John Mackenzie – 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: John Mackenzie

As a long-time Beefheart fan, I was fascinated to learn that YOU transcribed the ideas in Don Van Vliet’s head, and what he whistled or banged out on the piano or sung or whatever, into the music we hear on the records that were made. Please go into more and specific detail on this intimate musical relationship you had with the Captain. Since you were able to transpose his “conceptual” ideas into wonderful, beyond-compare music, have you found yourself better enabled to express yourself in writing original music?

I transcribed only what he played on piano, and only on two instances. One was during Trout Mask Replica, and the other for the original Bat Chain Puller. Trout Mask was directly from the keyboard, exactly as he played it. Bat Chain Puller was completely from cassette tapes.

I really didn’t write music, nor do I even consider myself much of a songwriter today. I did enjoy the process at times, although it was stressful and tedious at other times. It did help me to express my own views better. Mainly, it taught me how to communicate musically with guitarists and bass players.

As for the piano transcriptions, I basically had thought this was common knowledge by now and was a little surprised to learn that it wasn’t. Actually, Don downplayed much of the musician’s role. Bill wrote about my role in his book. I have explained this participation in interviews. I transcribed directly from Don’s playing for much of Trout Mask Replica, and I have track by track notes explaining as much as I remember about how each song was created.

Did Don actually throw you down a flight of stairs once?

Shortly after Trout Mask was recorded, I was indeed forcibly ejected down a half flight of stairs. Luckily I wasn’t hurt physically, although my pride was definitely shattered.

Whatever happened to your place in the band?

Since I was in the band several times, I will concentrate on Trout Mask era here:

The short version of the long story is that I was replaced by a man named Jeff Bruschele, who was a friend of the Mascara Snake. He was then christened “Drumbo” by Don , who thought he could somehow conceal the fact that I was gone. Jeff dressed like me, and in one short film clip from Zappa’s basement, I thought he WAS me!

How did it come about that Artie Tripp replaced you?

He actually first replaced Jeff Bruschele. This was pre-Decals, in 1968. I was then asked to rejoin because Artie inexplicably wouldn’t play my drum parts. Later, after I was fired immediately following the recording of The Spotlight Kid, Artie took over the drums once again, and did a fantastic job.

Please include as many insights into the nature and personality of the man as you can attest to.

Absolutely, only it’s not an easy task, bear in mind that certain things have to be left out to protect innocent people.

Did Zoot, Rockette, and/or Artie ever come to regret leaving the Magic Band?

I really don’t believe so. I think they missed the stage and performance aspects, but the personal life left little to regret leaving.

Thank you, it’s been an honour to speak to you. Looking forward to reading your book.

– John French

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