Don’t Sit On That Porcupine Fence: Beefheart’s Grown The Best Batch Yet by Dave DiMartino

This article was taken from Creem, March 1981, Vol. 12 No. 10. Many thanks to our man in Mexico City, Jesus Quintero for kindly scanning this article and sending it to me.

*May 1970. High School kids in my living room. Singing.

“Hot and slimy weenie, knocking at my door/Hot and slimy weenie, crawling ‘cross the floor/Hot and slimy weenie/hot and slimy weenie/hot and slimy weenie… WHERE ARE YOU NOW?!?”

The tape still exists, us mindlessly wailing away over the same bass pattern with our 1970 rock band equipment, seconds later me grabbing the microphone and reciting the words to “The Blimp” from Trout Mask Replica and then all of us playing as loudly and as randomly and as “weird” as we thought Captain Beefheart & His Magic Band would be if they were in the same living room.

*February 1971. Watching Beefheart and his band perform Lick My Decals Off, Baby in Hollywood, Florida. At an amusement park. Two friends went backstage, Mike and Bud (whose nickname was “Cosmo the Magnificent”). They met the band. Mike’s report in our high school paper: “The Captain himself didn’t seem overjoyed with Florida, but he did say ‘I love the fog, it’s so mysterious!’ The good Captain also expressed a desire to see the porpoise show at the Seaquarium – but when told the porpoises were drugged, he simply replied ‘Don’t tell me about drugged porpoises!”‘

*Detroit 1972, Ford Auditorium. Driving 90 miles to watch Captain Beefheart play Clear Spot, opening for the Kinks.

*Lansing, 1974. Captain Beefheart at the Brewery, a college drunktank, with a brand new Magic Band, an album called Unconditionally Guaranteed and a manager with the same last name as mine. This DiMartino saw a review I’d written in the college paper, asked around and grabbed me after the show. He sat me at a table, bought me a beer, and introduced me to Don Van Vliet, who was there with his wife Jan and who sat down, drank beer, drew pictures and poems on my college reviewer notepad and talked non-stop for two hours.

“You probably don’t remember playing in Florida,” I said. “Sure I do,” he said. “You met my friends after the show,” I told him, “Mike and Bud.” He grinned: “Oh. You mean Cosmo The Magnificent!” Later, Jan told him her leg was aching and he wrapped his hands around it. He concentrated. “How does it feel now?” he asked her. “Better,” she said. Night’s end, Captain Beefheart made me promise I’d take him airboat riding in the Everglades next time we were both down in Florida. And at the time I had no doubt he meant every word of it.

Isolated incidents all, ones that mean much more to me than they’ll ever mean to anybody else, because to me there could never be any other performer who could even hope to approach Beefheart. Lou Reed said it: Those were different times. “Genius” was not a word to be used lightly, but for Beefheart – surely more than any other performer of the 60’s – it was the only word applicable.

Four sides of timeless Beefheart remain in the vaults of A&M Records; “Diddy Wah Diddy,” “Who Do You Think You’re Fooling,” “Moonchild” and “Fryin’ Pan” were initially issued as two singles, ended up on The A&M Bootleg Album and now remain to be reissued someday by somebody there smart enough to realize they couldn’t ask for better EP material. Both Safe As Milk and Mirror Man on Buddah are likewise out of circulation, and Strictly Personal, Beefheart’s flawed masterpiece, is totally out of commission after Blue Thumb changed distributors 40 zillion times. MCA probably has the rights to it, and that says enough right there.

Trout Mask Replica is both Beefheart’s masterwork and the albatross hanging around his neck. To say it was influential is laughable; not only were jerk bands like mine playing “The Blimp” – listen to Devo’s “Secret Agent Man” and it’s obvious that de-evolution and A Squid Eating Dough In A Polyethelene Bag are different spuds of the same main course. Ditto Magazine’s version of “I Love You, You Big Dummy.” Can and Pere Ubu, two of the finest bands ever, weren’t exactly not listening either.

