DON'T ARGUE THE CAPTAIN
the interviews - band members
from PTOLEMAIC TERRASCOPE
#26 010299 england
by marc minsker
is ± spring 1997 written interview JOHN FRENCH
notes: edited version
THIS is PART 1 - part 2
there has never been, nor will there ever be a musical group as ambitious as captain beefheart and the magic band. don van vliet (aka captain beefheart) created a complex and surreal world for his band, challenging them musically, physically, and spiritually. don's expectations were unreal and even cruel at times, but as a result the magic band (in its many configurations) produced over fourteen [you're sure of that amount? - teejo] brilliant records which still puzzle music critics and fans alike.
albums such as the landmarks 'trout mask replica' and 'safe as milk' represent a milestone in music history - primarily the mixture of rock-n-roll into an unnamable stew of avant-garde jazz, blues, improvisation and psychedelia. the finished product is unlike anything ever tasted before. out of this stew emerge several strong musical personalities with bizarre names like 'winged eel fingerling [elliot ingber]' and 'rockette morton [mark boston]' - names copyrighted by don van vliet. one of the most important contributors to that 'magic band' sound was drumbo, aka john french.
this interview with john french, which in itself is more of an autobiography, sheds great light on that secretive order known as the magic band. i would like to thank john for sharing his story, insights and humour in this interview.
let's go all the way back to the beginning. how did you become involved in music?
i first began playing drums at age 12. [....] my older brother phil had left a set of drumsticks behind when he joined the service. they were in one of the metal drawers in my trundle bed, along with leftover crayons, play dough, a monopoly game, and some stereo binocular things you looked at kid's slides through.
i perchanced to stumble upon these splintery gems one day, and in a moment of true inspiration, obsessively hammered out the rhythm to every record in the house on the bottom of a plastic trash receptacle, obviously the wrong tool for the job. my parents quickly made a desperate purchase of an old drum set with three tom-toms and no snare. this was not because they tought i had talent, but only in order to solve the rapidly escalating garbage problem in our home.
did you take lessons?
my only former training was from a mr. traynor, whose name i never saw in print, so it is merely spelled phonetically. he has since passed on, and so persistently refuses at this point in time to reveal the correct spelling. i do remember he was very old - probably at least past thirty - and wasn't a drummer at all, but a music teacher who had studied all the instruments at some school in new york, where he was tested on his ability to play scales and display a rudimentary knowledge of each instrument to the satisfaction of his instructors. he did teach me to read snare drum music well enough to qualify for marching band in high school.
what was the first band you worked with?
my first band was called 'the maltese men'. we were a surf-band, and maltese crosses were cool surf things, and so begat our christening. [....]
do you remember your first gig?
our first live performance was at aw college for a dance. i was really surprised how calm i felt playing. it was a great feeling to have people dancing to my rhythms. it was the first time i actually felt like i 'fit in' socially. girls who always ignored me started talking to me, some could speak in complete sentences. people would come up to me at school and tell me how much they enjoyed my playing.
by this time my father had bought me a four-piece slingerland kit with a black diamond finish. [....] i was in heaven. i could make enough money doing this to buy decent clothes and eat as many hamburgers as i wanted for saturday lunch at aw root beer stand, the social gathering place of all self-respecting high school personalities.
tell us about meeting don.
i was about sixteen [which was in 1965 -teejo] when i met don van vliet, who was then plain old don vliet. i actually knew him through doug moon, one of the original guitarists. doug used to work in the local aircraft factory with my father, who was known as 'frenchy'. doug was always coming by to talk me into playing drums at jam sessions with an older group of musicians. i always turned him down, because i had this terrible shyness and fear of anyone who still looked like elvis [presley] and smoked.
later, after the 'british invasion', these same people all looked like the beatles and smoked, and thus i lost my great fear. i ran into doug one night at orange julius, which was the new social place to hang out in lancaster now that the cops had busted everybody at aw and made them stay in their cars, thus missing the whole point of high school society, and ruining everybody's fun.
doug asked me if i had heard about his new band 'captain beefheart and his magic band' - later changed to 'the' magic band, to give the players the illusion that they weren't being screwed, used, and abused. i said: 'no', chuckling to myself about this ridiculous name. bands didn't have names like that, they had cool names like the intruders, the allusions, the exiles - different bands i was in up to that time. well, i never was much of a word person, nor did i understand language trends.
i was called a few weeks later by doug who asked if their - his magic band's - drummer could borrow my foot pedal as he had broken his. i was told that in return for this gracious favor, i would be granted the privilege of observing a magic band rehearsal at first hand. this was a social mark of the highhest degree, to be an esteemed observer of a magic band rehearsal.
this intrigued me, because by this time i had seen the error of my ways. beefheart was getting all the local gigs, and all the bands were copying what they did. they also took first place at the teenage fair at the hollywood palladium [10 april 1965 - teejo]. they were sort of copying the rolling stones at the times.
anyway, a band now had to have a stand-up singer and harp player, and at least one altered fuzztone, or about the only gigs left were eighth-grade graduations, which was sort of like those 'greatest hits' people who advertise on teevee. i was a has-been at sixteen. now i had to start over.
where did the rehearsal take place?
that was at jerry handley's (bass player) parent's house. i walked in and don was sitting on the couch. he had seen my band audition for the teenage fair and his first statement was: 'you're in that band with the jerk who does the jerk' - referring to our illustrious singer, jim taylor aka 'rod devon'. i felt little ill at ease, although i agreed, i was the only one who had voted against hiring 'rod' as our singer. strangely enough, it later turned out that they were very much alike as band leaders.
the other musicians, alex snouffer - guitar , doug moon - guitar, and vic mortensen - the seven foot drummer with the longest hair on a man i had ever seen, introduced themselves informally and i surrendered my footpedal in return for this esteemed position. don had laryngitis and was using a green spray called chloraseptic, which numbs the throat.
who were some of your biggest influences?
