The Bathroom Tapes by Mike Barnes

This article first appeared in the April 1999 edition of The Wire, prior to the release of the Grow Fins box-set. Many thanks to Mike for his permission to use it.

Captain Beefheart likened making music to going to the bathroom – it’s not something he wants to look back on. Here, Mike Barnes grills the Revenant label on the ethics of its ‘unauthorised’ CD retrospective that claims its rare unguarded moments reveal the true Beefheart.

“Some of the most compelling moments in Captain Beefheart’s recorded legacy have been heard by just a handful of people.” So says Dean Blackwood, co-founder with John Fahey of Revenant Records, on the motivation behind the label’s forthcoming five CD collection, Captain Beefheart & His Magic Band Grow Fins: Rarities (1965-82). Comprising acetates, demos, concert recordings and radio broadcasts, it promises to be the most revealing of an imminent avalanche of Beefheart releases, among them the complete 1967 Buddah recordings on BMG. Revenant wanted to capture “the unguarded moment”, Blackwood explains, for reasons touched upon by former Magic Band guitarist Bill ‘Zoot Horn Rollo’ Harkleroad, who asserted that Beefheart always sang better in casual situations – rehearsals, for instance – than when he actually had to perform in the studio or in concert. Once under the spotlight some of the tensions that cramped his early performances would resurface.

In going for unguarded moments as opposed to official recordings, Revenant approached the set almost as if it was a field recording project. They called on numerous ex-Magic Band members to help locate the material, and ex-Beefheart drummer John ‘Drumbo’ French interviewed them for the sleevenotes. Whether for reasons of poor health, or because he left music for art 15 years ago, Beefheart has had nothing to do with the collection. For their part, Revenant are unrepentant about going ahead without the Captain’s participation, because the set offers intimate glimpses of a musical visionary in the act of creation and of the musicians who took on the Herculean task of realising that vision. “More people need to hear this stuff,” enthuses Blackwood. “Picasso’s sketchbooks have been published, by God!”

Harkleroad’s claim for the revealing unguarded moment is borne out by the set’s inclusion of a 1972 promotional radio interview, where a relaxed Beefheart plays a delicious snippet of harmonica, and then proceeds to sing some amazing blues. Even his most obsessive fans will find the a cappella version of John Lee Hooker’s “Black Snake” a revelation. He covers his entire range from lycanthropic basso-profundo through tightly controlled hushed tones, climbing up through astonishing melismata to stratospheric falsetto hiccups.

As run by Blackwood and Fahey, Revenant is a haven of esoterica where recordings by Derek Bailey and Jim O’Rourke sit alongside mid-century archival material from Dock Boggs and Jenks ‘Tex’ Carman. Grow Fins fits comfortably somewhere in between.

“It all seems to coalesce around this ‘raw musics’ notion,” explains Blackwood, “stuff which has a rawness of spirit, an undiluted quality to it, a real fundamental orneriness too”.

Nothing if not ornery, the set’s hitherto unheard 1965 acetate demos come from original Magic Band guitarist Doug Moon’s personal collection. They recall the group’s R&B beginnings, playing at dances around its hometown of Lancaster, California, where lust-crazed males would turn up in Chevy low riders, a case of beer in the passenger seat, out to pull. Even in its formative stage, The Magic Band wasn’t exactly producing make-out music, and its audiences responded accordingly. Gary Marker, bass guitarist in The Rising Sons (the legendary LA group fronted by Ry Cooder and Taj Mahal), remembers the night they stood in for The Magic Band at one Lancaster venue as being all “airborne beer bottles and fistfights popping up every minute or two”. If nothing else, the ‘gropefest circuit’ helped bring Beefheart out of himself. Indeed, it’s hard to reconcile the singer you hear on this early material with the young man who a few years earlier was so chronically shy about recording himself that he would often lose his temper to cover his embarrassment. But once he’d fully committed himself to music – by 1965 he was in his mid-20s – he quickly mapped out the vast dimensions of his voice.

In the beginning Beefheart sang in a higher register but with practice he managed to bring it down a few notches, by perfecting a style that constricted the voice at the top of the throat, earning him comparisons with Howlin’ Wolf. To get that lower, more guttural tone, he used to go out with wet hair to deliberately catch a cold.