Beefheart’s work since then, from Decalls to Doc At The Radar Station, constitute a remarkable legacy which only his two Mercury albums have really violated. Unconditionally Guaranteed was, at least, honest – Beefheart is pictured on the cover clutching dollar bills and grinning “sellout”; an overstatement maybe, but symptomatic of somebody’s incorrect assumption that Beefheart would ever stand a chance of massive commercial success. Bluejeans And Moonbeams, recorded with the “new” Magic Band (featuring talents so lukewarm they’d been with Buckwheat and Ricky Nelson’s band), simply stunk – a low point that, mixed with legal skirmishes, ended up being the last Beefheart record for four years.

Shiny Beast (Bat Chain Puller) changed things. An even newer Magic Band had now learned Beefheart note for note, young people who weren’t some wayward producer’s idea but fans. The album was Beefheart’s best since Clear Spot and reaffirmation of whatever hazy goals he’d set earlier with Trout Mask. It worked, though not perfectly, and it held promise – promise that yet another lawsuit postponed. lt took two more years, a new manager and more inspiration than anyone had anticipated to produce Doc At The Radar Station, Beefheart’s 1980 statement of intent that’s as jagged as Trout Mask but somehow easier to swallow. He hadn’t changed, but his context had.

And I guess the point of me sticking all that personal info at the beginning of this article is this: it is all so personal. When you’re young, you have heroes. Captain Beefheart was mine. I’ve memorized, literally, all his records up to Clear Spot. I’ve eaten up the legends that pieces by Langdon Winner in Rolling Stone spawned, that Beefheart wrote Trout Mask in a few hours at the piano, that he knows when the phone’ll ring before it does, that he’ll do this and he’ll do that because Captain Beefheart is as close as this planet has to being an actual deity and that he’s in touch with the music of the spheres and BLAH BLAH BLAH. And I’ve never really questioned that – because the incredible music that he’s produced since those A&M sides has never really proven otherwise. Like the time I met him and spoke with him in ’74 and he pulled my friend’s nickname out of his hat and we got drunk and, for a minute at least, it looked like he was faith-healing his wife. All these things, and the music. I filed Captain Beefheart away in my brain the way I filed his records away those drunken nights I pull them out and tell some interested friends that the man simply KNEW. He simply knew.

And in a way, Captain Beefheart has almost become an embarrassment to me. Because I’m a bit older now, more cynical. Because other “heroes” of mine – like Arthur Lee, Tim Buckley or John Cale – haven’t fared as well, in retrospect. It’s obvious that these people are people, after all, and if they die or fade away it’s only natural; to look at it any other way would be naive and unnatural. But I haven’t been able to “dismiss” Beefheart so easily. I simply haven’t thought about him much since five years ago and even Shiny Beast didn’t do the trick. I like it – a lot, I guess – but it didn’t really resolve anything.

Doc At The Radar Station is Beefheart’s best record in years. I know that. But I also know that my appreciation of it remained intellectual, not gut-level, until last week, when I saw him and his new Magic Band perform most of it live. I thought things would be different: he would be older, and now I was too, and the magic might be gone. But it wasn’t. Maybe because Beefheart sang “Abba Zaba” and “Kandy Korn” and “Doctor Dark,” maybe because during “The Dust Blows Forward And The Dust Blows Back,” I found myself reciting along with him. For a while, though, I was excited by Captain Beefheart in a way that I hadn’t been in many, many years. And maybe that counts for more than I think it does.


I didn’t think he would remember me.

The road manager had just introduced us, saying he’s leaving to go get us some beer.

“Oh, do you want a light one?” Beefheart asks.

I put my hand over my stomach and sit down at a table: “Why, does it look like I need one?” He looks at me, confused. He meant light at opposed to dark. The road manager leaves and Beefheart grins.

“Hey, how have you been?” Fine, I say.

“You look good. I think you look good, and if they don’t think you look good then fuck ’em. No, I mean you look good.”

I smile. “No,” he says, “Whaddya want – to be thin forever like the rest of these assholes?” He points his thumb toward the door. “Hey, I felt good when I weighed a lot. A lot. Actually, I don’t feel as good now as I did then.” He gets up and looks at the mirror, “Shit. Look how thin I am. I can’t believe it. Look at this. I weigh the same as when I bought this coat, and I was 19 years old then. I’m 39 now, and I weigh exactly the same – if not less – than when I bought this coat.”

