Don Van Vliet was born in Glendale California on January 15 1941, the Only child of Glenn and Sue Van Vliet. Don began showing artistic talent at a very young age, but Glenn and Sue were none too keen on the prospect of having an artist in the family (“‘Cause you know, all artists are faggots,” is how Don explained their rationale), so they moved to the Mojave Desert, an isolated, harsh environment guaranteed to bleach the creative juice out of anybody. But Don Van Vliet just had too much to dry out. The drive to translate the world around him (and the one inside his head) into music intensified, his imagination blossomed and then, voila! Don Van Vliet introduced himself to the world as Captain Beefheart.
Beginning with his 1966 debut LP Safe As Milk, and continuing through ten subsequent albums, Captain Beefheart tossed conventional approaches to language and music out the window and replaced them with an astonishing system of his own design. His startlingly original music marries rural folk tales, voodoo, ecological propagandizing, punning and free association to a spectrum of sound that stretches from Charles Ives, Stravinsky, jazz and blues to the natural sounds of the Mojave Desert, where Beefheart has lived in a mobile home for the past seven years. A free-wheeling and wild soprano saxophonist, Beefheart has a five-octave vocal range that allows him to slip into diverse characterizations as he ruminates on his pet themes: the wonderfulness of women, nature, man’s stunning stupidity and spiritual sloth, and the splendor of every damn thing in the galaxy, from Haley’s Comet to a rusty nail. Careening from a wistful, dark vision of American life evocative of Randy Newman, into an atonal, primordial mind-frame, Beefheart makes jolting leaps in rhythm and mood. Disjointed and vulgar, lyrically poetic, ominous and euphoric all at once, his music jumps out at you and hollers boo, then whispers something sweet and funny in your ear.
Often dismissed as a charming eccentric, Beefheart has never fared too well in the marketplace. A major shifting of perceptual gears is required to even hear his music, much less figure how to market it, and an indifferent record company allowed his last album, the brilliant Doc At The Radar Station, to die on the vine, a fate suffered by many of its predecessors. He recently signed with Epic Records (his eighth label) who will distribute his new LP Ice Cream For Crow, and although Beefheart feels it’s one of the best albums he’s made, he remains skeptical about its commercial potential. “Well, here’s hoping the album goes platinum,” I enthused. “Yeah sure, he laughed.
Ice Cream For Crow signals no major stylistic changes for Beefheart, but it does differ from his last LP in a few ways worth noting. The music feels looser – there’s more air and space to it – and somehow, sadder. Beefheart has lost none of his bite and is still mad as hell about the horrors man has wrought, yet his anger seems a bit more forgiving and benign. The album includes a gorgeous instrumental guitar composition entitled “Evening Bell” (which is magnificently performed by Gary Lucas), a spoken word piece, and of course, a handful of tunes so ferociously fired-up and complex, God only knows how the Magic Band mastered them.
Beefheart is notorious for the dictatorial way in which he runs his band and he doesn’t try to deny those rumors. It’s his music, it demands absolute precision and the band is to play each note exactly as he tells them. As might be expected, there are former Magic Band members with bitter tales to tell, yet difficult as it may have been to work with Beefheart, none of them questions the genius of his music. The incarnation of the Magic Band I’ve come to know – Jeff Tepper Gary Lucas, Richard Snyder and Cliff Martinez – are a remarkable bunch indeed. In addition to being first-rate musicians, they’re exceptional people, kind, humble and intelligent, and all feel a deep commitment to Beefheart and his music.
Having decided to retire from touring, Beefheart intends to promote his new album with a video, so on August 7, he and the Magic Band gathered in the desert to perform one of their new songs and had Daniel Perle, the cinematographer who shot The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, film it with Ken Schreiber producing. Plonked in the middle of the Mojave, nothing but Joshua trees and sand as far as the eye could see, they filmed from sundown to sunup. I spoke with Don during the interminable waiting periods that are part of film making.
Beefheart makes unexpected conversational segues that parallel his music; talking with him can be like struggling with a jigsaw puzzle. He’ll make a baffling declaration, you’ll give him a confused look and he’ll add the clarifying link. Example:
Me: Boy, those kids hooked on Pac-Man are like zombies.
Him: Yeah, I always want to check and see if they have navels.
Him: To see if they’re human!
