Terry Tolkin on Bob Krasnow and Don van Vliet

Some while ago Terry sent the Radar Station this piece about his experiences working with Bob Krasnow and how he came close to releasing some exciting Beefheart music. For some reason it never got published on the site … so here it is at long last! Apologies to Terry for the delay …

Terry has worked in the music business for many years, notably running his own No. 6 Records label and as Head of A&R at Elektra Records in the 1990s.

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I have a fortunate history of receiving phone calls from people that I don’t know. Probably why my number has always been listed and I always answer it, even if I don’t recognize the caller.
Late one night long about 1990 it rang.

Terry Tolkin with on of Don’s paintings

“Terry Tolkin?”
“That be me”
“My names Denny Walley. Are you still running the No.6 Records label? ”
“Yup. Finally got another record coming out in a couple of months”.
“Oh yeah? What is it?”
“It’s a compilation record of guitar solos. I can’t tell you what it’s called cause I haven’t come with a name for it yet”
“That sounds so cool. Bet you won’t sell a thousand copies of it”
We both started cracking up. The truth hurts, but in that, it can also be really, really funny.
I’m instantly liking this guy.
“I got your number from the Beggar Weeds (Athens, GA band that I was currently trying to sign to Rough Trade US. Long story, remind me to tell you…).
I’m a guitar player. I’ve played with”
<me. interrupting>
“No need, Denny. I know who are. What’s up?”
“Don Van Vliet wants to make a new record. He doesn’t know that yet but he really does. I played slide on the original version of the Bat Chain Puller album. One day at the end of that recording only he and I showed up at the studio. Turns out that the band weren’t scheduled for a session. Day off. Don and I are confirmed believers in the fortunes of fate. He said he’s got this song that he only just finished. It would be too late to record it for the album. Don doesn’t actually “write” songs. He can’t read music and he usually won’t even write down the lyrics”
“Gosh, Denny that sounds like an awful lot of work….for the musicians!”
I observed.
<both kinda nervously laughing>
Denny, trying to compose ourselves:
“Tell me about it! We’ve been through quite a few of them over the years”
He continues: “Long story short…”
Me: “Oh don’t spare me, Denny, I LOVE this shit!”
I’ll spare you and me though. It’s a lot of typing here on the smart-phone. Mostly music geek shit that doesn’t carry the story. There would be too many explanations for the explanations within those explanations. At least that’s what some people who read the stuff that I write here complain about the most. “This/that would be better if you didn’t ramble all over the place trying to explain every little detail”
I guess like I’m doing right now lol.
I’ll save it for the book LOLOLOLOL.

Denny explains:
“We found an engineer in another sound room and we laid down this track. We recorded the basics, overdubbed his lyrics and did the final mix. All in the one day! It’s called ‘Hoboism’. Terry, it really needs to come out. I think it’s one of the best tracks he’s ever recorded. Don thinks so too.”
“So, Denny, are you guys offering me an unreleased Captain Beefheart track for No.6?”
“Well, yeah if, you know, like you think you’d like it, then yeah, sure”
I’m not gonna fuckin sleep tonight.
“Of course I’m interested, Denny. Sounds great”
“Oh, man that’s so fukin cool, Terry. Thanks!”
<can’t believe it. HE’S thanking ME!?!>
I was curious though:
“Thousands of labels in the world Denny, why No.6?”
“Danny Beard, the owner of the Db Record store told me about you. He was a customer of yours when you were a salesman at a record distributor. He didn’t have a current number for you though. He played me some stuff from your label. I really don’t like Neil Young but I really dug the concept and some of covers were just unbelievable! Great shit. Totally rejuvenated him. Made him relevant all over again. I mean when that came out, dude was like endorsing fukin Reagan, man. You took a chance, several chances actually. Anyway, Danny didn’t have much left in the store from No.6 but he did play me one thing that I bought from him.

“It’s a 7” by King Carcass. Dude, every day for about six months I could not get going without blasting those two songs.

“I figured that the person who would squeeze seven minutes of absolutely subversive anarchy onto a little single would probably dig ‘Hoboism’. Still didn’t have a way to get in touch with you though so about a week ago I sent a tape of it to your No.6 P.O. box that’s listed on the back of single.

