Message from Micheal Smotherman

Micheal Smotherman

I received a very interesting series of messages a short while ago from Micheal Smotherman, one-time member of the “tragic” era Magic Band. This is what he had to say:

As a card carrying former member of the Tragic Band, I would like to put straight a few things that have become gospel somehow, just for the hell of it. I know that it is difficult to fly in the face of legend, but for anyone interested in the truth, here goes.

First of all, the original Magic Band (Zoot Horn Rollo, Drumbo, et.al) did not quit en-masse “a few days before an important tour.” Don fired them. He was not under the Svengali-like influence of “powerful record executives” in this decision.

This strange little manager-producer that he had suggested that if he went commercial, whatever that is, he stood a good chance of making more money, and believe me, as anyone who knows Don will tell you, he is not opposed to this concept.

Secondly, we didn’t just have twenty-seven minutes or whatever to rehearse. We rehearsed for weeks. I can still remember that crummy little rehearsal hall in North Hollywood that smelled like piss and cigarette butts, and thinking that if we had to do “Mirror Man” one more time I was going to start tearing something up.

It still puzzles me that Don, who was a grown man in his thirties at the time, could make a conscious and informed decision to try and advance his career, and when it went south on him it was somehow OUR fault. Like we had anything to do with anything. We were but grunts, people (and treated like it, believe me), young scuffling musicians one bologna sandwich away from the street, and even though the job didn’t pay squat we were glad to get it. I believe that we did the best professional job that we could, and under the circumstances did as well as anybody else could have.

Now having said all that, I’d also like to say that I actually had a good time on that gig overall. Don is an interesting cat, to say the least. And believe me, oh my brother, we were ALL bozos on that bus. There was Don, muttering constantly about God knows what, his wife Jan (who is a cool chick), a crazy Jamaican bus driver who quit two or three times on the middle of the freeway, a Scottish road manager who was a very righteous dude, two or three roadies from some God-forsaken place like Romania or something who couldn’t speak English and smoked cigarettes in their sleep, we Tragic Banders, drinking like circus workers, assorted record company weasels, a bunch of English blokes who were our warm-up act and couldn’t play for shit so they called it “progressive jazz”, and last but certainly not least, Frick and Frack, these crazy little tiny Italian brothers from Brooklyn who were the Captain’s managers, producers, publishers, agents, tour managers, CPA’s, house painters, and God knows what else. Think two identical Kramer’s from Seinfeld only real short and in leather jackets and on acid, and you’ve pretty much got the picture.

It’s a drag that Don got semi-vilified for taking a chance that didn’t pan out, and ludicrous that we were vilified, since we didn’t have shit to do with it.

What if it had been a huge commercial success? He would have then been lauded for taking a bold and daring step, you know? When an artist sticks to his guns and doesn’t succeed, he’s stubborn, if he does succeed he’s tenacious. A poor boy is a dip-shit, a rich boy is eccentric – same principal to me.

I saw the pictures from his exhibit in Germany, I guess, and the Old Fart At Play looked good. Sharp and comfortable, in his element. I would like to see how Jan is faring – a special person, that.

I’m glad that the Mighty Captain (as we called him) is having some well-deserved success with his art. I think, and have always thought, that it is brilliant. I hope you have the testes to print this.

Sincerely, Micheal Smotherman (Tragic Band keyboardist).

Many thanks to Micheal for sending along this insightful glimpse into this murky period in the Magic Band’s history, and for his permission to publish his comments here.

25 Comments

  1. ‘a bunch of English blokes who were our warm-up act and couldn’t play for shit so they called it “progressive jazz”,…’

    is he referring to Henry Cow? (support act on european dates)

  2. Also wondered if he was refering to the wondrous Cow – whatever charges are levelled against ’em “not being able to play for shit” is frankly laughable ! and so wide of the mark it throws the whole rest of the article into utter doubt. Think I’ve seen Smotherman ‘singing’ on a Beefheart DVD ….Ahem, I rest my case

  3. Michael “Bucky” Smotherman (as he is credited and spelled on the Buckwheat album ‘Buckwheat’ of 1971) surely knows a little bit more about “This strange little manager-producer”, and “Frick and Frack, these crazy little tiny Italian brothers from Brooklyn” who he describes so eloquently in this fascinating piece.