He’s a funny man with a remarkable memory, who’s had to wage a fierce battle to preserve and protect his music, and he’s rightfully, defiantly proud of the work he’s done. A child in many ways. he’s apt to find the task of ordering his lunch befuddling, yet he’s incredibly wise when it comes to the big issues.
Lip-synching for the video camera, he was constantly doing double-takes on himself. He’d perform a gesture, be struck by the absurdity of the situation, step back and mimic himself. As take after take was required, his behavior flip-flopped between that of a patient professional, and a restless child whose attention span had reached its limit. “Hell,” he exclaimed at one point, checking his watch, “I’ve got to be on Mars in fifteen minutes!” If anybody knows how to get there, I’d bet even money that it’s Don Van Vliet.
Musician: What was the central idea that guided you through the making of Ice Cream For Crow?
Beefheart: Probably the image of black crows and white ice cream, just the idea of black and white. God, you should see some of these birds! Those ravens with those tuft things under their beaks like a double chin. Pretty hip. I wanted to have some crows in a video I made a few weeks ago in the desert but they’re too smart and they wouldn’t come around when we were out there with the cameras. When people show up they start laughing, ha ha ha, then they split.
Musician: How do you compose? What comes first? A lyrical fragment? A sound that appeals to you which you’ll build a song around?
Beefheart: Usually the complete composition comes to me. Flash! Bang! It’s just there. If I have an idea that I don’t think is really living, I get rid of it.
Musician: Do the songs ever take on lives of their own and evolve in a way that surprises you?
Beefheart: No, I’m always in control, disgustingly enough. Wouldn’t it be funny if all of a sudden they said, “Hey, I have a place for you to go!” That would be nice.
Musician: How do you convey to the band what you want them to play?
Beefheart: I’ll try anything. Long tedious explanations, I’ll paint it out – anything to get it to resemble the way I want it. I’m real stubborn. The band is actually pretty quick at picking upon what I want.
Musician: How collaboratively are the songs worked up in rehearsal? Is the band allowed any creative input?
Beefheart: None, but they’re not like slaves. If they have something they want to do, I let ’em go all the way out. I mean, hit the damn stuff to hell! That’s what I require – somebody that really wants to beat it out.
Musician: What step in the music making process do you most enjoy?
Beefheart: Probably giving it to somebody else and hearing it back, getting as close to the flash as possible. If the initial flash burns out to the edges and it gets up close – wow! I do enjoy the collaborative part but I don’t enjoy collaborating with an audience. I’m there doing what I do and it has nothing to do with an audience. I’m not enough of an exhibitionist or a voyeur to enjoy audiences and they’re actually more a distraction than anything. That sounds horrible, I sound like a real jerk, but maybe artists are jerks. Selfish and inconsiderate.
Musician: What’s the key to a great vocal performance? To let your senses take over and lose yourself in the moment? Or discipline and intense rehearsal – to concentrate and sing with your mind?
Beefheart: To just completely let go, but I think if you do let go, your mind is in control. I think soul is a mathematical mistake.
Musician: Rock critics have lumped you in with the Delta blues singers. Do you think there’s any truth to that?
Beefheart: No way. that’s just ignorant thinking. And the idea of thinking itself! I mean, it’s extremely difficult to think about something somebody else is doing. I have a lot of compassion for anybody who’s got that job. I wouldn’t have the nerve to do it! Pin something on me and I’m another way a minute later. Yeah, lumping me in with the Delta blues guys is a joke. I wouldn’t go over somebody else’s painting. How could they think I would? You know who really moves me as far as blues singers go is Lightnin’ Slim. He was wild. Ever hear that song of his called “Bed Bug Blues”? “Lord them bed bugs sure is evil/ They sure don’t mean Lightnin’ no good/ They thinks they am a woodpecker/ They mistakes me for a chunk of wood.”. Isn’t that nice? That’s frightening. A really good sculpture. I like Lightnin’ Hopkins too. And Martin Luther King. He was a funny fellow – a good blues singer.
Musician: Was there music in the house you grew up in?
Beefheart: My aunt used to play a lot of the current stuff, like Glenn Miller. I thought it was wonderful then and I still like that music. He’s almost sculpting that stuff. I’m wilder and like to tear up more than that, but for the instrumentation he used, I think he really did it. Amazing. My aunt also played a lot of Al Jolson. I heard that stuff in my basinet as I lay there being rocked back and forth.
