DON'T ARGUE WITH THE CAPTAIN
history - interview
THE ODYSSEY OF CAPTAIN BEEFHEART
from usa 14 may 1970 ROLLING STONE #58
but despite the electronic and legalistic hanky panky surrounding its production, 'strictly personal' is an excellent album. the guitars of the magic band mercilessly bend and stretch notes in a way that suggests that the world of music has wobbled clear off its axis. beefheart's singing is again at full power. in songs like 'trust us' and 'son of mirror man - mere man' it sounds as if all the joy and pain in the universe have found a single voice. throughout the album the lyrics demonstrate beefheart's ability to juxtapose delightful humor with frightening insights: 'well they rolled around the corner / turned up seven come eleven / that's my lucky number, lord / i feel like i'm in heaven'.
the unfortunate fact about the second album was that few people were able to get into it. apparently, the combination of beefheart's musical progress and krasnow's electronic idiocy made the album too much for most listeners to take. 'strictly personal' sold poorly and did nothing to advance the band's popularity.
to this day there exists a strange love / hate relationship between beefheart and krasnow over the record. krasnow claims that beefheart still owes him $113,000 and that as a result of beefheart's disorganized way of handling money, he has been thrown in jail twice. beefheart, on the other hand, usually cites krasnow as a charlatan and pirate - the man most responsible for destroying his career. at other times, both men speak of each other with genuine respect, sympathy and affection. 'i'd really like to have him back with me,' krasnow said recently. 'he's actually a good man,' beefheart will tell you.
most of the captain's relationships with those close to him are of this sort. everybody's a despicable villain one day, a marvelous hero the next. the current focus of beefheart's love / hate dialectic accounts for much of his current activity and inactivity. this time the prime protagonist is frank zappa. zappa has always had a great admiration for his old friend from lancaster - an admiration often bordering on worship. like so many of those around beefheart, zappa considers the man to be one of the few great geniuses of our time.
when the smoke had cleared from the blue thumb snafu, zappa came to beefheart and told him that he would put out an album on his label, straight records. whatever beefheart wanted to do was o.k. and there would be no messing around with layers of electronic bullshit. the result was 'trout mask replica', an album which this writer considers to be the most astounding and most important work of art ever to appear on a phonograph record.
when beefheart learned of the opportunity to make an album totally without restrictions, he sat down at the piano and in eight and a half hours wrote all twenty-eight songs included on 'trout mask replica'. when i asked him jokingly why it took that long, he replied: 'well, i'd never played the piano before and i had to figure out the fingering'. with a stack of cassettes going full time, don banged out 'frownland', 'dachau blues', 'veteran's day poppy' and all of the others complete with words. when he is creating, this is exactly how don works - fast and furious.
'i don't spend a lot of time thinking. it just comes through me. i don't know how else to explain it.' in his box of cassettes there are probably dozens of albums of 'trout mask replica' quality or better. the trouble is that once the compositions are down it takes him a long time to teach them to his musicians [well, uh... - teejo]. in this case it took almost a year of rehearsal.
'trout mask replica' is truly beyond comparison in the realm of contemporary music. while it has roots in avant-garde jazz and delta blues, beefheart has taken his music far beyond these influences. the distinctive glass finger guitar of zoot horn rollo (bill harkleroad) and steel appendage guitar of antennae jimmy semens (jeff cotton) continues the style of guitar playing which he has been developing from the start.
it is a strange cacophonous sound - fragmented, often irritating, but always natural, penetrating and true. beefheart himself does not play the guitar, but he does teach each and every note to his players. the same holds true for the drums. don does not play the drums but has always loved unusual rhythms and writes some of the most delightful drum breaks in all of music.
on 'trout mask replica' beefheart sings twenty or so of his different voices and blows a wild array of post-ornette licks through his 'breather apparatus' - soprano and tenor saxophone, and musette. when beefheart inhales before taking a horn solo, all of the oxygen in the room seems to vanish into his lungs. then he closes his eyes, blows out and lets his fingers dance and leap over the keys. the sound that bursts forth is a perfect compliment to his singing - free, unrefined and full of humor.