    ‘Buckwheat’ was “produced by Andy Di Martino for A. Di Martino Productions Company, Inc.”

    By a strange coincidence Andy Di Martino gets what may well be his first favourable Beefheart review in another entry on this blog today.

    Michael/Micheal, if you’re reading this, please tell us more about the Tragic Svengali.

  4. Very interesting. I’ve sometimes wondered what a Magic – rather than ‘Tragic’ – Band gig would have been like in 1974, and rather suspect the two would, at least in parts, not have been so disimilar, given the context of the ‘Unconditionally Guaranteed’ album and the desire for commercial success mentioned in the Smotherman piece.

  5. This is interesting. There’s not been much known about this period of Don’s career. Mike Barnes managed to add a bit of detail in his book, but it’s great to hear something from one of the Tragic Band.

    Mr Smotherman does seem to think that we don’t want to hear what really happened and are happy with the legends. I’d like to assure him that all of us who contribute to the Radar Station are interested in knowing the full story. If we wanted legends we’d be sitting at home reading the Ken Brooks/Ben Cruikshank books!

    I’ll definitely be updating my piece about the Tragic Band on the site.

    Frick and Frack were also the managers of Del Simmons (the Tragic Band clarinet player) and produced a record by him in 1972.

  6. So DON fired the original magic band?
    Wow, Bill Harkleroad certainly looks at it a bit differently.

  7. Absolutely fascinating. Not terribly surprising, but reading it all from the hand of an insider lends credence to the rampant rumors regarding Don’s management style. Particularly telling is the afterthought that it was all quite pleasant in an absolutely appalling way. This is the sort of thing one hears about nearly ANY “successful” leader of any type of organization. I use the word successful to cover artistic as well as other more obvious types of success. DVV = BG???

  8. Like Steve, I really am interested in knowing the full story.

    The so-called ‘Tragic Band’ period is as relevant and compelling as any other in Don Van Vliet’s life.

    Apologies, by the way, for confusing the names of Del Simmons and Andy Di Martino.

    As far as I know, neither of the Di Martino brothers appeared with Don on stage. Maybe Mr Smotherman can correct me about that?

  9. smotherman’s rant is interesting, but so many of these cats, including the magic band dudes like french and harkleroad have since made a little industry out of their resentment for van vliet…i mean he’s not some stan kenton or even zappa-like bandleader…he’s an AHHTIST and realy were it not for his art-musick dese boys would not have even the sort of of low-grade underground notoriety they presently possess now….personally I think TMR was not the masterpiece that everyone thinks it was, much preferring say Bat Chain Puller and Radar Station–the Fowler Brothers, lucas, feldman, were the cats who pulled it together more than French or harkleroad ever did.. drumbo is , NOT let’s face it elvin jones ..an dhis sort of enoconservative rants about teh miserei he endued are irritating and sort of shallow..i eam All Tomorrows Parties much have been cool ( I might get the CD) but the band around late 70s early 80s was more interesting and polished…really Lucas’ playing is I think preferable to the overly-boogie influenced riffs of zoot horn….the bands of Bat Chain and Radar Station were viable mambo-rock-jazz units …and tore it up on SNL…. so all this TMR was the greatest and never-equalled and so forth is an insult to the more polished and mingus-y-ellington chops of the Fowler Bros and lucas. etc. methinks Don sort of of pussied out, musically speaking, anyways ..those last few bands were the real thing.. as decent as zappa’s similar type of art-jazz with horns bands and DVV should have kept with it instead of doing his abstract-ahht schitck………

  10. Perezoso said “were it not for his art-musick dese boys would not have even the sort of of low-grade underground notoriety they presently possess now”.

    To be fair, a quick Google for info about Micheal Smotherman’s career reveals that he has written for Ray Charles, Luther Vandross, Bonnie Raitt and many others. Beefheart barely gets a mention on his CV.

