[alert_box type=”info”]Charles Gee tells his superb story about his meeting with the Captain at the 1972 Bickershaw Festival. Highly recommended reading.[/alert_box]
In 1972 I lived in Manchester. Not that far from Bickershaw, so when the festival arrived a group of us decided we would be fools not to go. We arrived on Friday evening and put our tent up outside the concert perimeter and went in. My recollections of the groups who were on Friday night are not vivid. I remember being impressed by Doctor John, as he threw his sparkly dust into the evening sky, but that’s about it. Saturday was much more memorable.
As has been well documented it was a little on the damp side and by the time Saturday evening came along I was rather soggy. My best friend bought two tabs of black microdot and asked me if I wanted one. At the time I was going through one of my ‘I’m not taking acid again. It makes my head go too funny’ periods. In retrospect I can see it was my Catholic upbringing, with all the ‘weeping and gnashing of teeth’ that was to blame. From being fun, visions of heaven and hell had started to sneak in, but one of my friends had bought a couple of tabs, so after a little persuasion I thought ‘What the hell’. After I had taken my tab my ‘friend’ said ‘I’ve got a terrible headache. I think I’d best not take my tab.’
‘THANKS A LOT’ He then gave me his tab because he wouldn’t be needing it, and I like a fool, accepted it. Needless to say about five minutes later I lost my friend in the crowd. So there I was having taken some acid in amongst thousands of strangers. I began to get paranoid about the tab in my pocket, and instead of throwing it away (that would be wasteful), I swallowed it. Up to that moment the first tab hadn’t kicked in yet, but as soon as I had taken the second things began to happen. The sun was going down and people started to light fires to keep warm. The smoke began to get in my eyes, and get down my throat, making me choke. The contours of the land changed completely. The muddy field began to resemble the Somme. Everybody started to look like demons. I remember vividly someone buying a hotdog and wolfing it down like Wimpey in a Popeye cartoon. It became clear to me that this concert had been going on since the beginning of time. The acid I had taken was the Apple. I had tasted the Fruit of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, and here I was in Hell.
There was an air of resignation about me as I wandered the muddy fields populated by countless other lost souls. There was a stall selling records by artists who were appearing at the festival. The Grateful Dead were performing and the stall was regaled with their record covers. Everybody must be aware of what Grateful Dead covers look like and the skeletons that were dancing about were reminiscent of Jason and the Argonauts. All this just seemed to confirm my sense of foreboding. When the announcer said over the Tannoy ‘And now for the first time in Britain, we have ‘The Flaming Groovies,’ and they started up with ‘Jumpin’ Jack Flash’, my heart sank.
I stumbled round with an ever-increasing sense of resignation. I came across a black London taxi, with a bullet hole sticker on the back window. I entered and sat down. I absent-mindedly searched through my pockets and found a little leaflet which I’d been given earlier in the day. It was from ‘the Children of God’ a bunch of pseudo psychedelic Christians who frequented rock festivals around that time, picking up casualties. Everything was conspiring to make me believe that I was in hell or at least at gates. I was sure that the Devil in the best Hammer Horror Tradition was going to get into the drivers seat and say. ‘We’ve been expecting you’. Instead somebody opened the door and said ‘What are you doing? This is my brother’s taxi.”
I said all I want to do is get out of here. He pointed to the Entrance/Exit which was situated on higher ground than where we were situated. I started to walk with a purpose towards the gate, saying to myself as I went ‘Got to get out. Got to get out. Got to get out ‘ afraid that I would forget what I was trying to do, if didn’t. As I approached the gate a man with one tooth in his head asked ‘Do you want a pass-out?’ I told him, ‘I’m not coming back.’ and plunged through the gate.
On the other side things were worse. There was a car stuck in the mud and in an effort to get moving the driver was giving it plenty of revs, filling the air with petrol fumes. There were lots of policemen and what appeared to be more unsavory characters than inside the concert. It was then I realised that I had to get back in. Then I realised that I hadn’t got a pass-out and hadn’t enough money to get back in. There were six entrances in a line I walked up to each in turn and said, ‘You’ve got to let me in’. At each entrance I was told, ‘If you haven’t got a pass-out, you can’t come in.’ Eventually I reached the last gate and said with a look of desperation, ‘YOU’VE JUST GOT TO LET ME IN.’ And the guy said ‘You’d best come in then’.
I was walking around now with the rain getting heavier, when I heard a message come through the ether, ‘THERE IS A CHILD MISSING. HE HAS BEEN MISSING FOR FOUR HOURS. IF YOU FIND HIM COULD YOU PLEASE TAKE HIM TO THE RELEASE TENT AT THE BACK OF THE STAGE.’ I am a child and I’m definitely missing. I could see the stage in the distance. All I had to do was get to the back of it. I started to run not caring who I was standing on. Because of the rain lots of people were lying on the ground, covered with plastic sheeting. As I made a beeline towards the stage there were lots of expletives from the recipients of my size 10’s. Eventually I got to the front, but how would I get to the back of the stage. The stage itself was a massive wooden structure and on either side of it stretched a fence, preventing people from getting backstage. I followed the fence along and spotted a small hole just big enough for me to squeeze through.
On the other side of the fence things were a lot calmer, more peaceful. There were only a few people walking round. Ahead of me, I spotted a bus. I had been walking around for what seemed like eternity and was totally exhausted. I thought to myself, ‘It seems pretty peaceful in there’ so on I hopped. The bus wasn’t like I expected it to be when I got on board. The seats were set out like somebody’s living room and my acid-mind made it seem bigger than it should be, almost Tardis-like. I sat down on the seat closest to the door, hoping that if I kept quiet whoever owned the bus would allow me to stay.
