DON'T ARGUE WITH THE CAPTAIN
history - interview
THE ODYSSEY OF CAPTAIN BEEFHEART
from usa [and england] 14 may 1970 ROLLING STONE #58
'uh oh, the phone,' captain beefheart mumbled as he placed his tarnished soprano saxophone in its case. 'i have to answer the telephone.' it was a very peculiar thing to say. the phone had not rung.(*)
beefheart walked quickly from his place by the upright piano across the dimly lit living room to where the telephone lay. he waited. after ten seconds of stony silence it finally rang. none of the half dozen or so persons in the room seemed at all surprised by what had just happened. in the world of captain beefheart, the extraordinary is the rule.
at age twenty-nine, captain beefheart, also known as don van vliet, lives in seclusion and near poverty in a small house in the san fernando valley of los angeles. although it appeared on several occasions in the past that he would rise to brilliant stardom as a singer and bandleader, circumstances have always intervened to force him into oblivion. in his six years in the music business he has appeared in public no more than twenty-five times.
since virtually no one has ever seen him play, stories about his life and art have taken on the character of legend, that is, of endless tall tales. people who saw him at the avalon ballrooom in san francisco three years ago will now tell you: 'i heard that he's living in death valley somewhere' or 'didn't he just finally give up?'. but there is considerably more to the man than the legend indicates.
the fact is that don van vliet is alive, healthy, and happy, and putting together a new magic band to go on tour soon. as his recent album 'trout mask replica' testifies he is one of the most original and gifted creators of music in america today. if all goes well, the next six months should see the re-emergence of captain beefheart's erratic genius into the world and the acceptance of his work by the larger audience it has always deserved.
the crucial problem in beefheart's career has been that few people have ever been able to accept him for what he is. his manager, musicians, fans, and critics listen to his incredible voice, his amazing lyrics, his chaotic harp and soprano sax, and uniformly decide that beefheart could be great if he would only (1) sing more clearly and softly, (2) go commercial, (3) play blues songs that people could understand and dance to. 'don, you're potentially the greatest white blues singer of all time,' his managers tell him, thinking that they are paying him a compliment.
record companies eagerly seek the beefheart voice with its unprecedented four and a half octave range. they realize that the man can produce just about any sound he sets his mind to and that he interprets lyrics as well as any singer in the business. urging him to abandon the magic band and to sing the blues with slick studio musicians, record producers have always been certain that don van vliet was just a hype away from the big money.
but beefheart stubbornly continues what he's doing and waits patiently for everyone else to come around. he has steadfastly refused to leave the magic band or to abandon the integrity of his art. 'i realize,' he says, 'that somebody playing free music isn't as commercial as a hamburger stand. but is it because you can eat a hamburger and hold it in your hand and you can't do that with music? is it too free to control?'
beefheart's life as a musician began in the town of lancaster nestled in the desert of southern california. he had gone to high school there and become the friend of another notorious lancastrian, frank zappa. in his late teens don van vliet listened intensively to two kinds of music - mississippi delta blues and the avant-garde jazz of john coltrane, ornette coleman and cecil taylor. although he was attracted to music and played briefly with a rhythm and blues group called 'the omens', he did not yet consider music his vocation.
he enrolled at antelope valley junior college in 1959 as an art major, and soon grew suspicious of books and dropped out. for a brief while he was employed as a commercial artist and as a manager of a chain of shoe stores. 'i built that chain into a thriving, growing concern,' he recalls, 'then as a kind of art statement i quit right in the middle of christmas rush leaving the whole thing in chaos.'
in the early sixties don van vliet moved to cucamonga to be with frank zappa who was composing music and producing motion pictures. it was at about this time that van vliet and zappa hatched up the name captain beefheart. 'but don't ask me why or how,' beefheart comments today. the two made plans to form a rock and roll band called 'the soots' and to make a movie to be named 'captain beefheart meets the grunt people', but nothing ever came of either project. in time zappa left for los angeles and formed the mothers. beefheart returned to lancaster and gathered together a group of 'desert musicians.' in early 1965 the magic band was ready to begin playing teen age dances in its hometown.
the on stage appearance of the first beefheart ensemble was bizarre to the point of frightening. all members of the magic band were dressed in black leather coats and pants with black high heel boots. the lead guitar player had a patch over one eye and long dangling arms that reached from his shoulders to half way below his knees. at a time that long hair was still a rarity, the captain sported long dark locks down to his waist. it was simply outrageous.
