On September 30, 1993, Dave DiMartino received a phone call from Don Van Vliet.
I heard that you have a new studio up there. Is it a big one?
Is it complete?
Yeah. I’m painting like a house afire. (laughs)
How do you spend your time now? Mostly painting?
Do you do any drawing?
Oh yeah. All the time.
How is your day spent up there? Do you see many people?
Just paint. No people. Just painting.
Are you happy up there like that?
Yeah. Happy as a clam. (laughs)
Does it seem as if you made your music a very long time ago?
No. It seems like a long time since I saw you, at that frightening place.
It scares me how long ago that was.
Twenty years. How do you look?
Uh, about the same.
Are you feeling okay?
I hope things are working out well for your in that regard.
They seem to be.
With your being so reclusive now, it seems as if the door has been opened for people to discuss you and your music – maybe criticise you both in the process – without having avenues to respond. People like Henry Kaiser…
Uhh . . . little rich boy.
Well, he’s got an audience, and he’s saying things in the liner notes of his albums about you. Maybe he’s getting more of an audience than he should with…
Are you happy? Are things looking good or looking bad?
I’d like to talk to you about your approach to art and music, about similarities and differences. Is that too difficult a thing to go into right now?
No. But tell me what he’s saying about me.
He’s saying he’s not sure how much responsibility for the music you can claim, that it was your former Magic Band people who…
(interrupts) Ah! Hahaha! Ooh!
And what’s especially disturbing to many – that you’re seriously ill and that your health is gone.
What? Hahaha! He hopes I am!
Why do you think this is happening, that he’s so fascinated with this? Why does he spend this much time thinking about you and your music?
He likes boys, I guess. He’s married, what’s he talking about? Are you married?
Me? Yeah, I am. Sure.
I know. I’ve always thought when you left music, it was something you wanted to put behind you. You just wanted to be thought of as a visual artist and that [dropping out] was the method by which you’d do it. Is that a fair assessment?
It’s fair with me if it’s fair with you.
Were you unhappy in the world of music?
Did I sound unhappy?
No. You sounded like you usually do – hilarious.
How do you spend your time?
I paint every day.
What size paintings are you doing?
Well, let’s see. Seven feet eight feet ten feet. . . But what things are people saying about me?
Well, take Henry Kaiser – someone told me that he thought he’s trying to rewrite history and make it sound like he was part of the Magic Band, but that he was barely there in any capacity at all.
Huh! He wasn’t there, period. Kaiser’s nuts! He’s obsessed. (laughs)
But by voluntarily pulling yourself from the scene, you’ve left yourself open to people like this who can say what they want, without your responding. I thought you might find it beneath your dignity to even respond to people trying to take some of the responsibility for the music away from you.
How could they take anything? I did it. Tell me something. Did you write all about what they said?
Some of it, sure…
Because it seems like you and your music have had tremendous personal impact on so many different people’s lives. It’s interesting that this stuff is still an issue for them.
He’s obsessed. I hope he gets help. It’s too pathetic to even talk about.
Do you derive more pleasure from art than you do from music?
Yes, I do.
It’s all just from the paintbrush to the canvas. And the paint doesn’t say anything. It just allows me to make mistakes. Then I have to completely go over the canvas. If one thing changes you have to com-pletely deal with the whole composition.
Is it vastly different from music for you, or are there parallels?
They’re both art.
Do you see your past as a musician handicapping your career as a painter?
Yes, because of people like you’re talking about. People don’t like to be used as paint (laughs). If they’re gonna be used by me, that is the only way they’re going to be used.
Would you say that you said everything you needed to say in music?
I think that I did what I could do.
Could you ever say the same thing about painting?
No (laughs). Have you ever seen Mondrian’s Broadway Boogie-Woogie? Fantastic – you con hear the horns honk in the cars!
What is it that brings you the most pleasure in your life right now?
Do you feel like there’s anything you still want to do that you haven’t done yet?
I’ve got thousands of canvasses.
That you’re waiting to paint on?
Yeah. I’m selfish. I love to paint.
Was there something that you wished would happen during your music career that didn’t which might have affected whether you stayed in music longer?
Nah. I felt comfortable leaving to paint.
