He wrote Plastic Factory, now he sells credit cards – the careers of a Zig Zag Wanderer

Second telephone interview between Herb Bermann and Derek Laskie, Tuesday 10th February 2004 (see part one)

In The Malibu Times piece you mention that you’ve done other collaborations with music. I was wondering what these might be.

Oh gosh, I meet once or twice a year with several songwriters and musicians and we write new material. Marty Grebb, an original Buckingham from Lindsey Buckingham’s group in the sixties, Marty’s a one-man band. Marty toured with Bonnie Raitt for twenty-five years. Marty and I collaborate at least once or twice a year and have fun writing new material.

And is any of that recorded?

No.

We can’t find you elsewhere?

No. Michael Georgiades and I meet once or twice a year and write new material. Michael wrote with Bernie Leadon of The Eagles through the years, among other people. I like Michael’s approach to music. All these guys are one man bands. I don’t read or write music so I’m literally the wordsmith. I’m as pure a lyricist as you’ll get. What happens is I hear the metre of the language, of the words, and I can render them to a musician who is really a musician. So I’m kind of a wandering poet of sorts.

I read again in Topanga Canyon some of my recent poetry. We had a reading at the new bookstore in the new shopping centre by the post office in Topanga Canyon. That was material that we had read at Beyond Baroque in Venice several weeks ago.

This was ‘Colophon’?

Yes. Colophon I came across, I didn’t know what a colophon was.

Have you published poetry elsewhere?

No. I became a top of the show television screenwriter and I was responsible for producing, writing and directing various TV series through the years and at major studios. Don went on to pursue his musical aspirations which really were a stepping-stone to his art career and he made no bones about that. I first got published through Don, through Beefheart and ‘Safe As Milk’, and based on that Dean asked me to help him on ‘After the Gold Rush’ and Neil put the songs to it and got a platinum album and Universal dropped the screenplay and put it into turnaround and it’s never been made to this day.

After that, another Canadian writer Thomas Y. Drake got me into The Writers Guild of America as a screenwriter and my next job I won a Writers Guild award co-writing with Tom Drake and two other writers on the Steven Spielberg show.

This was the golfer and the terminal illness?

Yeah, ‘Par For The Course’, and then I was an established top of the show Hollywood screenwriter for TV series.

I found you did an adaptation of ‘The Door Into Summer’, is that right?

Yes, yes, Robert Heinlein.

And ‘Wonder Woman’?

Yes.

‘S.W.A.T.’?

‘SWAT’. Special Weapons and Tactics.

OK, I didn’t know what that meant.

SWAT teams came out in America during the Civil Rights movement when they needed special forces and special commando units to control snipers and kidnappers and demonstrators. Every city in America has a SWAT unit.
Right.

Yeah that was fun. I mean all that was fun and then I did other shows. Prior to that I’d been an actor and prior to Don I’d been an actor.

Did you have another name as an actor?

Yes, it was Herb Masters.

OK because I found a reference to somebody who claimed that he was introduced to you as Herb Masters.

Yeah it’s probably true.

He also says, I think, that the song ‘Plastic Factory’ was based on him because he was working in a factory at the time.

No, no, no, no. ‘Plastic Factory’ – I wrote ‘Plastic Factory’ originally during the strife of the late sixties – the social, economic, civil rights stuff. It was a kind of a revolutionary anthem that radio stations in America refused to play. They wouldn’t give it air time. They thought it was counter-revolutionary or some bullshit. Those were stressful times. I mean Stephen Stills wrote ‘For What It’s Worth ’ after the Sunset Strip riots. It was hairy times. Jerry Moss threw us out. He listened to our tapes of ‘Safe As Milk’ when we were shopping to get a deal at a label. Jerry Moss said, “Thanks but no thanks. It sounds too much like a movement and I’m gonna pass.”

And then you ended up with Krasnow.

If it wasn’t for Krasnow ‘Safe As Milk’ wouldn’t have been made. It was Krasnow’s – he was the motor to, an engine to all that. Unfortunately I didn’t get along that well with Krasnow. Krasnow told people he thought Herb Bermann was crazy and at the time he was probably right.

