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
talking to van vliet is not unlike taking a rainbow shower. he is a very honest and open man, with a contagious warmth and good humor that makes you feel immediately at ease. he talks in a very personal and unique way, and i sometimes found myself answering his queries in the affirmative, while at the same time thinking that i really had no idea what he was talking about. in listening to the tapes of our conversation, however, i realized the inherent simplicity of the man, and that i had actually understood the things he was saying all along.*
his deep sensitivity was made readily apparent throughout our conversation. apparently he has had this since his youth, and his life may be seen as the fight for an effective artistic outlet for these feelings. sculpture was his original outlet, and strong sculptural traces can still be seen in his music. the way the instrumental aspect constantly moulds and shapes the rhythm, the way his voice is kneaded to fit each individual song and the tonally textured quality of his lyrics, are all suggestive of his early sculptural training.
in light of this sensitivity, it is easy to see how his music could have taken its base root in the blues. authentic blues is perhaps the most human musical form in existence, and would be a logical vent for a humanist such as beefheart. the problem was that he found himself trapped in this form. in the 'safe as milk' period, blues was becoming a culturally acceptable and commercially viable product, and beefheart had a way with the blues that literally reeked with dollar signs in the eyes of the industry.
to allow him personal growth would be a potential liability, and it was deemed much easier (and much more profitable as well) to keep him in a place where he could be readily understood and manipulated. people seem to fear anything that challenges them to relate outside their limited sphere of reference, and the captain was decidedly moving away from anybody's sphere (though he is much more direct and inside than most people are willing to give him credit for).
an understandable outgrowth of the captain's sensitivity is his concern for nature and what man is so thoughtlessly doing to the earth mother. no trendy ecologist he, for his concern has been a life-long occupation from the time he made his first sculpture of god's little creatures. it is evident in his music, in songs like 'wild life' ('wild life is a man's best friend') and 'ant man bee' ('now the bee takes his honey / then he sets the flower free / but in god's garden / only man and the ants / they won't let each other be'). it is also evident in the course of normal (?) conversation.
'everybody has to start cleaning up their own garden,' he remarked. 'the thing is, is that if they could only feel that it's their own gardenů, and if it's themselves i guess it is their own garden. i really think that it's pointless, or maybe it's a point, to run out in front of a speeding car, you know, and expect not to be struck down.' it is indicative of his good nature that he possesses the essential optimism that man can and will take steps to correct the situation.
we got talking about speed, the pace of man. he believes that things are moving at a senseless and insensitive rate, that we aren't allowed the time or the means to really learn how to play. he brought up a rather distressing situation: 'i have been noticing recently that there aren't any more kites, and there aren't any more jacks. remember the jacks? they have all just disappeared from the market, all of those nonsensical things that somebody could do by themselves. i mean, i enjoy playing jacks myself, i have a couple of sets. what about cooties? that was a nice sculpture, i think that outdoes andy warhol (famous pop-art artist - t.t.)'. children seem to have a marvelous capacity for pure and innocent creation, and in many respects this is what beefheart is aiming for.
speed creates distortion, and it is not unusual that the situation here in the united states has reached the grotesque proportions that it has. the solution at this point becomes fairly obvious. 'i think that they're going to have to get more kites. i think that immediately the kite-makers should be sought out, and i think that they should definitely start handing out kites. perhaps kites should be handed out in school, in high school and college. if they would have a kite class i think that it would be a real help. we would get them out in the fresh air. i think maybe they would discover electricity.' with all the overblown rhetoric and counter-rhetoric that we have suffered, beefheart's solution is refreshingly simple and logical. think about it.
don van vliet is truly the twenty-first century renaissance man. although his music tends to keep him occupied, his creative spirit literally bursts into many other artistic areas. he still sculpts, and has recently devoted much time to painting. his house in the san fernando valley (that outgrowth of los angeles that seems to exist only in the eyes of ralph williams and a few other car dealerships) acts as a receptacle for his literary endeavors, and is strewn with his prose and poetry (and five novels somewhere among them). many publishers are reportedly very interested in his writings, so the chances look good that he will be available in hard cover and paperback very soon. it seems that there is no field that he cannot master if he puts his mind to it. and, like your proverbial iceberg, i think that the bulk of his genius still lies submerged, waiting for an effective outlet.
