DON'T ARGUE WITH THE CAPTAIN
the interviews - band members
from england 1 september 1995 GUITAR vol.5
by danny eccleston
is ±june 1995 usa interview BILL HARKLEROAD and JEFF MORIS TEPPER
captain beefheart's magic band was the progenitor of some of the weirdest, out-here guitar playing ever commited to tape. in rare interviews beefheart's guitar cohorts zoot horn rollo (aka bill harkleroad) and jeff moris tepper reveal the magic of working with captain insensible...
'rock 'n' roll is a fixation on that 'bom bom bom bom' mother heart beat,' captain beefheart told a teevee interviewer in 1980. 'i don't want to hypnotise; i'm doing, ah, non-hypnotic music to break up the catatonic state... to get to... changing patterns and shadows that fall from the sun'.
between 1965 and 1982, in a bewildering array of incarnations, captain beefheart and the magic band messed with the heads of anyone who thought to know what rock 'n' roll was meant to sound like. building on a blues foundation (heard at its straightest on the retrospectively released 'the legendary a&m sessions' elpee) yet assaulting the linearity of the form at every subsequent opportunity, successive magic bands stretched the boundaries of guitar playing as they struggled to provide apt contexts for beefheart's tangential lyrical blasts and bullhorn vocals.
with musical models that encompassed the mg's, howlin' wolf (a lót of howlin' wolf) and ornette coleman, but an approach to fitting instruments together that leapfrogged them all, they've become the patron saints of experimental guitar playing, influencing groups as diverse as wall of voodoo, public image limited, sonic youth, stump, the lounge lizards, that petrol emotion, xtc and practically everyone else who ever heard them.
no other band could boast such a series of innovative axemen, yet the magic band guitarists are largely unlauded, their anonymity only adding to the captain's mystique. from 1967 onwards beefheart (aka don van vliet) rechristened each new member, as if to imply that they were now his creatures. john french (drummer, occasional guitarist and most consistent ally) became 'drumbo'. ex-zappa guitarist elliot ingber (best heard on the 'the spotlight kid' elpee) became 'winged eel fingerling'. guitarists jeff cotton and bill harkleroad and bassist mark boston (the backbone of '69's 'trout mask replica') were dubbed 'antennae jimmy semens', 'zoot horn rollo' and 'rockette. morton'.
since 1974, when boston and harkleroad left to form mallard, public statements regarding the band's music have clashed wildly. various magic band members and their associates have alleged that: 1) original guitarist doug moon wrote much of the captain's 'safe as milk'; 2) john french co-wrote 'strictly personal' and arranged, to the point of co-writerhood, the bulk of 'trout mask replica'; 3) bill harkleroad deserved writing credits for the 'clear spot' elpee, where the belching smokestack riff to 'crazy little thing' was 100 per cent his own. don van vliet has met each new claim with derision and apparent bafflement.
'i taught them every note that they played, choreographed every move they made and this is how they repay me!,' he moaned to the new musical express in 1975 upon the departure of morton and rollo. 'five days, man, they gave me five days to find a whole new band!'
whoever 'wrote' it, the magic band's music was revolutionary. 'safe as milk' (1967) was the debut elpee, and its daring fusion of blues, soul, country & western, psychedelic pop and something deeply mad still astonishes. the guitar lead is taken by a young ry cooder, liberating bottleneck from its 'guitar solo' ghetto and pushing it right to the fore as a riffing tool. meanwhile alex snouffer (aka 'st. clair') weaves in and out of cooder's lines, jostling and buffeting. we haven't quite reached the double lead guitar meshing of 'trout mask replica' (we would experience the darker, bluesier and phased-to-hell-in-a-handcart 'strictly personal' first) but the first principle was established: abrasion. even the notion, unprecedented outside jazz, of 'lead bass' seems to have sprung from 'safe as milk' - cooder again, on 'abba zaba'
a regular in 'all time top ten albums of all time' polls the world over, 'trout mask replica' is, as beefheart observed and admirably weird guitarist henry kaiser points out: 'the magic band at its most baroque'. it was also the magic band - not to beat about the bush - at its maddest. beefheart's eerie, superficially throwaway lyrics take centre stage, such that this band's inventiveness is often overshadowed. yet the dual guitar instrumental 'dali's car' - performed by cotton and harkleroad, and transcribed from a jumble of piano, voice and whistling tapes of beefheart's - plays with ideas of chordal opposition and bitonality, whilst much of the rest of the album slips the anchor of a common key entirely.
