DON'T ARGUE WITH THE CAPTAIN
history - interview
BEEFHEART IN BLUNDERLAND
from usa 30 may 1971 LOS ANGELES TIMES sunday magazine WEST
THIS is PART 1 - part 2
the man with the briefcase is walking up the airport terminal corridor, on his way to the home office, lost in sales projections and first-quarter earnings reports... 'yé góds! whát is thís?' the briefcase stops swinging. it's a mirage advancing toward him - through jet lounge martini vapors - this bunch of people like bedouins in a vinyl desert. oh, they're a group. rock and roll group, traveling together. sure. briefcase dares a small, censored smile. but look at thís guy.
ed marimba (aka art tripp - t.t.) is preoccupied with dreams of mexican food back in los angeles. he is wearing pegged pants, a black shirt with white stitching that might have been worn by the disc jockey in a 1950s rock and roll flick. green shoes, shiny, like plastic. hair cut on top like a '50s flat-top. long on the sides, brushed back to - what's this? - pigtails. three of them lined up across the back. next.
drumbo (john french). a demonic neptune, ringlets of black hair, black beard streaked with red, all encircling an oval face pale as plague against that hair. he wears aqua-colored pants, and on his feet are a pair of gleaming black rubbers. he smiles, wiggles his eyebrows up and down.
rockette morton (mark boston). short, compact, with a furtive look. says things that sound like 'zip, zip, buzz'. he wears a little black fedora and a 10-year-old suit that looks lie it came from an older, and bigger, brother. but it's the mustache that startles: two waxed points, about three inches long, shooting out from the corners of his lip like lobster feelers. a goatee below it, wound like a corkscrew. 'hellew. rockette morton here. heh-heh.' zip zip.
zoot horn rollo (bill harkleroad) is a long waterfall. liquid motion. he stands six feet five (1 meter 96) and weighs 140 pounds (64 kilo). long reddish brown hair parted in the middle and undulating as he walks - flowing, really - in the stream of his companions. he wears an old leather coat, once owned by errol flynn (a movie star - t.t.), an amazingly good fit, but falling apart.
briefcase is really curious by now, and he walks up to the man who seems to be bringing up the rear of the caravan. he is a big man wearing a beige top hat, a 200 pound (90 kilo) mad hatter. 'uh, pardon me, but are you people with a group?' 'yes, we are.' the voice is polite, a mild surprise, but what is really surprising is its depth. the voice seems to come out of the earth in bass tones at least a couple of octaves lower than ol' tennessee ernie managed to reach on 'sixteen tons'.
'what's the name of your group?' 'captain beefheart and the magic band, and the ry cooder group.' 'oh. and who are you?' 'i'm captain beefheart (don van vliet).' 'that's real nice', the man mumbles. he starts to turn away, but hesitates. 'you know, my daughter would kill me if i didn't get your autograph.'
a mystique has always surrounded traveling entertainers, and it may be even more powerful now that rock has been parlayed into a mass culture involving millions of fans and more millions of dollars. the aura that travels with a rock band is palpable, almost visible, like a spotlight beam through smoky air.
talk about the captain beefheart tour began back when the captain himself, in an almost casual conversation with an executive of warner bros records, suggested it was time to go on the road. it seemed like a good idea. although captain beefheart was known as an artist's artist and a critic's favorite, commercially he was near to a bust. his three earlier record albums had sold poorly. now captain beefheart and the magic band had a new record out ('lick my decals off, baby', 1970) whose sales potential was more promising than anything beefheart had released to date, and it seemed wise to take advantage of the promotional possibilities with a tour while beefheart, always a mysterious and reclusive figure, was in the mood.
at about the same time, another warner bros artist, a young guitarist named ry cooder, was pondering the promotional problems of his own newly released record. it was a good album, but it was cooder's first and, except for insiders in the recording industry, who knew him as a first-rate studio musician, his name was not well-known. since his album also needed promotional work, beefheart had warner bros' blessing when he invited cooder to join the tour as a second act.
for the sake of captain beefheart's own career, the tour certainly wouldn't do any harm. commercially, he had nowhere to go but up. his music seemed difficult and certainly different, but he refused to water it down to make money. he went on in his eccentric way, never doubting, but almost never playing in public. perpetually broke, he lived in seclusion with his band in an old house in the san fernando valley. now, however, in the spirit of a man going out to check the weather, beefheart felt ready to test the public's ear.
beefheart watchers - perhaps a few thousand - were curious. perhaps he would change, diluting his music for the audience, or perhaps the audiences had caught up with beefheart. to those who closely monitor rock culture, captain beefheart's concert tour might be an event, a coming-out party, a milestone roughly equivalent, say, to the end of picasso's (famous painter - t.t.) blue period.
