DON'T ARGUE WITH THE CAPTAIN
history - interview
THE SPOTLIGHT KID
from usa 13 march 1972 ROCK vol.3 #15
as well as the slightly shorter version
BEEFHEART: THE ROLL AIN'T STALE
from england 11 march 1972 SOUNDS
note: pictures by ed thrasher
what can you say about captain beefheart? eccentric genius, musician, poet and painter, cryptic prophet, metaphysical humorist, creator of grand schemes… nothing quite does justice to this mysterious recluse who bursts into the public eye and ear, now and again, with some of the strangest mind-and-spirit-stretching music heard on this planet. for those in the know, all this has meaning; for the as yet uninitiated, there's no way to convey beefheart's ineffable essence but to suggest they partake of the music.
and what music! from the legendary 'safe as milk', an unheard-of blend of delta blues, vocal pyro-technics, eerie electronics and surreal poetry hailed as 'one of the forgotten classics of rock and roll history (as declared by langdon winner – teejo)', through 'trout mask replica', which added avant-garde jazz elements to the bizarre beefheart brew, up to 'the spotlight kid', his new album, he has earned the tagline with which warner / reprise proudly heads up its press kit bio: 'captain beefheart - ten years ahead of his time’.
not that anyone is likely to be making music quite like beefheart's ten years from now, so totally realized in his own idiosyncratic, panoramic vision. that vision is transmitted through an amazing variety of growling, moaning and whining vocals spread over an incredible five-octave range, supplemented by his blues harmonica, tootling saxophone and the redoubtable magic band. would-be imitators must shrink from the awesome task: 'you have to be some kind of weird, insane genius...' precisely.
jumping on the beefheart bandwagon would be less than a sure thing commercially in any case, given his relatively select following in the past. his music hasn't been the most immediately accessible, certainly - but beefheart's peculiar manner of pursuing a career is probably the main reason.
since coming upon the scene in 1965, the captain has run through at least three managers and five labels in putting out six albums, creating not only incredible legal snarls but a disaster in terms of marshaling the necessary financial and promotional support. it has proved next to impossible to maintain equilibrium between beefheart's jealously guarded artistic interests and those of the music biz, hence his erratically up-and-down relationships with kama sutra records, bob krasnow and his blue thumb label, childhood friend frank zappa and his business enterprises, among others.
over six years of interminable hassles, the captain - sequestered in northern california with his band - appeared in performance less than thirty times, which didn't help matters either. somehow, despite the paranoia on all sides engendered by previous fiascoes, relations with reprise records and current manager carl scott seem benign at the moment. it is to be fervently hoped that beefheart's time has come.
encouraged by a successful reprise-sponsored (usa only - t.t.) tour last year, the captain - or don van vliet, as his birth certificate reads (be it without 'van' - t.t.) - is back on the road again with his magic band. on the new album, the band includes zoot horn rollo (aka bill harkleroad), 'glass finger and steel appendage guitar', ed marimba (art tripp) on marimba, piano and harpsichord, rockette morton (mark boston) on 'bassus ophelius', winged eel fingerling (elliot ingber), guitar, and drumbo (john french) on drums.
the common spotlight kid from the album cover
(original magazine pic in black and white and without background)
a few days after their enthusiastically received opening gig at new york's anderson theater (15 january, with art tripp on drums instead of john french - t.t.), i got together with beefheart, zoot horn and rockette at the fifth avenue hotel to discuss their recent re-emergence on the performing circuit, their thoughts about the music and their plans for the future.
the captain indicated he was:
really looking forward to the tour. the anderson show was great - a fine audience, very open. two fellows showed up in white tie and tails, saying they had dressed up for the occasion (a good indication of the fervor of his fans - j.b.).
then you like touring?, i ask a little doubtfully, considering his spotty record in the past.
i think it's more fun than anything. i always wanted to do it, but just haven't been able to get it together until joining with warner / reprise. before, nobody would take a chance on sending me out. isn't that absurd?
it immediately becomes clear that beefheart has set about changing his eccentric and erratic image.
why, then, the previous confusion about the direction of your career, the hassles with management, record companies, etcetera?
it's all due to the fact that they were with me for the wrong reasons. i was there to be an artist, not to explain what an artist is. i wanted to play to people, but they all wanted to know what i was before putting out their 50. i put out my 50 all the time....
so beefheart is no less anxious to protect his identity from outside influences - indeed, from interpretation of any kind. this brings to mind langdon winner's comment that 'the crucial problem in beefheart's career is that people are never able to accept him as he is'.
what about that?
now more people are getting to realize what i'm doing, which is nothing.
i mean, i'm just up there blowing my nose, playing and living my life up there on stage.... when i was a baby, i knew that i was ón. it's like the current is on, but it doesn't get used up, it goes somewhere else.
the musician is there, but the music leaps from one to another. people have to use their own imaginations.
they do indeed: it's no wonder even those who take great pains to 'understand' him can't quite peg beefheart - the delphic oracle of contemporary music. with increasing obscurity threatening coherence, i turn our conversation to the new album.
'the spotlight kid'?
i've taken a step towards extending myself
on this album, which i enjoy, it's another facet. i think it's the warmest
album i've done, and a little bit closer to the middle than some of my
stuff. there's not a big frown area on the audience, who thought there
was something more to be made out of 'trout mask replica' and 'lick my
decals off, baby' than there was. but this album is right there to them.
IF YOU WANT TO KNOW HOW THIS ENDS, CLICK CLACK TO PAGE TWO