DON'T ARGUE WITH THE CAPTAIN
history - interview
from england 15 april 1972 THE GUARDIAN #39101
captain beefheart - what is he? his paintings - great black and white daubs, some that catch, some that miss - are left like a trail behind him on the walls of liverpool's blue coat gallery (at least, until next saturday). his agent, who obviously knows and does his job, spills out his version:*
'basically he's a genius. he is so artistic it comes out in his painting and his writing as well as his music? rock? no, i wouldn't like to categorise his music. money? let's just say that it has been a tough push but he is making as much as he deserves, now. but hé is the artist, we don't like to speak for him.'
the artist himself emerges: a big man, beefy like his name. you note the gilt of a great celtic type necklace. you wonder why it is clearly worthless. then note an upright, self-sure stance, wide-set blue eyes bending on all around.
captain beefheart - his adopted name - or don van vliet, his real: what is he?
'a dutchman and of course an artist. how could i not be? my forebears walked around with rembrandt.'
he whistled before he could talk.
'at five years i was squeezing soap in my bath.'
later he was apprenticed to agostinho rodrigues, a sculptor, and worked under him around the age of ten. within a year he left to work on his own until he was thirteen.
'i didn't like the system. television patting me on the head and pinching my bottom and calling me a prodigy when i won a newson's milk scholarship to take me to europe. i never took it up. they wanted me to look at all those church paintings or something.'
from thirteen to twenty-four he did nothing. he never went to school.
'no, i don't believe in education. it blocks the mind, creatively. it might be all right if it could just let children be in it. but when there's one control figure dictating - that breads competition. a child who can't read or write that good stops doing anything.'
'i hate the english 'language' - you know, conforming to set rules and correct grammar. i've just been in glasgow, and listening to those people speak is so different: there is real music in it. but the english language: i call it a word crawling over a razor blade.'
still from a news item broadcast by the bbc
he fumbled for a light in the pockets of coats scattered around and took the chair without the cushion.
'coffee, or do you want to stick to your 'coke'?' - a giant bottle clutched to his breast. he set it away. 'i don't like 'coke' water: wáter is what i like. distilled water, any other is poisonous. but you don't have that, i suppose?' he had a hope. settled for black coffee without sugar.
have you never wanted to read a book?
'no, i figured that looking down there at a book store stops me from being up here. it is like all this digging in tutankhamun's tomb. people should dig life, not death.'
and his nose lifted to sniff appreciatively, even the air of a stuffier office.
when he was twenty-four he started making music commercially. not for money:
'i say: 'love over gold'.'
not for adulation:
'i don't want that. but it follows me all around. at my last concert the fans were climbing up, kneeling at my feet. 'hey!', i said, 'i have got suede shoes but if you lick my feet much more, they'll get a shoe-shine'. that brought them back - see? - to reality. i don't want to be a straw boss jazz man. i'm not god or an idol: i'm a man. ordinary. i enjoy them drawing off me but if they start worshipping, i'm drawing off them. i can't work that way, no.'
'what paper are you from? 'the guardian', what's that...? a national - i'm glad about that. i'm glad newspapers take an interest in the arts. that's why i'm an artist: to raise the status of the arts among the people. i believe that's the only way we can get ourselves less sick with sex, drugs, war.'
you think sex has gone wrong?
'sure it's gone wrong. don't you?'
you think sex is the main thing that has gone wrong in america?
'sure. and here...! everybody is removed from sex. i can feel it in my concerts. it is because men are recessive. they are afraid of women, of something that goes in, of the dark. nasty shadows, ugh - they're afraid they won't get out. that's why they build all these red, male, blood, phallic buildings. you know what an architect is? a man who crawls up his own penis to pull a shade and design all night.... they won't put that in yóur paper: penis.'
additional picturethe phone was ringing. he took the receiver.
(replacing the painting which illustrated the interview
till a decent reproduction becomes available)
'what was that? you can't talk because your baby is licking the soles of your feet? i can hear it crying. you know what that means? no..., i'm serious. you know why it is licking your soles? it wants salt - and vitamins, b, c, and e. i know these things. too much sugar - an imbalance. i'm telling you....'
the mother gave up laughing. he put back the receiver.
'i'm serious. too much sugar is the cause of schizophrenia.'
i blinked. a stretch far-fetched?
'see, schizophrenia is a kind of madness. madness is disconnection. sugar is disconnected and processed from its origin, the earth - we are eating disconnection. like when we go in cars, in aeroplanes: we risk going mad.'
as a touring pop star, don't you stand a very high risk of going mad then?
'do you think i'm mad?'
i said no. on the contrary, he seemed to spend his life getting down from the top where he was born. in his work, that was. but what of his life?
'most of my life i spend at home. i live on hundred and ten acres under the redwood trees and in front of the ocean - if an ocean has a front and not only waves. my house is no bigger than this room: a turtle only needs a shell to live in and so do i. but there's mother nature outside....'