He returns to his seat and I pull out two xeroxed pieces of paper, copies of the pages from my notepad in ’74. One page is a Van Vliet sketch of Dell Simmons, the saxophonist who accompanied Beefheart on the Unconditionally Guaranteed tour. The poem, scrawled above the sketch: “This man sucked ah cosmic particle up the bell of his horn & aluminated his brain.” Other drawings, “Dukes” and “Intitled Scoring Pencil,” accompany a final poem, the same as the one on Mirror Man, “One Nest Rolls After Another.”

“Course I remember this,” Beefheart says, looking down at his work, interested. “I was right. I was right. ‘One nest rolls after another…’ Course I remember this.” In walks the manager with two beers for us; Beefheart looks at the Heinekens. “They didn’t have any dark, I can see that right now.” Beefheart shows him the sketches. “Look at this, did you see this? And he didn’t think I’d remember this.” He looks over at me. “You knew I’d remember this.”

It was a long time ago. You wanted me to take you riding on an airboat.

“‘Cause I wanna see those alligators. And I wanna see those birds,” he says. “Of course I remember that, I remember everything. If I meet someone I like I totally remember everything, I remember the whole sequence of events. I remember photographically… paintwise is how I remember.”

Beefheart pulls out a pack of Camels. “You look real good, didn’t you know that?” He reaches across the table. “Lemme steal your lighter.” He takes it, a cheap Bic, and stares at it. “You know I’m so used to those damn lighters. I’ve got one somewhere, I know I do.” He digs in his pockets, then pulls one out proudly and shows me. “I knew I did. But mine’s gray, not green. I’ve got a black one, a, white one, a gray one. Gary – do you know Gary Lucas? – he’s always putting lighters in my pockets.”

Beefheart lights a Camel. “I don’t smoke cigarettes anymore. I smoke a pipe. Unless I’m on the road – I mean, how do you smoke a pipe on the road?”

I’m surprised that someone with his concern for nature – and thereby health – would still be smoking. “What, this?” He looks at the cigarette and pauses. He looks at me. “Nature grows tobacco. I like tobacco. I do. Don’t you?” He stares at my pack of Merits. “Camels don’t have as much chemicals as those. Those don’t have the tar. Which is a weird ‘tar,’ if you ask me.

“I must be tarred and feathered,” he says.

Beefheart’s full of enthusiasm about Ling Lucas, his new manager since Doc was recorded. “I’ve been on TV three times in one month,” he says. “I’d say she’s pretty good. And this is the first time she’s ever managed anybody.'”

Do you still think that simple exposure is all your career really needs to take off? What is it you really want?

“I just want more people to hear me. I’m still the same person.”

The lawsuits, that old Mercury deal didn’t sour you?

“No,” he says. “I’ll never quit playing. I like to play in front of people. I mean – if they’re as bored as I am, I’m ready to have ’em there.”

You really think people are bored right now?

“They better be. I think they better change what’s going on. Don’t you? I think they better realize… I think they better realize. Langdon – Dr. Langdon Winner and I were talking in New York – and they’re dropping waste, hot stuff, down in the Stygian, a special part of the ocean. They’re dropping that stuff into mud that’s like 15 feet deep.” He shakes his head. “Ooh. it moves. When the ocean is wounded it takes the whole world to heal. What are they doing trying to hurt the ocean? Because they’re wounded when they try to wound the ocean.

“I just wanna raise the art culture to where I can be at the same table,” he says. “I wanna be at the same table. And some of those tables are off-center as far as I’m concerned. And they’ve gotta raise ’em a bit for me to sit there.”

He sips his beer. “Only I can’t sit, anyway. I always find myself moving. Yet I’ll change the table some way. But: I don’t hurt people. I paint. Of course that hurts a tree – but all you can get is third generation canvas anyway. But it’s still the same wind, although they put odd things into it.

“I dunno,” he says. “I just hope that they get hip to the fact that these things they’re putting into these cans, this hot stuff, is not gonna just go down there and stay there. lt’s just gonna move around. Everywhere.”

Beefheart says his music has changed over the years, except for “the drums.” Says he: “I don’t do BUM-BUM-BUM – you know, mama heartbeat drums. I can’t imagine anyone wanting to put that much emphasis on a heartbeat, because a heartbeat… well, I don’t want my heart to attack me so I don’t do that. I wont.”

