First telephone interview between Herb Bermann and Derek Laskie
Tuesday 13th November 2003
I’d just like to start talking about your poetry, your recent reading for example. How did that go?
It went very well. It was very well received. It was some fresh poetry that came to me. Beyond Baroque is the premiere venue for West Coast poets and poetry. It was a packed house and everyone showed up courteously in the thank-you line. So the kid’s still got it, his legs aren’t gone yet.
Me, meaning me. I’m sixty-seven now. I think I’m eight or nine years senior to Don Van Vliet but I’m not out of bullets yet.
I’m pleased to hear it and you’re obviously still writing poetry. What was this poem? What was the theme of it?
Well we had a creative community in Lower Topanga of poets and actors and writers and musicians and there were over five hundred of us in almost a hundred homes that were displaced by the State Park system who wanted to add our location to an existing Topanga State Park.
We’d been in existence well over seventy-five years and it was a high price to pay to an existing State Park of nine thousand acres to add an additional fifteen hundred acres and destroy a community that participated on a high level. It’s a high price to pay for the public to enjoy another campground or hiking trail. So my poem (among others – ten poets read), my poem was a lament and a celebration of having resided there for forty years. That was where the body of my work was produced, in that special sacred place in Lower Topanga Canyon.
Was it special because of the people that were there or was it special because of the place itself, do you think?
Both I think. Both, because it’s in the air. If you’re attuned to earth, air, fire and water it’s a very sacred place. It still is, and we must move on and acceptance seems to be the key. One has to bow to the state because the state has all of the law on its side. In life one must ride the horse in the direction the horse is going.
So, this is the poem ’Colophon’ that you read?
Yes. C.O.L.O.P.H.O.N.. It has a Greek root according to my poet friend Pablo. The dictionary defines it as the final summit but I came across it having co-written some years back with Dean Stockwell on an original screenplay called ‘After the Gold Rush’ which Neil Young had a platinum album out of.
Neil wrote a bunch of songs that were going to go into that film. The film never did get green-lighted. It went into turnaround at Universal but Neil ended up with a platinum album. ‘Southern Man’ was one of the great tunes on that.
I was listening to that just the other day.
If you come across a vinyl LP, in the rear of the dust jacket, all the way to the top left corner; you’ll see a nice thank-you from Neil Young.
It’s on the CD as well.
Oh, it is? I didn’t know that. That was a thank-you to Dean and myself.
I wanted to ask you a little about that one because Neil was also living in Topanga, is that correct?
How did you come to be writing with Dean?
After I wrote with Beefheart – I wrote all that stuff for ‘Safe As Milk’ with Don up in the Mojave Desert and we got a deal with Neil Bogart’s Buddha Records after having been turned down by everybody including Jerry Moss at A&M who heard our demo tapes and met with us and passed on us because he said, “It sounds like a movement.” And then he showed us the door.
Movement as in political?
Yeah, or spiritual. It was the late sixties so there was a lot of turmoil socially and politically. We were in an unjust war and civil rights was going on. It was a time of social and political turmoil. Oddly enough none of our material really zeroed in on any of that. There was one song on the ‘Safe As Milk’ album that radio banned and refused to play and that was ‘Plastic Factory’ written by Don, myself and Jerry Handley.
Jerry Handley was a guitarist?
He was a bass player.
Did you ever play?
No I’m not a musician. I’m a wordsmith. I’m the quintessential lyricist. I’m a rock ‘n’ roll hybrid.
I was originally a writer/poet/actor prior to meeting up with Don in the high desert.
How did that meeting happen?
It was interesting. Don grew up in Lancaster with Frank Zappa and they both went to Lancaster High School. Quartz Hill is right outside of Lancaster. At the time Don Imus was the disc jockey in Palmdale.
