DON'T ARGUE WITH THE CAPTAIN
history - interview
|'I WOULDN'T CALL IT DADA ROCK EXACTLY. WHAT IT IS, IS...'
from usa 1 june 1970 CREEM vol. 2 #13
although they appear to be fading somewhat, the rock and roll audience lines of demarcation are still very much in evidence. on one side are the bubble-gum kids, with their transistor radios and christian youth fellowships, stuck in the grooves of the latest b j thomas or archies hit. little needs to be said about them because all of us, at one distant time or another, were inevitably part of that scene. it was a phase we all passed through, an integral stage in the growth of progress.(*)
on the other side of the fence are those of us who would like to think that our cultural tastes are a bit more mature. we are aware of our bubble-gum roots and american bandstand heritage, but we seem to feel that we are above and beyond all that now. we pride ourselves on our openmindedness and the supposed latitude of our cultural inclinations. we think that we (and therefore our music) represent a freedom of sorts from the insular mind rot of our juvenile counterparts.
it would seem to me, however, that we are too quick to pat our own backs, that we are giving ourselves far more credit than we actually deserve. in many respects our musical tastes are just as limited (if not more so) than the bubble-gum kids. it may be true that there exists a certain degree of technical adventurism in much of our music, but even on that plane we have severely confined ourselves.
our conception of excellence is defined with the narrow walls of technical virtuosity and often built upon riffs that were passť long before we ever got to them (see eric clapton for a prime example of what i'm talking about). in doing so, we lose sight of truly creative conception, of that which separates man from machine technology. simple regurgitation of old blues riffs or country licks (no matter what the level of technical competence) is nothing more than egotistical plagiarism, and can hardly constitute creativity on any level.
in light of this, have we actually made the progressions we are so quick to credit ourselves with? i think not, and it is perhaps directly resultant from our deficiency of vision; our stubborn refusal to look forward rather than simply wallowing in the eclectic overload of the present. this may help to explain how a band as consistently futuristic as the velvet underground could be neglected with equal consistency. anything that does not neatly fall within our narrow boundaries we tend to ridicule or completely ignore. captain beefheart and his magic band have suffered more than their share of both.
our music is labeled as 'progressive rock', but who among us has been more progressive than beefheart? we refer to ourselves as the 'underground', but few can conceive of the subterranean depths in which beefheart dwells. (in fact he has literally been kept a prisoner there). we think of our life-style as being contemporary, but the music of beefheart ranges far beyond that; he is one of the truly visionary figures in american music. in many ways, however, beefheart has been the victim of his vision, and he has been crucified in ways that john lennon can only fantasize about.
captain beefheart was born in glendale, california in 1941, under the assumed name of don van vliet. the youthful captain displayed an abundance of sensitivity and talent in the fine arts, so much so that by the age of thirteen he had won a scholarship to study sculpture in europe. but his parents refused to let him go, informing him in typical parent fashion that all artists were queers. to discourage the impressionable lad, they packed up and moved to lancaster, on the fringe of the california wasteland. it proved to be a strategically poor move, however. for it was there, in lancaster high, that young don struck up a friendship with frank zappa. this was a relationship that would prove to have a profound effect on the captain's later career.
zappa recalled the pattern of that teenage friendship. 'don and i used to get together after school and listen to records for three or four hours. we would start off at my house, and then get something to eat and ride around in his old oldsmobile looking for pussy - in lancaster! then we would go to his house and raid his old man's bread truck and eat pine-apple buns and listen to records until five in the morning'. from all appearances this was nothing more than a harmless comradeship, but it was during this period that the seeds of beefheart's musical aspirations, and the later collaborations of the two men, were planted.
although it has been widely reported that
beefheart played briefly in high school with a black rhythm and blues outfit
called 'the omens', this was not exactly the case. the captain related
to me the actual story behind the story: 'i bought an alto saxophone and
went to rehearsal and just started playing. they told me to get out. they
said that i wasn't playing, that i was just moving my fingers. in other
words, they thought i was a little too weird for them'. it wasn't until
his post-high school days that he really became interested in music, but
this is a fairly accurate indication of the mythology that has been built
up around the amazing captain.
a brief encounter with higher education (antelope
valley college) terminated his association with formal art. 'i realised
that sculpture was too pointed', he says, and he began to turn increasingly
to music as his chief creative outlet. his principal interests were authentic
blues and progressive jazz. 'i have always liked human noises', he reflected,
'like animal noises and things like that, natural sounds. i got a more
natural feeling out of say, country blues, field hollers, and things like
that and progressive stuff. i was looking for something that extended rather
than caging, you know what i mean?'
