The Spotlight Kid by Anton Corbijn

Some of the greatest Beefheart photos were taken by Anton Corbijn, who writes here. He took the famous Ice Cream For Crow desert snaps, and numerous others scattered through this site. Originally appeared in Mojo Magazine, December 1993

Anton Corbijn taking Don's photo

I am a photographer who is a friend of Beefheart’s, rather than being an authority on him. When I met Beefheart on an NME assignment in September 1980, I didn’t know much about him at all. I met him at the County Museum of Art in LA and suggested photographing him in the desert, where he’d just come from. He said yes rather reluctantly, and we drove for two-and-a-half hours. It helped that I could pronounce his name properly. Once we’d found the spot to do the pictures, he took off his hat for one shot only and then put it back on, saying, My wife’s not gonna like this.

I liked his eccentricity, and I also figured he was like a kid. There’s a lot of that in me, so we really got on. When he came to England to tour for Ice Cream Far Crow, I photographed him again and we spent some more time together. He didn’t get on very well with the tour manager, so they got me to take him to the gig at The Venue. We made stupid, weird jokes, like this one time when we were in a hotel talking about fish and chips and I said ‘chish and tips’. He loved that he still comes back to it. He remembers everything, like this old Hell’s Angel we saw when we were driving out to the desert. He’ll remind you about things like that 10 years later.

I didn’t get in touch for ages, but when I did my book, I asked him if he’d do a painting for it. That was 1987, and I’ve been to see him quite a few times since, especially when I was living in LA. We still speak on an irregular basis.

He lives right on the ocean, and it’s really beautiful. I’ve had really good times with him there, just laughing and watching videos. What I want to do with him now is make a film there, because I really think there should be a record at him on film. I was really nervous when I asked him, because I didn’t want to abuse the friendship, but he said he’d been waiting for me to ask! Now The Late Show has approached me to be involved with a special on Beefheart, so it looks as if I’ll get to make my film about Don.

There’s so much power in him, and it doesn’t get around, despite the fad that he’s a successful painter now and is with a great gallery. Certainly he’s living a lot more comfortably off his paintings than he did off his music. But his music is still so influential with young bands, and people want to see what he’s up to.

I think the key to Don is the combination of his genius and his playfulness. He does love playing and seeing how people react. He’s very ecologically-minded, which is why he lives by the ocean. His paintings are full of birds and animals. I heard that when he recorded one album, he called in a tree surgeon to make sure the trees nearby wouldn’t be damaged by the sound. He’s still like that. A guy got attacked by a shark in the ocean near his house and his response was that the guy shouldn’t have been there!

Don and Jan are great together. She arranges everything for him, because he’s very bad with that. She keeps a good filing system and that kind of thing. He still listens to a lot of music, even though he’ll never record again. He loved hearing his albums on CD, because he’d never heard them clearly before. He still listens to blues and jazz. I get calls from him and he’ll say, Listen to this, and I sit there listening to same song far 10 minutes!

I don’t think my work with Don has influenced the way he’s perceived – it’s not like my work with U2. The picture with the hat happened to became quite well-known, but it’s not as if he never wanted to be photographed by anyone else. There are a lot at other photos around from that period. I remember in the Rolling Stone review of Ice Cream For Crow they said, How can any artist put such a terrible photo on a cover?!”

-Anton Corbijn, Mojo Magazine, December 1993

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