“Beefheart was a major influence on Devo as far as direction goes. Trout Mask Replica… there’s so many people that were affected by that album that he probably doesn’t even know about, a silent movement of people.” — Devo, quoted in Search & Destroy #3, 1977
I have been a staunch admirer of Captain Beefheart since 1970. The singular nature of his music, and the joy, excitement and mystery that are an inextricable part of it, are so extraordinary and exhilarating that I find myself compelled to celebrate the man whenever I have the chance.
My first opportunity came late in 1970 while I was attending college. Faced with the task of giving an oral report on a poet for a course entitled “Modern Poetry,” I decided to buck the system and chose Don Van Vliet, unbeknownst to my teacher. After all, the “accepted” Modern Poets we’d been studying struck me as uninteresting and irrelevant for the most part; I’d give ’em a real Modern, even if it meant flunking. So, on the big day, I sat down in front of the class, gave a brief bio of the Captain, read a few of his poems, and then played them three tracks from Trout Mask Replica. As the music played, the class seemed unsure how to react; a couple of girls in the front row actually appeared to be frightened. The teacher’s face had registered different shades of confusion and skepticism all through the presentation, yet I received an “A” in the course.
Slightly less than a year later, I found myself at another college sitting down to write my debut music column for the student paper. I wanted to make an impression straight off, so I did an essay on Beefheart, the thrust of which was: if you haven’t heard this guy yet, you just haven’t lived! Upon its publication, I began checking his bin in the campus record store to see if the pen was really mightier than the sword. After a few days and no sales, I gave up.
Okay, so Beefheart has always been one of your proverbial “cult” artists. That’s fine with me; I just happen to find it unfortunate that so many people listen to so much shit. I think he’s accepted his “cult” status, too. He tried to go commercial in 1974, and it just didn’t work out; now he has a new band, and he’s playing what he wants to again. His new LP, Bat Chain Puller, is as great as anything he’s ever done, and live at the Bottom Line, he was nothing short of superb. His spectacular four-octave voice lovingly shaped every note and boomed throughout the room while the new Magic Band was so ridiculously good, I don’t even want to talk about it. I mean, it’s one thing for Van Vliet to compose this amazing music which defies all known logic, but on top of that, he keeps finding people brilliant enough to play it.
Two days after the Bottom Line shows, I went to the New York offices of Warner Brothers Records where I was scheduled to interview Don Van Vliet. Upon arrival, I was ushered into the large but empty conference room. Since I was early and Don was a little late, I had time to review his history one more time.
The most important thing to realize about Van Vliet is that his music is unique not because he tries to make it so; rather, it is a natural, unforced expression of his remarkable personality. The man is a true genius, a total artist and visionary. He was born in 1941 in Glendale, California, the only child of middle-class parents. By the time he was five, Don had developed a healthy distrust of the American system. He was upset by the way concrete and asphalt seemed to be usurping nature, and he somehow knew that the system would try to change him as well. Since he liked the way he was, he simply refused to go to school! Instead, he turned full-time to what he had begun exploring with soap at age three: sculpture. Motivated by his intense love of nature and animals, he sculpted virtually every creature of land, sea or air with a passion which often kept him locked in his room for weeks at a time, his parents sliding food under his door. From age five to 13, he studied with a master sculptor from Portugal, Augustina Rodriquez. When he was 11, Don had his own TV show, originating from the Griffith Park Zoo in Los Angeles. He would sculpt animals while Rodriquez looked on and commented. At 13, Don lectured on sculpture and animals at the Barnzdale Art Institute at UCLA. This led to his winning a scholarship to study art in Europe, effective at age 16.
Unfortunately, at this point, his parents decided they had to make one last attempt to curb their son’s individuality. They forbade Don to go to Europe, telling him that all artists were homosexuals, and moved him to the desert. Heartbroken and very bitter, Don gave up sculpture and art completely for the next 10 years. He ran away from home several times during this period. Then his parents moved once again, this time to Lancaster, California. It was here that Don decided to try school for the first time. He “went a couple of times” to Lancaster High School, but “was immediately rejected. In the late ’50’s, school was really bleak,” he told me. It was a beneficial experience however, for it was here that he met Frank Zappa, who was attending the school on a more regular basis.
