John Ellis – 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: The Artist Who May Become Known As John Ellis
Sent: Tuesday, January 11, 2000 3:21 PM

We talked several years ago on the phone, which I enjoyed. Good luck with the book.

I’ve noticed the song lyrics when published as poetry sometimes include different or extra lines, wondered if they were rewritten by Don or was this the form they were originally composed before they were altered to fit music?

Van Vliet seldom had a set pattern for anything. I recall him sometimes writing different versions of lyrics and poems. Sometimes, he would write a lyric and then a separate poem with the same title and possibly related theme. Some of the cuts in the lyric were due to the fact that he seldom performed the same way twice in the studio and just happened to skip a line or word on the lyric sheet, sometimes intentionally, but often, I believe, through error. Occasionally, Don would improvise, using his lyrics as a reminder and adding or subtracting words intuitively.

I hope too that you will tell the story of the Bat Chain Puller tour – I have a tape from Oakland, where the audience turns en mass on Don and he begins throwing very creative insults in their face. I believe you quit after the California dates, or so I heard. I’m referring to the small California tour for what became the unreleased LP Bat… I have a tape of that Oakland date and something happened that turned the entire audience against Don, so that he started throwing insults at them like, “Trying to sing for you is like trying to turn a jar of pickle relish back into cucumbers.” I wondered what he did that turned them so that they were booing every number – unique among the many tapes I have. Also, was it an outdoor gig? Sounds odd on the tape.

I wondered if that incident had anything to do with you quitting –

I do recall a concert which was not in Oakland but in San Francisco at Winterland in late December of 1975 in which Don said those exact words to the audience. This was, however, before the recording of the original Bat Chain Puller.

Frank was the headliner, and some guy in the audience was flipping Don off… giving him the finger. To Frank, this was a salute and a sign of respect, to Don, it was an insult.

Don “gave the finger” to the guy in an insulting way, got right in his face and started hurtling insults to the audience. The objective of this behaviour seemed to be to intentionally provoke the audience. People were throwing objects at the stage. I was upset with Don for not just ignoring the guy and performing. Don eventually left the stage. We played Alice in Blunderland and appeased the crowd a bit, but as soon as Don came back up, they became hostile again.

Afterwards, we walked into the dressing room, which was completely dark. Don had broken out all the lights. Every light in the dressing room was broken, and there were shards of glass everywhere. He was saying “I wanted the audience to do that, man! That was exactly what I wanted them to do!” It was a very unnerving evening, but certainly not the first time Don had managed to alienate an entire crowd. He had recently behaved very similarly in Lyon, France.

When I see old footage of you, I’m dead certain that Animal, the drummer on Sesame Street, was modelled on you. Do you know if that’s a fact?

Never considered the possibility until now, and I haven’t been able to get Animal (along with Feldman and Tepper) to submit to an interview. I think, though, that you mean, the drummer on The Muppet Show. I don’t remember seeing him on Sesame Street, and I think I watched every episode with my pre-school daughter a few years back.

– John French

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