'trout mask replica' is the perfect blend of the lyrics, spirit and conception that had been growing in don van vliet's mind for a decade. although it is a masterpiece, it will probably be many years before american audiences catch up to the things that happen on this totally amazing record.
for the first time in his career, beefheart was entirely satisfied with his album. zappa had made good his promise to give him the freedom he required and in fact issue the record in a pure and unaltered form. nevertheless, the beefheart / zappa relationship is presently anything but an amicable one. beefheart claims that zappa is promoting 'trout mask replica' in a tasteless manner. he does not appreciate being placed on the bizarre-straight roster of freaks next to alice cooper and the g.t.o.'s. he constantly complains that straight records' promotion campaign is doing him more harm than good.
straight records on the other hand claims that beefheart's problems are all of his own making. he refuses to go on tour and procrastinates about making a follow-up album. 'what can we do?,' a straight public relations man asked me. 'beefheart is a genius, but a very difficult man to work with. all we can do is try to be as reasonable as possible.'
straight's brass recall that during the recording of the parts of 'trout mask replica' which were done in beefheart's home, don van vliet asked for a tree surgeon to be in residence. the trees around the house, he believed, might become frightened of the noise and fall over. straight refused to hire the tree surgeon, but later received a bill for $250 for such services. after the sessions were over beefheart had hired his own tree doctor to give the oaks and cedars in his yard a thorough medical check up - his way of thanking them for not falling down.
in another classic story of this sort, herb cohen of straight recalls that one day he noticed that beefheart had ordered twénty sets of sleigh bells for a recording session. cohen pointed out that even if frank zappa and the engineer were added to the bell ringing this would account for only fourteen sleigh bells - one in each hand of the performers. 'what are you going to do with the other six?' he asked. 'we'll overdub them,' beefheart replied.
the fact of the matter seems to be that precisely the same qualities of mind which make beefheart such an astounding poet and composer are those which make it difficult for him to relate to frank zappa or anyone else in the orthodox music business. like many notable creative spirits, beefheart's personality is not geared to the efficient use of time or resources.
for this reason and for the reason that he has often been burned by the industry, beefheart is very suspicious of those who try to influence the direction his career takes. to see why he has such continual trouble adjusting to the practicalities of his vocation, it will do well for us to look briefly at the incredible story of beefheart's life before he became a musician.
don van vliet was born in 1941 in glendale, california, to normal middle-class parents. he grew up without problems as any child would in glendale - until the age of five. it was then that he decided that civilized american life was a gigantic fraud. don noticed that this society had established a destructive tyranny over nature; over all the animals and plants of earth. he also became aware of the fact that america extended this tyranny over each man and that it was apparently out to include him in 'the great take over'. they wanted to teach him proper language, social rules, arithmetic and all of the other noxious techniques required to live in this country. young don suddenly rebelled and refused to go along.
looking back on it now beefheart recalls one day of enlightenment. 'my mother, who i called 'sue' rather than 'mother' because that was her real name, was walking me along a path to school - the first day of kindergarten. we came to an intersection and she walked right out into the way of a speeding car. i reached up with both hands and pulled her out of the way. she could have killed us both. it was then that i thought to myself: 'and shé's taking me to school'.'
so don did not attend school, at least not regularly. instead he took up sculpting all the birds of the air, fish in the sea and animals on the land. because he refused to come out for dinner, his parents were obliged to slide his meals under the bedroom door to him. it was don's belief that he could re-establish ties to everything natural through the art of sculpture.
soon he was good enough at what he was doing to attract the attention of professional los angeles artists. one day during a visit to the griffith park zoo he met and befriended agostinho rodriquez, the famous portuguese sculptor. together they did a weekly television show in which don would sculpt the images of nature's art while mr. rodriquez looked on.
understandably, don's parents were concerned about the unusual inclinations of their son. when at age thirteen he won a scholarship to study art in europe, they took strong steps to discourage him. 'my parents told me all artists were queers,' beefheart recalls. 'they moved me to the desert, first to mojave and later to lancaster.'
but even though don's life as a sculptor had ended, he never gave up the vision of art and nature that he had discovered in life. neither did he forsake the wonderfully unstructured consciousness with which he had been born. 'i think that everybody's perfect when they're a baby and i just never grew up. i'm not saying that i'm perfect, because i did grów úp. but i'm still a baby.'(*)
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