DON'T ARGUE WITH THE CAPTAIN
history - interview
a day in the life
from usa 1 august 1971 HIT PARADER #85
one friday night i was trying to get the key in the lock as the phone rang inside. i have never been able to make it to the telephone except this one time. why it should be this one time was explained by the operator: 'i have a collect call from captain beefheart.' lesser known as don van vliet, the captain was going to give me personnel information on the magic band circa 1965 (actually was: late 1967 - t.t.), since buddah records (the company the writer was doing a job for - t.t.) was bringing out an album called 'mirror man', made up of four long cuts recorded at the 'safe as milk' sessions [no, it were tracks for the planned double album 'it comes to you in a plain brown wrapper' - teejo]. he now records for warner bros.
"i know it's late to call but i wanted to get ahold of you before i went on tour (which began 15 january 1971). how are you?" you can hear and feel the captain's speaking voice coming up out of his stomach, broad-based, even pitched, sort of like a heavy purr magnified a hundred times but operating on one-sixteenth of its power. in short, a remarkable instrument.
he asked how i was, so i told him. i was feeling lousy because i had just been to see my ex-band perform, and questions of ego, music and emotions were warring. he asked how old i was and how old the guys in my ex-band were. he asked where i had seen them and i said a college cellar club. beefheart was sympathetically blunt: "you're too old for that nonsense. you've seen it all before. they all want to be rock and roll stars? it sounds like they're a bunch of fast-buckers. i got loused up with my first band. my lead guitarist quit. stopped me for a year."
"you must change 'sails' to 'fails'," he
said, referring to 'one nest rolls after another', one of three poems he
had quoted to me over the phone to use as liner notes. "jan, would you
write that down, please?" i grabbed a hunk of paper and jan wrote it down.
note by teejo:
ONE NEST ROLLS AFTER ANOTHER
it was a brutally cold night (on 26 january) but the place (ungano's, new york) was packed for the captain. i moved into the next room to get a glass of wine and jabber at my fellow journalists. a few minutes later the captain strolled by. he had taken off his black raincoat and stood revealed in a red velvet smoking jacket. "what are these people doing now?" he said. "mingling and trading professional secrets," i said. he smiled. "i think i'll do a little of that."
eventually the crowd moved into the main room to hear the music. ry cooder went on first and did a brilliant twenty minutes. there was a long wait between sets because of the amount of the captain's equipment. the current magic band is made up of rockette morton (aka mark boston) (bass), zoot horn rollo (bill harkleroad) and winged eel fingerling (elliot ingber) (guitars), drumbo (john french) (drums) and ed marimba (art tripp) (marimba and drums). marimba wore a china theatre of operations world war two cap and a black and white 40s bathrobe. he looks something like the actor who played prince baron in the flash gordon serials.
then i asked him who were on the 'mirror man' sessions. he gave me real names instead of the aliases he ordinarily prefers for his musicians. but then he named the drummer as 'drumbo'. i asked what his real name was. "i'd prefer to leave it at 'drumbo'." i said yessir.
after that we talked about blanche yerka, who made some great b-movies in the 1930s and played queen gertrude to john barrymore's 'hamlet'. in all, we spoke for about two hours, and when we hung up i felt refreshed, exhilarated. the captain has that effect on most people. the next morning i went to the buddah office, where i work, and babbled of the wonders of the captain.
beefheart arrived in new york during the last week of january as part of the six-week promo tour warner brothers had arranged for him and the extraordinary guitarist ry cooder (who played on 'safe as milk'). i got into the ungano's press party for the captain. i saw him as i took off my coat. he was facing the other way, talking to his manager grant gibbs. beefheart's wife jan was standing next to him. the captain was wearing a black spring raincoat and his famous 'mad-hatter' hat. he turned as i approached him.
rockette morton, with an antennae of greased hair sticking from the top of the head, lunged to the apron of the stage and thunked out a bass riff on his double necked guitar. marimba plunked away. rockette retreated, lunged again, played again and the two guitars joined in. drumbo slapped at the snare.
suddenly they all came together. you have to hear the captain live or listen to his albums; his dogwhistle music is further out than most ears (including mine) can hear. i was reminded of the premiere of stravinsky's 'rite of spring' in paris in 1914 when the audience went mad because they thought all music, the very idea of music, was being attacked. stravinsky goes down easy today but it took the world awhile. so it is with the captain.
he stood between one of the guitarists and rockette morton, holding a 1934 coloring book, smoking a cigarette and looking out over the audience as though he was chairing a board meeting or watching troops storm the beach. then he advanced, put his mouth around the microphone and bawled out the words to 'i wanna find a woman that'll hold my big toe till i have to go', gesturing with his cigarette hand. he sang two verses and retired quietly back to the amps, where he plugged in his electric soprano sax. when he came back again he put the bell of the sax over the mike, drew in his breath and let it all out, fingering the sax like a piccolo.
suddenly the tune stopped. no one was quite sure it had, and by the time they realized it and began to clap the band was into its second number which climaxed with a drum duet between drumbo and ed marimba. he flew a final sax chorus, the band quit and as the captain stepped back the mike fell out of its holder. the captain picked it up and said into it: "webcor, webcor. thank you".
he and the band departed the stage. jan van
vliet came out and gave her husband a hug. the audience looked at each
other, wondering how long it would take to figure out what had just happened
to them. for me, i figure it will take about five years.
the next day (27 january) i went to the holiday inn to sit and listen to the captain as he gave interviews. the room was packed with reporters and photographers. the captain was without his hat but wore round sunglasses and his black raincoat along with pin-stripe blue pants. his hair was combed back in two manes. he looked like peter sellers in 'dr. strangelove'.
a young man in regulation torn sweater and faded blue jeans sat down across from him, plugging in his tape recorder and pulling out three pages of notes. "why have you suddenly become so accessible?" "i always was. it's just that nobody came to see me. i'm in the phone book. drop by when you're in california."
once again, printed reproductions of the captain's conversation can't give any idea of how he delivers the lines. among his genius is a superb comedic actor's talent. he kept cracking the room up for the next hour. his interviewer tried to get more and more serious.
"what are you going to do when you've made
it?" "oh, i think we've all made it. we made it when we came out of our
mothers." "why are you staying in the holiday inn?" "because it's a tough
orange." "be serious." "i am." "you're putting me on. you're hostile to
me." the captain's voice was very gentle. he swung lazily in his
chair and poked his toe under the cushions of the couch nearby. "no, i'm
not. i think you'd like me to be."
additional picture by jim anderson
from usa 1 may 1971 CIRCUS vol. 5 #6
taken at another press meeting
it occurred to me that the captain would
make a first rate psychotherapist. the interview
finally concluded, there was a brief break. the captain, his lawyer, gibbs
and langdon winner went out in the hall. gibbs asked if anyone wanted a
drink. "yes, i think i'd like one," said the captain. "but then i might
break out. no, i'll have a bloody mary without the vodka." he looked at
me. "can you change 'sails' to 'fails'? it's very important. otherwise
it destroys the whole thing."
i asked gibbs what the captain's schedule would be the next day. "we're leaving for pittsburgh at two. the band leaves at twelve. don and i have to be in central park at ten in the morning. we're filming." "what are you filming?" "don't going to walk a duck on an emerald chain." i remembered the captain had told the persecution-complex interviewer that he would do just that if it would make him feel better.
the captain left for pittsburgh the next day. the night before at ungano's (28 january) they had done two shows because of the turnaway crowds opening night. the captain had stormed new york. i wondered what he would do to carbondale, illinois, which was also on the tour.