My first wife, God bless her, got cabin fever. We had a little ranch house out in Quartz Hill, on the outskirts of Lancaster. One Saturday night she got cabin fever and said, “I want to hear some live rock ‘n’ roll music. Can’t we go into town? There’s a local band playing in a bar on Sierra Highway named Captain Beefheart and His Magic Band? Can’t we go hear them?”
I said, “What do they play?” and she said, “I think they play Mississippi Delta Blues.” I said, “Yeah that piques my interest.”
I had just finished an acting career of sorts as a doctor on the ER medical drama of the sixties called ‘Doctor Kildare’ with Richard Chamberlain and Raymond Massey. I’d saved up a little money and we got married and we moved up to the high desert. I wanted to find out if I could write because I’d always had in the back of my mind that I ought to explore whether I had any talent or skill as a writer.
Like most writers I’d built up a writers trunk of this and that and fragments and poetry through the years, since I was a small boy. I always had an eye on whether I could master the boundaries of the limits and the forms of writing, whether it was poetry or static literature or novels or screenwriting or song writing.
We went to hear Don and he knocked me out. He’s much better in person that he is recorded, in my humble opinion. He’s a very powerful performer live on stage in concert.
I’ve seen him several times and I enjoyed it very much, yes.
Yeah. So instantly I was one of his biggest fans after the first set. He sang songs like ‘St James Infirmary’ and oh some wonderful classic Muddy Waters and Howling Wolf Mississippi Delta Blues stuff and this was unheard of. It was 1966 and we were on the brink of the best pop music coming down the ‘pike in the late sixties and Dylan and The Beatles and The Stones had already happened and all these British groups were beginning to happen. I was kind of swept up in that wave.
I’d always appreciated contemporary pop music and R&B and rock ‘n’ roll and I had this trunk full of poetry. Don came over to the table at his break and we started chatting. He came to my farmhouse the following afternoon because he asked me if I’d read some of my poetry to him.
I was not only struck by the power of his presence as a performer but I was struck by his unique curiosity about story telling and poetry. At heart he’s a wonderful poet. He just happened to have been an organic performer, quasi-musician, as a stepping-stone to being a brilliant fine artist, which is his calling. He always had his eye on the sparrow like that. It was like I was on the way to becoming a better writer and we both hooked up. Like you said, “It might have been a meteor shower at Parnassus,” in your note. So fortuitously our paths crossed at the time and the fruit of that labour was working fiercely together with the band for almost two years in Don’s living room and worked out all that material that appeared in ‘Safe As Milk’.
So you were there during the rehearsals?
Oh I was there every moment, every note.
Was the music composed, or developed, at the same time as the words?
No, no, no, I was the wordsmith.
You wrote all the words?
On most of the tunes I wrote all the words. Don polished some of the words. Don wrote all the music. I don’t read or write music at all. I’m not a musician; I don’t play any instrument. I was a scribe for Captain Beefheart on ‘Safe As Milk’.
A very noble calling.
I’ll say. He openly invited me in to his journey, which was very generous of a guy starting out in a cut-throat rock ‘n’ roll music scene. He didn’t have to do that. He had plenty of material of his own.
That’s what I was wondering, because he had already recorded a couple of his own pieces.
Oh he had ‘Diddy Wah Diddy’. He was getting radio airplay on ‘Diddy Wah Diddy’ and all the stations were playing it and there was a big buzz about ‘who’s this guy Captain Beefheart and His Magic Band’ just on ‘Diddy Wah Diddy’.
That was a cover version, but he did have one of his own compositions on the flip side.
‘Frying Pan’, that was his.
It is interesting to me that he felt the need for a co-writer.
I don’t know what impelled him to include me on his journey at that specific time. You’d have to ask him. But I’m thrilled that he decided what he decided because the ‘Safe As Milk’ LP and CD, I mean, forty some odd years later, it holds up. I built a whole screenwriting career hop-scotching off of that.
I’ve written for Steven Spielberg and won Writers Guild awards for television and the screen. I’ve become a guest lecturer at the UCLA Film Department. I have workshops for young aspiring writers and poets and screenwriters and songwriters. The whole underpinning and foundation of kicking off decades of the rest of my life was built upon the ‘Safe As Milk’ material with Don.