[....] when i joined the magic band, i suddenly found myself listening to john coltrane - my favourite, archie shepp, ornette coleman, charles lloyd. indirectly, i had already been influenced by don to listen to howlin' wolf, muddy waters, john lee hooker and son house, to name a few.
how did don notate his music and intricate changes?
he did not use musical charts, he couldn't read music and never learned how. it made it extremely difficult to do some of the ideas he had in his head, because he had no system of organisation. for instance, before singing on 'safe as milk', i helped him organise his lyrics. they were written on torn-up scraps of paper, napkins, matchbook covers, even toilet paper all thrown into a big box.
i made titles and laid them on the dining room table. then i took the scraps of paper one at a time and tediously laid them by each title as they seemed to fit. then i had don come in and put them in order and i hand wrote them out for him. i was eightteen at the time, and all i could think is how could this guy be so irresponsible with his own role and yet always be jumping on everyone else, who for the most part were guilty of far less damaging infractions.
his method of teaching was just as haphazard, everything hummed, whistled, or played on harmonica into a microphone for the guitars and bass. sometimes, it would sound like the guitar was playing exactly what he was singing, and yet he would get ridiculously upset screaming: 'that's not it man, what the fuck are you doing?' that was pre-trout mask replica. ry cooder actually finished arranging 'safe as milk' and wrote lines to fill in the blanks.
in several articles i've read, don's paranoia is often mentioned. was it always a problem?
the 'trout mask replica' and 'spotlight kid' band were the worst paranoid times. all i can figure is that somehow because of how don's mind worked - and the fact that he had so much free time as we struggled over the many mysteries of how to get from the beginning to the end of a song - he constantly conceived there was a series of individual and collective plots to overthrow him in the works at any given moment.
in order to prevent the fruition of any such plot, don - who was a master manipulator and 8-9 years our senior - would start a 'talk', as he called it. usually the unfortunate target was whoever was having difficulty with a particular section of music. or perhaps someone in a foul mood because they had had nothing to eat for a month but a small four ounce jar of soyabeans a day.
it's painful for me to talk about this time in my life. many in my family looked down on me because i didn't stand up for myself. they didn't realise this wasn't a john wayne physical type of battle. it was a mental battle, and a spiritual one. i was completely unprepared for the hostile environment which i and my friends found ourselves in. i was completely at a loss as to how to react to this environment.
my three best friends and i became ensnared in an atmosphere of fear, dread and misery. my main goal was to finish 'trout mask replica' and get out and never go back. we had no money. we hardly saw girls. we slept on the floor. we were verbally abused. we were hungry. out clothes weren't even clean. we couldn't be ourselves without starting a 'talk'. sometimes these 'talks' lasted two and three dáys with the 'target' finally bursting into tears or lying his way out of some imaginary maze of guilt.
all of us were doing our best to finish the project, and had a great deal of respect for don's music. in our - the band's - perspective, these talks were our fault, and we hadn't arrived at some level we needed to be at in order for harmony to exist.
anything specific you can remember?
images i remember are: everyone else in the band hitting me in the face at the same time; falling asleep from utter exhaustion with a cigarette and everyone watching it burn my hand after being up for three days; after going to the bathroom, i laid down in exhaustion only to wake up with everyone staring at me, and when i stood up i was struck in the face and fell down, so exhausted and mentally screwed up i couldn't defend myself; being hit in the chin and looking in a mirror hours later to discover blood caked in my beard and hair: getting drunk - i hardly ever drink - going off by myself and passing out only to be carried and propped up in a chair in the living room and having ice thrown on me for hours, so that i woke up shivering and then enduring an interrogation as to how i could possibly embarrass the band in this way...
it wasn't the physical violence that was the worst part, it was the mental strain of walking on eggs around a man who constantly thought everyone was involved in some devious plot. langdon winner mentioned this behaviour in [one of the last paragraphs of] his rolling stone article on the captain in 1970, saying in effect that don at one point began to view him as 'public enemy number one'.
do you think all this was done with some purpose in mind?
in my opinion, don instigated all of this. somehow, we allowed him over a period of months - years for me - to slowly 'devolve' us to this senslessness. it ate our souls and ruined our social behaviour for years to come. for years every time someone would 'talk with their hands', i would wince, thinking i was going to get hit.
what really used to make me angry was that certain women seemed 'fascinated' by this power of don's with kind of a perverted admiration, leading me to believe for a while that this was acceptable behavior. the other side of the coin is that we all did in a small way to other people what was done to us.
about two years ago, the bbc sent elaine shepherd, a charming journalist, to do a film biography of don, including interviews with magic band members. i asked to see her alone beforehand so that i could explain to her that it was very difficult working with this man, and there are some areas i would rather not be questioned on.
ms. shepherd then told me that don had been calling many of the people she interviewed and grilling them on what questions she had asked. he had refused to be interviewed personally and for this reason i believe the project was scrapped. too bad for beefheart fans. i think it would have been great, because ms. shepherd was getting accumulating a lot of old film footage of the early bands. [the project wasn't scrapped: the artist formerly known as captain beefheart was in fact screened by the bbc on august 19, 1997 - ed. and teejo]
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captain beefheart electricity
as felt by teejo