Pulled By Rubber Dolphins: Bat Chain Puller by Mike Barnes

This article is an extract from Mike Barnes’ biography of Don Van Vliet, Captain Beefheart, published by Quartet Books, 2000.

ISBN 0 7043 8073 0

You can order this book from Amazon.co.uk or any good UK book sellers.

‘Everything they did I had ’em do. I mean I’m a director. I don’t wanna boast or anything like that, but I am an artist. And the thing is that sometimes artists are considered horrible after they direct something. Y’see those guys, they fell too far into my role, and then they didn’t like me after that. It happens in theatre and everything. But I can’t think of myself as doing something wrong, because I asked them everyday, “Are you sure you want to do this?” I said, “You’ll get to the end of the road and there’s probably no pot of gold, y’know, in ART.”

Don Van Vliet on the former Magic Band to John Gray, Sounds, 10 December 1977

Captain Beefheart and The Magic Band’s sojourn in England for the Knebworth Festival coincided with a visit to the country by former Magic Band mutineers Art Tripp, Mark Boston and Bill Harkleroad and their new group, Mallard. They stayed near Newton Abbot in Devon, where they recorded a set of new material sponsored by an anonymous backer. As they were recording using Jethro Tull’s mobile studio, the identity of their patron was not difficult to guess. They were staying at Jethro Tull guitarist Martin Barre’s house, with Ian Anderson the man behind the venture. In fact Anderson’s involvement had begun the previous year. Immediately after the former Magic Band had sheared away from Van Vliet, he had organised an impromptu session in the hope of keeping the momentum going. He explains: ‘I said to them, “Look, not wishing him any harm, but as far as the world is concerned you are the Magic Band and he is Captain Beefheart. Now he may feel that there is a legal ownership of the name The Magic Band and he could make a play for it, but you should give it a go.” So I wrote them a song called “Magic Band” and we went into the studio in Los Angeles. I said to Rockette Morton, “Right, you’re going to be the front man, Mark, you’re going to sing.” “Oh, I’ve never sung before.” “You’re going to do it this afternoon.” I was probably just as bad as his ex-boss! Anyway, we made this record with Barrie Barlow from our band playing the drums, because I think everybody else had legged it – it was basically Mark and Bill and Barrie and me sitting behind the desk.

‘It was written very much around what I knew Bill Harkleroad would play. I never kept a copy of it, sadly. They took it [the name the Magic Band] some way down the wire to the legal front, only to get the impression that they couldn’t afford to take it any further because Don was going to jump on it with big boots, through his lawyers. So that petered out.’

In DISCoveries in 1988, Harkleroad said of Mallard: ‘It was the Magic Band without Don. We figured we had a career.’ Initially, Mallard moved to Arcata, near Eureka, north California. John French was both drummer and vocalist and he contributed music and lyrics. Although barely twenty, keyboard player John Thomas had played with French in the group Rattlesnakes And Eggs and was already a relative veteran of the Lancaster scene. But work had been hard to come by; the group had no record deal and became dormant after Van Vliet persuaded French to go back to the Magic Band after the Bongo Fury tour. Harkleroad had been concerned that he was likely to get into the ‘same sort of drudgery’ as he had with the Magic Band: working hard without making any money. Differences in musical direction had begun to develop. Boston had a leaning towards country and blues, whereas Harkleroad’s tastes were significantly different. ‘I was listening to Weather Report and jazz things and I wanted to improve my playing,’ he says. He quit and the group fizzled out.

Anderson’s reappearance on the scene, and with it Mallard’s renaissance, came about via his friendship with Mark Boston. His investment in the group was a simple, altruistic gesture: ‘I brought them over to England and said, “If you want to give it a go, I’ll give you the studio for a couple of weeks.” It was on the grounds that if it works out I’ll tell you what it cost and you can give me the money back. If it doesn’t you can go home again and forget about it. It was that simple. I thought here’s a bunch of guys that had some really good music in them if given the freedom to do it.’

By mid-1975, Mallard were back at full strength. They found a vocal successor to French in Sam Galpin, a country singer who’d spent over a decade on the lounge circuit in Las Vegas and the West Coast. He had a weather-beaten, phlegmy voice that was later described as being like one of Van Vliet’s voices. But such comments would have meant little to him as he knew next to nothing about their musical past. Art Tripp had been making a living selling insurance, and was only tempted back to drum with the group after he’d been guaranteed money in advance. The group were still working on a limited budget and as Thomas was not, in his own words, one of the ‘principals’, he remained back in Lancaster. Galpin and John ‘Rabbit’ Bundrick took over keyboard duties. Connor McKnight of Zig Zag caught up with the group in Devon. Tripp spoke to him about his past employers, coming up with this blunt assessment of his career thus far: ‘Man, I’ve worked for two of the worst people in the business – Zappa and that fuckin’ Vliet.’

Soon after the Magic Band had left him, Van Vliet was claiming, with some relish, that they had all given up music. He was also telling journalists that whereas the group had all enjoyed comfortable accommodation, he and Jan had been sleeping on the floor for the past six years. A year later, he was still fuming. To Steve Weitzman of Rolling Stone: ‘I did Lick My Decals Off, Baby right after Trout Mask Replica. The group wanted to be commercial and since they were so nice about doing those two I thought I owed them a moral obligation and I stayed. But I should have gotten rid of them then.’

