Robert Carey – 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: Robert Carey
Sent: Monday, January 17, 2000 3:23 AM

Sorry this is so long. But here goes. Most of the stuff I have read about the Trout Mask era band (e.g. your notes to the Grow Fins collection and Bill Harkleroad’s Lunar Notes) talk mostly about how hard it was to live and work with Don. That is interesting, but I think readers would also like to know more about the day to day life in the Trout Mask house.

Unfortunately, you may not be happy with what you read. I have gone into detail about some of the incidents, both good and bad. I tried to cover a typical day in the Grow Fins set. We were usually up late, like between 12 midnight and 2:00 a.m. because Don was always a “night person.” We got up between 9 and 11 generally and started practising within the hour. Don was usually not up until noon or shortly before, unless he had stayed up all night. We usually didn’t eat anything until 8 or 9 o’clock at night.

Did you guys do anything other than practice?

Other than the “talks” there was usually a lot of individual practice, some group practice and an occasional trip to the beach or museum, which were a bit more enjoyable.

Did you listen to music?

Don had a small record collection consisting of his favourites. Eric Dolphy, John Coltrane, Ornette Coleman, Archie Shepp (not much), Horace Silver, and the blues players Muddy Waters, John Lee Hooker, Lightning Hopkins, Sun House (his favourite at the time ). He had some Bob Dylan, Rolling Stones, a few Beatles, Tina Turner (loved her voice), and then some electronic music.

What kind of music did you like?

I don’t know whether this “you” is collective or singular. I enjoyed jazz and Coltrane was right up at the top. I wasn’t crazy about Dolphy and liked Coleman even less. I also enjoyed several of the blues albums Don had. But I also liked the sound (not lyrics) of Led Zeppelin, who took up where The Yardbirds left off. I think the whole “Heavy Metal” sound was created by Jeff Beck in the early Yardbirds. The “Look” was later created by morons. I remember Mark Boston faced the wrath of Don one day by saying he really liked Steppenwolf.

Did all the band members have similar taste, or did some prefer Blues and some prefer Jazz?

That’s tough to know, as under the circumstances we were involved in, we didn’t have much of a chance to really get to know each other.

Was outside music discussed much?

Not much really, although Don did manage to keep about “half an eye” on the market to know what was going on. He may have checked the pulse more on his excursions away from the house.

Not much has been said about the personalities of the band members. I would like to hear a little more about them.

I will attempt to reflect as much on them as I was able to glean during the periods I worked with them. I knew Jeff quite well and Mark only a few months before I joined the Magic Band. Bill was only an acquaintance until joining the band. I liked him a lot and also had great respect for his guitar abilities and the fact that he was easiest to communicate with musically. We seemed to “groove” together quite well.

There are aspects of everyone’s personality that I touch upon in the book. Jeff appeared very nervous and seemed to become less himself the longer he worked with Don. Mark seemed like he was striving to gain enlightenment from a situation he didn’t quite understand (something we all shared in common, because our environment was certainly a bit of a puzzle). Bill was always a no-nonsense type of guy who seemed concerned about teamwork. This is probably partially due to the fact that he played Little League baseball when he was a child. He was a pitcher, and I remember him saying that he actually got ulcers from worrying about his performance at the games. He was certainly serious about his playing.

How did the band feel they were growing during that period?

I think we all felt that we were developing a unique new style, both individually and as a group. It was an inspirational time in that sense. We felt as though we were breaking completely new ground, and I think time has proven we were indeed doing just that.

In his book, Bill indicates that TMR was not the kind of music he expected to be playing when he joined the band. (It is certainly not difficult to accept that…) Still, what did you guys think you were building when you worked on Trout Mask and Decals?

During TMR, we all knew that we were doing something unique, which would stand out for years as a milestone. It was obvious that it wasn’t going to prosper us. We had the opportunity to look forward to starving and pleasing the “critics.” The hardest part was when our normal friends and family members wanted to hear what we’d been doing. HA! How do you explain this to them?

LMDOB was a bit more confident time for me. Don had received some notoriety, and I thought for a short time that this might mean a small amount of prosperity. The music went together a lot faster for me, as I wasn’t in on the formation of most of it, and just put drum parts to it after the fact.

I think the band must have been more aware of how radical a project it was than some of the recent publications have indicated. How did the band expect the record to be received both by the press and the public when it was released?

Art Tripp actually said that he believed we were going to be heard on Top Forty radio. Don was a good salesman in this regard. He also had Warner Brothers, who seemed to be backing him 100%. With more widespread acceptance of Zappa and Don’s association with him, I felt as though perhaps the music would open doors for more concert appearances and thus more recognition. I never felt the music would be widely accepted, however.

