Monique / Michael Cohen – 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: Monique / Michael Cohen
Sent: Monday, February 21, 2000 3:47 PM

I am very excited about this book! I’ve reread the Zoot Horn Rollo book at least 3 times! I’m sure the book will address things that I’m already interested in like Beefheart’s relationship with Zappa (and also how Zappa interacted with Magic Band members),

I don’t know who to address my answers to Monique or Michael, because there’s two names here.

Beefheart’s relationship with Zappa was an always-changing love-hate relationship which I’ll be touching on in the book quite often. I feel that Frank was genuinely fond of Don and was a good friend to him. Don seemed a little threatened by Frank. He was always cordial with him, but also seemed reserved. They didn’t seem to laugh together or have childhood memories. Frank seemed to have a genuine bond with Don which wasn’t reciprocal.

Zappa for the most part was nice to the entire Magic Band and I usually felt quite relaxed around him. It was easier to joke around with Frank. Zappa being more of an actual musician also understood how difficult it was to do Don’s music and occasionally gave us credit for our role in the conception and performance of the compositions.

Will there be track by track insights (some of my favourite parts of the Zoot book)?

I reluctantly decided to do this and just started in mid February what I thought would be a rather gruelling task. Actually, I found it quite enjoyable going through the Safe as Milk CD and writing about the various takes. I spent about a month on this part of the book.

One thing I’m interested in is Beefheart’s relationship with the Beatles.

We met Paul M in France in early 1968 and yes I will be touching upon our meeting and some of the funny things not only I but other band members remember about this meeting.

I know Lennon was a big Safe As Milk fan (I’m sure you’ve seen the picture of him in his living room with Safe As Milk stickers all over.)

Bob Krasnow used that photo for a Beefheart promo poster. I wish I still had my copy of the poster.

Then there’s the “Beatle Bones N Smoking Stones” thang.

This supposedly angered Lennon a bit. He thought it was a put-down. Don said he was basically referring to the end of the world, a nuclear war, and how scientists were saying that the only living creature capable of surviving was the cockroach. Don took poetic license with the insect world, combined with a bit of double entendre, and a play on the line “Strawberry feels forever.” I am sure it was a poke at the Beatles and the Stones. He actually was impressed with the song “Strawberry Fields,” and listened to it quite often.

Did they (or you) ever meet each other?

Only Paul in France as I mentioned earlier.

Also, I’m very interested in the Strictly Personal period. What was the original double album going to be like?

The original double album would have had one vinyl with arranged songs such as Beatle Bones, Trust Us, Safe as Milk, On Tomorrow, Dirty Blue Gene, Big Black Baby Shoes etc.

The other vinyl would have included the more improvised material like Mirror Man, Tarotplane, Korn Ring Finger, Twenty-fifth Century Quaker etc. It would have had a cover similar to the later Blue Thumb release. I think Don wanted to be more extravagant and have real stamps and use thick brown plain cardboard, but it was cost preventative even back then to do such a thing. I know he mentioned calling the album It Comes to you in a Plain Brown Wrapper, but as I mention in the book, I think this was actually meant to be a promo phrase for the album which would be called Strictly Personal. Back in the fifties, if you sent mail order for risqué stuff, sex mags, or bodybuilding books, they used to make the guarantee that it would come “in a plain brown wrapper,” stamped “Strictly Personal” so no one would know what you were ordering. Of course, since only this type of material came stamped this way, EVERYBODY knew what you were ordering.

Thanks, Mr. French!! I am a big fan!! Also, I’d love to know more about the French, Frith, Kaiser, Thompson records! They were great! How do you compare Richard Thompson’s demeanour with Van Vliet?

I will probably briefly touch upon all my post-Beefheart recording experiences just for the record, but the book mainly will centre around experiences with Don and the band.

Richard was a very amiable person for the short time I worked with him, however, it is difficult to really get to know a person in two or three weeks time. I felt genuine warmth from him, and his humour and quick wit kept things moving and made it a pleasant experience for the most part on both recording projects. I did find him to be a bit vague at times in explaining in musical terms what he was after, and this did lead to minor conflicts. However, they always seemed healthy natural conflicts that were quickly resolved. I have GREAT respect for him as a musician. He is extremely talented. His own songwriting style somewhat limits the showcasing of his unique and complex abilities.

– John French

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