In the early ’60’s, Don moved to Cucamonga, where Zappa was living and working on his music. Don was not yet involved with music on a creative level, although he was listening to blues and free jazz. It was during this period that Van Vliet and Zappa somehow concocted the name Captain Beefheart. Around 1963, Don bought a saxophone and began playing it, without lessons of course. He then moved back to the desert to work with a small group of musicians called the Magic Band. Not much is known of these early days, beyond the apparent fact of a few gigs in out-of-the-way places. In 1964, they rode into LA, signed with A&M records, and put out a single, “Diddy Wah Diddy,” the Bo Diddley song. It was a local hit, and so, with bolstered confidence, Don brought a tape of his proposed songs for an album to A&M honcho, Jerry Moss. Declaring the songs “too negative,” Moss rejected the album and dropped Beefheart from the label.
It wasn’t until over a year later, in 1965, that he was able to get his first LP released. Through Bob Krasnow, he signed with Buddah Records and recorded Safe As Milk, co-produced by Krasnow and Richard Perry. While just barely hinting at the unique style Beefheart was to develop, the album is nonetheless a classic and certainly his most eclectic, containing several distinct styles of music: hard rock, blues, soul ballads, even a smattering of bubblegum! The Captain sang, crooned or howled magnificently, and each song was a finely polished gem. However, cliche or no cliche, the LP was definitely ahead of its time, lost in the 1965 record market.
When Krasnow left Buddah to form Blue Thumb Records, Beefheart and the Magic Band went with him. In 1968, they recorded their second LP, Strictly Personal, again with Krasnow producing. Shortly after the sessions, Don and the band left to tour Europe. While they were gone, Krasnow remixed the tapes, adding a lot of gratuitous phasing effects, and released the LP in that form without Don’s knowledge or consent. Hearing it upon his return, he was furious, and remains convinced to this day that the LP was totally ruined.
While it is marred by the phasing, Strictly Personal is still extremely interesting and worthwhile. Stylistically, it is a step closer to the quintessential Beefheart sound. The playing is rawer, looser and more bluesy, featuring the dual slide guitar work that has become a trademark of his sound, and some great harmonica by Don. (The transitional period between 1965 and ’68 was not documented until the early ’70’s when Buddah released a set of tapes by Beefheart which they apparently had in their vaults. The LP was entitled Mirror Man and consisted of four tracks which were, according to the minimal liner notes, “recorded one night in LA in 1965,” presumably after Safe As Milk since the music is much closer to Strictly Personal, even featuring two songs which later appeared re-recorded on that LP.)
The aftermath of the Strictly Personal fiasco left Beefheart without a record label again, and also without a band except for guitarist Jeff Cotton, who stayed on. To the rescue came Frank Zappa, who had just started his own twin labels, Bizarre and Straight. He told Don he would record him with no restrictions or interference during or after the sessions.
Overjoyed, Don sat down at a piano and, in eight and a half hours, wrote the 28 songs which would comprise his third album, the monumental Trout Mask Replica. He then spent approximately six months teaching the music to the new Magic Band. Only Cotton (now rechristened Antennae Jimmy Semens) had previous playing experience. Guitarist Zoot Horn Rollo (Bill Harkleroad), bassist Rockette Morton (Mark Boston) and drummer The Mascara Snake (Victor Heydon, Don’s cousin) had virtually no prior knowledge of their instruments. Beefheart taught them every note, as well as playing saxophone for the first time on his records.
The result of this painstaking work by Don and his musicians is a two-record album which gets my vote as one of the three greatest and most unusual records ever made. Trout Mask Replica is nothing short of pure brilliance from start to finish. In one song, Beefheart utilizes more ideas than most people do for an entire album: a pattern, usually unorthodox, may be established when suddenly the guitars explode, bending the notes out of shape into space then back into a melodic line played in unison or a complete change of rhythmic thrust. Over all this, the Captain sings – in any one of his many voices – his free-form lyrics, punctuating them occasionally with a wild wail on his sax. It’s not jazz, it’s not blues, and it’s not rock. It certainly incorporates elements of all three styles, but yet the final, total effect is that of a completely realized, self-sufficient new type of music. Trout Mask Replica was released early in 1969, and to this day, there’s never been anything else like it.
Except, of course, for the next album, Lick My Decals Off, Baby. Released late in 1970, it is simultaneously more and less intense than its predecessor, a feat only Beefheart could achieve. Lyrically, it is his most serious LP, several of the songs dealing, in no uncertain terms, with our rapidly deteriorating ecology. Even here, though, he lets his playful sense of humor come through, as in “The Smithsonian Institute Blues” where he rhymes “dinosaur” with “Dinah Shore.” The band, minus Jeff Cotton but with Art Tripp on marimba and additional percussion, sounds slightly different – slightly better perhaps – and performs this challenging music most impressively.
