captain beefheart electricity

history - interviewflits

the odyssey of captain beefheart

from usa 14 may 1970 ROLLING STONE #58
by langdon winner
is early months 1970 feature

* text reprinted as captain beefheart in usa 1974 book ROLLING STONE * THE ROLLING STONE ROCK 'N' ROLL READER
* reproduced in usa 2007 (book+4dvd)boxset ROLLING STONE * COVER TO COVER 40 years of rolling stone 1967-2007
* text reprinted with editorial annotations as langdon winner (profiling don van vliet, aka captain beefheart) in england 2007 book ANGELA PHILLIPS * GOOD WRITING FOR JOURNALISTS
* corrected, unhustled and edited version

* all pictures by john williams

part 1 - part 2 - THIS is PART 3 - part 4


beefheart still believes that in nature all creatures are equals. man in his perversity forgets this and builds ridiculous hierarchies and artificial systems to set himself apart from his roots. 'people are just too far out. do you know what i mean? too far out - far away from nature.' he still sets out sugar for the ants, creatures that he considers most similar to man in their mode of life. 'if you give them sugar,' beefheart contends, 'they won't have to eat the poison.'

in songs like 'wild life', 'my human gets me blues', and 'ant man bee' beefheart presents with great subtlety the truths which students of ecology are just now beginning to recognize. '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 entirely possible that it is in this area that beefheart will eventually attract a wide audience. if those who are delving into ecology would listen carefully to 'trout mask replica', they could advance their understanding by leaps and bounds. beefheart has líved these crucial lessons from his very first days.

another definite carryover from beefheart's unusual childhood can be seen in the marvelous quality of his lyrics and poems. since young don van vliet decided that civilization was a trap, he refused to use civilized english in a linear, logical way and learned the entire language as a vast and amusing game. as a result, virtually everything that he says or writes turns out to be poetry. in a conversation with beefheart the entire structure of verbal communication explodes. a barrage of puns, rhymes, illogicalities, absurd definitions, and unending word play fills the dialogue with a wonderful confusion....

'you can't make generalizations,' he said to me during one such conversation. 'why not?' i replied, taking the bait. 'i wonder if anyone's ever made general i. zation?', he continued, this time apparently talking about the sex life of some unknown military hero. 'if all the génerals came in right now, i bet they'd bring those izations with them.' could he be talking about some secret weapon? there was no time to think about it, for in a flash beefheart had gone on to a discussion of people who were 'trying to put bandaids on the flaw'. the flaw?

i have seen several occasions in which visitors to beefheart's home have totally freaked because of this manner of talking. not many people, after all, feel comfortable listening to the english language collapse before their very ears. all of this wonderment, of course, comes through very clearly in beefheart's lyrics. in 'my human gets me blues', for example, the captain sings: 'i saw you dancing in your x-ray gingham dress / i knew you were under duress / i knew you under your dress'.

one way of getting into songs like this is to understand that beefheart is primarily fascinated with the sounds of words and their many ambiguities rather than the explicit meaning of terms. he believes that all truth comes from playing rather than from planning. playing is what children do, what lovers do, and what musicians and poets ought to do, if they could escape the chains of structure and see the light. in both his music and his lyrics beefheart is constantly engaged in an ongoing process of play. behind the onslaught of words stand certain insights that beefheart wishes to communicate.


the secret is, however, that they can be communicated only after the listener surrenders his neurotic reliance on words and established forms. 'i'm trying to create my own language,' beefheart observes, 'a language without any periods.'

in his discouragement with the music business beefheart has now turned much of his energy to writing as an outlet for his creative demon. the closets of his house are strewn with thousands upon thousands of poems and at least five unpublished novels. the song 'old fart at play' from 'trout mask replica' is a tiny excerpt from a long novel of the same name which beefheart hopes to publish soon.

the formlessness and intensity of beefheart's music have often led people to conclude that he is merely another product of the drug culture. sadly, much of the promotion material on him in past years has implied that he is the king of the drugheads and hipfreaks. nothing could be further from the truth. don van vliet does not use drugs and does not allow members of the magic band to do so either. like his friend frank zappa, beefheart admonishes everyone to stay away from lsd, speed and marijuana. the reason for this is not only that he believes that drugs have harmful and irreversible effects, but also that each person has the power to get 'there' all by himself.


in my conversation with the man, beefheart would often smile broadly and tilt his head far back on his neck and say: 'you know, i'm not even hére. i just stick around for my friends.' moving his hand up and out from his temple and wiggling his fingers (the beefheart 'far out' sign) he would then say: 'you're not even hére éither. you know that. don't kid yourself. you just stick around for your friends too.'