Very impressive work, what can I say? I love that album.
‘Electricity’ was originally a poem. The following day, after having heard Don perform at this bar in Lancaster on Sierra Highway, he came out to the ranch house to hear the poetry and I recited ‘Electricity’ to him. He said, “Can I have your permission to turn that into a song and add music to it. I’d love to sing it.” I said, “Absolutely,” because I’d heard his urgent rasping Howlin’ Wolf throat growl and I figured, ‘God, this would be a wonderful song for people to hear.’
High voltage man kisses night
to bring the light
to those who need to hide their shadow deed
Go into bright
find the light
and know that friends don’t mind just how you grow
free seeking electricity
Lighthouse beacon straight ahead
across blank seas
to free seeking electricity
Midnight cowboy stains in black
and reads dark roads without a map
free seeking electricity.
Wonderful, and nothing like it had been recorded or heard on or off the radio at the time. ‘Safe As Milk’ was a fantastic breakthrough on many levels.
Ry Cooder played bottleneck on every cut. Taj Mahal was in on the session. Bob Krasnow and Richard Perry produced it and no one had ever produced Beefheart or any of my material prior to that. These guys took a big risk at Buddha Records and Kama Sutra Music Publishers. Bruce Botnick was the recording engineer and he’s one of the top recording guys in the business to this day. It was the first time African log drums were ever heard on contemporary pop music in the United States, in the world for that matter, and on and on and on.
Do you know if it was a theremin, or was it a guitar?
Doc Hoffman played a theremin, God bless him he’s no longer with us, that was an electronic theremin. His name was Doc Hoffman.
When you say ‘Electricity’ was originally a poem, did the words change at all from your poem into the song that it became?
There was a shift of verses in sequence, but the words were the same. ‘Zig Zag Wanderer’ was great and ‘Autumn’s Child’. We got a telegram from Leonard Bernstein congratulating us on brilliant work and encouraging us to keep going.
That one is superb. “Knees of trust”, that image of childhood is so beautiful.
Yeah. Don and I and my first wife and his then girlfriend Laurie went to a Catholic monastery, a retreat, in Valyermo, outside of Lancaster, on a Sunday afternoon.
It was sort of an event and a picnic and I wrote those words on a picnic table there in Don’s presence. I said, “I think I have a song for you to sing and it’s called ‘Autumn’s Child’.” He loved it, especially the bridge which was a kind of a Kerouacian spontaneous word celebration which he took to immediately.
And there was ‘Where There’s Woman’ – there were some great cuts on ‘Safe As Milk’. Unfortunately ‘Safe As Milk’ which I had written didn’t appear on the ‘Safe As Milk’ album.
That was on the next one.
So I think there were nine songs on ‘Safe As Milk’ co-written by Don and myself. And then there was a Robert Johnson cut and then there was a cut called ‘Abba Zabba’ that was written solely by Don, and maybe a song called ‘I’m Glad’ that Don wrote solely by himself.
And ‘Call On Me’?
‘Call On Me’ that was it; yeah that’s Don’s song exclusively. But through the years its come to my attention that just as many songs that were backlogged in the collaboration between Don and myself were effectively stolen from me. How that happened or who was responsible I really don’t know because I had gone in another direction by then.
You don’t sound bitter about it.
Well not at all, I mean how could I be bitter? I mean Don grandfathered me into decades of doing what I was put on this planet to do, which was to write and to tell stories in whatever form. I segued into what I had my eye on all the time. Not being a trained committed musician I had my eye on refining my tools as a writer and having come from an acting background I wanted to go into a screenwriting venue which I did and did fairly effectively for many decades thereafter.
What was the Spielberg project, which you worked on?
That was a Sunday night mystery movie format on television made at Universal for NBC. They had revolving mini-series at the time and one of the mini-series was ‘The Psychiatrist’.