Did the band have any expectation about how the album was to be organised?

When you say “organised” I presume you mean “arranged.” The band basically arranged the albums. Don’s ideas were fresh and continuous. We did the processing which turned the ideas into playable pieces.

After all, you practised primarily without Don for months. Was the interjection of the spoken parts and the order of the cuts Don’s idea, or was this part of Zappa’s production?

Our time was so consumed with rehearsal and processing parts and trying to put the puzzle together that we really didn’t visualise it as a whole and certainly had no idea of track sequencing. Zappa had nothing to do with the music other than perhaps this last aspect, the track sequencing and editing of the little dialog snippets here and there.

Aside from things like resentment of Victor’s getting full credit as a band member, how did the band feel about the overall presentation of the material on the album?

I was gone when the album came out. However, on Easter Sunday, I did get to hear the master tape in Zappa’s basement. I thought it was incredible. There were some things I liked more than others and tracks that I felt got buried (Neon Meate Dream, prime example), but I could tell that this was something completely unique and like nothing else ever recorded. I only regret that Zappa didn’t take a few days in the studio and record the band properly. I think the performances would have been much better and the timbres of the instruments (especially the drums) would have been much clearer. Don seemed to think Frank was trying to “sabotage” his music, but I felt that Frank probably knew vocal overdubs were going to take quite a while, and so put the pressure on the band so that he could stay within his budget.

In an interview in New York Rocker in the late Seventies Don says that the members of the Magic Band who went on to form Mallard were “brittle.” Then he qualifies it, saying, “except Rockette Morton.”

Every new band Don assembled from the beginning to the end, was “the best group he ever had.” I’ve got quotes from various interviews through the years. I practically played with them all, and I’ll say that overall that I still feel the Trout Mask band was his best group. I knew how well those guys could play before they joined the band and I saw them grow in leaps in bounds. I have never seen a group as dedicated as those guys were in my entire life. I was very disheartened to read Don quoted as saying that his “new band” (I think it was Snyder, Tepper, Feldman, and Williams) was the band that should have done Trout Mask Replica because they were so much better. It was part of his promotional scheme to push his group, but I don’t think he realised how he made us who had “paved the way” feel. I think sometimes that Bill Harkleroad was a bit too tense and it showed up in his playing. However, he was also carrying a tremendous load of responsibility and tremendous emotional luggage. It had to manifest somewhere. If he was tense and brittle, it was because of the atmosphere that Don created in rehearsals.

The interviewer did not follow up on that statement. I was wondering if you had any idea why he might have said that.

Rockette was physically and musically “flexible” and this is what made him such an incredible performer. Bill was very disciplined about more conventional rhythms. I don’t thing people really realise how good Bill was and how difficult most of the stuff he was playing actually was. I have tried to teach other guitarists similar stuff and it’s just not that easy to do.

To what do you attribute the consistent feel and sound of Beefheart’s music over the years? I have always insisted that much of the music had to have been written by band members, and that has been confirmed.

I am concerned with this misconception the public seems to have that members of the band are now claiming “they wrote the music.” The source of almost everything you hear on a Beefheart album is clearly Van Vliet. Either specifically composed (the simpler tunes) or raw material honed into something playable by the band. The point that Bill, Art Tripp, Mark Boston, and myself make is that we made it into something playable, either as a group or as individuals listening to raw material on a tape. Yes, we did contribute without credit several parts and modified much of the music so that it would work a little better. We did not “write” the music. The main source, the basis of all the material was always Van Vliet. I am sorry if I have ever led anyone to believe otherwise. However, the arrangement, the composition, the manner in which parts went together and the determination of whether a part was playable or needed to be modified was almost always decided by band members. Once Don gave us what he considered “music” for a piece, it still had to be put together. It came to us unassembled, with no instruction sheet. That’s why I am saying there is a lot of “us” in those songs. I could never understand why it was such a big issue with Don to take full credit for everything, as though he were Stravinsky (with whom he once compared himself) writing out an exact score. It was a bit exasperating for us who worked so hard to be given no credit at all for anything other than playing. We were also portrayed by Don as amateurs who had never played before. Don claimed to have taught us everything we knew. This not only hurt us career wise, it was a total fabrication. We became non-entities and sidemen in a sense. Yet I believe we were all much more than that.

On the other hand, with the exception of some of your projects such as Crazy Backward Alphabet, later work by former Magic Band members (Mu, Mallard, Jeff Moris Tepper, Eric Drew Feldman, Robert Williams) has not had a particularly Beefheart-like sound to it.