Musician: Have you ever had a productive relationship with a producer?
Beefheart: No, it was always something I had to fight.
Musician: Is there anyone whose opinion you trust more than your own instincts?
Beefheart: Yeah, my wife Jan. She’s always right, to the point that it scares me sometimes. She’s a very good painter herself, although she hasn’t painted in quite a long time because she’s been trying to help me, which is a terrible burden on me, guilt-wise.
Musician: Which of your work functions as a central reference point for you, something you measure other work against?
Beefheart: I’ve never reflected in that way-I’m afraid to. I don’t want to get caught by myself
Musician: How do you see your music evolving over the years?
Beefheart: I don’t know that it really has. The only difference between the new record and the last one is that the guys in my new band play better. They’re real good. Cliff Martinez, my new drummer, is just incredible and Jeff Tepper’s gotten awful good – but he was awful good to begin with.
Musician: Since you feel so good about your current band, why have you decided not to tour?
Beefheart: To be perfectly truthful, I don’t care if the public hears this music or not. I do it for me! I have to. I mean, if I don’t get it out – good God!
Musician: So how do you feel about your audience? Do you feel any sense of kinship or respect?
Beefheart: No sense of kinship, really. I think if they want to come hear it they should, but if they don’t want to, they shouldn’t. I respect anybody who wants to hear something they have to go through so much hell to hear I mean, I’m gonna holler at ’em! I’m hollering at myself, at the monster in me. It’s not meant towards any humans.
Musician: Is today’s audience more intelligent than the one you addressed ten years ago?
Beefheart: Yeah, but they’re also more tedious. My records sell better than they used to but that’s just because I’m becoming popular like a hood ornament or something. I have met people who actually hear the music and when that happens I ask, “Well, what did you think?” I want to know what the hell they think of it because it’s just me going to the bathroom.
Musician: In a very elegant way….
Beefheart: The artist is he who kids himself most gracefully.
Musician: Can an adventurous ear for music be learned?
Beefheart: Yeah, I think it can probably be refined, although I liked Mozart the minute I heard him. I just wish I’d heard him perform his music. I don’t want to hear somebody else’s interpretation of it. The interpreters get so laid back. They always take the bite and power out of it. I heard Stravinsky conduct himself once and God, what a difference!
Musician: Do you have hopes that your music will be performed by other players in the future, or are you central to the music to the point that that would be impossible?
Beefheart: I expect it’s impossible but I don’t know if anybody’s going to want to tear themselves up as much as this music demands. My band plays hard. I hate to flex and all that macho silliness but my music does take a lot of muscle.
Musician: Have you ever heard your music performed by any other group?
Beefheart: Yeah, once. What’s their name? The Tubes, yeah, the Tubes went down on one of my songs. And this British group, Magazine, did “I Love You, You Big Dummy,” and they did a disgusting job. Totally missed the point! Sounded like attentive masturbation.
Musician: Do you attempt to stay abreast of musical trends or listen to the radio?
Beefheart: No! Yyyeee no! The very thought gives me an involuntary shake. You can get ear flu from pop music.
Musician: Why do you think the general audience tends to find your music difficult and abrasive?
Beefheart: Probably because they won’t work hard enough to hear it.
Musician: If the public were more familiar with your music, say if it was played on the radio, do you think it would be more widely enjoyed?
Beefheart: Definitely. But it’s been my experience that people who initially just ran away in horror from my music have come up to me later and were really ready to be there. I guess those are the people who are really hearing it.
Musician: How do you explain the adversary relationship that seems to exist between artists and their audience?
Beefheart: It’s true that people either seem afraid of artists or they love them in that “oooh, that’s wonderful” way. I saw people doing that to a Van Gogh painting that absolutely put me on the floor! I started smashing my head against the wall and all the people were calmly saying “ooh, pretty.” I don’t know that they meant any real harm but I don’t think they could even see the painting. But then when Van Gogh was alive he wasn’t treated too well, so maybe people do mean harm. They’ll squash a spider! God, spiders are great. Talk about mathematics! Those things are funny.
Musician: How do you intend for your music to be used? What effect do you hope it might have?
Beefheart: I hope it gets people up and makes them move like I have to. I do it out of irritation that’s my drive. I have to do it. It’s like sandpaper on a shrimp.
Musician: Are there days when you don’t feel that drive?
