Robert – 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
Sent: Tuesday, January 11, 2000 6:16 AM

John – do you guys now or then feel any kind of sense of lost opportunity playing in rock music? what I’m kind of saying is that the jazz players that played with the old greats like Parker and especially Miles Davis all went on to bigger and better things once they left/fired. I always thought there just didn’t seem to be anywhere else to go for the magic band members, since you guys were further out than the fusion music of Weather Report / Return To Forever/ Mahavishnu Orchestra / etc.


This is one of the best questions I’ve ever been asked. You are exactly right! There was no where for us to go. We weren’t really accepted by any group and our self-esteem was already low of a result of our experience. One of the astronauts once said something to effect of: “Once you’ve been to the moon, where do you go from there?” I think this is what we all felt.

Scenarios I wished could have happened?

(One) I sometimes wish the Trout Mask band had stayed together and continued to develop into a more improvisational band based on Don’s concepts, but given the freedom of self-expression. I think Don would have become an improvisational lyricist, making up lyrics as he sang and the songs would have been absolutely unique in music history, much less the performances.

(Two) I often wished that Don had just been focused enough to write two or three albums worth of blues/rock in the genre of Clear Spot and released immediately after Safe as Milk. I wish he had the focus to also perform professionally for at least three years as a more conventional singer. Then we would have had the money to go into outer space and afford the breathing apparatus.

(Three) Sometimes I wish I had the sense to quit the band the first day and pursue my own endeavour. I would have surely become much more prosperous.

(Four) I wished I had followed Ry Cooder when he left and said I wanted to be his drummer. I got along great with Ry and although he is not the genius of a Van Vliet, he certainly was a better businessman and a more accessible artist. Besides, I respected him a great deal, not only as an artist, but as a human being. He seemed really honest to me. I loved his drum ideas and he communicated them very well. He knew what he wanted and he knew who he was. I liked that about him.

Other young drummers for example like say Tony Williams, were young like yourself and learned their apprenticeship through a dictator type environment. But when they moved on, they were able to make good lateral moves.

Although it was a totalitarian type of environment, it was still a more “musically familiar” environment than the turf we were on. Who else has ever played anything like Trout Mask? There was no place laterally to move.

If this is true, and I recall you saying you were pigeonholed, you guys couldn’t go the jazz route and would have to take an independent route like Ry Cooder, which changes a lot of things.also, if Van Vliet wouldn’t let you talk to other musicians like Bill Harkleroad said in his book.

Sort of a long winded question, but I always thought you guys should’ve gone the way of the ex-Miles Davis guys.

What happened to us, if I may sound like I’m a little sad, was a tragedy. It was a waste of the talent of several people. There were a lot of psycho-dynamics that prevented us from being able to work together apart from Don. Unfortunately, we were programmed for failure through our experience and it took all of us years to break through barriers we didn’t even know existed. I’m STILL dealing with some of the demon’s imprints I picked up back then!

You also mentioned “good lateral moves” that jazz players were able to make. One of the reasons it was so difficult to deal with the kind of musicians we became is that it had little to do with any “movement” in music. Don had isolated himself and us and though he had a great vision, it was singular. Like a 300 foot tall tree in a forest of 25 foot trees. There were no other limbs to jump on to. No place to go but down.

I didn’t realise myself how intense this isolation was until I had tried leaving the band and jamming with other musicians. After attempting this for a while, I came to the conclusion that this may have been why Don became such a taskmaster. Although not physically disciplined to play what he envisioned, he certainly had the mental capacity to long for a unique and intelligent new sound and felt the only way to get there was to bully his way there.

– John French

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