The Spotlight Kid was something of a return to Don’s blues roots, albeit still pretty outside stuff for the most part. This was followed by Clear Spot, his most “pop” LP since Safe As Milk, although still distinctively Beefheartian. Unfortunately, none of these albums really sold well, and some time after Clear Spot, Reprise (Straight’s parent company who had taken over his contract after Decals) dropped Beefheart from their roster.
In 1974, he signed with Mercury and released a blatantly commercial LP, Unconditionally Guaranteed. Don has stated that he did this primarily as an attempt to make some money for the Magic Band, to thank them for playing with him. The LP, however, was an aesthetic and commercial failure, and the band left him. Later that same year, a second Mercury LP, Bluejeans And Moonbeams, was released featuring new musicians. This was even worse than the previous one.
After this, Don retired from the music scene, except for a 1975 tour with Zappa and the Mothers as one of the vocalists and front men. An album was released later that year entitled Bongo Fury, credited to “Zappa/ Beefheart/Mothers.” It features Don reciting two of his poems to superb free jazz backgrounds, as well as doing vocals on a couple of Zappa songs. His performances are great and whetted the appetite for more Beefheart music, but it was not until two years later that he began performing again with his new and improved Magic Band. In mid-1978, they signed to Warner Brothers, and in the fall, Bat Chain Puller was released. Complete with a new Van Vliet painting on the cover, it is the most adventurous album he’s made in years. He’s even playing his sax again, for the first time since Decals!
All of which leads back to your correspondent waiting in the Warners conference room for the imminent arrival of Don Van Vliet. The prospect of actually meeting the man is a pretty damned exciting one, to say the least. It’s funny, but I almost met him once before, back in January of 1971. It was at a Magic Band concert at the Rochester Institute of Technology. After the show, I was amazed to see that Beefheart didn’t leave the stage, but was hanging out back by the drums. I was one of a handful of people who jumped up on stage and went over to talk with him. As I got there, one kid was asking him about his harmonicas. I stood there for a minute or two and thought, “This guy is such a genius…what the hell can I say to him beyond ‘I really like your music?'” I decided that I was satisfied just to have stood next to him, and split without saying a word.
Finally, my Warners contact came into the room with a pretty lady who was introduced as Jan Van Vliet, the Captain’s wife. Moments later, Beefheart comes through the door, his hand outstretched, and wearing a surprised smile like he knows me and didn’t expect to see me here. As we’re shaking hands, he’s booming out, “Man. I haven’t seen you in years! How have ya been? Great to see you again!”
Talk about instant disorientation! Here’s Captain Beefheart treating me like a long lost friend, and all I can think is that I’ve never met him before in my life. I start to tell him so when I suddenly flash on the RIT incident. I know he’s reported to have an extraordinary memory, as well as powers of ESP. but surely he doesn’t remember me from two minutes in 1971, when I didn’t even talk to him?!
“Sure I remember you.” he says, as if it’s the most normal thing in the world, after I stutter a few semi-coherent syllables about RIT. “I said hello to you then. Don’t you remember?”
Now that I think of it. I guess he did.
“You don’t really believe I remember you, do you?” he asks a couple of minutes later.
“Well,” I reply, “you’re the only person in the world that I would believe could remember someone like that!” We walk over to the table, sit down, and I set up my tape recorder. Before I can even turn it on, Don is talking slowly and evenly, but virtually non-stop about New York, its inhabitants, and about the art exhibit he has just seen. Within minutes I was completely relaxed, a feeling I’ve never had in any other interview situation. We talked for well over an hour and the time just floated by. Don’s conversation twists and turns, and at times, goes off on fantastic tangents, not unlike some of his music. The best I can hope to do here is to try and capture, through the use of lengthy, unedited quotes, some of the essence of this incredible man.
After raving about the paintings of Franz Kline, which he has just seen (“The best, I think, other than Van Gogh”), Don pulls out his sketchbook and shows me some of his recent drawings, which are even more intricate and bizarre than those on his albums. I mention this to him and he says, “I know. I wonder what that is?” I venture that it is due to New York’s influence, and he agrees, saying that they were done in New York.