  11. what sort of schmoe would work with, not to say even mention B-goil Raitt, sort of a greasy gypsy rose lee does yr favorite chitlin’s & astroglide melodies ….i’d rather listen to like traffic on the 405..

    “……..sum-buddy’s had too much to…THINK”

  12. “i’d rather listen to like traffic on the 405..”

    Me too but I don’t think that’s relevant in this context. For reasons beyond me Raitt is regarded as a bit of a draw in some circles and an association with her is probably far more lucrative than an association with Beefheart.

    The world is topsy turvy.

  13. I love some of TMR, and I like
    some of Raitt’s slide playing…
    But I agree that Gary Lucas is
    really good…

  14. Perhaps, before leaving comments here, which are heavily out of context, people should educate themselves enough to back up their odd caugh-ups. I wouldn’t know where to start on the comparison of John French and Elvin Jones…
    A comparison like that makes as much sense as comparing Moondog with Dave Weckl… or Rockette Morton with Jaco Pastorius… these people work/worked in totally different fields of art. Even though it all goes under the infinite cathegory “music,” the artforms differ drastically…

    As far as Trout Mask Replica (TMR) goes, I do think a youngster today can appreciate it and call it a masterpiece (as I do,) but those who were young 35 years ago (before disco, before punk, before MTV, before computer-made hits etc…) are the ones who have experienced the release of TMR, who bought it in stores on LP records, who had the chance of listening to Captain Beefheart and The Magica Band live…and not only therefore the only ones who can FULLY appreciate just HOW much of a masterpiece TMR is, and just HOW extreme and different it appeared to the ears the people who lived then and there – the people who couldn’t go “sounds a little grungy.”

    Now…on to the real thing: I’m glad to have read Smotherman’s short story, and I’m thankful that someone has posted it. I hope there’ll be more to come from anyone who’s been involved in any way to Don Van Vliet, as some periods aren’t covered very well, and therefore might seem “mysterious” or whatever… Keep up your good work here at the radar station… now I need to run – have a great treat waiting, namely the enclosed DVD in “21st Century Mirror Men” which I received today… To quote a certain Simpson; WOO-WHOO!

  15. If it actually matters – I’m 50
    years old, had my mind blown by
    TMR in 1970, and saw CB and the band play live about 8 times, starting in 1972.
    I know how to play some CB material on guitar, including
    pieces from TMR – I auditioned
    for Don twice (failed twice!).
    See ya

  16. Any more info on your auditions, Ken? (If it’s not too painful a memory!) Where / when / who did you meet, etc?

    More details, please!

  17. Hi – The first time I played for Don was in a hotel room in Boston,
    in 75 when he was touring with FZ.
    We went to Denny Walley’s room for
    a guitar, and I played some half-
    assed guitar stuff. I realized later that I was quite nervous, and
    never played well when nervous –
    but I really was not prepared – I didn’t know Don’s material and my slide playing was kinda weak.
    Also, I can never play decent on somebody else’s axe – but mainly, I was just not good enough.
    But Don said he liked it, and would call me. Even back then I
    pretty much knew he would not call.
    As far as conversation goes, it was pretty interesting – for example, Don said he and Lenny Bruce used to drink a lot of wine
    together; he said they were winos !
    Don also got a pro massage by a women, and was wondering out loud whether FZ would pay for this masseuse to join the tour. And a friend of Don’s was with us, the writer Langdon Winner !
    More later – ken

  18. Thanks, Ken. Would that audition have been for the Knebworth gig? Any mention of that at the time? Keep those details coming! It’s all of interest.

    Yes, it is a significant disadvantage trying to play someone else’s guitar. Especially Denny Walley’s, he being one of the most impressive slide players in the Magic Band’s (and Zappa’s) history. Was he in that room at the time? Can’t think of anything more intimidating!

    My attitude to TMR is perhaps best summarised by the John Peel quote on Patrik Lemberg’s home page. ‘Nuff said.