Beefheart: I can’t ever recall having a day like that. You know, I hear so damn good – I can hear through anything. No…there’s never any silence. Of course if there was, I’d start screaming.
Exactly how does a musician go about mastering Beefheart’s unique repertoire? Ask the man himself and he’ll no doubt leave you with a poetic understanding of how he approaches his work, but the actual techniques he employs remain a mystery. In an attempt to shed some light on his working methods, and the dynamics of his relationship with the people who play his music, I spoke with four members of the Magic Band.
GARY LUCAS (guitarist) Don teaches us our parts in a number of ways. He tends to mold and shape the music right there during our rehearsals and he often sings or whistles our parts to us. Some-times he’ll draw a diagram or give us a tape of him playing the piece on the piano. He’s able to compose at the piano very beautifully – “Trout Mask Replica” was in fact composed at the piano, by and large. I learned one cut on the new album, a thing called “Evening Bell,” from a tape he gave me of himself at the piano. For six weeks I worked four hours a day trying to translate what he was playing onto the guitar and I was lucky if I could learn ten seconds of the piece a day. Don’s music can be incredibly diffi-cult to learn but for me it’s worth the effort because it’s great music and it’s an honor to play it. He also uses great analogies to communicate what he’s after. For instance, in teaching a drum part to Cliff, he told him to play as if he were juggling a pan of BBs – funny stuff. In a way, the songs are like frozen events. It’s as if a deck of cards were thrown in the air, a snapshot was taken of it, and we learn to reproduce that snapshot. If we play it incorrectly, he keeps making adjustments until it’s right, shaping it as if it’s a sculpture rather than written music. For us in the band it’s sort of like seeing a photograph develop. He knows exactly where it’s going but fre-quently the band won’t have the overall picture until the end. Don’s music appears improvisatory to most people but, in fact, everything is meticulously worked out in advance. Everything is in perfect balance and it doesn’t really lend itself to improvisation. It’s like a mobile with all its elements spinning in space. The only spontaneous element is Don. We provide a canvas on which he paints his stuff.
RICHARD SNYDER: (bassist) It doesn’t bother me that we’re not invited to offer ideas and opinions about the music because I really love Don’s music and feel a strong commitment to it. One of the hard things about playing with Don is that being a musician, I tend to think in a musicianly way, but he’s not dealing with any of that at all. Occasionally the musician part of my mind gets in the way and I won’t be able to play exactly what Don’s after, and when that happens I just have to drop my musician’s armor and play it the way he asks. And it’s almost liberating to let that go – to let the teach-ing go. Many musicians who’ve worked with him in the past have said, “I was already a proficient musician before I joined the Magic Band,” and although that might be true, that’s not what Beefheart’s band is about. It’s not that you are asked to play badly because obviously that’s not happening at all. Gary Lucas does some really incredible things with the guitar on the new album. But to play Don’s music, you have to drop your pre-conceived ideas about playing. You don’t drop your abilities but you do drop your concepts.
JEFF TEPPER: (guitarist) In the seven years I’ve been playing with Don, I’ve seen his music get less melodic and less musical. His ideas and the compo-sitions he writes now are even more abstract and broken up. His singing is less melodic – there’s more talking or yelling – and the music has become more rhythmically fragmented. A song on the new album called “Cardboard Cutout Sundown” is a good example of all this. I think the music feels less oriented.
CLIFF MARTINEZ: (drummer) Don always tells us to “hit it to hell in a bread-basket,” to play every note like it’s going to be your last note. And that’s one thing I’ve always liked about his records – they’ve always been sincere and had a lot of energy. Don has devised a com-pletely unique approach to the drum kit and although not too many drummers are aware of Beefheart or Drumbo (former Magic Band drummer), I’d put him up there with Tony Williams or Elvin Jones. The drum kit as we now know it is a pretty new instrument and the way it’s always been used in the recent past, in big band music, jazz, bebop and rock ‘n’ roll, is pretty much that the right hand plays some kind of ostinato pattern while the left hand and feet play accompany-ing patterns against it. What Don does that’s different is he incorporates the entire drum kit-tom-toms, everything – into that time-keeping ostinato, so that the entire drum kit is playing this giant melodic pattern. Don’s gone through various phases over the years and done a few albums – the two on Mercury specifically – that were commercial attempts. But his unique approach to the drum kit has remained fairly consistent throughout all his music.