With the two rival factions now agreeing to be interviewed, New Musical Express ran a typically irreverent double-page spread in July 1975. Harkleroad and Van Vliet put forward their respective cases in a feature billed as ‘The Big Fight: Ole Swollen Fingers v’s [sic] Duck Harkleroad’. It made a good public spat.

Van Vliet referred to Harkleroad as ‘a little squirt’ and Mallard as ‘a bunch of quacks’. He went on to claim that he had got Harkleroad and Boston out of the draft and that he had spent $400,000 on the group, barely having time to draw breath before upping that figure to one million. Aware that the question of authorship was about to be discussed publicly, Van Vliet brought along the original manuscripts of the Trout Mask Replica material that French had transcribed from his piano lines, in a bid to ‘defend his art’.

‘They made a big mistake, though. I mean a big mistake,’ he told Kate Phillips. ‘Because there aren’t that many artists, and they aren’t some of them, I’ll tell you that.’ He then launched into a stream of vitriol the gist of which was that the group’s creative days were numbered. He then attempted diplomacy by saying that he wasn’t mad at them. ‘I am. But not that mad. I mean, I know they’re sick.’ Referring to what he saw as claims that they had composed some of the Magic Band’s music, he said: ‘And they say they wrote all that stuff? Well, they better do a damn good album. And from what I hear, it’s horrible…’ As Mallard were recording the album at the time of interview, Van Vliet had nothing on which to base his judgement. But this was war, after all.

From the opposite corner, Harkleroad confirmed to Chris Salewicz that the group had initially wanted to use the name the Magic Band, but Van Vliet held the rights to it and also to their pseudonyms. ‘It’ll mean we have to start like a totally unknown, brand-new band,’ he complained. This was the first time that Harkleroad had had his say to the UK press and he had a lot to get off his chest. ‘The music was put together by the band. Not by him. It was totally arranged by the band,’ he asserted. He steered clear of claiming actual authorship and had some complimentary things to say about Van Vliet: ‘As a lyricist he’s one of the best I’ve ever heard in my life. He’s not a musician…He got a lot of credit for doing a lot of music that he never did. It came from the band.’ Harkleroad felt that Van Vliet was ‘running scared’, no doubt on the basis of his last record, Bluejeans And Moonbeams, and that some aspects of his ‘genius’ were in fact bullshit.

In October 1975, just before the start of the Magic Band’s UK tour, John French joined in the debate. To Steve Lake of Melody Maker, he professed himself very surprised at reading some of Harkleroad’s assertions. His own view was that the musicians had not been in control, at least around the time of Trout Mask, which was the only album he said he was qualified to talk about (which is odd considering he appeared on all of them prior to Clear Spot). He concluded, ‘Whatever Harkleroad might claim about his guitar virtuosity at the time – I was there and I would watch Don going over all Harkleroad’s parts with him with incredible patience. Don’s very musical. It’s true that Don can’t play guitar, but that never stopped him getting his ideas across.’

The explanation of who did what and how was complicated by the unprecedented methods of composition employed, and with hindsight one feels that the nuances of composition and arrangement within the Magic Band – so unlike any other – were still only partially understood by press and fans years after the music of Trout Mask and Decals had been forged. What took place has only recently been clarified. Both sides later claimed they received an apology from their contrite counterparts and both sides also subsequently tempered their own views.

Back to Mallard. Their eponymously titled album was mixed with overdubs at Morgan Studios in London and was eventually released on Virgin in autumn 1976. Harkleroad had been under the impression that it was a demo which was being made to secure a record deal and was surprised when the recordings were released. Speaking to Chris Salewicz he said, ‘The record we just did…I think when you hear that you’ll hear the similarities because it came from the musicians.’

He had a point. Mallard carried echoes of Clear Spot, the album he claimed had the most obvious band input. This can be heard most clearly on the instrumental ‘Road To Morocco’ and ‘Winged Tuskadero’, both snaking, syncopated tracks with Tripp’s marimba and drums evoking a recently expired era. Harkleroad’s guitar is superb throughout, and echoes some of his articulations on Clear Spot. Boston’s bass keeps clear of the elliptical orbits of the early Beefheart material and instead fulfils an anchor role. The material again invites comparisons with the rhythmic push-and-pull of Little Feat, although generally it is more taut and agitated. Their more relaxed, rootsier side comes out in a cover of Guy Clark’s ‘Desperados Waiting For A Train’.

Mallard’s mixture of country, blues, rock’n’roll and more avant tendencies is finely balanced. The album closes with Harkleroad and Boston duetting on a tender, sensual version of ‘Peon’ from Decals. All the angularities are smoothed out, and their pastoral reading is ushered in by a short tape of birdsong. Maybe it was an olive branch offered to Van Vliet, or a homage of sorts, but the group put forward the explanation that it was just a piece they enjoyed playing. Harkleroad offered that it might make some money for Van Vliet as he was totally broke. The composer, meanwhile, dismissed this version precisely because it lacked the attack of the original. Ian Anderson is ambivalent about the overall results: ‘The Mallard record from what I recall was OK-ish. They brought in some singer [Galpin] who I didn’t think was particularly up to the mark. It wasn’t a bad album, it just didn’t have that sparkle.’