I co-wrote an episode called ‘Par For The Course’ with a Canadian writer named Tom Drake, Thomas Y. Drake, who was a dear friend, and Gerald Freedman was the producer, and Bo May was his friend and the four of us put together this tele-play for ‘The Psychiatrist’ called ‘Par For The Course’ about a terminal PGA golfer who has to cope with his own mortality while on the tour. In the early seventies there were no terminal therapy units in existence.
This was an important show, it was the last thing Steven Spielberg ever directed for episodic dramatic TV and he did a marvellous job. The project had a life of its own because it was effectively seminal in Congressional hearings. Parts of the script were read into The Library of Congress to influence funding for oncology units in Cook County General Hospital in Chicago and Yale Medical School and they were the pilot programmes for terminal therapy oncology units in existence in the early seventies, so that was very important.
Was that a research job or was it based on personal experience?
Doctor Thomas Ungerleider was our technical advisor, medically, from UCLA. That was a project that was on time and in tune and found a life of its own. You know so often an artist creates whatever the piece is and sends it out into the world and it has its own life and its own life expectancy and you don’t know. You know, you’re an artist, it comes to you and you participate in an altered state, hopefully. Within the limits of the boundaries of form you attempt to share it as a storyteller.
This particular project had a powerful life of its own, more so than a lot of other stuff that I’ve been a participant in. I also learned how to work in collaboration, which most of my screen and television projects have been.
And also, obviously, ‘Safe As Milk’ in some respects too.
Oh yeah, oh yeah, it was a phenomenal life experience. I was in my early thirties. I was in my first marriage. I was at the beginning of finding out if I could write and I owe that to Don Van Vliet. And to this day I still get royalties, foreign and domestic, and publishing and performance royalties from BMI and EMI on ‘Safe As Milk’. I think I’m in my hundred and second accounting, royalty-wise on ‘Safe As Milk’.
It’s not a lot of money now, ‘cause its much later, but its charming to open up the envelope and see all of the countries all around the world listed that were exposed to airplay, song by song by song by song. That’s a blessing, I mean how many artists create anything that seems to dare to outlive them?
I’m sure that these songs will live for a very very long time.
I was interviewed – a reporter for The Malibu Times interviewed me. It was the only interview I ever gave all of these years, save for this one. It’s in the July 6 2000 issue of The Malibu Times, in the Life and Arts B section.
I’ll let you into a secret; Pablo sent me a copy of that.
Oh yeah. Did you see the photos of me then and now?
Unfortunately he couldn’t find the photographs. There’s apparently one of you at Mama Cass’s house?
Yeah, in Topanga, with my pet parrot Peaceful Herb perched atop my head. I had a ponytail and a full beard which I no longer sport.
That article started out, here let me get it, hang on.
Here’s the way it starts out. “The Mystery Man from The Magic Band, Malibu artist receives accolade on rock and roll classic.” This was after EMI Thorn re-released it on CD in 2000. In the liner notes of that package that they give to the customer they tell all about the band and the sidemen and the producers.
There’s a paragraph in the liner notes on Herb Bermann and they weigh whether Herb Bermann is a real person and really existed.
There is some debate about this.
Yeah, or whether he’s a figment of Don’s imagination, or a ploy as a tax dodge. It was astounding. I guess it sold more albums because it created a mystery of sorts.
I think Don was a great one for mythologising.
Yeah, among other things. Don and I have never re-acquainted since this collaboration and he’s never made an effort to re-acquaint, nor have I. We went our separate ways.
Quite obviously, and you went and worked with screenwriting and he carried on and did some fantastic albums and became a fine artist too.
Absolutely, absolutely. But this article in this Malibu Times starts out, “The LA Times calls it one of the best rock and roll albums ever produced. Newsweek magazine said the group’s music set an unmatched standard.