like socrates [ancient philosopher - t.t.], beefheart believes that everyone knows everything he needs to know already. what he tries to do is to make them realize this. most people, he reports, fight it every inch of the way. they refuse to be free even when they see what it's like. 'they just have too much at stake.'

the absolutely boundless character of beefheart's mind has taken him into investigations of extra-sensory perception, clairvoyance and even reincarnation. in addition to his ability to answer the phone before it rings, beefheart is apparently able to foretell parts of the future. on all of my visits to his house in the san fernando valley, beefheart told me he knew in advance that i was coming. on one occasion he was able to prove it to me by showing that he'd put on 'the florsheim shoe' and bright red socks which we'd joked about on my earlier visit. 'i wore them just for you,' he said holding out his foot.


beefheart also maintains that he is a reincarnation of a man named van vliet who was a friend of rembrandt [famous dutch painter - t.t.]. 'van vliet was a tremendous painter who could never finish anything. rembrandt used to write him letters saying: 'i'm pretty good, but if you ever got it together... wow!'

in order to pursue the possibilities of this previous existence, the captain has recently begun painting again. like everything else he does, his paintings are simply astounding. during one of our conversations he went to a two foot tall stack of poster paper and pulled out one of his recent works. holding it under his chin and peering over it at me, beefheart asked: 'well, what do you see?'.

i stared into the spots and blobs of yellow, green and red and had to confess that the painting said nothing to me. with that beefheart reached around and pointed to a small object in the middle of his masterpiece. 'see the little finger with the decal ring?', he asked. i looked carefully. sure enough, there in the midst of the chaos: a little finger with a decal ring! 'is that what it's about?' 'it sure is,' he replied.

ed marimba / art tripp, rockette morton / mark boston, captain beefheart / don van vliet, zoot horn rollo / bill harkleroad - usa, spring 1970 - rolling stone 14 may 1970 - picture by john williams
ed marimba / art tripp, rockette morton / mark boston, captain beefheart / don van vliet, zoot horn rollo / bill harkleroad

what, then, of the future of captain beefheart? what are the chances that he will leave his self-imposed house arrest and begin to spread his music and magic more widely into the world?

at present the captain stands at a crucial turning point. on the face of it everything seems to be in his favor. his new magic band is probably the best he's ever had and may be one of the best in the country. he has recently added drummer art tripp - formerly of the mothers of invention - who provides exactly the right blend of rhythmic novelty and imagination to the groups' sound. zoot horn rollo (bill harkleroad) and rockette morton (mark boston), musicians that beefheart taught from scratch, have reached musical maturity and are eager to get out before the public.

both of them are remarkably talented and love the music they play with an unwavering passion. the captain himself is clearly at the peak of his creativity in terms of both composition and performance. his new songs in rehearsal - 'woe is a me bop', 'alice in blunderland' [half a year before it features elliot ingber aka winged eel fingerling! - t.t.] and others - are even better than the tunes on 'trout mask replica'. i have heard the new magic band play this music in the shelter of beefheart's living room and, believe me, it's simply incredible.


beyond this, beefheart now has around him a group of associates that he should be able to trust. his new manager, grant gibbs, is both honest and thoroughly sensitive to the special needs and foibles of his artist. previously an unbiased observer of beefheart's career, mr. gibbs is now trying to untangle the web of contractual knots which the magic band had stumbled into over the years.

although beefheart thinks otherwise, straight records is probably giving him as good and forthright a deal as he'd find anywhere in the business. and there's no dearth of opportunities either. beefheart is very much in demand both in the united states and in europe. offers for a tour of england and the continent have come from five different agencies in recent weeks. he could also do well touring college campuses and jazz and pop festivals in america. all don has to do is say yes.

at the point of decision, captain beefheart wavers erratically. he hires and fires musicians with great abandon and then says that the group is not yet ready. he also creates imaginary enemies in his mind and then spends his days trying to figure out ways to fight them off. during the writing of this article, for example, van vliet became convinced that i was public enemy number one. for days he brooded about the crimes that i was supposedly committing against him....


what beefheart cannot seem to understand is that he has nothing like the number of foes he thinks he has. there are literally dozens of people who would do anything to enable him to perform on stage again. all those who may have had evil designs on him have long since retired in frustration. fortunately, it appears that beefheart is regaining the necessary confidence in himself and his surroundings. he has recently married a lovely girl named jan who is a constant companion in the wild and delightful realm of beefheartism imagination. he has also made tentative preparations for a tour and a new album ('lick my decals off, baby' - t.t.). all of it hangs on choices that he will make in the next several weeks.

but who knows? perhaps 1970 will be the year that we finally catch a glimpse of the man behind the trout mask. maybe this will be the year that all of us can experience the amazing wisdom and humor that captain beefheart has in his grasp. clearly though, it's strictly up to him.


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