Me and Beefheart at Manteno by Mike Bourne

Taken from the 18th February 1971 edition of Down Beat. Many thanks to Francisco Vázquez for kindly scanning and sending it along.

The Manteno Festival may be the only festival not covered by the usual media overblow – mainly, of course, because Cincinnati is hardly your basic cultural Mecca. Also, no film was made, no records were cut, no one was killed or over-stoned or rioted – only music happened, albeit quite theatrical music, and a good but not revolutionary time was had by all.

Well-met at the Ludlow Garage on Nov. 20-21, local entrepreneur Jim Tarbell by beneficent accident had simply assembled a jumble of freaky bands for two evenings of hot licks: The hometown Balderdash, two Georgia gangs (The Avenue of Happiness and the Hampton Grease Band), and the Screaming Gypsy Bandits from Indiana (for whom I drum) – all of whom journeyed to play for mere expenses to share the program with head artists Captain Beefheart and The Magic Band (who had never performed east of Denver). Ultimately, the experience was eminently satisfying.

Mostly electric ensembles, except for the Avenue, who specialized in musical burlesques and the like. The crowd seemed appreciative and not the usual boppers demanding a “heavy” din. (A few weeks earlier, when the Bandits soloed there, we had followed Brownsville Station and a month-long parade of such hard-style groups, so that the crowd was not well-prepared for complex charts, long collective improvisations, or especially bizarre theater pieces.) So luckily for all at Manteno, those types prone to boo and scream “when ya gonna play some rock and roll?” were blissfully absent; except for one dude one night who kept shouting, “You’re a sham!” – but then he was splotcho from the start.

Naturally it would appear fairly pretentious of me to criticize our own playing, so as to the Screaming Gypsy Bandits. I will conclude the self-reportage at: fun and sound seemed prevalent. And as to the other relative unknowns, each was at least unique, and certainly joyous.

Balderdash offered an intense organ-bass-drums fury that never sounded too derivative, but somewhat lacked a good balance of musical elements. Often the three played as if accenting to each other without directing enough definite melodic thrust, a state they improve the more I witness their energetic style. As I have already noted, the Avenue of Happiness featured mostly off-key parodies, with ruinations of See me, feel me and I Can’t Turn You Loose particularly Hilarious – yet never did they prove capably straight, notably the lead singer who eventually appeared actually more half baked than pretending. So should they continue, I hope they better synthesize their rather perverse charm with more evidence of expertise than is now present.

Finally, all that may be noted about the Hampton Grease Band (who are recording for Columbia, I am informed) is that their basic instrumental excellence and the fine vocals of Bruce Hampton became pointless when too loud. Listening to them, I was for the first time truly conscious of the potential of physical damage of high volume, so painful was the p.a. power – for not only could the music be no longer appreciated, but the end result was a rather hurting skull throb and the sense that my bones were shattering. And fortunately, after numerous complaints, on the second night the decibels were severely restrained.

But we had all come so far for free to share the stage with the Captain, surely the best testament to our respect for him, and I am content that most of us considered the varied road and rack hassles worth suffering to witness the Magic Band alive and beautiful.

Bizarre in their music, the six players additionally embellish their antic performing by assuming stage personalities – for percussionist Artie Tripp a monocle, a long brimmed golfing cap, a green mustache, and the name Ed Marimba.

Captain Beefheart himself is Don Van Vliet and wears a quasi-stovepipe hat that narrows toward the top, with the brim cut away until only two points jut from each side, and capped by an upside-down badminton bird. And thus the Captain may by such whimsy offer his audience “a chance to, without any set pattern, use their imagination. Obviously, someone’s told them not to. Somebody all along the way tells them not to, which is weird. School is weird. A school of fish is nice.”

As jovial as they are so curious, the atmosphere created by the Magic Band is simply that: magic, fun – and Beefheart consider no other description:

Beefheart: I don’t like music. I don’t really play music. I like people.

Bourne: So what is it you do up there on the stage?

Beefheart: I don’t know. I’ve never watched. Seriously, sitting here on my cat’s paw heels, I really don’t know. I’m just living my life up there.

Of course, what appears to be happening is a constant bursting energy: frenetic, yet controlled by a strange logic, mostly urged by Drumbo who is surely the most atomic (in the sense of fission) drummer i have ever witnessed. Often in duet with other drummer and marimbist Ed Marimba, the two create not so much syncopation as a propulsive percussive momentum, not so much an explosive as an exploding music, and indeed become the leaders of a kind. For Ed, “this is basically a rhythm band. It’s all in the drums. Every player has to be a drummer.”

And really, such an ideal seems evident in the Magic Band as both guitarists, Zoot Horn Rollo and the Winged-Eel Fingerling, do essentially accompany the rhythm section. Consequently with the motion ever quick and unpredictable, the music assumes a crisis pitch at all times – as if one were anticipating loud firecrackers: first popping orderly, then suddenly disjointed into new tempers.

Bourne: Do you write what you do? Is it planned?

Beefheart: I don’t know if it is or not. It’s put on tape. A lot of the time everybody in the group, other than arrangements, they just play what they want to play. It’s hard for me to talk about it. I really don’t think that it’s music. The way music is exploited and used as an alibi and a pocket comb and whatever they use it for, I prefer to think it’s just all of the people in this group up there doing what they’re doing.

Perhaps even more ironic than this facet of the Magic Band is the status of bassist Rockette Morton, who received as much if not more audience adulation than the Captain – for his playing maintains an eminence not afforded too often to his instrument. Always warm and peaceful (and a rampant vegetarian), with his mustache and goatee twisted to string-like points and even two small horns of hair above, Rockette’s manic a cappella features prove an instrumental capacity (even sounds) I would have never expected from the bass – like the force of electricity itself.