bill harkleroad, now an avid golfer, record store employee and teacher of guitar to pupils aged eight to 75, relates:
i was definitely a street blues player before i joined the beefheart band, starting off playing surf music. i knew the names of the chords, but that was about it. i was very much a pentatonic player. the blues were the raw tools i came with, but almost everything changed when i joined beefheart, even down to the way i played - using fingers, as opposed to a plectrum.
i was aware of wanting my telecaster or es-330 to sound like, uh, scrapnel! often i was literally torturing the guitar with these metal fingerpicks, and of course it made a difference whether i was playing 'steel appendage' or 'glass finger' - metal slide or glass. but i'm not so sure how much the sonics were an issue... it was always more an issue of: 'how in hell am i going to play this?'
that was the constant thought, so the sound kind of came afterwards. stuff like the compound rhythms and the inversions of the chords, that's where the creativity came in. some of the seven, eight and nine-fret stretches i needed to make to get the intervals we were after, meant that i had to have my whole hand in front the fretboard with my thumb pressing down on the face for the bass note.
beefheart briefly claimed that the musicians he renamed for the 'trout mask replica' sessions (produced by frank zappa, though the magic band swore he slept throughout) were unknowns that had never picked up instruments before. this was never going to wash; despite the faux-naif style their playing skill was obvious. as henry kaiser points out, even the picking technique chosen by the magic band had repercussions on the sonic picture - a cajun style partly adapted from jerry mcgee (who later sessioned for the monkees, bobby darin and currently props up the ventures).
jeff cotton and i were from a very similar school, recalls the erstwhile zoot horn rollo of the former antennae jimmy semens - now working in hawaii, as a janitor or a priest depending on whom you believe. elliot ingber was from somewhere else totally. he had been in the original mothers of invention; he was an encyclopedia of blues licks, but at other times he could sound like miles davis - such an economy. but elliot struggled rather more with our rhythmic concepts. because he came from a more traditional guitar mindset it took a lot of work to fit him into our format, but god, he could play some cool stuff!
like cotton, bassist mark boston had played with harkleroad since their teens [should order their precise connections once - t.t.], and the zoot / rockette partnership would lie at the heart of 'clear spot' [aren't we meaning 'lick my decals off, baby' here? - t.t.]. it's still beefheart's most immediately dazzling elpee, a warped amalgam of steve cropper, the meters and mississippi fred mcdowell.
mark was playing chords and stuff on his danelectro double-neck with this clawhammer-like right-hand technique, marvels harkleroad. at times it was quite scary! i think he was doing a whole different thing on the bass, much more so than what we were doing on the guitar, stuff that you hear more and more today now that the technology has caught up.
beefheart and the early '70s magic band, despite the apochryphal tensions (one story has van vliet smashing harkleroad's guitar, simply because he found him playing along to a record), were a team. boston and harkleroad's mallard records are diverting but untouched by genius; beefheart's 'bluejeans and moonbeams' (1974), bowdlerised by its dimartino brothers' production job, hamstrung by banal material and uninspiring sidemen, is poor. harleroad says beefheart 'kind of pushed the sound around a bit, like a sculptor would', but that he 'by no means ever 'wrote' anything'. the implication being that beefheart's sculpting was pivotal, but only when he was working with quality materials.
except: not everyone sees it like that. there's jeff moris tepper for a start, lead guitarist on beefheart's last three albums: the excellent 'shiny beast (bat chain puller)' ('78, but around in various guises since '76), 'doc at the radar station' ('80) and 'ice cream for crow' ('82). tepper had more than a hand in the captain's renaissance, but declines to brag.
