t remember which painting.

Bono: What?

Don: I don´t have a boat. I have many racoons.

Bono: Racoons? You have racoons over there?

Don: It´s crowded with them and many pumas.

Bono: Wow!

Don: And bears.

Bono: Wow, that feels like far away from Ireland.

Don: Well, I tried to go to Ireland but I couldn’t go because of the IRA.

Bono: IRA?

Don: God, frightning.

Bono: Why? Were you threatened by the IRA or did you had friends who were republican symphatizers?

Don: Oh no…. the plane didn´t take off.

Bono: [laughing] I hate that, pig-headed creatures. So you´re an adventurer in the old-fashioned way then? Went down the Amazon of……….Rock and Roll.

Don: Well, I……

Bono: In a propeller plane!

Don: To tell you the truth, I don´t know about Rock and Roll.

Bono: Okay

Don: I know the Midnighters, sounds familiar?

Bono: The Midnighters? No.

Don: It´s a rhythm and blues band, I think.

Bono: Yeah.

Don: “Annie had a baby”

Bono: Yeah, but they didn´t name the baby Rock and Roll.

Don: The baby was too bold.

Bono: Rock and Roll isn´t that bold anymore, it´s a bit faint-hearted actually.

Don: Exactly the way I see it.

Bono: Yes.

Don: Wanna hear a song?

Bono: Please.

Don plays two songs: Duke Ellington´s “Take the A-train” and “I don´t know” by Sonny Boy Williamson II

Don: You hear?

Bono: Wow, who was that?

Don: That was Sonny Boy.

Bono: My God, it sounds so fresh, like the paint isn´t applied too thick. It sounds so fresh because it´s difficult to play those chords like that but I think that was the beginning of the whole movement, because it´s the original recording. Right?

Don: He plays bad harp

Bono: Wow!

Don: Bad harp, uhu.

Bono: yeah, amazing.

Don: Yes.

Bono: And who is the girl that sings, the woman who makes her own language, a jive…

Don: That´s Betty Rochelle, Rocher to be exact [Don pronounces it in the French way but it is Betty Roche, a singer for the Duke in the forties and fifties]

Bono: In Ireland we say Roach.

Don: That´s cool.

Bono: CD or Vinyl

Don: Let me ask the boss (calling his wife) Jan, that was CD or Vinyl?

Jan: Vinyl.

Bono: Yes, I thought so. Even by telephone you can still hear the groove, it´s different don´t you think?

Don: Right

Bono: It´s true. Are you suspicious of the digitalizing of everything nowadays?

Don: I hate it!

Bono: Yes.

Don: Really, I hate it. Goddamn sons of bitches.

Bono: Binary numbers, what to do with a One and a Zero…

Don: Exactly! (laughing)

Bono: That´s it. There is something with the physical aspect of the needle in the groove. It´s like sex, contact sport.

Don: Exactly [laughing]

Bono: I think digital recordings really can have a personality but it´s the personality of mica. It has a glimmering surface. Some music sounds rather good on it, some hiphop can even sound real good on it because it has more bass. But I agree, vinyl is the solution.

Don: Tell me, what´s hiphop?

Bono: Oh, hiphop is an outrageous thing. It´s interesting how black people use technology to discover Africa.

Don: God, I wish they stop killing the animals.

Bono: What?

Don: Elephants.

Bono: Yeah.

Don: And lions

Bono: Yeah.

Don: I´m fond of animals.

Bono: It sounds like you had some interesting species around you over the years.

Don: Tell you what. Have you ever seen a Sunfish?

Bono: No.

Don: You have to see one! They are the size of a couple of cows and they look like a fishhead, but only the head.

Bono: And is it animal, mineral or vegetable?

Don: Well, I don´t know I´m afraid. [laughing]

Bono: And where did you see the Sun Fish?

Don: My gardener showed me a picture of it.

Bono: And do they come from the river, the sea or from an unknown universe? [laughing]

Don: I don´t know but they come from the ocean.

Bono: Wow, okay, I´ll watch for the Sun Fish, something to look forward to.

Don: Let your men find one for you.

Bono: As a rockstar it´s possible. You only say: Don wants me to have a Sun Fish.

Don: You can do that?

Bono: I can, we could tour IN it.

Don: Yeah, there´s your Pope Mobile.