This is where I would love to spank the critics. I actually put a couple of things on the CBA album which were a bit Trout Mask-like in arrangement, because I felt that it was important to show that I knew how to do that. However, if I had done an album that sounded too “Beefheartian,” then I would have been labelled a “rip-off,” although I had much influence in the original music and should be allowed the liberty to pursue that direction. Mu and Mallard to me were both bands who were trying to reach a larger audience, and so modified their sound for just that purpose. I think that if those albums would have come out on major labels by people who didn’t already have “Decals” pasted all over them, they would have probably been more widely accepted. I haven’t really heard any of Tepper’s stuff save a blurb on the net, which I found interesting, but not something I would wish to buy. Eric was a studio sideman-type and more interested in just processing information. I understand he is now writing his own material.

My point, though, is that it seems the public expects us to be “Little Beefhearts.” I am a completely different person from Don. Therefore, my music will be completely different. This is one reason why I don’t care to record any longer. Everyone I have worked with has pasted labels on me the minute I walked into the rehearsal. If I do any more work in music, it will probably be under a different name, so that people aren’t “expecting” anything.

Do you think he really did have a vision of what he wanted the music to sound like and managed to steer the musicians toward it?

Absolutely, that was a large part of it. However, he also “borrowed” and was influenced by each player as they came in. And remember, after Trout Mask and Decals were released, a precedent was set. Musicians who were attracted to that music (like Tepper, Feldeman, Williams, Lucas, Snyder and Martinez) were musician-fans who actually whole-heartedly desired to play that music above anything else. Therefore, they had studied and learned a bit of what Don would expect. They were “customised,” so to speak.

Or do you think the ideas came from a small group of musicians and he milked those ideas over a couple of decades?

All of the above, essentially. He always had raw ideas. Sometimes he had specific ideas. He like the sound of Alex’s guitar. Therefore, the Beefheart guitar was usually a Fender with heavy strings. He also liked the rhythmic approach of the Delta Blues players. So finger-picking was developed. Gerry McGee came in and he used finger-picks, so that was added. I am just talking technique here, but the same applied to sound. The beginning of the song “Flower Pot” is merely a Jerry Mcgee line that Don expounded on. The beginning of “Trust Us” is a guitar part I wrote that Don expounded upon. Don also discovered things on his own. A lot of this is covered in the track notes sections of the book.

Or did the strength of his voice and character as a performer convey something unique regardless of what else was going on?

Again, all of the above. I listened to some of the stuff on Shiny Beast and said to myself, “Why in the world is Richard Redus playing Denny Walley’s guitar solos note by note? Also some of the songs , like “Love Lies” don’t even really sound like Beefheart parts to me, and certainly Bruce is playing some really off-the-wall stuff that is totally uncharacteristic of Don’s musical ideas. Yet, the finished project is in a sense, “Beefheartian.”

It is worth noting that covers of Beefheart songs by other bands either fail miserably or else sound like straight copies. I can’t think of an instance of someone covering one of his songs and really catching the soul of it.

Since I have never heard any of these bands, I would hesitate to comment on this except to say that part of the sound may have come from the tension Don always attempted to create within the group. Cliff Martinez is quoted in the Grow Fins booklet on this subject, and I think his quote is very perceptive in regard to this.

Also, I think it is fair to add that the very fact that the music broke so many rules and has so much dissonance makes it impossible for anyone to really duplicate what they “hear.” I can barely remember individual parts myself these days.

I would say that a good example of a group that didn’t sound “Beefheartian” was the Bluejeans and Moonbeams band. Perhaps this is due to the fact that Don didn’t really have a chance to “indoctrinate” them into the whole perception that he had of music. All the other bands were more situations of “total immersion” at least for short periods of time. Once Don had a band totally immersed for a time, they became almost “programmed” to know their role, which included much of what I mentioned above: especially the taking of raw material and processing it into finished songs, and also the techniques of using heavy strings and metal finger picks.

Did you ever have trouble maintaining friendships with people who had been in earlier version of the Magic Band when you got back together with Don in later groups?

No, for the most part, they thought I was insane to go back, but felt that being in the band was punishment enough. I have never sensed any resentment at all. I think the closest thing to resentment was probably when I decided not to do the Mallard project. But Bill still came over and made tapes of a couple of songs I had written for inclusion on the album. We have always maintained a friendship. Boston was a bit upset, because he was, in a large part, responsible for the whole project getting under way.

Did you have any interaction with the Bluejeans and Moonbeams band? If so, did they have any idea what they were getting involved in? Had they heard the other bands?

If I had more time, I would probably pursue getting in touch with these guys. It would be interesting to see what they have to say about those days. I did notice one quote in The Dust Blows Forward booklet from one of the band. He in essence said, “We didn’t have a clue.” He was very humble about the whole thing.