Were you a bit wild?

Well. I’m an actor again. I started acting again, with my own name now.

What have you been doing recently?

I got lucky with – I have the franchise for MasterCard. I do commercials for MasterCard on American television.

OK, I thought that was you.

I play George Washington and every year MasterCard calls me back and we do some more dead American president MasterCard commercials.

It’s fun and it gives me credibility and mobility and choices. It’s very lucrative and I’m very thrilled and grateful that at this time of my life, pushing seventy, that I get an opportunity to ham it up and wear some costumes and make-up and get paid for it and have fun.

I’ve seen the one with you playing Washington. It’s on the Internet.

Oh yeah? There’s another one coming out, in the spring, there’ll be a warm weather one. We already did it.

I do little dramatic roles in small independent theatrical films. I played the father of a heroin addict in a movie called ‘The Damage Done’ – a little independent movie. And this past year a movie called ‘Milk and Honey’ which is a wonderful movie made by an Israeli woman director named Niva Dorell. The movie won the Black Filmmakers Film Festival and it’s gotten airtime on Showtime.

You’re doing well for yourself.

I try and keep busy. It’s nice to stay curious about life and people and it’s nice to participate with other artists who have their own level of expertise. The good ones bring you up to their level and all of a sudden you’re a lot better than you ever thought you could be because you’re around quality talent.
So that spurs you on, yes.

And my first love was the theatre and story-telling and acting anyway. I never knew if I could be a writer. I mean I left the ‘Doctor Kildare’ TV series as a doctor on screen to move to the Mojave Desert with my first wife to find out if I could write, if I had any talent as a writer.

I think you’ve proved that.

Well I don’t know. I guess so. I mean I don’t really know. I’m still writing and it’s never right. It’s a very difficult daunting task to write well. I know a lot of writers and there’s a few cookies loose in our cookie jars. I mean you gotta be a little nuts to wanna to write. You stare at a goddamn blank page, it’s the lonely profession and there you are. It’s all in your head and if you’re in your own way it’s not gonna come through and to and out of you. My best writing was channelling.

Channelling from where?

From wherever it comes from.

You don’t know?

Ah pshaw. I’m like Norman Mailer. It comes from somewhere, to me, through me and I’m just a vessel, that’s my best writing. But it’s hard to get to because usually the writer’s in his own way. You know either through ego or fear, or ego and fear. I don’t recommend writing to most people because it’s probably the most difficult thing I’ve ever attempted.

Every time out, it’s just a leap of faith when pen goes to paper. But when you hit some gold, which is rare, I mean all those TV scripts I wrote, and I wrote them for years, you write for a scant moment on screen that shows some compassion or humanity or some caring for one person for another. I mean out of an hour’s tele-play maybe you’ll get ten seconds of gold. But it’s worth it. You know I had a lot of day jobs through the years. I was a car salesman for five years. I mean how about that, but I got to know people, I got to read people.

I was around people of all ethnic origins that ordinarily I wouldn’t get an opportunity to hang with. So, writing’s about people, you know, it’s not about geology or geo-physics. Storytelling around a campfire for millions of years, about how you escape a beast and continue your life such as it is.

So what was the question?

I’ll bring you back to lyrics on ‘Safe As Milk’ if I can.

‘Zig Zag Wanderer’ – somebody who was around back then says that the song was originally about a Johnny Appleseed type character. Would that be anywhere near the mark?

All I remember was that I was a pothead at the time and the rolling papers for sale in America were a brand name called Zig Zag.

Absolutely, that’s taken for granted.

That was the jumping off starting point for me with ‘Zig Zag Wanderer’. I mean I don’t even know a Johnny Appleseed. If I did I’d ask him how good his pot was at the time.

Obviously this was a Johnny Potseed.