In May 1976 Mallard’s manager Bill Shumow was quoted, with no apparent trace of irony, as saying that he was looking forward to the group coming back over to the UK to play some autumn shows because, ‘Beefheart’s music has always been more appreciated here than in the States. People are much more open-minded to his music here.’

Rewinding, Captain Beefheart and The Magic Band’s UK shows in late 1975 had been a critical success, but despite Van Vliet’s hyperbolic assessment of the fifty unplayed Trout Mask Replica-era compositions he’d had at his disposal, the group had played old material exclusively. With the exception of his two recitations on Bongo Fury, he had not released any quality new music for over three years. But he had been busy composing on the piano in the house on Trinidad Bay. He and Jan were forced by penury to leave behind the high rent, the redwoods and the wildlife of the northern Californian coast and move back to Lancaster, making their home in his mother’s trailer in a trailer park on the eastern margins of the town. He was keen to start work on transforming these piano tapes into new Magic Band material.

True to his word, he did take Moris Tepper to LA to do a record, the remarkable Bat Chain Puller. The album came about through another liaison with Zappa. Van Vliet had again found himself effectively without a record deal and, despite the personality clashes on the Bongo Fury tour, his friend was willing to throw him another lifeline. The original plan was that Zappa would act as executive producer and put up the money for the recording of an album which would be released on his own DiscReet label, or they would try and get a licensing deal with Warners/Reprise.

Those assembled as the new Magic Band were Tepper, French, Denny Walley and, brought in at short notice, keyboard player John Thomas. The recurrent problem of finding a suitable bass player (the role that Bruce Fowler had recently fulfilled with his air-bass) was circumvented by Thomas using synthesiser to play the bass lines. On paper, his recent stint in Mallard hardly boded well for working with Van Vliet. But they had met a number of times in Lancaster and were on good terms, and Van Vliet was both intuitive and pragmatic when it came to sensing who would be good to have in the group. Thomas remembers finishing his pre-Magic Band bar gigs and going over to Denny’s, the only twenty-four hour diner in Lancaster. This was its main selling point to one regular customer: ‘At two in the morning when all the bars closed, generally all the local musicians would go gather at this one place and have breakfast at two thirty because there was nothing else to do and no place else to go,’ he explains. ‘And very often I would see Don sitting over in a booth, usually by himself with a sketch pad, furiously sketching and looking around and drawing people who came in who looked interesting. He would leave his own home and just go sit somewhere to have this stimulus so that he could keep creating.’

He describes Van Vliet as an ‘unstoppable fountain of sheer creative energy’ and the most charismatic conversationalist he has ever met. Van Vliet had made extravagant claims that he had not slept for a year and a half, but he really didn’t seem to be sleeping much at the time. Thomas remembers occasions when he went around to his trailer to listen to music and chat and would completely lose track of time, often emerging disoriented in the early hours of the morning. ‘He could talk endlessly about nothing and made you feel you were conversing with the gods,’ says Thomas. ‘It was amazing. He would call my house to talk to me and if I wasn’t at home, he would get my wife on the phone and I swear he could keep her engaged for an hour, just in the course of discovering that I wasn’t home and wasn’t around. I saw him call operators to make a long-distance call. These are people who are trained just to get on with their work and he could keep them on the phone for fifteen minutes before the call was even put through.’

Prior to his joining the Magic Band, Moris Tepper had proved that he could play some of the more knuckle-busting guitar parts from the Beefheart back-catalogue. He also harboured ambitions of being a singer-songwriter. Van Vliet was innately suspicious of this and applied some unorthodox homespun psychology into the process of breaking down Tepper’s potential ‘catatonic state’. He reckoned the guitarist had been listening to too much of The Beatles and was consequently humming (the note) ‘c’ in the middle of his forehead. Despite Tepper’s protestations that he didn’t have perfect pitch and therefore wouldn’t know what ‘c’ was, Van Vliet’s solution was bizarre, but ultimately effective. Tepper describes one of the ‘very strange rituals’ that were happening at this time: ‘He put me in this little bathroom closet that was the size of just the toilet – you couldn’t move – and made me listen to this track called “Red Cross Store” by Mississippi John Hurt over and over and over for three hours. I’d come out and say, “I’ve got to eat, I’m starving,” and he said, “No, you’ve got to hear it more.” He’d go, “Did you really hear it, did you hear it?” and he’d look in my eyes and go, “No, you’ve got to hear it more. You haven’t heard it yet.”

‘I was listening to it, thinking, “Yeah. So?”…I couldn’t dig it, I couldn’t go, “Fuck, yeah, I really hear this.” At the same time my psyche was saying, “He’s full of shit, this is a joke,” but I think deeper shit really did happen. I think it gave me a whole lot of respect for the uniqueness and the idea that he could infuse me with this other colour by forcing me through it and that then I’d be able to stop humming “c”. All of it was great, magical.’

