This letter originally appeared in Mojo Magazine as a response to their article about Captain Beefheart entitled ‘Yeah I’m Happy‘ from December 1993. John French (Drumbo) wanted to set the record straight, though the allegations in this letter are strongly denied by the author of the original article, Dave DiMartino.
I just read the Beefheart story a week or so ago. DiMartino, the author, was supposed to send me a copy (all writers promise, most never carry out their promises.) Eventually, I stumbled on it by myself through a friend, slide guitarist Scott Colby.
This letter is in apology to Mr. Van Vliet. Over the years there has been a lot of botched journalism, most recently in Mojo, concerning Beefheart and his former Magic Band members. All of us have been misquoted from time to time. Henry Kaiser has been misquoted. This all leads to misunderstandings. As the drummer for Captain Beefheart on several of his earlier albums, I spent more time around him than most of the other band members over a longer period of time. I saw his fiery days as the young aggressive and sometimes cruel bandleader. I saw him as an almost broken man shortly after his band left him (around Unconditionally Guaranteed, 1974-75). I saw him with the Doc at the Radar Station band as the artist mellowed with age and struggling to survive in a rather fickle music world.
Some of my experiences with him did affect me in a negative way. Unfortunately, I had not the good sense to keep this to myself in interviews in the past. This has resulted in some rather bad light being shed upon the Captain’s reputation, as the writers wanted to magnify the bad while somehow never mentioning the good. I also experienced some great times with the man. His sense of humour could be fantastic as he has great insight into mankind and the intricacies of behaviour which is reflected in his art and music.
As for me taking credit for composing some of his music, that is a misunderstanding not easily remedied. I do take credit only for several drum parts on Trout Mask Replica, some of which were revamped for later albums. I think the misunderstanding lies in the fact that I once stated I “wrote down” or transcribed most of Trout Mask Replica in conventional music notation, and then taught it to the band. Perhaps someone misunderstood this to mean I took credit for “writing” the music. Don could neither read nor write music notation as he had no formal music education. Yet with this handicap, he still managed to communicate several albums worth of material through whistling, singing, and playing parts on guitars, drums, harmonicas, pianos, and any other instrument within reach. Had he been able to write music in the conventional manner, there is no telling what this man might have accomplished musically.
I basically joined what I thought was going to be a blues band in October of 1966. I was not particularly attracted to the avant-garde or Dada-Rock direction that the music took. However, I just tried my best to play the music the best I knew how in spite of what I considered to be a rather non-lucrative direction. However, the later Magic Band members were attracted to the band because of the music. Of course, by this time, the path had been cut and the tracks were laid. They never experienced the extreme hardship of those early albums. The Trout Mask band were trailblazers in a sense, and although I am proud to have played with all the Magic Bands, my best and highest regards go out to Bill Harkleroad (Zoot Horn Rollo), Jeff Cotton (Antennae Jimmy Semens) and Mark Boston (Rockette Morton). I have never seen a group of people work so hard on a musical project in my life before or since that project. It’s only too bad it was so poorly recorded.
Don and the band suffered financially. The blame doesn’t lie on Don for the financial disasters that happened, but on bad management and crooked record companies who never paid one cent of artist’s royalties to the people who worked so hard to make an artist’s work a reality. The albums are still selling, and I have yet to see one check for royalties. Shame on you, record companies! You have no honour!
As for Henry Kaiser, his only fault is in recognising the profound influence of Van Vliet’s music and calling attention to that influence. We have occasionally imitated the Trout Mask style in recordings together, simply because it is fun to play!
Don and Jan, I am truly sorry to you both for any sadness or pain all of this may have caused you, and I wish you a long and prosperous life.
Sincerely, John “Drumbo” French
In addition to the above, Henry Kaiser has also sent me a statement which he asked me to include.