Rolling Stone talks about the myth and legend of the great American outsider band and Mojo, a top music magazine of Great Britain claims that Captain Beefheart and His Magic band’s re-released ‘Safe as Milk’ album from the sixties remains, quote, a towering achievement, an avant-garde pop masterpiece, unquote.
You should be very proud.
I am, I am. And I’m proud mostly of Don because none of it, none of it, would have happened without Don’s fierce tenacious unbending willingness to get the best out of everybody including himself. He was such a motor. He was such a decisive flying Dutchman. His stamina was formidable. He would literally give every note to each musician.
This is interesting. These were already good musicians, Ry Cooder, for example, although he was young.
Well Ry didn’t spend that year and a half working out this material and these songs note by note in Don’s living room. Ry came in at the very end when Don had made a deal with Krasnow to go into the recording studio. Ry came in for the session and Ry left after that rather quickly. I wasn’t there, this is hearsay, but Ry was not very thrilled with becoming a band member and living the lifestyle that Don demanded of his band members.
You see I came to Topanga after the deal was made with Krasnow and Don came to Woodland Hills. We left the High Desert after the deal was made for ‘Safe As Milk’ and Don rehearsed for well over a year with his band with no gigs really and pretty much starving because no real big money ever came in from ‘Safe As Milk’. The single was ‘Yellow Brick Road’ but none of it was commercially splendid to our knowledge.
I had to retain a lawyer to effectively cover myself as best as I could as a co-writer/lyricist on that ‘Safe As Milk’ material. There was a summit meeting at my home in Topanga Canyon with Don and Krasnow and my lawyer and my then wife to hash out some kind of guarantee that I wasn’t gonna be burned down the road. It was minimal. It was so minimal it was a laugher. I got five hundred dollars in advance against my royalties for everything in the ‘Safe As Milk’ album.
How would that compare with a similar album of that time, not that there was a similar album but with other songwriter royalties?
I have no idea. I’m not privy to answer that question. And also when I started with Don we verbally mutually agreed on fifty-fifty songwriter splits on every song. At one time Don came up to my house in the desert with songwriter contracts, individual song contracts, prepared I guess by somebody at Kama Sutra music publishers in Los Angeles, in Bob Krasnow’s office. He showed them to me and said take a look at them and sign them and I’ll bring them back. The songs had splits of eighty-twenty, ninety-ten.
Not what you had talked about.
No, no, and I brought that to Don’s immediate attention.
I said, “Don this is a laugher. This is totally unacceptable.” I said, “Did you see these. Did you see these splits?” And Don said, “No, I didn’t look at them. They just gave them to me and asked me to bring them up you and get him to sign.” And I said, “Well that’s not our deal Don.” I said, “We made a different deal. We made a fifty-fifty deal. Do you remember we made that deal Don?” And he said, “Of course we did.” He said, “Give them back to me and I’ll have them changed.” At that point I sought an attorney.
It took me an attorney and a summit meeting at my house with Don and Krasnow and the attorney to actually get fifty-fifty splits on nine song contracts and a five hundred dollar advance against my royalties at the time.
What was their argument for you not getting that deal?
I have no idea. I didn’t even ask. I just went for what we’d agreed upon, fifty-fifty.
Did that have any relation to the fact that you didn’t work with Don again?
I don’t know if it did or it didn’t. I had given Don a backlog of other poems and material that I had assumed if this went well on the ‘Safe As Milk’ experience we had enough backlogged to follow up. Little did I know that that material would indeed be used by Don at a later time through the years but without crediting me as a co-writer, such as I wrote a song called ‘Trust Us’. I wrote all the words and it showed up on the ‘Strictly Personal’ album after ‘Safe As Milk’ and left my name off it. How about that for being burned for a song called ‘Trust Us’?
That doesn’t encourage a future anything with a collaborator. You can’t tell me that Don was oblivious. I mean he’d have to be in a coma to be oblivious to that.