Blackwood also sees a connection between Revenant founder John Fahey’s self-description as an ‘American Primitive’ and Beefheart’s music. “Fahey was thinking of course of the ‘primitive’ painters, those who were not classically trained and were somewhat immune to notions of what, by all rights, they ‘should’ have been doing,” he explains. ‘Just so, Beefheart seems to have had no notion of any incongruity between Howlin’ Wolf and Roland Kirk.”

This remark is especially pertinent to Trout Mask Replica. The album refuses to be demystified no matter how much you know about its creation. Of course, it wasn’t written in eight and a half hours – that was a typical piece of Beefheart braggadocio. On the contrary, it was born of insecurity transformed into massive self-belief. Stung by criticism from certain members of the early Magic Band, who claimed he wasn’t really a musician because he wasn’t conversant with chords and musical structure, Beefheart put together a new, younger group in late 1968 and straight away ruled out all arguments by asserting he would teach them his music. This he largely wrote on the piano. That he couldn’t ‘play’ it in any conventional manner was neither here nor there.

Beefheart instructed John French to transcribe the other musicians’ parts and then left the group to work out and rehearse his songs’ complex rhythm structures and key changes themselves. He compared his spontaneous method of through-composition to “going to the bathroom”. After a creative movement he was averse to looking too closely at what he had produced. Using a more polite analogy, Gary Marker, who played bass on a few Trout Mask cuts, sardonically remarks “He was the architect, but he didn’t hammer that many nails in.”

‘We don’t pretend Don’s not the central figure here,” agrees Blackwood, “but the work did not spring fully formed from his forehead, however he might like us to think so. It is the product of many hours and many people. We sought the involvement of as many Magic Band alumni as possible, and many will be receiving their first payment of any kind in connection with the release of Beefheart material”.

Apart from drummer Art Tripp, who was classically trained, the pre-74 Magic Bands came from the blues and rock ‘n’ roll. They give the distinct feeling that they were uncomfortable with Beefheart’s through-composition methods. To their ears he didn’t really know what he was doing, nor could he do anything the same way twice. True enough, but what’s their problem?

Where composers such as Ligeti, Lutoslawski and Cage introduced indeterminate, aleatoric passages to make their work less rigid, Beefheart began working from the opposite end of the spectrum with an intuitive, improvised, semi-aleatoric piano excursion, which he would freeze into a rigid composition. His outpouring of raw material – rather than a controlled improvisation – was then transformed in the transcription and the compositional process into an avant garde musical technique unique to Beefheart. His method parallels the gestural spontaneity of his early oil paintings. On Grow Fins, Beefheart’s through-composition process is illustrated by the inclusion of both the piano tape for “Evening Bell” and Gary Lucas’s reading of it on guitar. “I can play the piano like nobody’s business,” Beefheart defensively asserted in the mid-70s. The piano demo of “Odd Jobs”, from the unreleased 1976 album Bat Chain Puller, certainly shows how he had progressed on the instrument. In a bravura display he switches on the tape recorder and gets the five minute composition down straight off. Beefheart’s sax playing was similarly untutored. Admitting he didn’t know where the notes were, he preferred to be likened to a whale than to John Coltrane.

The Revenant set’s undoubted highlight is the complete version of what has been commonly but erroneously bootlegged as the Trout Mask Replica rehearsals. These particular tapes have their origins in an idea put forward by Trout Mask producer Frank Zappa, who wanted to make the album as if it were a field recording at the group’s house in the LA suburb of Woodland Hills, with Beefheart recording the vocals later in the studio. The tapes are most remarkable for the illuminating fly-on-the-wall conversations captured on a two-track stereo reel-to-reel machine along with the music. Beefheart ultimately rejected Zappa’s idea, accusing him of being a cheapskate. A pity, as these tracks sound much tougher than those eventually recorded at Whitney Studios in Glendale.

In sum, Grow Fins is both a “paean to Don’s genius” and a strictly legal enterprise, says Blackwood. Even so, does he feel uneasy releasing a compilation that is implicitly disowned by its subject?

“Maybe it’s true that we should feel a bit guilty proceeding without Don’s involvement,” he admits. “I would obviously prefer that he approve of the set. Even if he does not or cannot, I think our overriding directive is to be true to the work and the people who made it”

– Mike Barnes

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