Leon Rubenhold and Don Van Vliet

An article by Gerry Fialka in Venice Paper caught my attention. It described a party held in the Canals at Venice, California to raise funds for the victims of Hurricane Katrina. In the band was, “Leon Rubenhold, who had played with Captain Beefheart and was ripping up guitar on stage.”

Leon Rubenhold has had a long and distinguished career in the music business, including work with Lowell George, Wilson Pickett and The Four Tops, but this was the first I had read about him playing with Captain Beefheart. I wrote and asked him to tell me all about it. Leon’s reply follows:

Beefheart Stint

My time with Don was a brief couple of weeks back in 1975 just after Bongo Fury was released. My dear friend Elliot Ingber (a.k.a. Winged Eel Fingerling) told me Don needed another guitarist for their upcoming European tour and I should check it out. So I went down to the rehearsal studio which was on Sunset Blvd near Gower St. It was actually Frank Zappa’s headquarters of offices and rehearsal rooms. I went in the room and Don was there along with John French (a.k.a. Drumbo). John and I jammed for awhile, maybe a half hour or so playing spontaneous riffs and grooves. At the end of that jam John said “We’ve had over seventy guitar players come in here and you are the only one who has the feel we need. You’ve got the gig if you want it.”

I knew some of the other guitarists that had come down to try out and many of them were very well known and monster players around town. I felt very flattered to say the least.

Rehearsals began shortly thereafter and continued on for about two weeks or so. It was John and I mostly going over the tunes and feels together while Don sat in a corner of the room and drew in a coloring book with magic markers coloring on the reverse side of the pages … an interesting technique. He would stop coloring sometimes to voice a comment or whistle or sing a specific lick he wanted played.

At one rehearsal I was deeply concentrating on a specific passage when I turned my head and Zappa was standing right next to me with that typical intense look on his face scrutinizing what I was playing. I stopped playing and we started talking and he said he was impressed with what and how I was doing with learning the parts. Which by the way had to be played exactly as written or the song would not work.

That afternoon we all went across the street for lunch at a Mexican restaurant, Frank, Don, John and myself. I believe the cover shot of Bongo Fury was taken at that restaurant at one of the booths.

Rehearsals were going along fine till one Saturday afternoon Don called me at home and told me that Denny Walley the guitarist in Frank’s band had just quit and that he had decided to have Denny replace me because Denny knew all the material and they would not have to rehearse anymore. Don hated to rehearse.

So on the following Tuesday I get a call at home from Frank Zappa and he is asking me if I wanted to replace Denny in his band and could I come up to his house and play for awhile to feel things out?

Later that afternoon there I am at Frank’s home studio sitting cross legged on the carpet with Frank playing acoustic guitars together. We ran through some of his more difficult material and we both agreed that there just wasn’t enough time to get it together for a tour of Australia that started on Friday of the same week. He said that if we were flying on a chartered flight we could have rehearsed on the plane but since it was a commercial flight it wasn’t possible. I was thinking it would take a week just to learn one of his songs properly not the whole show. In addition he wanted me to be the only guitarist because he just wanted to sing. Talk about turning up the pressure a few notches.

So that’s the story as it actually happened. I was in Beefheart’s band but it was cut short and never made it past rehearsals.

Check out my website at http://www.leonrubenhold.com/ for other info on what I have been doing and what I have done.

Leon Rubenhold

Thank you, Leon Rubenhold, for letting us read this fascinating and previously unpublished story.


  1. What a great little piece. I love these articles from people who’ve played with the Cap’n.
    Just the sort of thing I enjoyed in Steal Softly Thru Snow.
    More of the same please.

  2. i just realized:
    “Don sat in a corner of the room and drew in a coloring book with magic markers coloring on the reverse side of the pages … an interesting technique.”
    The same technique was used for coloring original pages of certain comic books in the fifties and sixties, so the black ink could be printed separately.
    I wonder if there’s a connection.

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