Although Beefheart is probably renowned for being perversely anti-commercial or non-commercial (which ever way you want to look at). That wasn’t always the case.
The early band when it started back in 1964/65 wanted to make it big just like all the other young guys in countless bands getting together across the States and the rest of the world. A hit record, money, girls … yes, they wanted it all too.
With the release of Diddy Wah Diddy in April 1966 they could have broken through into the big time nationally if the east coast hadn’t been sewn up by the Remains version of the song.
Their next big chance came on the back of the release of their first album Safe As Milk in the summer of 1967. Having finished recording the album Bob Krasnow was now managing them and he saw the perfect opportunity to break the album and the band to the world … an appearance at a festival in Monterey between 16 and 18 June.
Krasnow rented a rehearsal room off Santa Monica Boulevard and the band that had recorded the album – Don, Alex Snouffer, Ry Cooder, Jerry Handley and John French – were given a couple of weeks to pull together live versions of the album material. According to John French the rehearsals went well and the band sounded good. Unfortunately Don kept making excuses and rarely rehearsed with the rest of them. This is probably not the best preparation for such an important gig but this was typical of Don at the time.
Krasnow then found them a perfect test run for the live material. A week before Monterey there was an open air festival planned in Marin County, the Fantasy Fair and Magic Mountain Festival on Mount Tamalpais. Originally scheduled for 3 and 4 June it was postponed for a week. As the Beefheart band wasn’t included on the list of performers in the festival booklet it’s pretty safe to assume that Krasnow booked them in at a late stage after the new date for the event had been arranged. They performed on the afternoon of Sunday 11 June.
Find out more about the festival on Wikipedia.
For some reason Krasnow persuaded John French that he didn’t need to take his own drums for the gig. When John arrived and got to the stage he found, to his horror, that the drums he was supposed to use were set up for a left handed player. This meant he had to dismantle the set and put them back together again before the band could even begin playing. Not a good start to a show.
To add to the stress of the situation Don was having one of his regular anxiety attacks and was asking people to reassure him that he wasn’t having a heart attack. Then, when the band were ready to play, his choice for the first song was one that hadn’t been rehearsed back in Los Angeles much to the annoyance of Ry Cooder who hadn’t been in the band long enough to know this particular piece.
Somehow they got through this and then launched into Electricity. A stellar song and certainly a showstopper in many ways … however, this time not in the way the band had perhaps hoped. Hardly had the song started when Don turned away from the microphone, adjusted his tie and walked off the back of the high stage. He landed, fortunately for him, onto Bob Krasnow, damaging neither of them.
The rest of the mystified and horrified band were left to carry on as best they could, They finished the song as an instrumental (not that unusual as I saw it performed pretty much this way in 1973) and they left the stage in disarray.
When they finally found out the reason for what had happened they were not particularly sympathetic. It seems that Don was flying high on LSD and as he started to sing Electricity he hallucinated a girl in the audience turning into a fish and saw bubbles coming out of her mouth. This, he said, freaked him out enough to want to get off the stage.
Ry Cooder had managed to put up with Don’s eccentricities throughout the recording of Safe As Milk but this display of recklessness and unprofessionalism was the final straw. He decided that he would have nothing further to do with him.
Without Cooder and with only a week until the Monterey Festival there was nothing the band could do. They’d have to pull out of Monterey. Their big opportunity was blown.
This has got to be one of the great ‘what ifs’ of rock history. Monterey was the launch pad for the careers of so many of the bands who performed there … one of those could have been Captain Beefheart and His Magic Band.
This was not the only time time that Don would sabotage his and the band’s future with his irrational behaviour.
(You can read more about the Mt Tamalpais incident in greater detail in John French’s book Through The Eyes Of Magic)
With Cooder gone the band struggled to find a replacement. Eventually session player Gerry McGee joined them for a few months, playing a number of live shows, before leaving to be replaced on a more permanent basis by Jeff Cotton in September/October 1967.
Looking at some of the other photographs taken at the Mt Tamalpais show it’s interesting to see that the band are performing wearing their Safe As Milk suits and that Ry Cooder is playing an amplified acoustic guitar.
The Radar Station would like to thank sarjane62 for unearthing a wonderful collection of hitherto unknown photographs of the band onstage at the Mt Tamalpais festival and for allowing us to use some for this article.