he did é-ve-ry-thing. he would whistle solos. he would sing parts, he would growl parts. there were certain songs where he would sit down at the piano, and the bassist would figure out the left hand while i would figure out the right hand. after years of playing with him and after that trust developing there were things that were definitely throw in from the musicians, but we were using his vocabulary. it's like he's putting together a puzzle and you're helping him fit a few pieces in here and there, but it doesn't mean that now this is your music too.
tepper, a schoolyard beefheart freak, met the captain after moving to california to study painting and ended up impressing him with his ability to learn all the guitar parts - both cotton's and harkleroad's - to 'trout mask replica'. returning from the 'bongo fury' tour with frank zappa, van vliet bought tepper a 1957 fender telecaster and relaunched the magic band. since 'ice cream for crow' tepper has lent his jagged fretwork to tom waits [on 'frank's wild years' - t.t.] and frank black [ex-pixies] records and is currently touting a quirkily seductive solo album called 'big enough to disappear', but as a musician and composer he sees his magic band years as formative.
don had a wonderful array of methods for communicating his parts. sometimes it would be as vague as: 'play it like an old yellow room'. when we were recording 'a carrot is as close as a rabbit gets to a diamond' (from 'doc at the radar station'), he said: 'i want you to play this as if you were a soldier in the civil war, and the troops abandoned you out in the forest, and you've been walking for days and you're hungry. and then you find a shack where there's an old dirty cot, and you just need to lie down and sleep, and you get to the cot and there's a little teddy bear doll. and you're clutching the teddy bear, and it's that emotion you feel as you're clutching the doll...: that's the way i want you to play this song'.
once on 'run, paint, run, run' he had me running across a room to hit a particular chord section in the chorus. i'd taken off my shoes, so it was just my socks on this waxed floor, and just as i hit the chord section i had to stop suddenly and slide, at the same time wrenching the guitar behind me, so there was this particular choking sound, almost this 'swallowing' of the chord. again, it was designed to sidestep the natural, smooth guitar playing that would otherwise occur. he was always looking for this jóstling sound - something that would come from beyond just 'playing' the guitar.
those privy to unreleased demos of pre-'74 beefheart will insist that much of the reborn magic band material has its roots way back then, but few would deny that the creative spark had reignited. in the studio, beefheart insisted that his band stood up to play and would turn off the lights when he felt it suited the atmosphere of a song. at other times he would rejig tepper's guitar to an utterley alien tuning or record the sound of his windscreen wipers and ask the guitarist to recreate it [comes close to the story of 'bat chain puller' - t.t.].
there was one guitar part i did come up with: that egyptian-sounding riff to 'when i see mommy i feel like a mummy'..., except that i didn't really. beefheart took the mike and went (emits a blood-curdling roar) and said: 'play something like that'. i went away and thought about it and came back with that riff. it didn't sound much like the model he gave me, but he said: 'u-huh, that's it!' so that was mine - but it was also his.
a recorded legacy like beefheart's should have a happier story behind it: a cosy vision of band members and band leader united in their appreciation of their (un)common achievement. yet while the reclusive beefheart - a childhood sculpting prodigy whose startling paintings currently fetch agreeable sums on the world art market - continues to denigrate the contribution of his former colleagues, and while the latter retaliate, however reasonably, with testaments to their own creativity, bitterness seems likely to prevail. perhaps it's best to remember them this way: stick on 'big eyed beans from venus' and hear beefheart intone: 'mister zoot horn rollo, hit that long, lunar note..., and let it float'. brace yourselves as harkleroad responds with that keening, deliciously tense bottleneck quiver. thís is what has seduced guitarists ever since.
being who he is, don's not really capable of repetition, muses tepper finally. to me this does not in any way downplay the strength of the artist; it just describes the nature of the beast. he is who he is and he has no choice. it's not like he could play the lead guitar part from 'crazy little thing', and if he could there's no way on earth that he could have played it twice in a row. that's something that i'm not afraid to say. that's what marks him out as the great artist that he is: he is constantly at the moment. he can't go forward or back. and that's why he is as big and as deep as he is.
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