Van Vliet had reached thirty-five, an age when many rock musicians had already sloped off into the twilight zone of semi-retirement and redundancy, especially if they had been in a creative trough as deep as the one he had recently dug for himself. Bongo Fury notwithstanding, there may have been no way back. Another way of looking at it was that a couple of bad albums do not suddenly make a genius into a loser. Bat Chain Puller has generally been acknowledged as a major Captain Beefheart work, and a startling comeback, but some writers have assessed it as a sort of poor man’s Trout Mask Replica, a wishy-washy distillation of former glories. This misses the point completely and shows how expectations can be impossibly raised – to the detriment of critical judgement – when an artist’s previous work casts such a long shadow.

There are fundamental differences between this new music and the tormented structures of Trout Mask Replica and Lick My Decals Off, Baby. And although the music shared some overlap with that ground-breaking era, it also showed a marked development in style. This subtle difference was closely linked to Van Vliet’s increasing proficiency – in his own terms at least – on the piano. His intuitive outpourings on the instrument were far more fluent now, leaving behind the sonic pile-up of fragmentary lines that had hallmarked those earlier albums. He was still through-composing, but was now able to express himself coherently over a longer time-span. The songs were based on elongated, linear explorations of rhythm, and the instrumentation was more tempered than that on Trout Mask, which Harkleroad assesses as being ‘totally dictated by rhythm, and almost not at all by pitch’. Ted Templeman had created a studio-enhanced ambient space on Clear Spot. But here, using his own idiosyncratic methods, Van Vliet had generated greater structural space within his ‘purer’ music.

Rhythmically, the album is often quite different from its predecessors. The drums, which achieved equal importance to the guitars and bass on Trout Mask and Decals, are here given a different role, punctuating and conversing more subtly with the instrumental flow, or forming repetitive patterns against which the body of the music shifts – although the 4/4 beat was again out of bounds. He could fit his lyrics more easily into these wider spaces and went back to expressing himself in his semi-melodic, semi-spoken style – there are few developed vocal melodies on Bat Chain Puller. Now the listener’s mind had more of a chance to fixate, perhaps, but only to be dazzled by an intricate mosaic of sound if it did.

The last four albums had involved varying degrees of compromise, whether from Van Vliet giving the group ‘easier’ material, using big-name producers, or desperately trying to grab a piece of the commercial pie. But that was all in the past now. It was time to move on. Tepper saw Van Vliet’s compositional process at first hand. On one new song sketch, ‘Voodoo Shoes’, he combined two heterogeneous musical lines, singing ‘She wore bugs/Voodoo Shoes’ over a guitar line that resurfaced a few years later as ‘Telephone’. Tepper: ‘He often sang with the main guitar line, but he also wrote where he wasn’t trying to get one line to talk to, or respond to, the other line. You’re hearing several conversations at once and they’re not necessarily relating to each other.’ His methods had always involved an instinctive juxtaposition of elements, but in this case it was impossible to get the ideas to work with or off each other and the song was abandoned.

Tepper again: ‘If you talk about Captain Beefheart, you can say he’s experimental, but to me it sounds like someone just letting their soul come out, someone just letting loose. “Experimental” brings up this very scientific, analytic, intellectual approach and having no soul or faith in letting go and letting the deeper sense of art itself come through – your balls, your heart, your blood, your eyes. I don’t think Captain Beefheart ever played experimental music.’

Despite his assertion that he could play piano ‘like nobody’s business’, Van Vliet again found himself in the position of having to convey abstract musical ideas to the musicians. Given the margin of error that would inevitably occur in the realisation of these unorthodox ideas, frustration often set in and, with it, bouts of irascible behaviour. Van Vliet may have mellowed with age, but there was no doubt that he had got his power back.

Thomas recalls the atmosphere in the Magic Band in the run-up to the recording of the album: ‘He was a tyrant, very demanding, very controlling. You couldn’t really bring in anything from the outside world without it either meeting his total approval or his complete disapproval. It was like walking on eggshells working with him. Don was extremely paranoid. His whole genius might even boil down to a very extreme kind of paranoia. We’re all able to appreciate the extreme creativity that it fed, but it also had a negative side and it made him very, very sensitive to nuance. If there was some little thing in what you said to him that he was unsure about, it could turn into a huge thing without you realising that you’d done anything. I was often in fear of saying or doing the wrong thing that would suddenly turn Don’s negative focus on me.’

Now fully back in control, Van Vliet asserted his unequivocal role as bandleader, sometimes, it seems, for no reason other than sheer bloody-mindedness. In one instance, he made one of the guitarists play the same motif over and over while berating him for making ‘mistakes’ – this to the incomprehension of the other musicians to whom the versions sounded identical. Bandleaders are often dictatorial and respect is always due to musicians who are prepared to put themselves in the firing line to enable their music to be realised. Ten years down the line, the prerequisites for playing in the Magic Band remained the same: exceptional musical talent and a skin of rhinoceros thickness.

Tepper gives his views on the not-always-so-benevolent despot: ‘He’s like an emperor, he’s got a very commanding natural presence that demands an audience, and that struck me the very first time I met him. It’s not the same thing as celebrity. It’s not like you’re in the same room as Mick Jagger – it’s different. He’s intimidating, at the same time he’s like a small child, very gentle. He’s got this tension, magic, specialness, and you just respect it. When you’re around him you respect the space.’