it is easy to see how a man with beefheart's previous experience could be wary of business and industry dealings, and that it is essential for such a man to be in hands that he trusts and has confidence in. at long last beefheart appears to have found these hands. they belong to his present manager, grant gibbs, of whom beefheart says: 'he's a very nice person. he has integrity'. the feeling is mutual, gibbs treats his client not like a client at all, but more as a close friend and advisor. the delicacy and protectiveness with which he handles beefheart springs from a genuine concern for, and understanding of, the man's needs.
his contractual and financial problems have been cleared up, and by the time you read this article, he should have signed a new contract with warner bros. rumor has it that the warners people have a tendency to regard straight artists (whom they distribute) as little more than freaks, but this is apparently not the case with beefheart. the captain has every confidence in them, and feels that they will handle him in an appropriate manner. his first album for warner bros, 'lick my decals off, baby', is now in the works (but eventually was a 'straight' release - t.t.).
he is extremely anxious to get on the road and bring once again his music to the people. offers have been pouring in from all parts of the globe, and it is expected that his first appearance will be at the santa monica civic auditorium in the very near future (scheduled for 26 june, but cancelled - the first live performance that year would be onů: 18 september - t.t.). when he does hit the road, he will have a slightly altered magic band with him. it will include zoot horn rollo on guitar, rockette morton on bass, and art tripp on drums. tripp was formerly a percussionist with frank zappa's now defunct mothers of invention (although beefheart says: 'i don't think he was ever with frank, because i don't think frank could have kept with him, frankly').
the music of zappa in no way relates to the non-linear beefheart approach, so how did art tripp (alias ed marimba) make the necessary transition? 'well, i took an erector set, you know', the captain told me. 'i put the erector set on the floor and i proceeded to have him bend it, and then after he got through bending it and he got tired and his hands got sore, i said: 'that's it'. you see, art tripp was in music college for eight years. and when he got out and found out that he was just cutting up cadavers, when he realized that he was just being an igor (donkey - t.t.) for frank zappa, i guess it was quite a shock to him. to come from music college and realize that all they're doing is paying homage to people that aren't living. i'm interested in who's lÝving.' van vliet has, it seems, been able to infuse his magic band with this same vitality and life projection. he considers them to be his best magic band yet, and that's saying something.
all systems appear to be go in the career of van vliet. he recently married a girl named jan, and while this is pure speculation, i think that she has had more than a little to do with his healthy optimism. but whatever the reason, beefheart is out to make it his way this time, and when he sets his mind on something, you might as well consider it accomplished. it appears that the public, as well, is now ready (or in the process of getting there) to receive the captain and his friends in somewhat the proper perspective, i have the feeling that seeing beefheart in person will tell you more about him than any record or any words that i could come up with.
there will undoubtedly still be many who will view him in freaky terms (thinking that it's groovy because it's so far out), but this has always been the fate of men of vision. they are either crucified or camped out of existence. those of us who treasure beefheart because he is a warmly real human being are still in the minority, but at the very least i hope that he will be appreciated for the depth and range of his artistry,
i could never hope to put down on paper the intensity of this man's presence; the accuracy and humor of his insights can only be fully revealed through personal contact. for those who have long overlooked his recorded legacy, i can only say you would do well to start making up for lost time. time will prove don van vliet to be one of the most gifted artists and remarkable figures that our culture has produced, 'trout mask replica' is already ample testimony to that. his vision, always clear, is finally being given its long deserved attention - he will no longer be forced to frequent the underground freak sideshow, and it's about time.
don said to me: 'if there is an end, then you've already lost', so instead of attempting to end this, i'll merely suggest that you find a kite and go out and begin things for yourself, it just might prove to be worth it.