Michael H – John French’s Q&As 2000/1

In early / mid 2000 John French called on Radar Station visitors for some help writing his book, Beefheart: Through The Eyes Of Magic…

From: Michael H
Sent: Wednesday, February 02, 2000 2:04 PM

Another topic might be what Don and the other band members thought of various other artists. We know about Herb Alpert from the Grow Fins set.

Thanks, Michael, for your questions.

Don’s opinions of other artists seem to radically change throughout the years, as the interviews I have read by him show. There was a time when he practically worshipped Eric Dolphy. Then, in a later interview in the early 80’s, he mentioned that he liked the sound of geese better. It’s hard to pin down what he thought, because of his insecurities, he also seemed to be highly critical of almost everyone at one time or another. I know that during Trout Mask times, he seemed to like John Coltrane (especially his Africa Brass album), Eric Dolphy (Out to Lunch), Son House (Can’t recall the album name), and Bob Dylan’s album with “All Along the Watchtower.” He listened to a lot of other music, like the Rolling Stones and Led Zeppelin, but it was more to keep in touch with the pulse of the industry. I remember him listening to “Her Satanic Majesty’s Request” several times, although none of us were particularly impressed with it…

On later albums, Don sings rather like Otis Redding (e.g. “Too Much Time” from Clear Spot), and even the whistling on “Harry Irene” from Bat Chain Puller sounds like the whistling on Redding’s “Sitting On The Dock Of The Bay”.

I don’t recall, him ever listening to Otis, although I’m sure he did. His whistling came before he ever heard of Otis. He whistled before he played the harmonica in the early band, which I believe predated Dock of the Bay.

So I wonder what the general feeling was about people like Redding

I don’t recall any particular comments made about Redding. He seemed sad when he died.

Bob Dylan

He liked Dylan during the Trout Mask times, but when Dylan became a Christian, he could say nothing good about him, and told a story of Dylan mistreating or abusing someone near to him, or being partially responsible for the death of someone due to drugs. Up until then, he had seemed very respectful of Dylan’s lyrics.

Paul Butterfield

My only recollection of a comment about Paul Butterfield was one time in the late sixties he claimed he walked into a public restroom at a club where Paul was performing and noted that Paul was in there. Don started singing at the top of his lungs and, according to Don, “it scared Butterfield to death.” I have no idea if this actually happened.

Lonnie Mack

Not a clue. Never mentioned the man, but I think he probably wasn’t too interested. Mack was probably a little too much of a Country influence.

Who did the band members like, as distinct from Don?

I know Mark Boston liked Steppenwolf (a point on which Don immediately held him in great contempt and humiliated him for in front of the rest of the group) and the Yardbirds (an opinion he kept to himself after being humiliated about Steppenwolf.) We were all Yardbirds fans. I was more attracted to the R&B artists of the time, especially Jr. Walker and the All Star, James Brown, Sam and Dave, Booker T. and the MG’s.

When I was a kid, a friend found his dad’s Benny Goodman albums, and we liked Gene Krupa on drums. Then there was that whole “Caravan-with-a-drum-solo” tradition that Zappa alluded to on one of his albums.

Yes, but it has to be spelled “Sola” and pronounced with “tongue in cheek” to be correct. Every lounge act in the sixties played Caravan with a drum solo. It was as standard as Louie Louie later became and achieved the status of “running joke.” One drummer I saw painted his drumsticks and rims with day-glow paint and used a black light so that all you saw was the rims of his drums, and his blurred sticks. At twelve, I thought this was “the living end” and decided I would do this when I grew up. Fortunately, I haven’t grown up yet.

One thing unique about TMR and Decals is that the drums seem to be doing solo-type things, but as part of the arrangement. Were your drum parts mainly derived from the music and your own imagination, or were there other influences, i.e. other drummers that you admired when you were learning to play drums?

