[alert_box type=”info”]This review for Bill Harkleroad and Billy James’ book was written by Andy Gill and appeared in the December 1998 edition of Mojo Magazine.[/alert_box]
AS ZOOT Horn Rollo, Don Van Vliet’s most faithful lieutenant in The Magic Band, Bill Harkleroad was one of the most influential guitarists in rock music, though as this memoir makes clear it was always a labour of love, first and foremost. Not only did he have to suffer the bizarre whims of Beefheart’s absurd regime but, as he reveals here, he ultimately received “no money whatsoever” from any of the albums he played on. Harkleroad admits this was probably due to his own youthful naivete, which was abundantly evident in his attitude at the time, but that doesn’t excuse his boss’s disgraceful behaviour towards his employees. After all, if Beefheart was so concerned to claim complete credit for his records, he surely had at least a duty of care towards his musicians, which was clearly ignored.
Despite his rough treatment, Harkleroad bears Van Vliet surprisingly little malice, which is extraordinary considering the psychological minefield that everyday life in The Magic Band became. Beefheart, he explains, was a cruel manipulator who used to subject the band to “brainwashing” sessions lasting up to 20 hours each, during which he would instruct them in his philosophy of life, as it applied to such vital matters as the proper way to hold a cigarette (with the hand upturned, apparently). He would pick away relentlessly at what he perceived as somebody’s weaknesses – their eating habits, dress, posture – taking a particular interest in the person’s relationship with their mother.
With no money, little food, and days consumed with practising the almost impossible guitar parts which drummer John “Drumbo” French would transcribe from Beefheart’s piano sketches or whistled demonstrations some requiring seven notes to be played simultaneously, a tough trick for five-fingered mammals – the atmosphere within The Magic Band quickly grew quite fractious, and all-out fist fights were common. On one occasion, steel-appendage guitarist Jeff Cotton (Antennae Jimmy Semens to you) was so badly beaten up he suffered two broken ribs. Not surprisingly, he left the hand following Trout Mask Replica. Harkleroad stuck out for another four albums, before capitulating to the inevitable. Though his evident love for the music comes across strongly throughout Lunar Notes, Harkleroad’s book makes sobering reading for anyone who still idolises Captain Beefheart. As so often, the final verdict would seem to be genius artist, amateur human being.