‘Zig Zag Wanderer’ was about the fool on the hill who was so uncomfortable he was jumping out of his own skin and he needed help. That’s what ‘Zig Zag Wanderer’ was about. ‘Zig Zag Wanderer’ was how do I alter my consciousness and not hurt anybody. Who’s Johnny Appleseed?

Johnny Appleseed – isn’t he a kind of mythical American character who went around the country spreading seeds for apple trees to grow?

Who knew? See, now you’ve educated me.

So, this person says that the Zig Zag Wanderer was a guy who went around America spreading marijuana seeds in the same way.

Beats me, I don’t know, there’s so many mythical stories that people tell me that are spun out of those songs and it blows my mind because basically I was sitting alone in my house on the Mojave Desert just writing stuff. And Don would come out, he’d come out and visit and he’d say “What have you got?” and I’d read this stuff to him and he’d say “I can put that to music. I can sing that, with your permission.” It just took off from there and we were bonded, we were Siamese twins for a year and a half or two years.

And then it was over and then I never saw Don or the guys ever again. I was never invited to a recording session. I was never invited to a concert. I was kept hidden. But I figured, so what, you know, it’s Don’s show, he’s the middle mic, I mean Captain Beefheart’s the act. I was just thrilled to have my little part in it at the time.

I wasn’t the headliner, Don was. I never wanted to take that from Don because he was the guy who went out and performed. He was the guy who went to the studio and put up with whatever they put up with in those sessions. I had the cushiest job of all. I was Bernie Taupin locked up in a ranch house on twenty-six acres of Joshua trees.

Did you get an e-mail which I sent way back in November with a whole load of lyrics on it?

Yes.

You mentioned that you wrote something called ‘Dirty Blue Gene’.

Yes.

Did that lyric there have any relationship to yours?

No.

‘Flowerpot’ you also mentioned.

Yes.

Is there any lyric from that that remains, because there was never one recorded?

Yeah, I have the lyric sheet to ‘Flowerpot’.

Could I have a look at that somehow?

If you hold on I’ll go get it and tell it to you.

(Pause)

OK, I have my catalogue. What number was ‘Flowerpot’? Oh man, there’s so many songs here. ‘Flowerpot’, where the hell is ‘Flowerpot’? Fourteen. ‘Flowerpot’. Jeez, I have sixty-five songs here from that time with Don.

Well they’re not songs actually, they’re just poetry, they’re lyric sheets.

But they were never recorded?

The only things I’ve had recorded are on ‘Safe As Milk’.

Yeah, and some on ‘Strictly Personal’?

Oh yeah, I mean that I was credited for.

Here. ‘Flowerpot’. So it’s:

Take this magic flower from my flowerpot
Tell your little girl it can help you a lot
Wear it in your hair
Wear it on your heart
With the magic power of this flower
We shall never be apart
We shall never be apart
Jungle free city hot
Can’t fool me or my flowerpot
Magic petals magic stem magic mountains and magic men

That’s it.

Well that was certainly never recorded that I know about.

No. But ‘Flowerpot’ was recorded with no lyrics.

That’s right.

That was a bonus track on the CD.

That’s right. I’ll try fitting those lyrics to it and see what happens.

(Laughter)

Probably not.

Here’s some songs that were recorded on other labels years later that deleted any co-credit for me.

‘Trust Us’ and ‘Safe As Milk’ are my lyrics and they ripped me off on that and left me out, ‘Kandy Korn’ was mine – they left me out, ‘Owed t’Alex’ – they put me on the BMI royalties but they left me out of the publishing.

Who was Alex?

Alex was Alex Snouffer, the lead guitar player in the original Magic Band. But they never gave me publishing royalties for that. ‘Triple Combination’ – they left me off. Let me see, there’s probably others that I don’t even know about.

‘Gimme Dat Harp Boy’ – that was my lyrics – they left me off that – they ripped me off that.

OK. There’s another story about that one. Maybe you can confirm? It was supposedly about Bob ‘The Bear’ Hite playing mouth-organ?

