THE MAGIC BAND reunion
BAND #2 -
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the SECOND VETERANS MEETING
THE CAPTAIN'S CONJURORS
the magic band
from THE WIRE #230
by mike barnes
is late02/early03.03 telephone interviews
note: edited version, with pictures taken from (defunct) internet sites
part 1 - THIS is PART 2
a crucial factor is missing here, of course: don van vliet, who dissociated himself from his music when he chose not to follow up 'ice cream for crow' (1982). suffering from a long term illness, he is now a total recluse dedicated to painting. no one in the group expects van vliet to endorse the magic band's renewed activities.
'listen, i don't know for sure,' says lucas, 'i would imagine he would be a little grumpy about it, but you know what? i think he would be honored if he really understood the way we are approaching it, which is totally respectful of his original intent. but who's to say? i haven't spoken to him in years. i am doing it to honor don and the music, i think it deserves to live rather than as canned performances on old records. people should experience it as living music, which should be the goal of all composers - to have their music played and not moldering away in some collector's library.'
john french was originally drafted into the magic band aged eighteen as a backing vocalist as well as a drummer, but in the decades since he has had little chance to flex his vocal cords. suddenly the magic band had to decide who should sing the beefheart parts. drafting in another singer wasn't really an option, so french volunteered himself for the mentally and physically demanding role:
'i had been practicing about a dozen songs. to keep my voice in shape i needed to sing about an hour a day. i rode my bicycle uphill a few times and increased my exercise routine by fifty per cent. also, i began playing harmonica again, which surprisingly took a great deal of air and so developed my diaphragm. the first couple of weeks i thought i was having heart problems because of excruciating chest pain. then i realized it was probably my diaphragm crying out from excessive use. one thing i have noticed is increased energy, probably from all that extra oxygen i'm inhaling. the songs became easier to sing.'
'my approach here is not to sing so much in my own style, as to emulate don. he is one of the greatest vocalists i've ever heard, and his style and delivery is so much a part of the music that it would be ludicrous to attempt to reinvent the vocals. they are the best that could be. his phrasing and tonality is more like acting than singing, in a sense.'
picture by tim sutton
mark boston sees it slightly differently. 'that music stands on its own, that's why i wanted to do it. at first we were just going to do it without any vocals as a tribute to don, but john knows all the songs and he's an excellent singer. but it's still a tribute to don. john was concerned people would think he was trying to be don. i said: 'john, there's no way you could be don, there's no way he could be you. just sing it to the best of your ability and have fun with it'.'
after rehearsals, the group decamped to a studio and cut a deliberately informal recording for a cd called back to the front. van vliet used to insist on using little or no reverb on recordings so that they would sound 'two dimensional, like a painting' and not 'drowning in heavy syrup'. not being so dogmatic about it, the magic band allows itself a little reverb luxury on it.
throughout the magic band's existence, the musicians have both publicly and privately bemoaned how none ever was credited for their role in creating the songs, be it coming up with specific riffs or engineering all the constituent parts into a composition. for that reason alone, mark boston has no qualms about performing the music without van vliet. 'even though he took all the credit for it,' he argues, 'we own a pretty good claim on a lot of that stuff too, arranging the music and playing it live. that wasn't easy music to pull off and make it sound convincing.' 'don's music did not require don to be there,' concurs denny walley, 'a lot of it was instrumental.' van vliet, he also points out, was reluctant to rehearse his own vocal lines at all, let alone with the same rigor he demanded of his musicians.
lack of credit goes hand in hand, of course, with lack of money. the reason the magic band quit en masse in 1974 has been attributed to the group earning considerably less than they had expected from a tour the previous year. 'that was contractual,' says boston, 'a disagreement over payment and the way things were going. there were a lot of slim years there when we should have been getting certain moneys. i don't want to go into any details on that. it's just bitter water under the bridge, you know. for the most part i enjoyed playing, right up to the last tour.'
one of the most fascinating elements of the whole beefheart story is the gravitational pull van vliet continues to exert on the musicians who played with him. performing beefheart music, they climbed musical mountains and got to see things that only exist inside the beefheart universe. almost all the players who have dedicated themselves to van vliet and his music have been deeply affected by his overpowering personality. lucas, whose association ended less than happily, comments in passing that even being in palmdale, near van vliet's hometown lancaster, pushes certain buttons. 'i have all these not so pleasant memories of being dragged around the desert by don without sleep for days at a time,' he shivers.
if any one musician gave services above and beyond the call of duty, it is john french, whose magic band involvement survived four separate stints over a thirteen year period. he was living a breadline existence during the preparations for 'trout mask replica', putting in twelve hours a day working out the music while enduring van vliet's psychological assault course. why did he keep going back?
'my absolute belief that van vliet is one of the most innovative artists of our time,' french answers with hesitation. 'whether it be his brilliant lyrics, his amazing musical concepts, his stage performance, harmonica playing, or his paintings and drawings, there is no one who even comes close. for all the difficulties i encountered, i knew that i was part of history and i have always felt like don was decades ahead of any of the so-called contemporary poets and songwriters that are so revered, like bob dylan and jim morrison. the main difference was that don did not have the ability to conceive of putting his music into a comfortable and familiar format that could be consumed by the masses. he was uncompromising in his approach.'