“Tonight, I just got home from a Beggar Weeds show. I was talking to them after their set. They were telling me that there’s a guy at Rough Trade in NYC who’s coming down to see us in two weeks. I launched into my rote diatribe on the evils of the organized music industry, how none of them are ever to be trusted, etc, etc. Then he told me that the guy who wants to sign them has his own label that puts out some cool stuff. I’ve talked to him on the fone a few times. He seems pretty straight up. He came up with that Neil Young tribute album a few years ago and he’s worked with the Butthole Surfers since their very beginning. So then I asked what the guys name is and he said “Terry”.

“Wow” I said.

Denny:
“Yeah, talk about the circle remaining unbroken, right? So I got your numbers off him and called you as soon as I got home. Man, you’re playing ‘Hoboism’ right now, aren’t you? I can hear it in the background”.
“Yeah. As soon as you mentioned the P.O. box I went over the pile as I’d just been there yesterday and found it”
Denny:
“Let me give you Don’s phone number. I’ll give him yours too. Talk him into it before he talks you out of it”.

I had started talking to Don Van Vliet (Captain Beefheart) on the phone around 1989. Someone who had become a mutual friend had given it to me. I kept it in a draw for idk, maybe six months before one night I decided to see if it really would connect me to an important part of my musical history.
Don answered it on the third ring. Throughout our friendship, if he was going to answer the call, he always did so on that third ring.
“Hello” he said.
I knew that was his voice.
“Hello, Don, you don’t know me…”
He interrupted:
“Yes I do. What took you so long?”
“I didn’t know if this was really your number or why you’d even want to talk to me” I said.
“Well it is and I do. What’s your name?”
“Terry. Terry Tolkin. Denny Walley gave me your number. He knew that you’d want me to call and that you’d be expecting me”
This was the launch of almost a decade of random acts of phone calls between us. They soon settled into a loose set of rules. Mostly devolving into an unspoken agreement that I’d only call him if he was expecting me to, if I was following through on issue. Mostly he’d call me. Almost always after midnight east coast time. No subject was off limits. We’d talk for hours about environmental topics, jazz figures or the machinations of presidential elections throughout their history. We’d dissect current events in minutes. He would prod me incessantly to tell him about my travels and impressions of the people, places and things I experienced on them. He was an exacting listener and child-like in his enthusiasm. We were both keen observers of the interactions of everything and how everything is interconnected. How nothing exists alone. A conversation wasn’t completed until we’d both came to the same observation and deduction, at which point we’d stand there together laughing and giggling at it’s obvious conclusion. Smugly contented as if we’d truly solved a riddle of The Life then realizing that it had also presented us with a dozen more answers to question on our next adventure.

These conversations matured me by presenting me with more tools for understanding life’s myriad of mysteries. Laughing through his exclamation, Don would often say that every minute he spent with me on the phone hauled him back into being a kid again.
I responded:
“If we keep this up eventually we’ll be the same age together!”
As soon as I said that he hung up the phone.
Click.
A few months and a few phone calls later he asked me if I remembered saying that to him. Of course I did. He told me he’d just finished painting a canvas of me saying that and he thought it was the best thing that he’d ever done.
All of the time that I was assembling my last compilation record, a gathering of guitar solos from my favorite players at the time, I had no idea what to title it. My first one title, “Gods Favorite Dog” was as anarchical, dadaist and nonsensical as the bands and music it was reflecting. “The Bridge”, my Neil Young tribute, worked on so many levels. I had that title way before I had much of the project even conceptualized. Don had no idea that a similar project of covers of his stuff had been released by an English label in the 1980’s also. Like “The Bridge”, permission to cover someone else’s songs is not necessary but you must pay the composer royalties in the form of a license for doing so. Don always claimed that he never got paid for that but didn’t expect to. Record labels had always employed exotic accounting procedures where forever it seemed that any of his albums ever made any money. Well, for him anyway. I bought him a copy of the CD and sent it to him. He hated it, of course. He dissected every single version to me, one at a time, pointing out how each band had completely missed the point. He even bitched about the sequencing of the tracks.
He knew that I was working on the guitar solos project and that I was just about finished. On one call he asked me how the ‘Guitarorrists’ album was going.
I was silent for a quick moment.
“The what, Don?”
“The record you’re making of all the guitar solos. ‘Guitarorrists'”
Realizing that a seemingly insurmountable issue surrounding the entire project had just been resolved, I said:
“It’s done, Don. Actually, I just finished it. Right now as we’re talking”
He laughed that kid-like laugh of his that was always so infectious.