Most of the ex-Magic Band members, even the musicians who had a particularly harrowing time in the group, were willing to put in the hard work because the good times were unique. This trait was exemplified by French. Even though he’d received bad treatment, he was inexorably drawn back to the group, finding nothing comparable. The idea of slugging out a standard rock backbeat after playing in the Magic Band made his heart sink. And with the way his inimitable style of drumming had developed, there were few others whose music was geared to accommodate that type of rhythmic expression. Many of the musicians, especially from Bat Chain Puller onwards, still have fond memories of their time in the group. Twenty years on, Thomas rationalises Van Vliet’s role as bandleader: ‘When you’re in that position and it’s your name and your reputation that’s riding on it, you become more sensitive to the people who are working with you and how their expression affects you. Because you’re the one that takes the fall if someone does something that’s lame.’

Genius, paranoid or both, Bat Chain Puller is an example of Van Vliet’s ‘extreme creativity’ in action. It found him both venturing into new territory and also dusting off and refreshing some of the sonic sketches from the library of material recorded in 1971 and 1972.

Considering the bad-mouthing that he’d had to endure almost constantly since his production work on Trout Mask Replica, Zappa wisely decided not to get too directly involved and left Van Vliet to produce, with Kerry McNab on engineering duties. He just dropped in from time to time to check on progress. The group rehearsed for about three weeks in Zappa’s studio in Hollywood then went into Paramount Studios, where they recorded Bat Chain Puller in a mere four days.

On the title track, the locomotive rhythms of ‘Click Clack’ are revisited and slowed down. Whereas that train was speeding away, the metaphorical vehicle that passes through the five and a half minutes of ‘Bat Chain Puller’ is a slow, enormously long goods train. When the track was being rehearsed, Van Vliet was frustrated that he couldn’t convey his rhythmic ideas to the musicians. In an inspired move, he drove off to a nearby level crossing and waited for a train to trundle by. With his windscreen wipers running, he recorded the sounds on a cassette recorder, punctuating the field recording with occasional whistling. The story sounds like a generous helping of apocrypha, but it did take place and the tape successfully conveyed what he was trying to achieve. John French recalls that the exercise was a success: ‘He was sitting in his car and recorded it and he had me listen to it. We went into the studio, and I worked it out on the set. And it turned out to be a great, great beat.’

French’s hi-hat and tom-tom patterns faithfully replicate the rhythm. And unlike the music of Lick My Decals Off, Baby, the cars can be counted as they pass.

This phenomenal song finds Van Vliet at the peak of his powers both lyrically and musically. Drums and bass synth form a steadily moving conveyor belt, bringing first his harmonica and then mutated hoedown-style guitars into the picture. Van Vliet chants the title before bellowing out the word ‘Bat’, making it sound like it would have to be phonetically written with ten ‘a’s. The kaleidoscopic lyrics find him trying to describe the indescribable: a semi-mechanical, semi-organic train with ‘yellow lights that glistens like oil beads’, limp, hanging wings, and bulbs that ‘shoot from its snoot’ into the surrounding darkness.

The Bat Chain Puller sounds like a mechanised relative of The Blimp, with its own ‘trailin’ tail’ dragging behind, thumping over the sleepers between the tracks. The guitars then jag into the rhythm at obtuse angles as Thomas’s synthesiser sends out flickering bleeps. As the intensity builds, Van Vliet belts out an ever more delirious account of the hybrid locomotive and the landscape through which it moves inexorably towards its unstated destination, pulled by a team of rubber dolphins and passing by ‘green inflated trees’ and massive pumpkins grouped like land forms. Towards the fade he incants the title softly before shouting it out in a final series of affirmations. It trundles off into the distance, slide guitars coiling around each other and the synthesiser sending sonic tracers up into the ether.

Tepper was curious to find out more about the song: ‘One time I asked him, “What’s that song about? What did you mean? Just give me some clues, where are you coming from?” He said, “Man, all songs that I write are about the same thing.” I said, “What?” He said, “You know.” I said, “What?” He said, “Sex. Everything’s sex.” I go, “Come on, man, it’s this thing that’s been dragged out of a lake with hooks and it’s got veins on it, you’re telling me that’s about sex?” And he said, “It’s all about sex, man.” But if you asked him on another day he would say, “If you don’t know, why do you ask?” Always. That was his line.’

‘Seam Crooked Sam’ follows, a radical reworking of a rough sketch of the same name dating back to 1972. The only instrumentation on the spartan original was maracas, harmonica and the clattering of French doing his tap-dancing routine. Here the musical content is completely different. The song had become a chiming, crystalline construction with electric piano and guitar perambulating into a lengthy coda. French’s talents extended to guitar here and on some subsequent cuts, underlining his crucial role in realising Van Vliet’s music. The lyrics remain the same, but are recited rather than sung. They include descriptions of rooms available to rent in the ‘hat-rack hotel’, where the walls are yellow, or more specifically the colour of ‘damp, dead chickens’.

A lazy, swinging groove forms the basis for ‘Harry Irene’, the tale of a couple who ran a canteen. Their modus operandi sounds interesting: selling wine ‘like turpentine to painters’ and, in a marvellously tenuous following line, taking to social life ‘like props to aviators’. Although the song is a fairly slight work, it features some delightful accordion by Walley and a whistling solo by Van Vliet that demonstrates his skill and control. He was obviously fond of the song. It had been recorded in the sessions for Clear Spot and its genesis dated back to the late sixties. ‘It incorporates four lesbians and a tavern. I get a kick out of those people – out of humans, period. I think they’re absolutely hilarious,’ he told Richard Cromelin in Wax.