    I was perplexed, to put it mildly, to read that “dudes like French and Harlkeroad have…made a little industry out of their resentment for van vliet” (sic). On the contrary, John French in particular has bent over backwards on many occasions to give all due credit to DVV for his prodigious musical talent and inspiration. When hints of frustration occasionally creep through (and they usually do so in commendably balanced and measured terms), it is all too understandable, given the history of the band and it’s relationship with DVV.

    The Magic Band’s current annual trans-Atlantic to-ing and fro-ing, and bowling up and down British motorways (perhaps even the 405) just to get a handful of gigs, mostly one night stands in small venues, hardly qualifies as an industry in my or most people’s books.

    In a cynical, self-serving world, it is all too easy to unthinkingly attribute the worst of motives, something from which we, in the er… Beefheart community are not entirely immune when we refer in scathing terms to those on the periphary of mainstream Beefheartiana such as the ‘Tragic’ Band and Mallard, forgetting that they are flesh and blood human beings who made the best of the situation they found themselves in at the time, and who have already suffered over the decades first at the hands of their musical mentor and then from the rest of us for not living up to our expectations.

    And Elvin Jones is not, let’s face it, John French…

    Sorry ’bout the rant.

    Outraged of Ongar.

  19. When I met Don in Boston he did not mention any specific gigs, just
    that when he was done with the Zappa tour, he wanted his own band.
    And he did ask if I got stagefright, but I just mumbled
    some bull, I don’t remember what…
    Denny Walley was in the room when I
    played, at times listening and at other times watching “Gunsmoke” on
    the TV.

  20. I would remind perezoso that it was TMR that opened the door for later albums such as ‘Decals’,’Bat Chain’etc.As for his idea that it was ‘the Fowler Bros,Lucas,Feldman,who were the cats who pulled it together more than French & Harkleroad ever did’….well,all I can say is what a load of mambo-jambo!Again,it was the early bands who helped carve out Don’s sound-sculptures,and while I’m not for one moment trying to undermine the post ‘tragic’,Magic bands as they helped get Don back on track,and produced some memorable music,I’m sure that they’d be the first to acknowledge that the template was already there,and was also beaten into shape by the sometimes forgotten figures such as Elliot Ingber,Jeff Cotton.etc.Over the years,I have been lucky enough to have seen pretty well all the Magic/Tragic bands(post 1970)in action,and for me the ‘Clear Spot’tour band with Roy Estrada,Art Tripp.etc was the proverbial ‘dogs bollocks’.At that time(early 70’s) the only band who came within sniffing distance as a live act were Little Feat,and who was their long-time friend,and sometime guest guitarist….Bonnie Raitt!As for Jazz,don’t get me started….except to say that the whole Jazz-Funk/Fusion thing sucked up a lot of good musicians at the time(along with the blizzard of Coke in the LA music/film scene),with most(including Little Feat) disappearing up their own musical backsides in a torrent of wine-bar muzack……’til Punk came along and reminded us that it’s not the chops,it’s the energy!

  21. …..’til Punk came along and reminded us that it’s not the chops,it’s the energy

    I disagree with that. Coke may have ruined quite a few lives in music and show biz, but I’d rather listen to say Steely Dan’s “Aja,” sort of the coke whiffer’s mantra (I know, having heard Josie or Peg many a time while passin’ around the mirror) tham to the Clash or whatever old aggravating noise that was hip for a few years in the 80s. Chops always rule: yes the smooth jass-fusion thing produced some schlock (as the Wave in LA demonstrates), but I’d spin old Ellington or Jobim or even Pat Metheny CDs before listening to more greasy country blooz from Raitt or whatever bar-band du jour is playin’ tonight at CLub Hep C. And the later Beefheart–Bat Chain, Doc ATRS– is cool in some way because it moves away from the chitlins…the punk energy may have entertained some for a few months but the music doesn’t have much staying power: Miles Davis’ Kind of Blues does, the Dan’s Countdown to Ecstasy does, even Zappa’s Hot Rats or Overnight Sensation does, maybe some of DVV”s work on Bat Chain or Doc does (ok I do dig DVV”s sax solo on Ant Man bee……..and Dalis Car rules when yr a bit drunk and want to terrify the neighbor’s daughters)

