Waiting at the bar by Tom Ellis

Tom Ellis’ story of a wasted opportunity.

I have been listening since Safe As Milk, and fondly remember my days in the sixties when I worked quite hard to become comfortable with a trio of artists – Beefheart, Ornette and the AACM – a time that was highly rewarding and from which my musical tastes continue to grow. I can honestly say I was the only surfer in North Florida then listening to this stuff, and it isolated me from most of my friends who were getting into Hendrix and other stuff. My other great love is Paul Butterfield, about whom I have written extensively for a blues magazine here in the states.

Now my short story about the Cap. I was writing for a music magazine in the late seventies in Houston – called the Lamb – and had been blessed with many opportunities to meet some of my idols, including a memorable 45 minutes with Butter himself, when I learned the Beefheart was coming to town, in tandem with your own Robert Palmer, then aligned with some of the Little Feat guys and touring on the success of “Sneakin’ Sally Through The Alley”. I made a strong pitch to review the show and meet Beefheart, and was given the OK, along with the proper PR contacts; these folks seemed genuinely amused that I was so adamant about meeting the man I just idolized, especially after the The Spotlight Kid and Clear Spot had been released (still have my clear plastic cover and vinyl copy of the latter and the poster therefrom adorned my stairwell wall for many years). Anyway, the showdate approached and I began to drown myself again in a stew of Beefheart music (much to the concern of my first wife, totally unfamiliar with this side of my music personality), preparing a short list of questions I hoped would initiate a long conversation.

I had been told that Beefheart would meet me “at the bar” the day of the show, along with a PR woman, and we would conduct the interview somewhere private within the club, a large barn like spot that had last been a grocery. As I entered the club, about an hour before the doors were to be officially opened, I was taken aback at the group of about twenty or so fans who had also gained early entry, and who had come prepared with stage offerings – ancient vacuum cleaners, floppy hats, flowers, a trout mounted on a wooden slab, etc. – and who had all gathered about stagefront and were already moving and interacting as if in some sort of pre-aural trance. I had no idea that there were any other Beefheart fans in Houston, Tx., and this motley bunch in their tiedyed outfits, bandanas, and assorted ritual clothing made me – then the advertising director of Houston City Magazine – feel embarrased at my rather conservative appearance.

I freaked. There at the bar he sat, every bit the image I had always imagined, a bit thinner than I expected, nursing an ice water, chatting idly with the PR woman. I suddenly became overwhelmed with shyness, or rather anxiety, and as I moved to the bar, sitting close enough to hear the conversation all the while hiding any sign I might be there to do an interview (pens, pad), I suddenly realized I was SOOOO unprepared to talk to a man whose verbal wordplay was (and remains) astonishing to me. I listened intently, so afraid to leave the bar for fear of being recognized.

I still feel that Beefy might have known “it was me”–there was no one else around and the club was relatively empty at that time (it would fill to near capacity later, about half the crowd there for each artist).

This remains one of the great mistakes of my life. I can only kick myself, over and over, everytime I listen to the music. But it makes for a good story. I only wish now that I could reclaim that opportunity, just to have the opportunity to spend a short time visiting with him.

Tom Ellis

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