A couple of years after we’d become friends, I got a job at Elektra Entertainment. The CEO at the time was Bob Krasnow. A legend in the music industry. A known artist orientated executive. Back in 1966, he’d also rescued Captain Beefheart’s career from sure obscurity. Bob sold everything he owned at the time and cashed whatever credibility he’d amassed at the time to jump ship from Herb Albert’s hugely successful A&M Records family of labels when they’d dropped Beefheart after releasing two singles. Kras started up Buddha Records as an independent because the label he was working for at the time, Kama Sutra, wouldn’t let him sign the band. He recorded Captain Beefheart and his Magic Bands’ still groundbreaking debut album ‘Safe As Milk’. To this day it remains one of the most influential Rock albums ever recorded. Unfortunately, few members of the record buying public recognized it at the time. When ‘Safe As Milk’ failed to take the Pop Charts by storm, Bob double-downed, left his cushy gig at Kama Sutra and started Blue Thumb Records. The first artist he signed? Captain Beefheart. He spent every penny he could beg, borrow or convince someone to give him on recording the bands next album, “Strictly Personal”, which somehow managed to flop even harder. At this point, Krasnow’s partners and banks made him give up on the band and move on. For the next 30 years they had only communicated through the occasional swipe at each other in the press, each blaming the other for being ahead of their time. It was actually all our fault, the fans, for not paying attention. Well, not this fan.

Knowing all of this background, I approached my final interview for my position at Elektra. I went into Bob’s corner office and sat down opposite him. I’d never met him before, never even seen a picture of him. I was kinda taken aback by just how much he looked like my father. Uncanny. Their resemblance really was slightly unnerving
He was absorbed in an interview he had been reading with John Cage. I had recognized the publication as I’d just been reading it myself while in Howard’s office waiting to be waived in. He closed it, stood up, leaned over his desk extending his arm and we shook hands.

“Glad to finally meet you, Terry. Howard’s made me into a big fan”
I laughed and said:
“I’m glad to finally meet you too, Mr. Krasnow. I’ve always been a big fan” I said, sincerely.
He answered back:
“No need to ever call me ‘Mr’ ever again. I’m not your Dad or commander, just call me Bob”
I stammered: “That’s it. I’m hired?”
“Yeah. You’re fine with Howard so that’s all I need to know. You have any questions you want to ask me?”
I sure did. Just one:
“You worked with one of my favorite artists of all time and made two of my favorite records.
Ever. ‘Safe As Milk’ and ‘Strictly Personal’. What was it like making records with Captain Beefheart, Bob?”

Bob rolled back in his chair and simultaneously brought his Cuban cigar towards his lips and rolling it among his fingers. He seemed to be rolling back in time too. I could tell that he hadn’t thought about those days in a long time. A really long time. It was just a minute but a minute can be a very long time sometimes. He finally came back into that office, back into that moment and back into that situation. He looked right at me and said: “You know what, Terry? I took so much Acid back then that I’m not sure exactly what I remember. When can you start?”