Which brings up the case of Mallard, the band signed to Virgin in ’75 comprised of former Magic Banders Zoot Horn Rollo, Rockette Morton and Art Tripp. The trio left Beefheart after Unconditionally Guaranteed, apparently with some ill feeling, because – and this Beefheart told me in ‘74 – they didn’t want to go out on the road again. The two resulting albums were interesting – especially to Magic Band fans like myself – but something obviously was lacking. Like maybe Captain Beefheart. I ask him if he’d heard the records.

“I thought it was humorous,” he frowns. “Disgusting.”


“Well… that same beat.” He knocks his beer bottle on the table, simulating mama-heartbeat drums. “What are they gonna do, make money with that or something? Everybody’s different. Why do they make it one thing? Why do they make houses all the same, why do they all group in an area with the same kind of houses? That’s what I’m saying.” He claps his hands loudly. “Why so much emphasis, emphasis, emphasis, why do they keep doing that same beat? It’s boring. I’ve never been able to enjoy that. I mean, it’s too forced. Too hypnotic.”

Beefheart looks over at my cigarettes again. “I’m gonna try one of those. You want one of these?” He hands me a Camel and lights up his Merit. “I’ve never had one of these things. ‘Mental Merits.’” He puffs, considering. “Hmmm. Interesting. Not very tobacco-like, but interesting. Chemically interesting.

“No, I know that this is the best album I’ve done. I know that. I think. This is the best group I’ve had, I know that. Oh yeah.”

That Beefheart features “Abba Zaba” and other songs from Safe As Milk suggests he might be interested in discussing the albums themselves – but again, like the Trout Mask albatross, this is 1980, and those records are history. I wonder if he gets sick of talking about history.

“I do,” he admits. “But when I hear someone talking about ’em that really liked ’em, I get really excited about ’em and like ’em again.”

We discuss Safe As Milk, Mirror Man and Strictly Personal, and I ask Beefheart if, like everybody else, he considers Trout Mask Replica his best.

No, he says, maybe slightly predictably. “I think the one I just did is, Doc At The Radar Station. On Virgin Records.” And this sets him off.

“Virgin Records? They sued me for two million dollars, to get me off Warner Brothers with my Shiny Beast (Bat Chain Puller). They sued me for two million dollars.” He shakes his head, disbelieving. “Warner Bros. dropped me. I mean two million dollars – in a way I don’t blame’em. Two million dollars.

“And then they did nothing. And they aren’t doing anything now.”

And he’s right. In keeping with Beefheart’s historical run of total bad luck, Virgin Records ended their distribution pact with Atlantic at precisely the wrong moment; now Doc At The Radar Station is on his way to instant-collector’s item status, a total of a paltry 18,000 copies in existence due to Virgin’s distribution screw-up. And most of them are gone. And nobody – particularly Atlantic Records; who’re supposed to be promoting it, let alone allowing it to exist – really seems to care. Especially Virgin Records.

“They aren’t doing anything now,” Beefheart says. “And they forgot to pick up their option.” He waves his hand. “Bye.”

“But I never liked that name, I told ’em ‘I don’t like that name’ – because, if a little girl gets on a bicycle the wrong way,” and here he puts on his raspiest voicc, “then ‘SHE’S NOT A VIRGIN!! SHE’S NOT A VIRGIN!!’… I mean… how disgusting. I mean, that’s delving into something that’s a little bit too personal. And I love women, I love the difference. I’ve been married for 10 years, and I love my wife. I mean, she’s there before I am.

“So you can see… People should just quit fooling around with me. Because I’m an artist.”

And if there are any more leaps of faith to be made, I’ll make them, for Captain Beefheart. Because Don Van Vliet should not have to be telling people that he’s an artist, and because record companies and other people shouldn’t have to be so selfish. And one of those things may change in the future, but both of them never will.

As of this writing, Don Van Vliet doesn’t have a record deal. “I know there will be,” he says. “After hearing that album, and all the press… and my acceptance… there’s gotta be.” He says it hopefully, knowingly, and you don’t want to disbelieve him. And again – maybe for one more time – you don’t.

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