The second part of Derek Laskie’s interview with Herb Bermann, legendary writing partner of Don Van Vliet in the early days of the Magic Band is now available and is just as fascinating as part one.
At one point Herb expresses his annoyance with something written about him in Mike Barnes’ biography of Don Van Vliet. I’m puzzled by his suggestion that Barnes should “do his homework” – I’d like to stress on the writer’s behalf that this is clearly a very well researched biography.
Herb Bermann features only very briefly in the story which, despite his momentous contribution to one of my all time favourite albums, is probably fitting in a biography focusing on the life of Don Van Vliet. Here’s what Mike Barnes has to say about the Bermann / Vliet collaboration:
One Herb Bermann was also involved in the realisation of Safe As Milk, contributing lyrics to most of the songs. Van Vliet explained his role to Conor McKnight of Zig Zag in 1973: “He was a fellow that I met up in the desert, a writer, and we collaborated on a few songs. At the time, the group I was with wouldn’t listen to a thing I said… they said my songs were too far out for them. I thought that if I worked with someone they considered to be a professional writer, then they’d at least listen to it and maybe even play it.”
That all seemed straightforward enough, except that Van Vliet was casting him as a shadowy, enigmatic character. “I got introduced to two or three different people who were supposed to be Herb Bermann,” recalls Marker. “I would always get a different story.” Van Vliet offered a number of explanations: that he was someone with whom he had collaborated on the lyrics, that he was his attorney, that as Van Vliet was in dispute with his former manager, who owned his publishing, he wanted to divert 50 per cent of the royalties to this fictitious name in case there was a problem.
Barnes then goes on to briefly summarise the actuality of Bermann’s life which isn’t far off what Bermann himself told to Derek. The understandably offending line about Herb conning a woman into taking up with him was a quote from an interviewee, not a comment by the author. Given the dearth of information available prior to Herb’s own spilling of the beans in this interview, there wasn’t much available for Barnes to counter this comment with.
I say this because I don’t want this interview to give a false impression of what I consider to be a good biography – the first ever serious attempt to tell Don’s story – which, like the Magic Band’s recent heroic, heart-starting shows, deserves to be praised on the pages of beefheart.com, not belittled.
But I should also express my sincere thanks to both Mr Bermann and to Derek for this fascinating insight into this even murkier than usual period of the Beefheart story. We learn now that Herb Bermann wrote some incredible words not only for Safe As Milk, but also Strictly Personal and Shiny Beast, and history needs to be amended.
I hope you enjoy the interview.