Without ever asking any of the record label that I was working at or with during our friendship, I began to prod Don about making a new record. I tried to make it’s production about as easy and noninvasive as possible. Since he never told me ‘No’, I took that as definitive, resolute ‘Maybe’. I told him that I could bring a state of the art mobile recording unit up to his place and park it nearby so he’d have only a quick stroll to the sound board. I guaranteed him that I’d be there every minute he was and that he’d never have to hear the word ‘No’. I could source all of the musicians and most would work with him for free. He and I would produce the record with the help of a top notch engineer. He’d have final word on the final mix of every track and we’d pay him extra to use his art for the cover.
Believe it or not, Don didn’t have much input, let alone complete control and approval of any or all of these parameters. Just imagine how his oevure would differ if he had.
One day Don called me up at work, really early for him, and said:
“Terry, what if we made a record of all Blues covers? No original stuff. I only have a couple of songs I’ve written that I’d still want to record but I’ve always wanted to do an album of Blues songs”
I was staggered.
All I could say was:
“Done, Don. Done”
I mean, what a fuckin great idea! I ran into Krasnow’s office and blurted out the news. Bob was thrilled to. Both of them had told me that they had no idea why they had lost contact with each other. I had gotten them to commit to that with each other. A few months later, I arranged an “accidental” conference call with the three of us. They didn’t talk for very long but it was extremely warm and heartfelt. I felt so privileged to have been a fly on that line. After the call Kras’ buzzed me into his office. Bob was not an emotive guy. I’m not saying that he wasn’t an emotional being. He had to be . Anyone that had given that much to artists in the industry only did it out of Love of the Art. He’d obviously been moved by the reunion.
“Terry, Don sounds great! I’m not going to put his record on a schedule because that’ll trigger unnecessary corporate pressure to perform. You’ve got a blank check. I don’t care if it takes the rest of the decade to make it”
Then he got up, came around his desk put one arm on my shoulder and said:
“Thanks a lot, Terry. That really meant a lot to me. It really, really meant a lot”
“Completely my pleasure, Bob. Funny, Don said the same thing”.

With all of this were with all behind me, I invited myself out to met Don. Of course, I did actually insinuate myself into the visit, I mentioned that I was going to San Francisco for a completely different reason and asked if I could make the short hop, skip and puddle jumper up to meet him. He didn’t hesitant in saying yes. The man always surprised me. Knowing Don was yet another affirmation that you would do yourself a lot more good by not believing anything you read about people in the press. So far, over the past few years, he’d defied every stereotype foisted on him that I’d ever read. The fact of the matter is that Don Van Vliet was an infinitely more talented, jovial, intelligent, gregarious and generous person than even the most positive things you’d read about him in the media.

I’d arranged to fly into Eureka, California as it was the nearest airport. I stayed in a hotel that he’d recommend, the Eureka Inn, and rented a car for the next week. What a beautiful town. It’s steeped in well preserved Victorian architecture and surrounded by old growth National Forest Park preserves on three sides with the Pacific Ocean on the fourth. An impregnable fortress of nature.

I made the half hour drive up to Trinidad the next morning. His small ranch-style home was perched atop several hundred feet of shear cliff plummeting into the Pacific. I passed two Volvos as I walked up to the door. One was obviously the daily driver and probably about 10-15 years old. The other one was parked, or I should more accurately describe it’s position as ‘stored’, under an enormous, gnarled pine tree which had been expertly carved by decades of cold rain, incessant warm winds and shear tenacity.
“I call it the ‘Big Blue Handkerchief”
I recognized his voice immediately but had no idea where he’d come from. I was so mesmerized by the overwhelming beauty of nature’s perfection at that moment that I had been oblivious to anything else in those moments.

We started to do the routine attempt at shaking hands but we both processed all of the exceedingly traditional human body english, eye contact and interpersonal formality and simply fell into a warm embrace. He led me into the side door that I didn’t notice as I was first approaching but was apparently the one he’d emerged from. It was the door to his painting studio and the space had been created by converting the attached garage. Jan, Don’s love of his life, came in at introduced herself. What a beautiful couple. I suddenly realized that I was carrying a box. I said:
“Oh, hey, Don, do you remember when I was telling you about the only time that I got to see Muddy Waters?”
He let out that laugh of his:
“The one when you weren’t sure if the sweat from his brow had landed I’m your beer to? Yeah, sure. Why?”
“Well then we started talking about those bowler hats he and those old Blues men would be photographed wearing, which lead to another discussion about hat sizes and they’re correlation to intelligence….and, well we traded hat size information with each other”
By now I’d managed to fumble open the Worth & Worth box that I’d carried with me on this entire trip.
“And I got you one!”
Don’s eye’s exploded.
Jan exclaimed:
“Now you’ve done it! He’ll never take it off , Terry!”
We are all laughing.
Worth & Worth are one of the oldest milliner’s in the country. It looked great on him.