He mentions that he showed some of these drawings to his last Bottom Line audience, and adds that he likes to play there. “Even though you had some trouble with the monitors?” I ask. At the time he seemed pretty exasperated with the technical staff, stopping the show at one point until they fixed the faulty monitors.
Don explains, “I just want to give everything I can because I really appreciate people that care anything about somebody that does art. I want to present a clear picture.”
On to the subject of stage lighting: “Lights are so demanding. When I go on the stage, I could be up there for a year if it wasn’t for the lights. I like to look at the audience. I like to look at their expressions and gauge if I’m connecting, if they understand what I’m talking about or what’s happening. And sometimes those lights, right when I’m looking, a light will blare up, and all of a sudden, the person’s gone. I lose contact.”
Talking about the concerts gets Don onto his latest LP, Bat Chain Puller. “I’m more proud of that album than any album I’ve ever done. Really. I think the sound is so great. Glen Kolotkin, who engineered it, is so good. So advanced. I mean, he did Stravinsky’s last album. He told me, he said, ‘I did Electric Ladyland,’ and I said, ‘Yeah,’ and he says, ‘Oh yes, you might be interested in this: I did Stravinsky’s last album.’ Right then I said, ‘Oh my God, are you kidding?’ and then I just went right after him. I love Stravinsky. I hate to hear anybody use anything that he’s done. Immediately, I can spot it. I would never do that to him, or any other artist.”
I ask him about reports that Bat Chain Puller had been in the can for over a year. Don laughs. “They love to say things are in the can. I laid down a few things just to see if they would hold up as it went along till I signed to put the album out.
“I love this group. They’re nice. When they play, they smile and everything. They don’t put on any silly airs, you know what I mean? I can’t stand that. I think the only thing that holds up is somebody who’s honestly playing and caring about what they’re doing. Then it’s timeless, like Van Gogh. Have you seen any of his things? He’s brilliant! Where is he here? I’d like to go to a museum and see some of his work. His paintings look like they were just done, and he’s out somewhere going to the bathroom. I can’t believe it, after a hundred years? How brilliant.”
I begin to ask Don about some of his influences, but as soon as I utter the words, he says very matter-of-factly, “I don’t have any. I don’t. I would never put any influences into myself because it would distort what I do. And I’m a real funny person; if I were to take in influences… Oh, I make exceptions. Animals. Noises. I will take those influences in. But human influences… To me, I can appreciate something somebody does, totally, because I don’t get influenced by it. I don’t have that much ego, you know why? Because I just don’t want to pay for it. You know what ego does to you? I mean, it just puts you right out of the… I’ve had ego before, a lot of it, but I stayed up for a year-and-a-half. Did you ever read that? Oh yeah, from the time I was 25 till I was 26-and-a-half.” No sleep at all for a year-and-a-half?!?!
“No. not at all. And I’ve been thinking about it recently. I might stay up again. It’s good. it’s a mental fast. I mean, you get all of the things that have gone in, out. There you’re ready right then to… If I take a paint brush, there’s nothing between me and the brush hitting the canvas, very little, other than gravity. I mean, gravity is the master, period. If your feet get tired, it’s because of gravity. Other than that, I don’t think you’d even get tired.”
I asked what he did during that year-and-a-half.
“Oh, I wrote about my entire life, as much as I could get down. I used to write 180 pages a day, just moving, like if a child is out playing and the mother calls the child, ‘Hey, come in here,’ the child doesn’t even pay attention. And then they just go to sleep, after they just get bored with themselves. It is impossible to get bored. That’s an ego thing. Although what is ego? That’s something man invented.”
During the beginning of our conversation, the Captain had attempted to shut the windows behind us to keep out the noise of New York, since he has very sensitive hearing. Now he jumps out of his chair and grabs the life-size cardboard cutout of Shaun Cassidy that has been standing behind him. “I just can’t take this anymore!” he says. “I keep seeing it out of the corner of my eye.” He turns it around so that Shaun is now facing the wall. “That’s better. It looks more interesting now, more artistic.”
As Don sits down again, I ask if he can describe the methods he uses to compose his music.
“I get a flash. I know exactly what I want, like a painting. And then play it on a piano, play it on a pencil, I mean the percussion, on a table, y’know, anything. And then have it on tape. Tape is really important. It’s as important as ink is with paper because, y’see, I have so many things in my head, God, I mean, not in my head, they just come into my head. I don’t keep thoughts, but they come in whenever I need ’em. I’ve never had it fail me yet.