I don’t know how insecure he was. I know he was always insecure. I know that Krasnow probably didn’t consult Don about ‘Strictly Personal’ because he’d had all the session tapes and the demo tapes. I don’t think he…I mean I don’t know…. I mean I don’t know and…. you’d have to ask Don about stuff like that.
Don has been recorded as complaining about the production values of that record.
Yeah, I mean a lot of the times these record companies and labels – except for Frank Zappa and Straight Records – wouldn’t even consult Don. So all I can say is that Krasnow had a resentment over how I stood my ground on the ‘Safe As Milk’ negotiations. Someone told me Krasnow’s no longer alive. I can’t verify that.
I haven’t heard about that.
I think he overlooked a bigger picture with Don and me at the time and that was his decision and I’m sure he had personal and professional reasons to go the way he went. He later became head of Elektra Records among other things.
Can I backtrack a little?
I have heard that ‘Zig-Zag Wanderer’ was originally a much longer song. Would that be right?
I don’t know because after the year and a half I had invested in Don’s living room with watching him give each musician note by note instructions, and after they came to Los Angeles, I think they recorded that ‘Safe as Milk’ stuff at Sunset Sound with Bruce Botnick, if I’m not mistaken.
I wasn’t invited to the sessions. I was omitted from the trip to LA to record all that material. Neither Don nor Krasnow nor Richard Perry nor Bruce nor anybody saw fit to include me physically at that point. Its interesting because writers have a question that they bandy around amongst themselves: “Where were you when the page was blank?” So apparently they had all had what they needed from me.
You know there’s a Polish joke about the actress who came to Hollywood and screwed a writer.
They make jokes about drummers in rock and roll bands too.
Right. And I did get divorced shortly thereafter and I’d been married over ten years. And visions of sugarplums regarding being a rock and roll songwriter in the music business turned real sour.
Didn’t work that way.
No, and I did get divorced. And I wrote. Shortly before my divorce I sat down and wrote a rock novel about that ‘Safe As Milk’ experience. It was a Kerouacian burst of energy with no paragraph breaks. It was very similar to what rappers and hip-hoppers perform today. It was a three hundred page reportage rock novel of how that ‘Safe As Milk’ album happened.
Are we ever going to read this?
It was destroyed in the seventy-nine Topanga flood and its somewhere out in the Pacific Ocean inside fishes, sharks stomachs at this time.
Let’s hope they appreciate it.
Yeah. But the songs live on and I survived and Don survived. It was a unique piece in that it was a white lyricist in contemporary pop music who was between spontaneous Kerouacian riffs and black hip-hop rap artists, thirty-five years ago.
Well you’ll have to ask a shark that.
I did want to find out what the ‘After the Gold Rush’ screenplay was. What was the theme of that?
That was a vision of Dean Stockwell’s and that’s Dean’s baby. That screenplay was an original screenplay based on a creative surge from Dean Stockwell. Dean and I had been dear friends for many years. That’s another thing about building off of my work with Don Van Vliet and ‘Safe As Milk’. I’d written this novel. I’d written this rock novel, this three hundred page rambling journey of how I’d met Don and how we got together and how my poetry evoked music with Don and how he invited me into his life and his career. We were inseparable for a year and a half.
It was a very unique experience for everybody involved and I tried to capture that in this rock novel. Topanga at the time was a community of world-renowned creative people in film and television and music. I mean Linda Ronstadt had her band there, Spirit was there and the Buffalo Springfield had come down there from Canada and on and on and on and on. Little Feat, Lowell George, I mean the canyon was riddled with capable artists, writers and musicians and actors and performers.
I had them over to my house and Safe As Milk had come out and was duly appreciated and gotten a lot of AM/FM airplay and they were all eager to hear my rock novel pages. So I would invite a cluster of these artists and actors and musicians and people over to my house and I’d read them parts of the novel.
Dean and I had been friends for twelve, fifteen years prior to that. Dean had just come back from Peru with his close friend Dennis Hopper. Dennis had made a movie in Peru, in Machu Picchu called ‘The Last Movie’ for Universal. Dennis had a company, an independent film company called Alta-Light Pictures and he had offices at Universal and he made a development deal for seed money to develop other projects.