No. Bob Hite had nothing to do with that. The genesis of ‘Gimme Dat Harp Boy’ was one night Don played The Ash Grove in LA, the old one that burned down on Melrose, and I drove into town with them to hear him play. He was on the same bill that night as Lightnin’ Hopkins. During the break, Don and myself and Lightnin’ Hopkins went into the men’s room and Don and Lightnin’ Hopkins had a harp-off in the men’s room at The Ash Grove that was memorable, that should have been taped. It was incredible. They both played Mississippi Delta Blues harmonica and actually had a harp-off in The Ash Grove men’s room and during that performance just for me and a couple of other people who were in the men’s room this song ‘Gimme Dat Harp Boy’ came to me. That’s the story of that song and I wish they would have co-credited me because I wrote the words to that.

But they didn’t. That was another fucking rip-off. You know, and I can use the money, you know. I mean I have rent to pay and gas to put in my car and doctor bills and I like to go to the market and buy food.

I remember you told me about the lawyers meeting with Krasnow and Don.

That was in Topanga.

Yeah and that was sorting out the credits for ‘Safe As Milk’.

That was after Don came back from town, from Krasnow, with the song contracts that Don and I had previously agreed we were fifty-fifty partners and the splits were all like eighty-twenty and ninety-ten and I told Don that was unacceptable. And then I hired a lawyer.

Did you ever pursue the other credits for the ‘Strictly Personal’ material?

Yeah, I got a bunk phoney letter from Krasnow’s record company at Blue Thumb that said that to the best of his knowledge that he had no knowledge of me participating on any level in that material and if I had any beef I should take it up with Don.

But I never saw Don again. I never communicated with Don again, to this day.

This is a common story I hear.

Every musician I ever knew has a sad story of woe, all the way from Billy Joel to whoever. You know it’s a messy dirty filthy nasty business. You know the music business stinks. I got into guilds and unions as a professional screenwriter and a television writer and a professional actor. I mean there were unions who would back you up.

But not in music.

The music business, you were on your own.

(Pause)

You’ve never given an interview about this subject before, why is that?

Because its a sore spot in my journey in life and biography. I mean I like music, I mean I was a fan. I didn’t come from music from piano lessons as a seven-year old kid. I came from music listening to The Drifters and The Platters and ‘Earth Angel’. I was just like anybody else. I was a sucker for a good song and rhythm and blues, R&B. I was a disc jockey in Tucson, Arizona for a couple of years. I had my own record show. I owned a night-club in Tucson, Arizona and I would book R&B roadshows who would come through the south-west. I managed a group. I took a group to the Dick Clark show WFIL in Philadelphia at the height of American Bandstand. I brought a group all the way to Pittsburgh to the Skyliners label and got them signed. This was the late fifties when I’d gotten out of the Korean War. So I mean I’ve always been around music but I’d never been on the other side of talent until Don.

You know and I read Mike Barnes’ unauthorised biography of Captain Beefheart. Have you read that?

I have, yes.

He should have done his homework. He included me in a slim paragraph on page forty or forty-one and he just sloughed me off. There wouldn’t have been a ‘Safe As Milk’ album without those lyrics or my material or my meeting with Don.

He is revising this biography.

Then he said some shit comment about somebody saying that the most important thing that I had said was I’d conned the woman I was with into being with me. What a pissy fucking comment that was.

Yeah that’s really a low blow. That’s not a thank-you or an acknowledgement of any kind of creative input.

He said something else about how Don would tell the band that The Poet wrote this song and then the band would say, “Oh heavy” you know. Oh it’s bullshit you know. I mean the band and I, we all were on a mission. Nobody was heavier than anybody else. We all wanted to get it right and get it smokin’ and get it going. We were an outsider band; we weren’t an insider band. We didn’t really come to the Sunset Strip. We played The Whisky but where we really played was San Francisco and The Avalon Ballroom. I mean that was where people really knew what Captain Beefheart and His Magic Band were doing.