“Then I would take the tape of what I had done, say the piano, then as I would play the tape, and the musician would hear it, I would say, ‘Well, this is how I want that shaped [he begins drawing]. Say I wanted that shape, I could draw it and still have it on the tape where they could hear it, then visually and hearing it, they can see what I’m talking about: the shapes, movements. It really works. I get very close to exactly what I want. That’s very important to me, to have it be exactly what I wanted.”
I comment that it must have been hard for all of the musicians he’s worked with to master the complex structures of his music.
“It is hard, it really is. It’s very difficult. And for not too much money either, because, uh, the thing that’s really bad about creating with a lot of people like that is the guilt of the fact that they don’t make the money that they should for playing it. Because not that many people like it.”
Still, I say, I’m sure your musicians would rather play with you than play crap just to make money.
“Well. I hope so. And then the words are informative. I mean, it might make people think about the way it is, and maybe try to change it. Like ‘Space age couple, why don’t you flex your magic muscle? Why don’t you cultivate the grounds? They’re the only ones around.’ That’s it. ‘Hold a drinking glass up to your eye, after you’ve scooped up a little of the sky, and it ain’t blue no more. What’s on the leaves ain’t dew no more.’
“People have gotta wake up. They could do something about it. It’s awfully bad right now, but they could do something about it if they used their technology to do something about cleansing this place. It would take a long time for it to go back the way it really was, but it would start.”
On the back of the new album is a legend which reads, “Dedicated to all conservation and wildlife preservation organizations everywhere.” About this, Don says, “I hope that it does some good. If nothing else, if nobody likes it or anything, the thing is that maybe somebody will see that and think about it. That’s very important to me. Animals are wonderful, so wonderful.”
All the new Magic Band members share these concerns. Don tells me, as he begins to talk about the considerable talents of each musician. When he was speaking about guitarist Richard Redus, his rap took an astonishing hairpin curve, which happened so fast, I didn’t discover it until I was transcribing my tape.
“Richard, he’s brilliant. He’s a brilliant man. He wears no shoes, even in the winter. Never. Never wears shoes. Isn’t that something? Think about that, think about walking down Fifth Avenue without shoes, in the winter! And you know what else he does? Have you ever heard of Adrian Desmond, he wrote The Hot-Blooded Dinosaurs? You gotta read that one. I mean, you don’t gotta do anything. I’m not saying you gotta, you know, I mean, [goes into old-timer’s voice] ‘Hey, you gotta read that!’ An American saying, [normal voice] you know what I mean? The way the, I’m definitely an American, but I love it with America’s, uh, y’know, I am an American. I mean, I’m from America and I enjoyed the Constitution. I mean, all of those hip people like Benjamin Franklin. Do you know how smart he was? Wow! When I go to Philadelphia, I stay very near his grave. There’s a Holiday Inn there, eeeyuhh, heh, heh, but there is, and it’s right there, and his grave, where he’s buried is right just… I usually stay in the same window, and I swear that the energy… I mean, my hair curls, and I have straight hair. And not out of fear, certainly. Maybe admiration. But then again I wonder, do you know what I mean? The idea that he’d been there. [chuckles] And not only that brilliant, but looked that good. I mean, don’t you love the way he looked? Like a dolphin. There’s been some smart people… All of those smart people, together at that one time, with those great thoughts. I wish that people had gone along with them.”
When we get back to the music, I remark that one of the reasons I love it so much is that it’s not all laid out for the listener, that it forces the listener into doing some of the work.
“That’s the way it should be, because if somebody just sits and fixates, it’s no good. Like this disco stuff, that beat, [strikes his chest] boom, boom, boom, boom. That’s too bad. I mean, I’ve tried to change that for 13 years.”
I remind him that he has influenced a lot of the new rock people and mention three who have said so in print: Devo, Pere Ubu and Johnny Rotten. “Johnny? I saw him at every concert I did in England. I remember seeing him. I’d never met him, but he called me in England, and he seems to be quite an intelligent person. I enjoyed talking with him.”
Much more was said in the course of our conversation, but not all of it seemed relevant to the printed page. This has been an attempt at an impressionistic verbal portrait of Captain Beefheart, a man who, by his very nature, resists definition and categorization. If you wish to know more, you’ll just have to listen to his music and flex your magic muscle.