Van Vliet often used idiosyncratic inflections when reciting his poetry. In his book Frank Zappa: The Negative Dialectics of Poodle Play, Ben Watson praised his unorthodox diction, but the prose-poem ”’81” Poop Hatch’, spills out in a structureless stream, as if he is reading out a mass of ideas jotted down on a note-pad. It’s also one of his most difficult texts to unravel. The ‘poop hatch’ in the main character Biff’s cotton undergarments is a peripheral detail in among ‘dust speakers’, ‘raisins warped by thought’, and all manner of flora and fauna in a teeming, twitchy microcosm of activity. Although Van Vliet was happy with his performance, he hesitates in a couple of places, as he often did when performing his poems in concert. He seems to have his sights set on the end by about half-way through and recites the remaining text in a flat and inflectionless way, with all the enthusiasm of someone reading out an extremely long shopping list.

Bat Chain Puller is such an eclectic compendium of ideas that it’s difficult to guess what will come next. In this case it’s the exquisite solo guitar vignette ‘Flavor Bud Living’. Played by French, this piano-derived piece is a slow, sparse foray into the lyrical avant-guitar territory of ‘Peon’ and, in an ironic twist, is reminiscent of the gentle way Harkleroad and Boston approached that piece on Mallard.

‘Brickbats’ builds around a zoomorphic wordplay on bats and a lining of a fireplace at night with the ‘window curtain ghost’ billowing into the darkened room. The piece see-saws back and forth before the drums stagger in. In the middle section, the group hits some turbulent eddies before finally riding off on a beautifully tangled coda, with Van Vliet’s sax both garbled and lyrical. Although the vocal performance is ultimately convincing, it starts off with a fluff on the first line, which was inexplicably retained.

The lyrics on Bat Chain Puller are generally rooted in contemporary observations and sketches. On ‘The Floppy Boot Stomp’, however, he delves deep into folklore, digging up an archetypal confrontation between a farmer and the devil. In this struggle between good and evil, the farmer emerges as the winner, drawing a chalk circle and threatening the devil that if he encroaches he’ll ‘tan yer red hide’ and ‘dance yuh on yer tale’, but not before the ‘red violin’ has played the ‘Hoodoo hoedown’ and the farmer’s horse has quizzically compared his hooves to Satan’s.

Musically the song is driven by a drum pattern that at times turns itself inside-out on its Möbius strip-like course, and includes another appearance of the ‘Baby Beat’ played at double speed. Underpinned by electric piano, the guitars take their partners in a transmogrified square dance, one keeping the rhythm, the other playing a sweet slide melody.

‘A Carrot Is As Close As A Rabbit Gets To A Diamond’ is a guitar and piano duet with a neo-Baroque feel, the two instruments unifying to give the piece a harpsichord-like plangency. The instrumental is a tightened-up version of an earlier piece entitled ‘Ballerino’.

‘Carson City’ (later retitled ‘Owed T’Alex’) was dedicated to erstwhile Magic Band guitarist Alex St Clair, and his enthusiasm for motor bikes. The lyrics, co-written by Van Vliet and Herb Bermann – in their first collaboration since Safe As Milk – document the perils of that form of transport. With its roaring engine and white-hot pipes, the vehicle becomes a dangerous creature. The rider ruefully looks back after taking a ‘spill’, admitting he thought he’d almost paid his ‘bill’, as Van Vliet puts it, before pushing off to a party in Carson City. Van Vliet explained another facet of the track to Richard Cromelin in Wax: ‘I used to ride those damn things. I wasn’t actually a biker, but I had an old Indian with a suicide clutch and all that stuff. But I’d never ride one now – unless somebody gave me one.’

French’s pattern of snare rolls and tom-tom thuds are another example of Van Vliet embracing the view that a repetitive rhythm pattern needn’t be ‘corny’. As on ‘Bat Chain Puller’, the drum figure is played continuously. Over that bedrock, the spiky guitar figures and purring synthesiser bass start off in the same rhythmic measure before slowly shifting out of phase with the drums. The guitars and vocals break away in a middle section, then it coalesces again. The lyrics sung, Van Vliet then caws and cackles maniacally, as the twin guitars rev up, leaving dust trails in their wake at the fade.

The hobo lifestyle depicted on ‘Orange Claw Hammer’ from Trout Mask Replica is revisited on ‘Odd Jobs’, Van Vliet’s most poignant lyric. This particular hobo, an old odd-job man, is described as ‘a bag of skin and bones’. Odd Jobs used to appear on his bicycle, with sweets to give the children – to them the contents of his bike basket were like a ‘whole candy store’ – but he has disappeared. The women and the young girls all ask why he no longer comes around and the way this is sung – in a soulful lamentation – makes the listener fear the worst.

After the tale is told, the group lock into a stunning instrumental section, a linear extrapolation of a modal guitar motif, played with a plangent clarity by French, who finished the song off with Thomas. French’s assertion that he was not really a guitar player is belied by his performance here. Just how much more competent Van Vliet had become on piano is demonstrated by the original piano demo of the track. In a display of intuitive brilliance, he switches on the tape, sits down at the piano and spontaneously composes the five-minute track in one take. Other than two or three notes that were altered, the musicians play it exactly the same.