That’s when Janis Joplin was still with The Quicksilver Messenger Service. That’s when Grace Slick was still with The Great Society before The Jefferson Airplane. Since then Grace is a dear friend of mine, I love Grace. I hang with Grace sometimes. So it was very competitive. We were a bunch of guys out in Lancaster, California in the Mojave Desert. Don Imus was the disc jockey in Palmdale at the time; he’s a very famous American disc-jockey nowadays.

I don’t want Mike Barnes to put me in any kind of limelight or anything like that but I mean he never called me, he never made an effort to communicate with me and then he wrote that.

He’ll probably get sight of this when I write it.

But that’s one of the reasons I never gave an interview because these journalists can kiss my ass. You know when you called me the first time you asked some great questions and I really respect you as an interviewer so I make time for you.

You’re surprising me.

Other people have asked me for interviews and I’ve said, “No, I gave an interview to Derek Laskie. Go on the Internet and contact Derek Laskie.” I think your friend wanted an interview from me and I told Pablo “Tell him”, I told Pablo, “Tell all these people to contact Derek.” So you’re the man Derek.

Thank you for that.

Thank you. You know and I don’t want to ever take anything away from Don Van Vliet. I mean Don Van Vliet is a very special man and he accelerated my fortunes half a life ago and I’m eternally grateful to him for giving me that opportunity and it was a marvellous opportunity and the songs live on, God bless them, they have a life of their own. I tried numerous times to re-kindle a songwriting career in pop music and I never got it going again. Don did, Don survived, he went to his friend Frank Zappa and ‘Trout Mask Replica’ is Billy Bob Thornton’s favourite album.

The music lives on. I saw a concert in London a couple of weeks ago. John French was singing the songs and Denny Walley and Mark Boston.

I’m sure they never mentioned Herb Bermann.

No, they didn’t really mention Don either.

Yeah, and I’m sure Don isn’t thrilled with their adventure.

We hear that he’s not.

Yeah, and I’m not either.

No?

No, I would rather …. it’s a lot like necrophilia.

If you think that the music is worth listening to…

But anyway, I mean God bless them, they have to eat too and if that’s available to them for a pay-check better they do that than work in a supermarket or drive a cab – which I’ve done through the years, after, OK, after ‘Safe As Milk’.

All right. Did you have anything to do with infra-red thermometers?

I don’t even know what that is.

There was a Herb Berman who apparently invented some infra-red thermometer in California back in the early sixties.

There’s another Herb Bermann?

Supposedly.

Jesus, poor guy.

You know there’s these stories about people don’t know who you are and all that…

You know Pablo called me and left a message last night on my voice-mail that he was fooling around on the Internet last night and he said he came across a ‘Herb Bermann Spotting’ and somebody said that Herb Bermann had read some poetry over the weekend in Topanaga Canyon in California. I find that uniquely, curiously interesting that anybody would even go there.

You’re a very mysterious, very curious, man to the Beefheart community.

You know when we got relocated, when I got evicted with my neighbours out of Lower Topanga Canyon, you know about that?

Yes.

A Viennese documentary film-maker couple is doing a film of us and it’s in progress. They are friends of Pablo’s. They took their footage and went back to Vienna and they’re adding music and cutting it and everything. You will see me frequently throughout this film of theirs. They’re going to enter it in film festivals all over Europe when they get it done. So you might want to ask Pablo more about Werner and Natalie who are the filmmaker couple from Vienna. They caught me at home in crisis, being uprooted from my home in Topanga and then they followed it up and they came to my new home. That’s me now and you might want to check it out.

Can you remember or do you have a copy of the telegram that Bernstein sent?

Oh, Leonard Bernstein. He was knocked out by ‘Autumn’s Child’. I don’t have a copy of it. Maybe Don does. John Lennon sent us telegrams too.

Bernstein thought it was a symphonic piece of great importance and urged us and encouraged us to keep going. John Lennon just fell in love with ‘Safe As Milk’ and all that. Other people in the business rooted us on.

My friend Tris who’s the drummer for the American band Chicago says “You guys were fantastic. I know that ‘Safe As Milk’ album.” He said, “You guys should have been given a government grant to keep going.” We had more fans amongst musicians I think than we had real fans who would have come to a concert.