the band was an immediate sensation in lancaster and very soon its fame began to spread through southern california. beefheart's brand of abrasive blues-rock was truly a novelty to young listeners in 1965. record companies interested in the new sound began to take notice. early 1966 beefheart entered into the first of a long series of disastrous agreements with record producers.
his first release on a&m was a new version of 'diddy wah diddy' made popular by bo diddley. it featured his own style of frantic harp playing and an incredibly 'low down' voice hitting notes at least half an octave lower than the lowest notes ever sung by any other rock performer. the record was a hit in los angeles and for a while it appeared that beefheart was going to be a brilliant success in the music business.
but it was not to be. beefheart recorded an album of new music and took it to jerry moss of a&m (alpert and moss). moss listened to the songs - 'electricity', 'zig zag wanderer', 'autumn's child' etc. - and declared that they were all 'too negative.' he refused to release the album. beefheart was crushed by this insensitivity and abruptly quit playing.
a&m released the remaining single it had in the can. the words to 'frying pan' now seemed strangely prophetic: 'go down town / you walk around / a man comes up / says he's gonna put you down / you try to succeed to fulfill your need / then a car hits you / and people watch you bleed / out of the frying pan into the fire / anything you say / they're gonna call you a liar'.
the record went nowhere and neither did beefheart. for almost one year [highly exaggerated! - t.t.] he lived in retirement back in lancaster. the second break in beefheart's career arrived in 1967 when producer bob krasnow of kamasutra records agreed to release the same material that a&m had rejected. beefheart reassembled the magic band and returned to record the twelve cuts of 'safe as milk' (buddah bds 5001), an album which is still one of the forgotten classics of rock and roll history.
even though the album had been delayed for a year, it was still far ahead of its time. it featured the unmistakable beefheart style of blues and bottleneck guitar, the first use in popular music of an electronic device called the theremin [sic], and the first effective synthesis in america of rock and roll and delta blues.
for the first time also, beefheart was able to demonstrate the power and range of his voice. on one song, for example, beefheart's vocal literally destroyed a $1200 telefunken microphone. hank cicalo, engineer for the sessions, reports that on the song 'electricity' beefheart's voice simply wouldn't track at certain points. although a number of microphones were employed, none of them could stand the captain's wailing 'eeee-lec-triccc-ittt-eeeeeeee' on the last chorus. this, incidentally, can be heard on the record.
well received in the burgeoning psychedelic rock scene, it seemed once again that beefheart was on the verge of success. the magic band was scheduled to play a gig at the fillmore and to appear at the monterey pop festival, both of which could have been springboards to the top. then disaster struck.
beefheart's lead guitar player (ry cooder) suddenly [uh, well... - t.t.] quit the band leaving a gap which could not be filled. the unusual nature of beefheart's songs make it necessary for him to spend months teaching each new musician his music. the departure of the lead guitar destroyed beefheart's chances in the san francisco scene. the monterey pop festival went on without him. those who attended it never knew what they had missed.
from this point in the story, events become even more chaotic and difficult to unravel. beefheart returned to los angeles and tried to put together a new band and a new set of songs. his producer, bob krasnow, was to arrange the second beefheart album on buddah. according to sources in the los angeles record industry, krasnow deliberately allowed the option on beefheart's contract to expire. when this happened he signed beefheart to a personal contract and then sold the rights to beefheart's next album to both buddah records and mgm. tapes of the album were then made at two different studios, apparently at the expense of both companies.
with an excellent album under his belt beefheart felt confident enough to go on the road. in january 1968 he went on a tour of england and europe where 'safe as milk' had attracted considerable attention. when the recording sessions were finished in early may '68 beefheart left for a second tour of europe. in beefheart's absence bob krasnow finished the album 'strictly personal' under his own label, blue thumb, without beefheart's approval.
as lawsuits filled the air, beefheart himself was left in bewilderment. the record had been electronically altered through a process called phasing which totally obliterated the sound which he had been striving to put down. 'that's the reason that album is as bad as it is,' he sighs when asked about the incident. 'i don't think it was the group's fault. they really played their ass off - as much as they had to play off.'
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