‘The Thousandth And Tenth Day Of The Human Totem Pole’ finds the bright, keen guitars of Walley and Tepper snaking off together, tracked by Thomas’s synthesiser bass. French punctuates the unravelling music with drum rolls, rim-clicking, tom-tom accents and yet another reappearance of ‘the baby beat’.

On the ‘distemper grey’ morning of the day in question, Van Vliet goes to inspect the pole and relays a darkly humorous depiction of human overcrowding. Representatives of all the races are piled on top of each other. There are problems getting food in to feed them, and they can only exercise by isometric flexing. The man at the bottom was smiling, we are told, because he had just managed to finish his breakfast uninterrupted – it hadn’t ‘rained or manured’ on him for a while. In the lyrical denouement a young girl approaches the pole displaying a Statue of Liberty doll. The Statue of Liberty cropped up as the subject of one of Van Vliet’s earliest songs, ‘Who Do You Think You’re Fooling’, where he criticised its use as a symbol, albeit indirectly. Now it is presented to the totem pole, its parodic reflection. The pole is also a metaphor for urban overcrowding, with its constituent human parts effectively prisoners of circumstance, brought face to face with the symbol of the liberty which is denied them.

The poem ‘Apes-Ma’, a home-cassette recording lasting all of thirty-eight seconds, is a stunning piece of work. On it, Van Vliet plays the role of incessant inquisitor. As the subject is an old caged ape, his questions will remain rhetorical. He recalls incidents in the animal’s life story, asking if she remembers the little girl who named her – well, anyway, she’s dead now. And then he reminds her about the time when she was young and used to try to break out of the cage – the cage that is now filthy and too small for the obese animal, which is overeating from boredom. Van Vliet states his case dispassionately and the primitive recording makes him sound like he’s talking from behind a closed door, compounding the poem’s disturbing atmosphere. Tucked away at the end of Bat Chain Puller, ‘Apes-Ma’ makes a powerful case against the maltreatment of animals in captivity and shows Van Vliet’s poetry at its most disciplined and finely honed.

His enthusiasm at having assembled this excellent new Magic Band was palpable. In interviews he went back to extravagantly asserting that most of the group had no previous musical experience. To play Van Vliet’s music, technical skill and the right attitude were essential, but technique was of little help. He was especially pleased to be working again with some young musicians. They were malleable enough to be moulded in the way he wanted – to be ‘his paint’ – and bright enough to fulfil their roles. Walley was nearer Van Vliet’s age, but was a technically excellent, empathetic player, and French was back as drummer, and facilitator non pareil.

John Thomas succinctly sums up the musicians’ role within the group: ‘Don was very fond of saying something which kind of angered all the musicians: that he taught them how to play, that none of them could play until they worked with him. But what he was getting at was he virtually had to teach them how to play the music the way he envisioned it, because there was no precedent for it – so it was really that way. And he’s such a powerful mental presence that you bowed your own will, lost your own individual will, in order to serve his vision. To be in the band took what pretty much amounted to a religious devotion, because you couldn’t logically justify any of the steps we were taking to make this music happen.’

Thomas left shortly after the album was recorded. When he accepted the offer to play with Mallard again, on their second album, In A Different Climate, Van Vliet made his disapproval clear. Thomas found the experience of being in the group overwhelming and was ultimately willing to leave. Although he laughs at the absurdity of the idea now, at the time he felt that when Mallard split and his career fell on hard times, it was because Van Vliet was ‘vibing’ him from a distance, putting some kind of ‘jinx’ on him. ‘Maybe I had an overestimation of his mental powers but certainly I felt influenced even when he wasn’t around,’ he says. ‘His sheer will is so overpowering. It was frightening in a way. I was relieved when I wasn’t working with him any more, because I was maybe too young and too impressionable.’

By mid-1976 Van Vliet found a replacement for Thomas in Eric Drew Feldman, one of Tepper’s best friends. Tepper: ‘Eric being my buddy and the person who turned me on to Captain Beefheart, I wanted to get him in the band. I was talking to Don all about Eric, and immediately I could tell he was very excited at the thought of the guy. We went over to meet Eric one night and being Don he was probably four hours late and by the time we got there – I think it was four in the morning – the light was out.

‘I knew we couldn’t go to the front door, we’d wake Eric’s parents, so I took Don to the back gate and whispered, “Be quiet, we gotta sneak into the room.” We went around the side of the house, and I opened up the door to Eric’s room and he was asleep on his bed. Don crept in and I swear he walked over to the bed and said, “Hi, little fella.” And I know by that point Don had made up his mind. I was obvious, like he had just found this really cute hamster asleep in its cage and he definitely decided that this was an animal that was going to be there. Being woken up, startled out of sleep, seeing Captain Beefheart in his bedroom, there was about five minutes or ten minutes of “Uh, yeah, can I get you some water?” and that was it, that was the audition. And that’s the honest truth.’