  22. Even though I am loathe to make a peep in this ‘conversation’, I must take issue with some of what is said at your site on the subject of the ‘tragics’. Micheal, or Buck, or even Bucky, as he was then called (when quite young, so what was your nickname, huh?) speaks the truth, and was and is one of the most talented singer songwriters in America – (and I ain’t NO paid ringer, trust me) In his time, he has sung with the best of them, and been offered ‘jobs’ as pianist with the likes of Frank Sinatra (he declined) and others, so insult away – I believe many share/d my view of him!

    The (as I saw it called at some Beefheart site) “average” band Buckwheat that he was in previously was actually pretty fabulous, and was very highly regarded by many musicians of extreme integrity and reputation. It included Micheal and the late, great Tulsa lass Debbie Campbell, among others (and yes, they were managed by the infamous DiMartinos boys – why else do you think he got roped into doing the ‘tragic’ gig?). If you ever heard Buckwheat, I can save my breath; if you didn’t, too bad – your loss.

    As to Bonnie Raitt (another musician highly respect by OTHER musicians) I don’t understand the guy who’s on about ‘greasy blooz’ – whatever HIS problem is -(have some more grits and biscuits, or salad, as your preference goes, bud) Bonnie may in her day have chosen some questionable material, but she also recorded some great things (just one example: Angel from Montgomery – John Prine), and she is thought of as no slouch by many, having sold a few gazillion records in her time and having sung quite fetchingly on occasion (to say nothing of playing pretty damn decent slide guitar).

    Speaking as a ‘girl’ from back in the day, I personally thought Frank Zappa (and all his cream cheesers) were nuts, and ONLY knew about Captn. B because of his kinship with the aforesaid. To a mere chicklet (although old enough to appreciate and adore many of those guys’ chronological peers), they both seemed very, very weird, and quite disturbing from a mental health point of view!

    Today, I stand corrected about Zappa – his “No Commercial Potential” book did reveal artistry. But the Captain’s ‘music’, his “magic” ‘band’, and his ‘fame’ seemed ridiculous to this babe, IMHO (guaranteeing you won’t like me).

    I am positive the tiny empire of Martinos’ prime motivation was CASH in their pockets, and not stage acclaim, to whoever asked that Q – unless Andy got up there with the Cascades (doubtful) – I know of no instance where he ever “made” any music (in any way, performance or otherwise – his acts did that; he counted the revenue).

    And jazz? I’ll stick with, oh I don’t know, Gerry Mulligan and Thelonius Monk, maybe, thanks. You can keep Pat Metheny and the rest.

    So … my opinion may be toecurlingly “uncool” to those of you who relish ‘ahrteeste’ bozos with toasters on their heads creating history (ha!), but if it’s all the same to you, I’ll stick with my view, which I believe has been shared over many decades by countless music fans, and you keep yours.

    I hate to shout out, but I had to, since I deeply resent seeing talented artists pilloried by you geekster ‘muso’ buffs, the majority of whom probably couldn’t tune a guitar or play “Happy Birthday”, and all of whom appear to have your sensibilities lodged firmly up your backside (I know, fallacious argument, but so what?)

    Finally, (this may really steam you) I have met many young, hip, and celebrated British musicians who think that the CB discs with the “Tragic” band are the BEST CB records there are, so it just goes to SCHMOE ‘ya, boys. Take it easy, y’all!

    Yours truly

    No Fan of Cheese

  23. I love the solo by Dean Smith on “Further than we’ve gone”, and on the old grey whistle test he does something wonderful on “this is the day”. I also adore the original solo on the LP, all angular leaps, but Dean Smith doesn’t imitate that at all, he makes his own kind of pillowy shimmering reverberant sound. Shame about the flute on that though.

  24. i saw the tragic band here at the main point in bryn mayr pa. what a mess. met don for the first time there.the show was awful.i told him how bad it was he said he hoped it would get better.i said to him i dont think it will.

  25. Kelso, you should have paid more attention in English class…

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