Bono: Touring around the world with it, I´m mad about the Pope Mobile.

Don: Looks great eh?

Bono: Absolutely and it also resembles the Sun Fish you just described, it has a very large forehead.

Don: Yeah (laughing)

Bono: …the Pope Mobile and… are you interested in the Pope, in Catholicism and things like that?

Don: …Sure, why not?

Bono: Is that a stone you once lifted?

Don: Uh, I smoked a few.

Bono: [laughing] You still smoke stones?

Don: No, not anymore.

Bono: You don´t smoke?

Don: I swear, the first time I thought a reefer was the back of a chicken. That was in 1955 and the man who gave it to me said: Hey, try this, it´s like gas.

Bono: What happened then?

Don: I didn´t take it.

Bono: You didn´t take it?

Don: It´s chicken shit.

Bono: [laughing] Ever smoked chicken shit?

Don: [laughing] I don´t know, is that something new?

Bono: That´s what the kids told me they do.

Don: You´re kidding.

Bono: I don´t know, it wouldn´t surprise me.

Don: The other day I heard a funny thing on the radio. A man said there was a baseball player called S-T-I-N-K. Shortly after that I found out they bury fish into the ground, dig it up later and eat it. That´s S-T-I-N-K too.

Bono: A Trout Mask Replica?

Don: You know what that was?

Bono: No.

Don: A carp.

Bono: A carp?

Don: Yes.

Bono: Wow, are carps cool these days?

Don: What do you think of Trout Mask Replica?

Bono: I think it was the zenith of a certain approach to music and I had the feeling it was made by a geologist, an adventurer, a captain in search of a propeller plane and a scratcher amidst old junk.

Don: It didn´t sell an inch.

Bono: Yeah, but you know, I think you were searching in places before many others did the same and I actually mean mud instead of old junk. I think all good music comes from the water, like the Delta, the mud from the Missisippi. We´re all drawn from the mud.

Don: I think so.

Bono: And the more I reflect upon your music the more I think of skeletons and digging up dead bodies.

Don: I have a crush on your skeleton.

Bono: That´s it! That´s a classic one, I have a crush on your skeleton! I recognize it. Where´s that coming from? Is it a poem or a song?

Don: It´s from a salad. [laughing]

Bono: It´s what?

Don: A salad! Actually it´s coming from a song.

Bono: I know that line, I´ve read it somewhere and…

Don: Guess what?

Bono: What?

Don: That!… It´s an old fifties joke.

Bono: Great talking to you, I wished these talks had taken place much earlier. Anton talked about you for so many years now and I always was too shy to get near you.

Don: Oh no, don´t say that.

Bono: Oh yes, Polly Harvey was swept off her feet too. For a while she toured with us and praised you.

Don: She´s nice.

Bono: Yeah, she is nice. Do you have a crush on her skeleton? [laughing]

Don: I don´t think Ray (Polly´s father) would permit that.

Bono: There´s nothing wrong with that. That´s a part of your music I don´t hear much about. It´s sexuality and salacity. There are many sexy skeletons to be found in them. And the vitality and wonder and the discovery and boredom of the usual. Those kind of feelings your work has given us.

Don: Thank you.

Bono: Yeah.

Don: Hear, hear.

Bono: Well I have to go now. We´re playing Las Vegas, of all places.

Don: Yeah, neon…

Bono: I´m off and I wish you all the best. When you´re roaming in whatever desert with your honey and locusts I hope you will meet the Lord [laughing] and tell Him we asked for Him.

Don: I wanna thank you and I´m glad to have you on the phone at last.

Bono: Me too. And …so God bless you and all who sail in you.

Anton Corbijn, Oor, 2001


  1. Anyone knows what the painting in the first picture is called and if it was ever exhibited? I also wonder if there are any photos of Don from past 1994 that were published.

    1. That painting hasn’t turned up in any exhibition catalogues so I can’t tell you what it’s called. Although that doesn’t mean it hasn’t been exhibited!

      Photos after 1994 … no, I don’t think so.

      1. Anton Corbijn visited Don in 1999…I wonder if he has any unpublished photographs of him (there was e.g. a picture from 1990 that wasn’t released up until 2011 via the word magazine). We’ll never find out most likely.

  2. Wonder if Bone ever wondered if “god”actually might be a “she”…..

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