All of the above. I do go into this in great detail in the book, but Sandy Nelson was a big influence. He was a So-Cal boy who did several drum solo albums before losing his leg in a motorcycle accident. I have always avoided motorcycles and this is probably why. Also, I listened to big-band drummers and Joe Morello, Dave Bruebeck’s drummer. I was interested in odd-time signatures when I joined the band and I am sure that influenced Don a bit also. I remember coming in one day to see him dancing to a drum beat I had made up the night before and recorded. It was a beat that was half Delta (Alex had taught me) and half Sandy Nelson, and is a bit like the Mirror Man beat, but more syncopated and more stop-and-go (less fluid).

The parts of Decals and TMR are more “drum part” oriented, and the reason they may have a “solo” sound is because I employed Tom Toms in the parts. Most rock drummers used, snare bass and cymbals, only employing Toms for solos and fills. The parts are based on a combination of the rhythms the other instruments played, my favourite rhythm patterns, and Don’s favourite rhythm patterns. They were created in part by me, in part by Don, and some by both of us.

Although most of the outrageous-sounding stories seem to come from the Trout Mask era, and the current younger listeners tend to focus in mainly on the period ending with Decals, there are many of us who’d like to see more discussion about some of the later albums, particularly Doc At The Radar Station.

I have track notes on all major albums from SAM to Crow with the exception of the Mercury albums, which I really dread actually paying good money to own. I listened to a cut from The Dust Blows Forward called “Upon the My oh My” and felt a little sick when I heard horns and flute sweetening that completely took it out of the original sound. I heard the basic tracks with no vocals, and some of those songs were really good. The Di Martinos ruined the tracks.

I have always thought that most of the albums from Trout Mask onward (excepting the two DiMartino albums) have some songs and images with distinctly religious undertones, although I often been hooted down for suggesting that, on the net, even though some of my friends see that too. “My Human Gets Me Blues” is a good example. He seems to be dealing with topics to do with attitudes to religious questions. He seems overall to be critical of organised religion for failing to live up to what it’s supposed to do, and for people who don’t live up to it. For example, he sings about the vine that “choked Mary’s only son, God in vain to slaughter” (from “The Ghost The Host The Most Holy-O” on Ice Cream For Crow). That seems to express disappointment that Jesus gave his life and it didn’t really change human behaviour that much. Was there much discussion about religion in the band?

Loaded question here. Being a Christian, I will probably cover this topic in more detail than will be generally appreciated. Unfortunately, it’s hard for me to siphon out my own opinion since I’m writing the book. Don didn’t discuss religion much (Christianity at least) but certainly encouraged everyone in the more Eastern cultural religious practices. They didn’t seem to bother him, but Christianity really seemed to threaten him, and his comments to me concerning my faith were almost always condescending or negative. I do think that Don was “religious” or at least “religious” themes ran through his lyrics a lot, especially Hindu concepts. However, it seemed to be more a hodge podge of a little of this and a little of that. Meditating with the Maharishi, reading about the Self-Realization fellowship, or the Tibetan Book of the Dead. He would claim he got his musical inspiration from “out there” (pointing as to unseen spirits in the air).

By the way, Jesus had brothers, he wasn’t “Mary’s only Son.”

I get the impression from Bill Harkleroad’s book that the songs weren’t worked out as songs with lyrics, with the band trying to do things that fit with the mood of the lyrics etc., i.e. that the lyrics were overdubbed later and that the rest of the band weren’t really involved with knowing the lyrical content that much. Is that impression correct?

The band members were familiar with the lyrical content, but seldom heard it with the music until after it was recorded. It was practically impossible to get Don to sing with the band. He would have some vague idea of what he wanted to do. Other times when he actually wound up singing completely different lyrics to a song than originally intended.

Or did Don talk a lot about the lyrics, e.g. during the long discussions that Harkleroad wrote about. That is something I would find interesting, i.e. what did Don talk about for 10-15 hours at a time non-stop?

I devote a couple of chapters to this, because I think it is important that the public understand that Don mostly talked about our faults and how “un-hip” we were. How we were sabotaging his/our chances of “making it.” As Bill mentioned, he would speak about our mothers, although that was only one of dozens of topics having to do with why we were so “hung up.” These were dreadful experiences for me. The book will reveal more than I can go into here. He seldom discussed his lyrics, although he wrote many lyrics during these talks, as sort of abstract observations of the present predicament.

– John French

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