When I had been sitting there a short time I became aware of American voices floating around the bus. I noticed a group of people was talking at the far end. One of them noticed me and walked over.
‘Who is this cat?’ he said cheerily.
‘Oh you don’t know me’ I replied in a broad Lancashire accent.’
‘Didn’t we pick you up when you were hitch-hiking in Germany, last year’
‘No’ said I, honestly.
Then I remembered my assumed predicament. How I was lost in Hell and all that sort of thing. So I hit him with, ‘Whose side are you on?’
He batted back with, ”Why does there have to be any sides? Why can’t it be like a circle?’
While I was trying to get my head round that one, he said ‘Do you know who I am.’ Not in a big-headed way. He was genuinely inquiring if I was aware of his identity. I peered at him through hallucinating eyes and said, ‘You are Captain Beefheart, aren’t you?’
‘That’s right’. Then he looked at me and said, ‘It’s pretty wet out there’. It was then that I looked at myself for the first time. I was caked with mud and soaked to the skin. Then smiling kindly he said, ”We have to go on stage soon. You don’t want to be down here crawling around in the mud. Would you like to come up with us.’ I didn’t need asking twice. I wasn’t about to loose contact with the only friendly face in Hell.
It was a long way up to the stage and through my acid-eyes all the wooden planks seemed warped, and the lights made a spiders web effect on everything as if to confirm my feeling that the concert had been happening forever and this was Hell. When we got to the top of the stairs a huge guy, obviously security, stopped me from going any further. Beefheart shouted across, ‘He’s with me,’ and I was let through. When we got to the stage itself there was a large space behind the playing area where people were chatting and dancing. Beefheart went chatting and I went dancing, always making sure that I kept an eye on the Captain. He came across once and gave a bottle of something which I drank down in one swig, thinking it was some miraculous potion that would transport me somewhere else (I found out later that it was a bottle of spa water that he had given me to try to dilute whatever substances I had taken). Another time he offered me a cigarette. When I told I didn’t smoke he said, ‘Good for you. I’m trying to give them up myself.’
Then it was time for him to go on stage. I don’t think I have witnessed a performance so breathtaking. The movement of Rockette Morton and Zoot Horn Rollo was astounding as they careered around the stage like whirling dervishes, with Beefheart conducting the whole thing. The band would disappear up different alleys then Beefheart would bring them back with the subtlest of gestures. Then something happened of which I don’t understand. The only thing I can think of was that Beefheart was introducing the band to the crowd. ‘Zoot Horn Rollo on guitar,’ that sort of thing. When whoever it was was supposed to play, nothing happened and in my intoxicated state it came to me in a flash of insanity. They are waiting for me. I have to be seen on the stage as a member of the band. Captain Beefheart roams the Galaxies doing gigs. He arrives with his Magic Band at Festivals and picks up lost souls and whisks them away to La-La Land. A sort of Cosmic Scarlet Pimpernel. When I realised I had to be seen on stage, I started to make my way there. At Bickershaw when a band had finished their spot instead of packing up their instruments they just moved them back which meant that by Saturday evening the stage was cluttered up with drum kits, microphones and the like. I thought I had to be seen on stage, so like a bull in a china shop I went clattering through. Any instruments that got in my way were scattered. In the end I finished up standing at the left hand of Roy Estrada. He looked at me as if to say ‘What the hell are you doing here”. I realised then that I had made a booboo, and started to sidle off. Everybody was very nice. One guy ushered me off, in the nicest possible way. I was then left in the wings for the rest of the concert. When the Magic Band had finished playing, Beefheart came across to me, and said ‘We are going now. Do you want to stay here or come with us?’ I said ‘I want to go with you’. There was no way I wanted to be left in Hell. We came down the stairs and walked towards the bus. When we were about fifty yards from the bus, he was engulfed by what I assumed were reporters, so I thought to myself ‘I’ll go to the bus,’ but when I tried to get on the bus this bouncer type barred my way. I stepped back about five yards from the bus door. Somebody came along and said a few words to the guy guarding the door. I couldn’t quite catch whet he said. I just got ‘Blah, Blah, Blah, hotel.’ I thought I understood staying at the same hotel as Captain Beefheart. I marched up to the bus and said ‘Blah, blah, blah, hotel’ and tried to get on again. The bouncer said ‘I’m sorry you can’t come on.’ By this time I noticed that Beefheart had finished talking to the reporters and was walking towards me. We met just in front of the bus. He said, ‘Its all right. Don’t worry, you’ll hear my music. I promise that you’ll hear my music.’ It was such an enigmatic thing to say. So optimistic. Something that could be heard on so many different levels. The sun had started to come up. The long night was over. I slipped back through the loophole and almost immediately banged into some people that I knew. Santa Claus was definitely on the Evening Stage that night.
What do I think now? I think that Don Van Vliet is a very special person. Not because he is probably the most original musician of the last century, or because he is a great painter, but because he was aware enough to spot a fellow human in distress, and not feel so high and mighty and above helping. At any time during that evening he could have got rid of this ‘muddy individual’ who was messing up the bus, and making a fool of himself, but he didn’t leave me until my crisis was over. When somebody is one of the biggest stars in the world and still able to behave with such compassion, that is what I call GREATNESS. As far as I am concerned he is one of the brightest stars in the Universe, and I am so grateful that our paths crossed that night.
– Charles Gee, 1999