Joe Ashworth – John French’s Q&As 2000/1

In early / mid 2000 John French called on Radar Station visitors for some help writing his book, Beefheart: Through The Eyes Of Magic…

From: Joe Ashworth
Sent: Tuesday, January 11, 2000 11:09 AM
How did you create those incredible rhythms on TMR (Sugar n Spikes, Ant Man Bee, My Human Gets Me Blues, Frownland most notably) and what input did Don have exactly?


Thanks for your questions. One song at a time:

“Ant Man Bee”, this was totally a Don Van Vliet drum beat and the only one he ever actually played repeatedly on the set. I’m talking not only about the main beat throughout the song (which he named P-K-Ro-P — pronounced “peekaropee”), but also the alternate beat near the end is his. However, he “sang” it to me.

“Sugar and Spikes”: this developed as a direct result of the Mirror Man sessions and 1967 tour of Europe. I developed this style directly from basic delta blues pattern taught to me by Alex Snouffer which I later permutated through influences of Asian and Latin music. The centre section where the drums go completely wild was Don’s request.

“My Human Gets Blues” – this is a mixture of my ideas and Don’s. His are second and fourth, mine are first and third.

“Frownland” – I asked Don to give me an idea of what he wanted. He sat and played the set and what I gathered was that he wanted me for the most part to play completely free improvised drums. That is what I did, trying to duplicate the energy and intensity in the sections, rather than the actual playing.

When Don rehearsed, though rarely, what were his contributions?

Since our songs were in odd time signatures and many times we were starting in different time signatures at the same time, Don suggested that I just say “and” rather than counting. Don seldom if ever actually rehearsed with the band. Usually, his concept of rehearsal was always a creative writing session. I cannot remember during any album post Safe as Milk of actually having any idea of what and where Don would sing on any composition. Sometimes Don would request us to play just so he could hear his music, or so a visitor could hear it. He never “rehearsed” in terms of nailing down performance problems, so there were often problems on stage, which Van Vliet usually chose to relentlessly blame on the poor sound man.

I think Don’s attitude toward rehearsal stems from the fact that he was originally, and is now, a visual artist, rather than a performing artist. His early experience with performing music was with simple blues that had very predictable changes and lacked any complexity. His view of his music was that once it was created, he had basically achieved his goal, much like a sculptor or painter views their finished work. He often described his creation process as “going to the bathroom” and often referred to re-performing on stage as “returning to his own vomit” (I don’t recall his exact words, but something to that effect.)

Also, the way Don performed in the studio was like an artist doing an abstract painting. He would often just do something completely random, and react to the music spontaneously, so his stage performance carried a similar stance. This was something that was completely unnerving at times, as he seemed to be completely lost in perspective of the recorded versions. Often, the band was playing very difficult time signatures and complex changes, and we practically had to ignore Van Vliet’s performance at times in order to bring this off.

This led to an unsatisfied feeling much of the time. In most band situations, there is a feeling of teamwork that could never be achieved when performing with Don.

How often was Trout Mask performed live?

The original band only performed excerpts from Trout Mask live at the Aquarius Theatre in early to mid spring of 1969 for a benefit concert, I believe it was for the American Cancer Association. We played a half an hour. It was truly incredible, the band was very tight, of course. Mascara Snake was also on the ticket and we were dressed exactly as the album cover. It’s too bad that wasn’t filmed.

Did Don ever cry?

I never thought about this before. No, not that I recall. I do recall once at Christmas when I first joined the band in 1966, I came in and he was wearing sunglasses. He explained that he was wearing sunglasses to hide his eyes because his father had recently died and he was thinking about him. I am sure Don cried, but he never showed much of this side of his personality to the band. Actually, in 1974, when I helped him move back to Lancaster from Northern California, I recall he and Jan standing outside the house they lived in while there, saying goodbye to the ocean. I had to walk up eventually to confer with Don (who was again wearing sunglasses) I could tell from his voice that he had either been crying or was on the verge of tears.

What kept the Magic Band together during the TMR House Sessions?

The book will cover my observance and speculation of this time. By “house sessions,” I imagine you are referring to not the few days of home recordings Zappa did, but the actual daily life during the 9 months or so that Trout Mask was being written and rehearsed. This is not a simple question to answer, if it is even answerable. It’s almost a rhetorical question. Perhaps the glue that held us together was a vision, I suppose, which was of doing something memorable which would last and remain, in some sense, “timeless.” Zappa’s presence helped sway me during those times when I wanted to desert ship. I felt as though he was stable and understood the difficulties we band members were dealing with.

What place did drugs esp. hallucinogens play in the recording of the early works?

Don was taking a lot of LSD during my early months of tenure. Needless to say, it was difficult to work with him during this period. Confusion seemed to reign supreme. I explore this topic and try to offer my insights into the behaviour I witnessed and what effects it had upon the music, both lyrically and musically.

I was given LSD before recording some of the Mirror Man sessions without my knowledge by Don’s girlfriend, Laurie Stone. I suspect that this was at Don’s suggestion, and he could be quite persuasive. Part of the reason the drumming is so erratic in places is because of my state of mind. I feel also that there was LSD put in my tea on other occasions, but in very small doses. Just enough to keep me confused.

What were Don’s lyric writing techniques?

Usually, Don had to have everyone’s undivided attention and complete silence. He would dictate as someone wrote. At first it was Laurie, for a while it was me, and then Jeff Cotton took over a lot of that. He would become inspired by a phrase and everything was suddenly put “on hold” as he dictated lyrics. He often pondered each line silently for extended moments before saying it. No one could leave the room because it would destroy the mood of the moment and Don would become angry if everyone didn’t pay strict attention as he dictated the lyrics. This was extremely uncomfortable, and a great cause of resentment for me, as I felt at times as though I were being held hostage.

– John French

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