One of these other projects was Dean’s idea to put into original screenplay his idea called ‘After the Gold Rush’ about an artistic community living in Topanga Canyon in the sixties being affected by a tidal wave coming up from The Pacific Ocean and how that would affect this village of Topanga of creative people. Dean likened it to the Tree of Life of the ancient Cabbala persuasion. There were many levels to it. It was the seed of Dean starring in a TV series called ‘Quantum Leap’ about holographic flashbacks etc. etc., a very popular TV series.
Dean was already thinking in layered metaphysical dramatic terms and that appealed to me. After hearing me read parts of this rock novel, he said “Are you open to helping me develop this, and Dennis has development money from Universal, and we’ll get paid to do this, and will you help me do this?” and I agreed. Dean and I set about writing this original screenplay that was Dean’s whole entire vision. I was flattered that he would include me even on the level that he asked me to participate.
I was very busy as a screenwriter at the time because another Canyon resident Thomas Y. Drake, a Canadian screenwriter, said he was over-committed at Universal for NBC and would I help him with this Sunday night mystery movie ‘Psychiatrist’ ‘Par For The Course’ project. So I had a lot on my plate.
Neil lived up in the Canyon as well, Neil Young, and he’d heard about Dean and I developing this screenplay and Dean showed it to him when we’d finished it. Neil volunteered, he said, “I’d love to write the music to this. Let me sit down and write an ‘After the Gold Rush’ music track to this.” Which he did, and then, as things often happen in the film business, the script went into turnaround and didn’t get green-lighted and yet Neil pursued the album and ended up with a platinum ‘After the Gold Rush’ album. So there’s your answer to that.
I was digging around on the BMI site on the web, looking for you, and I found a couple of songs which I don’t recognise. One is called ‘Bone Crazy’.
What is it?
It’s called ‘Bone Crazy’.
OK. It’s got your name and Don Vliet’s and a couple of other people.
Ha ha ha, I don’t even know about it, I’ve never received a royalty for it. This is all news to me.
OK and there’s another one called ‘Can Fever’.
I don’t know a thing about it.
OK that’s also you and Don and a guy called Barry J. Coffing.
I don’t know who he is.
But I know, here’s one for you, on the re-released ‘Safe As Milk’ EMI Thorn CD, around 2000, they give bonus cuts, and some of the bonus cuts are ‘Dirty Blue Gene’, ‘Flowerpot’ and ‘Trust Us’. I’ve already mentioned ‘Trust Us’ to you in our earlier conversation. ‘Dirty Blue Gene’ and ‘Flower Pot’ don’t have any lyrics on those bonus cuts, they’re lyric-less, they’re wordless.
The tune ‘Dirty Blue Gene’ gets words later.
It’s called ‘Witch Doctor Life’.
Really? Because I wrote a poem called ‘Dirty Blue Gene’ that I very much wanted Don to record, and I never heard that but maybe what you just said I should hear.
You can’t copyright titles so I don’t even have a basis for litigation in that re-released bonus track cut on ‘Safe As Milk’ for using ‘Dirty Blue Gene’ or ‘Flower Pot’ because they’re just titles and I didn’t hear any words on those bonus tracks.
‘Dirty Blue Gene’ becomes ‘Witch Doctor Life’ in another album and a song called ‘Dirty Blue Gene’ appears on ‘Doc At The Radar Station’ album.
Wow, well if it has words on it they were my words and they omitted co-writing credit. What label was ‘Doc At The Radar Station’, Warner Brothers?
Virgin. See I was way out of the picture by then and that was in that massive backlog of material that I trusted Don with. If ever he should use that he would remember that I had written the words but apparently either he had a lapse of memory or he had a falling out with the record people and they had the demo tapes. I don’t know what happened. You need to interview Don about why seven or eight or nine of my other songs omitted me as a co-writer in later years that Don switched labels and they popped up and everything. I mean, effectively he’s halved my income on that collaboration through the years, wouldn’t you say?