The thing about Don was not only was he influenced greatly by the traditional black musicians like Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf and Buddy Guy and all that black blues that came up from New Orleans to Chicago, not only was Don influenced by that, he was very well versed in Ornette Coleman and Thelonious Monk and jazz and jazz musicians Herbie Hancock and all that and Miles Davis so Don had this weird rhythm ticking in his head melding all kinds of persuasions of ethnic American music.

And he’s Dutch besides.

How does being Dutch relate to it?

Well people who have roots and lineage in Holland are amazingly seriously creative people. I mean some of the greatest painters, some of the greatest artists, some of the finest creative people are out of Holland. They don’t take creativity lightly. It’s a mission and a calling for them. Don’s most impressive energy was when he performed live and in person. As long as I knew him he was doodling and drawing and painting and collaging. He knew he was on his way to being an artist. I brought him to Topanga and I introduced him to all the great contemporary living artists that were friends of mine. There was a whole colony of artists, Wallace Berman and George Herms, Ben Talbert, there were just dozens of them, and these guys are in museums all over the world. And they were a little ahead of Don, they were a little older, they were ten or twelve or fifteen years older than Don, but I did turn Don onto them.

Wallace Berman’s on the cover of The Beatles ‘Sgt. Peppers’ album. He was a great friend of The Beatles and The Stones. You see at the time there was a linkage between what was going on in the art world and in rock and roll and pop music. More so than there is now. Now I don’t think the music business knows where it’s at. They’d be out of business if it wasn’t for hip-hop and rap.

It’s regurgitating itself really isn’t it?

Yeah, but that’s their problem.

I’ve just about, I think I have in fact gone through all the notes that I made.

Well it’s interesting that you recognise Don Van Vliet mainly. I had a small part in it for a short time and moved on to other endeavours and other pastures but Don had a survival instinct and he always managed to find another patron and another label and he kept going until he could make that jump into the art world which he did.

You would ask me a question about why do I think Don and I collaborated and the true answer is you have to ask Don because Don is an extraordinary man and an extraordinary talent and he’s a great songwriter/poet in his own right. So for him to be so generous and include another writer and another poet at a seminal time in his career at that time is an extremely generous caring act of an artist allowing another artist, who wasn’t proven at the time – I wasn’t proven at that time, but for Don had recognised an opportunity and invited me into that sphere and collaboration and marriage was a great risk. It was a great risk for Don to have taken and my hat’s off to him as a brave artist to have taken that leap of faith at the time.

It did result in him firing Leonard Grant who was his manager at the time and hooking up and finding Bob Krasnow and getting into the ‘Safe As Milk’ sessions and recordings. It was Don’s first album so it was very fruitful for one and all and everybody. People who track breakthroughs and pushing the envelope further in pop music can value that to this day and I think that’s probably a big reason why the ‘Safe As Milk’ material lives on to this day, because at the time it wasn’t in and of its time. It somehow happened regardless.

Now thirty-five years later it’s still being heard all over the world by young people who seem to understand. Those songs on ‘Safe As Milk’, and Don’s vision for mounting those songs and rendering those songs, those songs give hope to any young person who seeks an altered state so as not to co-operate with evil.

You can end your article on that if you so desire.

It sounds like a very good ending, yeah. Thank you very very much.

Anybody else that’s interested in Beefheart I’m gonna tell Pablo to route them to you Derek. I don’t wanna give any more interviews.

It was a long time ago and thanks for remembering Derek. Have a great day.

Cheers Herb.

© Derek Laskie 2004

2 Comments »

  1. Marc O says:

    Great interview! Does anybody know anything about Vliet’s family’s Dutch Connection?

  2. Rob Chalfen says:

    Wallace Berman, a painter cited above, had a painting exhibited at the USA pavilion at Expo 67 in Montreal, called ‘Captain Beefheart’ – it’s reproduced in a catalog of art from the pavilion. This interview solves a bit of what had been a mystery for me.

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