Jan asked me if I wanted any tea as she was just making some. I declined and she excused herself leaving Don and I three among his paintings. They were all on various stages of creation or being re-created. He’d obviously already been at work when I arrived as he had his painting clothes on. The ones that all physical artists don. Kindalike a wearable palette. Drips and dabs of this and that color. He did have to be careful though as he’d developed an allergy to the ingredients in some of the pigments. Nothing life threatening, just an occasionally nasty rash. He went back to painting and I unfolded a chair. We just started on on conversing as if we were on the phone. About Noon Jan came in with a tray set up with lunch. There was a couple of filets of smoked salmon, a small wheel of Stilton cheese, a loaf of freshly baked bread and a pint of Jameson’s whiskey. Each. That’s what we had for lunch each day. At Noon.

We went for a drive the next day to go pick up the supplies. Don was a lousy driver but it wasn’t like I was going to argue with him. It was especially unnerving on the the skinny road down the cliffs to the town of Trinidad. There we’d pick up the locally caught a smoked salmon. The fish monger knew Don as a local resident and a regular customer but I don’t think he knew anything about his musical career. Same thing at the fromager and at the bakery. When we got back from the journey the second day, I asked Don about the other Volvo parked off the driveway.
“Oh, the guy who owns the gallery I show my paintings at sent it to me. I don’t know why”
He explained.
“So you’ve never driven it?”
I asked.
“Oh no, man. I’m afraid that if I ever did that he’d charge me for it. So it’s sat here, ever since the auto transporter dropped it off”
And it looked like it too. It’d been stagnating under that aged pine tree. Every Spring it oozed forth it’s black tar and drizzled the entire length of the car in it’s implacable resin. The sticker in the window said that it was “Vanilla Cream” color but that would have been the only way that anyone could have told the vehicles original color. All four of the tires were effectively flat and sunken about six inches down into the years of dead fall from the trees yearly shedding of old growth brown nettles.

It wasn’t hard to notice Don’s nearly constant shaking from the MS that was wracking his body.
Or the years of corrosive etching up and down along his spindly arms and across both his hands as his skin reacted in a vicious allergic to the chemicals in the paints he’d been using for decades.
His paintings reflected the progression (or transgression) as they became more and more childlike and simplistic. He began painting the same scene over and over and over again on progressively smaller canvasses using thicker and thicker brushes with wider handles that were more well suited to exterior house painting but were easier for him to control.
An original 32′ x 24″ “Sailboats In The Bay” withered down into multiple copies of the 10″ x 10″ “sailboat in the bay”
On the third day we were coming back from town. It had been misty with a bit of rain. The low hanging fog let a different kind of beauty to the walls of deep green surrounding us.
“Hey, let’s go over to the train tracks. I wanna show you something.” Don said.
We got to one of those unregulated crossings. Nothing but an old, faded “Caution: Do Not Stop On Tracks” warning sign. Don turned off the ignition. It had starting to rain a bit harder. He pulled out our pints of Jameson’s and opened them. We toasted them and each took a swig. We were silent but there was a growing cacophony of rhythmic sounds all jelling together in a loose jam. The patter of the sparse but fat raindrops on the metal roof of the car, the broken contribution of the intermittent wiper blades. Out of the distance I could hear the click-clack, click-clack of an approaching train. At first I thought that I was just feeling the sound but it steadily grew closer.
“Do you hear that, man?” He asked.
I knew I did and on top of that it sounded crazy familiar too. He pulled out an old Panasonic portable tape deck, ya’know the kind that could record too. Just like the kind I used to use to tape Grateful Dead shows back in the 1970’s. He turned it on. We were silent as the rain started in a little more intensely and the train got closer. The wipers kept wiping.
After a couple of more minutes he stopped the tape deck and asked me:
”Did you get that? Do you hear that, Terry?
And I said:
“YEAH! Bat Chain Puller, Don!”
He was like, cracking up! Because it was. It was the exact same rhythm as that song.

Photo of Don taken by Terry in 1994

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