It’s been a long time coming. There were times when it looked like this book wouldn’t see the light of day … and what a great loss that would have been for us all. So I have to say ‘thank you’ to John for persevering with it and also to Proper Records for bravely taking on the publishing.
The first thing you notice is that this is a BIG book. My review copy was a half-size photocopy and it was still huge, so I hope that the binding on the finished product is strong enough to hold the 800+ pages!
The book looks good though … there’s the stunning cover with the previously unseen photograph from the Safe As Milk cover shoot with Guy Webster, plus each chapter is prefaced with a full page rare photograph too. Every page has a fish blowing bubbles on it …
There are two sections to the book. Apart from John’s story of his life, his time within the band and outside of it which, of course, is the bulk of the book, there is a lengthy section at the end where he gives a track by track commentary on every Beefheart album … there’s some great insights and minutiae here (more about this later).
Those of you who have read the Grow Fins booklet written by John will find the structure of this book familiar – verbatim interviews with Magic Band members and contemporaries interspersed with John’s narrative linking it all together. This works well and allows us to hear other voices apart from John’s and makes it clear that events are seen, or rather remembered, by people in different ways. Sometimes the ‘truth’ of what really happened cannot be easily pinned down.
John writes well as we already know and it comes as a relief after some of the longer interview sections to read his prose. It’s written in a very easy readable style. He’s not afraid to let his personality and beliefs show through with short asides, jokes and stories often at his own expense.
For the sake of this review I started at page one and worked my way through to the end. That’s quite a slog with a book this size and having a deadline to meet. There is so much detail here that I’d have preferred to have taken it at a more leisurely pace … which I will do when I read it next time. In fact, I think it might even work if you dipped into the book at random points. The chapters tend to be quite short and focused which helps, although you need your wits about you in the early chapters because the time frame is not always linear and there are a lot more interview sections.
A ‘cast of characters’ list might have helped, especially in the earlier chapters. It could prove difficult for some fans (not to mention non-fans) who do not know the early Magic Band members and the other people on the periphery.
Thankfully John seems to have a pretty good memory about most of what happened although I’m sure he would prefer to have forgotten some of what went on. The core of the book is John’s love/hate relationship with Don van Vliet and his trying to come to terms with what happened to him and how he allowed himself to be repeatedly dragged into the Beefheart vortex. There’s no holds barred … and some of it makes for uncomfortable reading.
The details in this book are mind-boggling. Inevitably there are gaps or the exact chronology is unclear … but can you remember what you were doing 40 years ago?
The depth of detail is both fascinating and frustrating. Fascinating because you really get a feel of what the situation was like working for Don … and frustrating because not all of the Magic Band’s history is covered in this detail. So, you have to remind yourself that this is the story of John’s life and his relationship with Don and the Magic Band, it is not a biography of Don Vliet or a history of the Magic Band. So, there will, inevitably, be gaps.
The most noticeable gap is during much of 1971 to 1974 when John was not part of the band. This could lead to a bit of confusion for some when Alex Snouffer makes an appearance talking about the break- up of the band in 1974. If you’re not aware that he had rejoined to tour in 1972/73 and to play on Unconditionally Guaranteed there is nothing in the narrative to give you this background. Perhaps some notes to fill in these gaps would have helped … especially for non-fans.
Okay, I know some of what I said above may seem a bit negative … maybe it’s just me being picky? Well, yes, I am being picky …
I’m struggling to think of the right superlatives … amazing … unbelievable … fantastic … this is probably as close as we’ll get to the best book about this incredible music we all love.
It’s a treasure trove for all Captain Beefheart and Magic Band fans. There is plenty in here to fuel debates for years to come. I have no intention of revealing any of that in this review. Inevitably many of the old Beefheart myths are demolished but there are some revelations in here that will surprise you and make you wonder once again about the personality and strange powers of Don van Vliet.
Again, I have to say ‘thank you’ to John for the pain and effort he went through to do this for us.
Don’t just take my word for it … go and buy it … it’s essential
The final almost 100 pages of the book are given over to John’s comments about each track on all of the legitimate Beefheart albums … all, that is, apart from Unconditionally Guaranteed and Bluejeans and Moonbeams! (Well, there’s a discussion point to start with.)
The book is worth buying for this section alone …
John gives us some interesting details about the recording of each track, the history of the lyrics, who plays what and how the musical parts were devised. There’s some fantastic stuff here for nerdy fans and musos. Obviously wearing his musical arranger hat, John is very critical in places not least about his own playing.
You get to find out which are his favourite Beefheart songs, which one disgusts him, which he thinks are a ‘piece of crap’, the one he thinks is like ‘trying to bring a woman to orgasm when she’s watching TV’, the meaning of ‘parapliers’, the one that had him beating his bed with his fists and which song should really be titled Wee Little Doors.
I have to confess a bit of a personal interest in this book. I have been in email contact with John for many years and we’ve discussed this book a lot.
There were many occasions when John would get quite depressed about his writing and wondered whether it was really worth all of the effort and time it was taking when he could be better off looking for a proper job to support his family. I wrote several times encouraging him to continue and that there was no one else better placed to tell this extraordinary story. It was a significant blow that the Magic Band reunion didn’t give John the financial reward he had hoped for (and deserved!) so that he would be able to publish the book himself.
I was privileged to be asked by John to help edit some of his original manuscript. He felt that it was much too long but seemed unsure as to what needed to be done to it. I did proof-read the text and corrected some errors in the first six or seven chapters, and was able to suggest areas that could be reduced by removing some duplication and extraneous detail. But I found it difficult to cut it as dramatically as I think John wanted it to be. I know he asked others to help edit it too.
It looks like some of my suggestions may have been taken on board. There are still some repetitions though and a couple of minor factual errors which could have been edited out.
Now I have the whole book in my hands I’m really pleased for John knowing the work he put into it and what it meant to him. I hope it has exorcised his demon(s) and he can now move on to pursue his own career as the talented musician he is.
The Radar Station would like to thank Proper Records for all their help with this review and allowing us to use these rare photographs.