it is not unusual, therefore, that his first
magic band was rooted deeply in the delta (as opposed to slick chicago)
blues style. even at this early stage, beefheart had a lucid vision of
the kind of music he wanted to do, but his musicians at that point would
have no part of it, and beefheart found himself trapped in the form he
had hoped to use as a launching pad. nevertheless, the brand of raunchy
blues rock that the magic band excelled at was a vanguard form in the year
of our lord 1965, and they attracted the eye of an a&m records scout,
and were soon thereafter signed to that label.
his venture with a&m was short and hardly sweet, a recurring pattern in the beefheart career. his first single, 'diddy wah diddy' (the old bo diddley tune), was a los angeles breakout, but failed to sustain its success in other parts of the country. when he approached the company with tapes for an album, he was told by jerry moss (the m of a&m records - t.t.) that his approach was 'too negative' ('for his daughter', as don later would recall - teejo). it seems that the good captain's image was not deemed suitable for a company headed by the decidedly wholesome herb alpert (the a of a&m - t.t.). the label released another single ('moonchild' - t.t.), but by that time the captain was long gone.
embittered by this painful rejection, beefheart sat out a while in self-imposed retirement. it took bob krasnow, then of buddah records, to lure the captain out of exile, and he did so with a promise to release the 'negative' a&m material. the first product of the beefheart / krasnow coalition was the album 'safe as milk' (buddah 5001), released in 1967.
the magic band (as heard on that album) consisted of: don van vliet (vocals and harp), ry cooder (guitar), alex snouffer (guitar), jerry handley (bass) and john french (drums). the album paid obvious respects to delta blues, but employed a broad range of diverse styles and effects. ry cooder was, and still is, one of the masters of bottleneck guitar, a talent he shows to full advantage on this album. his thick delta texture is perfectly offset by the rock-based guitar of snouffer, a wonderfully imaginative complement. the rhythmical line was carried by snouffer, thus leaving drummer john french free to accent rather than merely occupying the bottom of the beat.
but to my mind, the most important instrument in the band was the voice of van vliet himself. his vocals are an ever-changing descriptive force, and his lyrics, even then, a natural flow of image response. the music was a precise amalgam of musical influences, but was considerably more than the sum of its elements. although they may start a song from within some easily recognizable framework, the course of that song is likely to see some startling progressions and changes. beefheart is never satisfied to rest protected by form, and his music is an enchanting wellspring of innovation.
'safe as milk' opened up with 'sure 'nuff 'n' yes i do', an uptempo blues that featured cooder's fine bottleneck technique. but it were beefheart's lyrics ('i was born in the desert / came all up from new orleans / came upon a tornado / sunlight in the sky / i went around all day / with the moon sticking in my eye') that told us that something very magical was being done to the blues riff. 'dropout bogie' gave us an unprecedented example of the extreme plasticity of beefheart's voice. accompanied by a fuzz rhythm, his voice incredibly blended and complimented the guitar, until it seemed that he was a lyrical fuzz box himself.
he has often said that he was not influenced by rock and roll ('actually, i wouldn't say that i was innocent of it: i have heard it, and i've shut off enough radios to not hear it.'), but the song 'i'm glad' would seem to say otherwise. it's a syrupy rock number, complete with falsetto backing, and it so essentially captures what songs of that nature were about that only a person with fastidious insights into that music could have created it.
the song made perfectly clear that rock (or any form, for that matter) offered few possibilities for a man of beefheart's unique gifts, and it was only natural that he should grow in a very personal direction or no perceptible direction at all. people today still refuse to recognize that fact, and the refrain of 'plastic factory' was prophetic of his whole relationship with the industry: 'plastic factory ain't no place for me / bossman leave me be'.
the hard amalgam of blues and rock, the distinctive use of the theremin, and the emergence of beefheart himself, all made 'safe as milk' a revolutionary album in the truest sense of the word. the harbinger's lot, however, is often a very suicidal one; and the album died almost immediately upon release. people who pass it by in the discount racks of this nation's supermarkets will possibly never know what they have missed. perhaps the listening public has finally gotten to the point where they can begin to relate to what was going on in 'safe as milk', but subsequent events took beefheart and his magic bands forever out and far beyond the dull mainstream of contemporary american music.
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