And is that a sizeable part of your income?
Well through the years it’s added up to tens of thousands of dollars, through the years. As I say I’m on my hundred and second or third accounting at BMI and EMI since nineteen sixty-seven when it was released. But the other thing is that creatively, as an artist, as a writer, I loathe other people appropriating what righteously should have been addressed.
Well it’s not ethical.
Well it’s stealing and somewhere there’s a thief. Whether I lay that label at Don’s doorstep or not I really don’t know. I wasn’t there. I know it’s very hard for artists and headliners and middle-mic people to persist and pursue their career. It was hard enough for him to come up with persevering and getting out yet another album. I don’t know what it took. God bless him. I mean he didn’t waver or quit or give up or keel over or get ill out of just sheer aggravation of being in the music business, which he hated, which I hated.
Probably if I’d been a better businessman a lot of this stuff wouldn’t have gone the direction it went. It was never a business for Don or me. It was salvation doing it and that was a beautiful thing.
It was done with passion. That’s for sure.
Yeah, and it was a thousand percent. I can’t tell you how many days and nights we didn’t even sleep because we were on fire and we were burning to shape and perfect this material. It was very exhausting work. It cost Don a relationship with his then girlfriend Laurie, who ended up becoming the girlfriend of his drummer John French, and Laurie’s no longer with us, God bless her.
It cost me my first marriage which was a ten year marriage. And after all that, at the time, it was rather a kick in the balls, rather than a celebration. We had a telegram from Leonard Bernstein encouraging us. We had a telegram from John Lennon encouraging us. Lennon had the ‘Safe As Milk’ bumper sticker in his studio with that Gerbers babies face.
My friend Tris, the drummer from the band Chicago says, “You guys should have gotten a government grant.” which was very funny. Among musicians and other songwriters we got our strokes. They acknowledged that we were players, we weren’t fans. There’s players and there’s fans.
It’s just a shame that Bob Krasnow didn’t have more vision regarding developing us. Don ended up going to his old high-school friend Frank Zappa and having Zappa and Herbie Cohen do ‘Trout Mask Replica’. Straight Records spent the most production money they ever spent on anybody on ‘Trout Mask Replica’, which was after me. For a time Don joined Mothers of Invention and I don’t think that worked out, you’d have to ask him about that.
There was a record from that called ‘Bongo Fury’.
I think Don’s had five or six personnel bands in The Magic Band through the years.
They changed a lot.
Because a lot of the musicians didn’t like being controlled note by note.
Was there tension during the’ Safe As Milk’ rehearsals about that?
Ha ha ha ha ha ha ha! Ha ha ha ha ha ha! Ha ha ha! That question was worth the interview! If it’s ever put in print you can just put laughter in capital letters as my reply to that question. God. Ha ha ha! I’ll never forget you asked me that. You stay in my soul now. This is the reason I never gave an interview all these years.
You know what? You should transcribe this and I bet Rolling Stone would be interested in excerpting this. And put your name on the by-line. Then let them pay you a nickel a word.
Is that what they pay?
They asked me years ago to write something and I said what do you pay? They said five cents a word. I said I don’t think so. But maybe the rates have gone up to seven cents a word. Mojo would love excerpting this, you’re familiar with Mojo?
I’m sure they’d jump all over it. Anyway, good luck with it. I’m all talked out.
Thank you very much indeed.
Derek, I’m honoured that you remembered.
I’ll never forget that album. I play it a lot.
You know that Don lives up northern California? Apparently he has a little studio there and he’s still married to the girl Jan that he married. He’s still Don Van Vliet. One of the funniest things he ever said to me was, “You know there’s only twenty five people in the world, and twenty four of them are hamburgers.”
I think we’ll leave it on that note. Thanks a lot.
© Derek Laskie 2004