Feldman recalls the actual audition being only marginally more based on his ability as a musician: ‘We met in a coffee shop and Don said, “Do you want to blow?” I always thought there would be some sort of audition or something. I had been working really hard, learning how to play some of the songs. He came over to my home a few days later and I was trying to play him stuff and he was not even paying attention. He said, “Yeah, fine” – he just decides.’

Feldman’s role was to play keyboards, synthesiser and bass guitar. The task incumbent upon him was to learn the material from copies of the master tapes held by Warner Brothers and from some of the keyboard charts that Thomas had made. He reckons the fact that he hadn’t played bass before was a positive advantage: ‘I think part of the contradiction in his music is the mixture of people who are musically educated and those who aren’t. I’m not even saying which one I was, but I don’t think he cared. In one sense, any lack of expertise you have is a benefit for playing with him. In as much as I appreciated what he did, it took a while to wash some of the technique or musician’s ego out of my hair when I worked with him. But he was always really nice and very patient.’

French decided to leave yet again and was replaced by a friend of Feldman, Gary Jaye. French hung around long enough to teach Jaye some of the earlier material, and there was even talk of another double-drum line-up, but his relationship with Van Vliet soured and the drummer once more disappeared from the frame. Jaye was a skilful player but not as much of a Captain Beefheart aficionado as Feldman and Tepper. Consequently he found some of the more avant pieces like ‘Hair Pie’ too difficult and balked at the task.

One unreleased song from this era is the mighty ‘Hoboism’, an impromptu home-taped piece featuring Walley playing snaking R&B guitar and Van Vliet coming up with an off-the-cuff murder tale, a sort of hobo take on ‘Hey Joe’. In this case the murderer takes off riding the rails to escape retribution after killing his wife with a ‘pocket knife’. His freewheeling vocal performance is riveting, culminating in the demented yell of ‘It’s not jazzm, it’s not jism, it’s railroadism.’

In late 1976, Van Vliet spoke to Barry Miles, extolling the virtues of the new band – which now comprised Jaye, Tepper, Feldman and Walley. Victor Hayden was on alto sax and bass clarinet, and he had been learning cello, he said. He was upbeat, saying how the group was playing material from Trout Mask Replica and the old Soots number ‘Tiger Roach’, reckoning that they were ‘the greatest band in THE WORLD’, adding: ‘It makes everything else seem like cough drops. D’you know what I mean?’

Despite the tantalising prospect of the enigmatic Hayden once more added to the ranks, he slipped away unheard. Van Vliet had sent the tapes of Bat Chain Puller to Virgin three months previously and was waiting for the OK to be given for its release. It had come in too close to the Christmas release schedule and was slated for spring 1977 release. Inconvenient perhaps, but it turned out to be the least of his worries. By now, Zappa had already parted company with manager, Herb Cohen, and DiscReet was in turmoil, with rumours of litigation and counter-litigation in the air. Thomas was aware that trouble was brewing: ‘From what I understood, Zappa looked over the paperwork and found that Herb Cohen owned 51 per cent of the assets [of DiscReet]. He went to work and was locked out of his own studio.’ Van Vliet told Miles: ‘Herbie got Frank really bad. When Frank left Herbie, he reckons [he] opened a whole can of worms – a whole new can of worms he didn’t even know was there. It seems that over the years Frank has signed these pieces of paper, you know, signed in order to be able to keep on with his art.’

Van Vliet’s typical vagueness as to the exact status of these ‘pieces of paper’ – similar in content, no doubt, to those he was always happy to sign – was worrying. He was also involved in legal wranglings with the DiMartino brothers and was still in dispute with Virgin. As it turned out, all these pieces of paper combined to prevent the album from ever coming out (although at the time of writing, the Zappa estate are planning its release). When Van Vliet blithely stated that he had ‘three managers and they’re all nice guys’, a shudder must have passed through anyone with his interests at heart. He had faith that even if there was an impasse with Virgin, Warner Brothers would put the record out. Even that proved impossible.

Assuming that the situation would soon be resolved and that the release of Bat Chain Puller was still imminent, the group continued rehearsing and played some shows at the tail end of 1976 and early into the following year. Jaye’s days were numbered, though. Feldman recalls the manner of his departure: ‘He did his best, but he really had a hard time with the idea of who Don was and how things worked. We were at a rehearsal and at some point he got mad at Don and they got arguing about something and he [Jaye] said something to the effect of, “Do you want to step outside and talk about it?” Don had said that he had never ever fired anybody, that mostly people just quit, but I think that may have been the one time.’

The legal mess surrounding Bat Chain Puller became the most frustrating episode in Van Vliet’s career. He had been written off as a has-been, but had returned with a come-back album comparable with his best work. But not only was the album destined to lie dormant, a tape was circulated – allegedly by Virgin as a pre-release promo, perhaps by an over-zealous press officer – and soon became readily available on bootleg stalls.

Mike Barnes

© Quartet Books, 2000

beefheart.com, October 2000


  1. Do you know which of his paintings were inspired by his living in Trinidad, CA?

  2. I feel like a space traveler who just landed on a planet nearly dead, walking inside huge, vacant gargantuan buildings and museums. The Old Ones have died or are withered remnants of a once-mighty race. I mean, come on, that “We had a server crash” sign at the door has been there for 500 years, at least!

    Will no one build this place back up to it’s former glory?

    Sick transit Gloria de Beefheart, I guess…

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