the plans beefheart set in motion resulted in a six-week tour of thirty american cities. it involved, in the beginning, twenty-two people - among them, ten musicians, three wives, a three-man film crew and two equipment handlers. there was also a mountain of baggage: more than a ton of sound equipment, a dozen guitars, three sets of drums, one marimba and lots more.
his music is like his conversation - difficult
to classify or describe. it isn't music often heard on the radio, for even
at its simplest, it's still too complex for top 40 stations. much of it
seems dissonant. the rhythms are involved and busy, two or three going
on at any one time in some songs. and the lyrics, beefheart's poetry, are
full of word games, almost puns, and simple little parables that add up
to - what? well, no one quite knows.
for beefheart, cocoa beach hadn't been so great. the audience, young and nearly catatonic on drugs, got up and staggered out. when he had finished his set, perhaps 75 were left out of an audience of 300. beefheart suggested that those who left had been 'joggled out of the nest'. 'maybe people like music that is more ordered, comforting', someone suggested. 'you mean you want to order something from room service', beefheart said, 'as opposed to walking down and getting an orange off the tree?' the answer was flippant, but he meant every word. beefheart believes art surrounds us naturally and that the sound of geese honking overhead in the night is among the 'heaviest music' in the universe.
his real name is don van vliet. born thirty years ago in glendale, he is the only child of quiet, middle-class parents. by the age of thirteen he displayed such precocious talent for painting and sculpture that he was offered a scholarship to study art in europe. his parents, however, distrusted artists and so moved young don to the desert, away from the influences of the city.
he adopted captain beefheart as his name about six years ago when he was playing with 'a bunch of desert musicians' from around lancaster, where he was living. the name stuck, but the music changed. all the personnel changed, too. 'they never were musicians', beefheart said that night at cocoa beach, lighting one cigarette off another. 'i think they avoided that horrid disease called musicianship. not that they've transcended it - it wasn't there to transcend.'
training and education, beefheart has always believed, build barriers around people and their talent. 'i educated myself', he explained, 'by refusing to train myself. it's fine for doctors, if they want to do it that way. me, i want to blow my nose through the horn on stage. i won't read a book. i never have. too much invested interest in something that was in the past.' which pretty much defines beefheart's approach to music. he's never had a music lesson, cannot read music and never wants to. he has, however, steeped himself in the music of the old mississippi delta blues masters like howlin' wolf and john lee hooker and the avant-garde jazz of john coltrane and ornette coleman.
'i would like to think that the music i want to play won't confuse people', beefheart continued. 'i hope it doesn't make them feel disconnected (his synonym for insanity - c.p.) but maybe they are already disconnected from listening to all that heartbreak and rock 'n' roll. maybe they're unable to hear anything else. i think it's a mother complex.'
as always, this evening with beefheart was like encounter therapy followed by a long, quiet day in an overgrown, weed-choked backyard, looking at the birds and bugs and spider webs. nature as music suffused his talk, which was reflective one moment and insistent the next.
'people should make friends with insects
right now', he announced. 'like in my house, i have ants come in to visit
me. and what do i do for the ants? instead of poisoning them, i put out
a little bit of brown sugar on the sink - i don't use white sugar because
it depletes vitamin a. they come, take the brown sugar and leave. they
don't do anything but take that brown sugar and leave, and they only come
when the outside environment is being tampered with, like when they fix
the street before election.'
that night, cooder was in the dressing room, waiting for the crowd to build before he opened the show. beefheart and the magic band would not show up until cooder was well into his set, and now the dressing rooms were quiet. radio men love to introduce visiting acts. 'hi, i'm lee', said a new arrival, introducing himself further as 'your friendly local underground radio program director'.
cooder had been tuning his guitar when the short, round man came into the dressing room, wearing beads and a drooping mustache. 'looks like there's all of 75 people out there, man', lee said. there were groans from cooder's bass player and the drummer, and the piano player slumped in a chair with his eyes dosed. 'it's the rain, man. if any kind of crowd happens here tonight, it'll be because of your outasight promo man. he's dynamite.' 'who usually sells out here?', cooder asked. 'you ain't gonna believe.' 'who?' 'grand funk railroad, ten years after.' laughter. 'yeah, it's awful. where are you from?' 'los angeles.' 'we're about four years behind los angeles.'
it was a strange place to play ('pirates
world', an amusement park - t.t.). moonlight and ragged clouds glowed
through the tattered patches of canvas stretched over a high metal framework.
the hall looked like an airplane hangar with no walls. puddles lay on the
floor, and the audience, mostly high-school age, sat on the damp concrete
passing joints back and forth.
IF YOU WANT TO KNOW HOW THIS ENDS, CLICK CLACK TO PAGE TWO