'you see the beauty in it,' offers walley. 'after a while it's like being a junky - you know that stuff is going to kill you but you can't keep away from it. you've got to wade through shit to get to paradise. even though you know it's going to be tortuous at times, the end result is such a big high you are willing to do it.'
many ex-magic band members have found leaving the group is like going cold turkey. gary lucas has achieved the highest profile career of the four current members, but he spent much of the 80s in limbo until he put all his energy into a solo career. after the 1974 mutiny mark boston formed mallard with other former magic band members but slipped out of the spotlight thereafter. he played with a host of rock and folk groups, but he has had leaner times working in a motel, at an elderly care facility and, briefly, as a bouncer in a redneck bar.
having the magic band on your cv is both a blessing and a curse, he reckons: 'some people have this jealousy that you have been somewhere and done something, and a lot of people hear you playing one sort of music and think that it's all you can do, like typecasting in the movies.'
french had a particularly bad time of it. 'as it is, i struggle with terrible financial difficulties and was even homeless for a time, living in a homemade camper in someone's driveway. i've had some of the worst jobs imaginable and i'm sort of a bum by society's standards. i was quite suicidal for a time, as most of my family and even many of my friends ostracized me as a weirdo. however, i can't think of anything 'weirder' than not being true to one's self. i felt a bonding with don, which time has not broken. even though he hasn't spoken to me in nearly twenty years, that bond has never been broken.'
picture by tim sutton
denny walley has also suffered from post-beefheart syndrome. 'i love don, i respect him so much. he has always been extremely gifted. i love his artwork, his poetry is magnificent, his voice unsurpassed. the things he has written musically - obviously there's nothing i can say that hasn't already been said. but the impact that it had after playing with him...: who do you play with after that? where do you go, what do you do? the guys go out and do their own thing or they just become a plumber.'
walley got by providing props and scenery for movies and tv. he has recorded occasionally since leaving the group in 1978, making the music of captain beefheart live with swedish musicians in 1995. he has known van vliet since 1975 (when he was one of the mothers of invention on the zappa / beefheart 'bongo fury' tour - t.t.). 'when i wasn't touring with zappa i was touring with don, and that went on for several years. coming out of that, i was approached by a few people to be in bands, and the music seemed so pedestrian after that, i couldn't imagine myself playing the same three chords for tens of songs every night. i like flying by the seat of my pants and you definitely did that with don and frank.'
walley admits that one of the reasons he is enjoying playing this music now is that his main contribution to the magic band is largely unrecognized, because he was their live guitarist for three years. and though he was in the group that recorded bat chain puller, the album has never been officially released, because van vliet had signed contracts with twó record companies. he was sacked, mainly for standing up for himself: he had a family, little money coming in and was fed up with wasting time at rehearsals where not one note of music was played.
to get the high the present day magic band clearly craves, the music has to run as close to the beefheart original as possible. 'if you get in there with a microscope you might find a few differences in the dna,' says boston, 'but it's there in the blueprint. all the parts are supporting each other. each guitar part, sometimes the bass or certain drum parts, are your signpost saying: 'chicago: seven miles ahead'. without that, you get lost real easy.'
'we were just amazed that the thing swung from the beginning,' says lucas. 'maybe it had something to do with the way don's music was constructed to sound like one entity that's like an extension of his nervous system. we are like different parts of the incorporeal body that is the beefheart muse - or monster,' he laughs.
of all the group, boston has moved furthest away from the role normally associated with his instrument, playing full chords and using metal plectrums to try to emulate the attack of the piano on which many of his bass lines were written. 'at first i wasn't sure i would be able to pull it off, but i just sat down, put my picks on and started picking away at it and surprisingly the bulk of it came back pretty easily. it's so unique and i spent so many hours at a time - days and months sometimes - on some of that stuff, that it stayed there hidden on a dark shelf in the back of my brain somewhere.'
evidently, beefheart music allows the magic band musicians to express something they cannot reach by any other means. by grasping the music that used to take so much out of them and pumping it full of renewed energy, a few ghosts may have been laid to rest in the process. french sums up how revisiting the material has affected him: 'there were bad memories associated with the early band, however, the good memories flowed like fresh rain and washed away the bad quite quickly. i personally found it to be an extremely healing and positive experience.'
and although some might discern defiance towards van vliet in reconvening the magic band to play his music, the four musicians are unfailing in their respect for his achievements. besides, they point out, he'll receive all royalties due from cd sales and concerts. undoubtedly the magic band is supremely confident in its ability to pull this music off live. nevertheless, they're curious how people will respond. to cover for french's expanded singing duties, robert williams, the magic band's drummer from 1977-81, will be travelling to gigs at his own expense to play with them.
walley contends that what they have now is the next logical step for van vliet's music: 'we haven't changed the notes but the attack of the notes. when this band plays, it's like shards of broken glass and molten metal and splinters of steel. it's really a powerful band. it's not for the faint of heart.'
'clearly what this band is about is a celebration of the music. this is not a moneymaking venture by a bunch of old farts that they've dug out of the woodwork. either they're going to love us or they're going to start throwing shit at us. that's why i'm bringing my double necked guitar because the body is huge. it's like a shield. i'm prepared for whatever happens.'
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