Is the fact that people you’ve worked with before are still talking about your music, its effect, and you – is that something you’re glad to be away from now?
It’s sour grapes (laughs). Too sour for me.
Do you think that your earlier artwork was unsophisticated? What do you think of the art on your album covers now?
I think I was completely involved in what I did. I think they were me. But it’s a puzzle.
What was the last piece you did?
The last piece?
The last painting.
(pause) Let’s see. . . What the hell did I name it? I didn’t name it yet.
Do you first paint it and then name it?
Well, it varies. Sometimes the name is right there; sometimes it comes later.
You don’t go to many of your own art exhibitions, do you?
I went to the one in San Francisco [New Work 1989?].
How do you feel when you’re there?
Scared. All of this… paintings that I did? Oooh!
Is your house filled with your own art?
Usually I just paint and they’re gone. Michael gets them.
What’s kept you and Jan together for so long?
Love. We’ve been married for 24 years.
Do you think there’s a reason record companies have been reissuing your older material lately, or why your music Is still being listened to so avidly?
It’s pretty good music. (laughs)
It’s great talking to you, but I feel as if I’m making you talk more than you feel like talking.
No, I don’t usually talk that much.
You sit there in front of your canvas and paint most of the time?
Yeah. (laughs) That’s for damn sure.
Do you listen to music at home a lot?
Beethoven, and, let’s see… let me think. (pause) Damn, I can’t think of his name. Hold on a minute, I have a list. . . (puts phone down, then returns) Wagner. Wagner and Mozart.
Do you listen while you paint?
No. (laughs) It’s hard enough to paint.
Do you see many people?
Do you miss people?
No. I’m smart. (laughs)
Some of the people I’ve talked to have said that you’ve got a temper.
Temper? Me? (laughs) They can’t take a joke! I’m too smart to have a temper, that’s the truth. I never had to deal with a temper. Oh God, I bet that would be frightening.
Do you stay in contact with any of your old friends or past band members?
I spoke to Eric Feldman recently.
He’s producing in San Francisco, right?
Yeah, And also, he plays with Pere Ubu.
Do you watch much television?
I watch a few programmes, usually… oh, oh God, what’s that? (calls to wife) Fishing Out West, in the west. Have you seen that?
They let them go. After they catch them.
I heard that someone wanted to put out the original Bat Chain Puller album.
Zappa. He was going to release it.
Have you spoken with him in awhile?
It’s a sad story over there.
Misdiagnosed. Ooh – horrible.
How’s your own health? There are people who have said your health has deteriorated.
I hope you’re well.
I feel pretty good. Who’s saying that?
Henry Kaiser, among others. On the other hand, building a new studio, like you have doesn’t seem like the sort of thing someone would do who didn’t plan on doing a lot more painting.
Let me ask you this: Bill Harkleroad claims he should be entitled to some record royalties from his work with you?
Harkleroad thinks he should get money? For what? Trout Mask? (pause) Hmm, sounds far out.
Do you still get your royalties for any of that?
For Trout Mask? Writer’s royalties.
Does it upset you that he feels that way?
Well, I think he should get some money. What I’m trying to figure – Harkleroad said he didn’t get any money?
He said the Magic Band signed a contract in which they were part of the corporation, and that they would be paid by you.
I owe him money? I didn’t make any money myself! Jesus Christ. (pause) I can’t believe that after this many years – it’s been 20 years . . . I got beat up for money for those records as much as anybody. Yeah, I got beat. Sounds like they picked you for a target.
Well, I’ve been conscious about what people’s personal motivation might be when they spoke with me. Someone told me Henry Kaiser sniped at you because you used to say he gave you negative vibes, for instance.
I don’t quite understand – Kaiser? God! That’s so long ago! He’s obsessed. He’s trying to make himself look good. I wonder if he’s after Garcia? Let me grab a drink. (puts down phone, soon returns) God, I had to have a drink. Blechh! I’m trying to figure out what on earth – when did you talk to all these people?
Within the past two weeks.
Yeah. Of course, the fact that people are still talking about this – harbouring grudges or whatever – may say more about their current lots in life, financially or otherwise, than your own.
Well, definitely. I’m with a top gallery.
You’re one of the few people I’ve spoken to about this who’s doing what he wants to do and making a living from it. Which is something to consider.