And to all this the Captain offers tough blues harmonica or a never less than fiery soprano sax, with his voice like a benevolent meat grinder. Often incomprehensible amid the p.a. ultra-potency, his vocals are otherwise more an additive to the ensemble than a vehicle for the lyrics, many of which he reads from a folio – for to him “words aren’t important. That’s why I carry that thing. I occasionally refer to words.”

In what is certainly the most amusing interview I’ve ever conducted (how indeed may one play question/answer with one who speaks in delightful and often striking imagery?), the Captain and I spoke after I had just played an exhausting set – and I report these excerpts as much from our pleasure as for whatever enlightenment:

Beefheart: I refused to train myself in school. At anything. I suppose that’s why I stand out. I mean, people come around and ask me things, and I suppose that’s why. I don’t know any other reason why they would. I know nobody else has time. A lot of people think they have time, you see, and they put on a little circle on their wrists, which is really amusing: keeping time. Like one time a fellow I was on a label with recently, who starved my group for a year and a half, told me I didn’t have a proper time concept, and then not too long ago told me I had a selfish viewpoint of the universe. And the thing is where do you get a viewpoint of the universe? I mean, there’s no point. If that were true stars would cut your eyes out, right? I laughed at him…For a fact, I’m being absolutely down to earth, I have no idea what I do up there.

Bourne: Some sort of theater?

Beefheart: Well, they call it theater. They don’t have any theater anymore, you know, with swank Egyptian sand ashtrays, pomade and powder puffs and things. I long for a lady’s compact, you know what I mean. I put them in a lot of poems I do. They call them poems, right? …It’s fun for me to go up there. It’s fun for me to go and play anywhere. I don’t know how to call it though. I don’t know if it’s playing or not. I’ve never been able to understand why, say, I picked up a Pepsi cup and another person picked up a Coca-Cola cup – well, what about the people who were watching them pick those things up? Wouldn’t that get a little boring? I’m talking about business. All roads lead to Coca- Cola, and I don’t believe that, you see. I don’t believe in road maps or deemed names. I believe in divas. But I don’t believe in deviations.

Bourne: Are you anti the authority that would have trained you?

Beefheart: No, not at all. I’m not a cop to that. If you are anti something, you’re getting irritated. The revolution’s been over for ten years. The beatniks did it, and that was it, right? It’s still very dramatic.

Bourne: What did they do?

Beefheart: They did the beatniks. The hippies did the hippies. Do you think that the hippies call themselves the hippies? Do the beatniks call themselves the beatniks? Why would they want to label themselves? I say, “Lick My Decals Off, Baby!” I’m not interested in making any new mustard or ketchup. I make very good mustard.

Bourne: What are you interested in besides mustard?

Beefheart: I love to say aaaaahhh. That’s all I do is say aaaaahhh.

Bourne: Do you prefer anything?

Beefheart: I prefer life to death. I think everybody just does what they want to do, don’t you?

Bourne: If you couldn’t play music, would you die?

Beefheart: Of course not.

Bourne: Will money ruin you?

Beefheart: No, it’ll probably get me more vegetables. I’ll give it away. I’ll give it to people who require it. What can you do with money? I mean you can only eat what you can hold in your hand. After that, it’s abuse.

Bourne: How can you avoid having what you do exploited?

Beefheart: Well, I’m sure… I want people to hear it. What I mean is: it’s not held to religious standards. Nobody made the rules. People just try to impress other people. Like Grauman’s Chinese, right? Go put your feet in the cement.

Bourne: You don’t want to put your trout mask in cement and have the people stick their face in it?

Beefheart: Well, I don’t care what they do as long as they enjoy themselves.

Bourne: You just want people to have fun?

Beefheart: Well, of course, what else?

Bourne: You’re not offering a message of “peace and love”?

Beefheart: No I’m just offering whatever we’re doing at the time. If they get peace and love out of it, that’s great. But I refrain from the words “peace and love” because people use that as a shock of value. There’s always been love. Why is it so prevalent right now?

Bourne: Because it’s a saleable item.

Beefheart: I wish everybody’d quit backtracking. Archie Shepp said it: “Mama Too Tight”. I think he meant you can’t go back up your Mama. Just let her be a friend, and if she won’t be a friend, just let her be. The same with the father. In all nature, when animals leave their father and mother, they leave. They don’t bother each other. What about human beings? They’re animals.

Bourne: Come out and go into the world and live?

Beefheart: Right.

Bourne: And do what you want?

Beefheart: Right, what else?

To me, Captain Beefheart rises as one, indeed the only one true genius I have met – and not by intellect or artistry or any capacity, and not by the medals or the scars of accomplishment, but by the simple vibration of a whole natural human: indefinable, confusing at times, communable on that intangible perhaps esthetic plane.

His music was wondrous, and to most of us playing at the Manteno Festival even inspirational surely to me at last, for I played better than ever after hearing the first-night Magic Band sets.

Of course, not enough people came to hear, and likely no one else will journalize the Manteno experience – but that is life, or (to Captain Beefheart and me and other festives) living…

And p.s.: For those who have yet to hear Captain Beefheart, his fifth album was released in November: Lick My Decals Off, Baby (Straight/Reprise 6420), and well-contains what the Magic Band makes in concert. As to the rest of us, we will record when it happens, although I am particularly anxious to experience rating stars up the other end.

-Mike Bourne, 1971

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