I see the name Ira Ingber on the album cover. Is he related to Elliot?

Ira is Elliot’s brother I believe.

There is a bootleg album called Confidential that contains a track called “Unconditionally Guaranteed.” It says it was recorded in 1974. Are you familiar with this cut, and do you know who was in the band that performed it?

No. Sorry, I’d have to hear it.

Was there no way Mallard could have indicated who they were?

No, I believe Don would have sued the band for using the name Magic Band. I think that it would have been much more fair to allow them the name The Magic Band. They were, in essence just that for years. No one was allowed to used stage names (i.e. Zoot Horn Rollo) or the name The Magic Band. This, of course, took away any recognition that they could have gained, making it much more difficult to promote themselves.

It was years before I found out about the existence of the Mallard records, and then when I got them I couldn’t recognise anyone except Art Tripp in the pictures on the cover. It was very puzzling.

It was a very bad deal for them and could have been avoided just by Don being a bit reasonable. I think he would have also come off looking better had he just given them the rights to the name. For years, we all were under the impression that Don had copyrighted our stage names. This is what he told us. You may have noticed those were never used. I think this was just another part of Don’s control over the band. It had to be his way or no way at all.

Is Rockette Morton wearing a mask on the cover of Decals? Who decided on that cover? Who designed it?

Yes he is, and I have no idea where it came from. It was a semi transparent mask, much like a fencing mask with a face drawn on it. He just had it there and tried it on during the shoot. There are several different poses. Mark is not always standing out front. The cover concept was Don’s and I never really understood the whole idea with the tuxedos. It was shot on the Warner Brother’s sound stage set for the move “Hotel.”

Whose idea was it to have Rockette Morton play the double necked guitar/bass?

I’m not sure how that came about. I know Don loved those “lipstick pickups” (which come on Danelectro guitars). I think the idea was to have Mark play some of the guitar parts occasionally. It looked great on stage.

Do you know anything about the events described in Debra Kadabra?

Not really. There’s something about Granny Annie (Don’s grandmother – probably part of a reminiscing between the two). I know that Don claimed that both he and Frank dabbled in Black Magic. Perhaps Debra is a fictional extension of that experience. Don’s mother was an Avon lady for a while. Avon had a door to door line of cosmetics among other things, and Don was highly allergic to some of their products. I recall everything I can in the track notes for this song.

Is there any truth to the rumour that Don made Art play in blackface during the Clear Spot recording sessions?

I wore blackface onstage at the last few performances before I was discharged from the band after the Spotlight Kid sessions.

Can you identify the voices on the spoken tracks on Trout Mask Replica? For example, who says, “Rockette Morton takes off again into the wind!”? I realise this is kind of trivial, but I am really curious and there isn’t much out there to compare people’s voices against.

Rockette says that line.

Vic Hayden does the “fast and bulbous” bit.

The (forgot his name) Amway man talks about “rats” after Dachau Blues.

I identify all these in the track notes of the book.

In No Commercial Potential by David Walley, Don is quoted as saying (on page 117):

“If he does make some money I hope he does look back at some of those people like Jimmy Carl Black, and Roy Estrada and slips them a parcel of loot under their doors because he’s used those people to get as far as he got. Whether they were on time all the time I thought they were pretty faithful and I don’t think he knew how to handle that kind of faithfulness and I think it was overwhelming and I think that’s what drove him out of the group and I doubt he wanted to drop everything like that. I doubt it, but again that’s me and I’m really naive … and then it may be that a lot of people deceived him and ran to a wing to hide under. That’s possible … if that’s so then he was open, being a musician, he was open to that kind of thing … it’s so far out the things that happen in this day and age with this media. Who knows?-”

I was wondering if you would comment on this, given the way Don treated the members of his own band.

I ran across this quote in the book and found it a bit surprising, but not at all unusual in the sense that much of what Don preached against in public, he sometimes practiced in private. After weighing the facts, I can see why Don might see a small amount of unfairness in Zappa, who according to a couple of the Mothers sometimes used lived improvisations on his album releases and didn’t pay publishing royalties to the player.

On the other hand, Van Vliet may be unaware of the “beam in his own eye”. In my estimation, I have never seen a more devoted band than the Trout Mask /Decals/Spotlight Kid group. I also never have been in a situation where less money was paid for more services. I think we worked (especially Bill Harkleroad and myself ) above and beyond the call of duty under often wretched circumstances. I can never remember anytime during this period of time when Don actually thanked the band for their efforts. And I don’t think he realized how much work was done by the band to hone his often rough ideas into actual playable compositions. There’s a lot of us in those compositions.

So, to answer the question, it would seem more suitable to me had Frank said this about Don, than vice versa.

– John French

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