DON'T ARGUE WITH THE CAPTAIN
history - interview
|'I WOULDN'T CALL IT DADA ROCK EXACTLY. WHAT IT IS, IS...'
from usa 1 june 1970 CREEM vol. 2 #13
the departure of ry cooder was the decisive factor in the breakup of the magic band. beefheart assembled a new band in los angeles and headed for england, where response to 'safe as milk' had been considerably better. in the interim, some questionable dealings on the part of bob krasnow resulted in the release of a second album. the album - allegedly recorded for two separate record companies - was titled 'strictly personal', and released on blue thumb, krasnow's own fledgling label.
held over from the previous magic band were jerry handley and john french, but guitarists alex st. clair and jeff cotton were both new additions (which is not true at all, because 'st. clair' is an alias for 'snouffer'. but i left this error in, to show that the writer's knowledge of the line-ups was based on the confusing data on the consecutive sleeves - t.t.). despite the holdovers, the sound of the new band was a cosmic departure from 'safe as milk'. they were slowly beginning to overcome the senseless restrictions of conventional form, and their playing was refreshingly liberated and adventurous.
the delta still imposed itself (due in part to st. clair's blues background), but eclecticism meant less and less as the band found themselves. the transitional process was not an easy one for these professional musicians but beefheart was always there to help with the de-contamination process. 'the way i did it was, i went note for note with them. it was like pulling up a shirttail, you know, it was a really difficult thing.' the effort was well worth it, however, for 'strictly personal' was a monumental step toward the realization of the beefheart genius.
the centerfold was an incredibly bizarre photograph of the band, and made a direct reference to the music on the album. the black and white photo was a darkly magnetic portrait of the magic band in metallic masks and space helmets, galactic guides for a cosmic excursion. given more room to work here than on 'safe as milk', the band began to assume a more cosmic outlook themselves; or at least this time around they didn't restrain beefheart to quite the same degree. the guitars successfully broke the old lead / rhythm pattern and explored the possibilities of strongly disjointed relationships, fighting each other and at times themselves in a wonderfully nonsensical battle. but, as usual, it is the overpowering presence of the captain that makes this record go.
the band had advanced, but beefheart was still far ahead of them egging them on and begging them to catch up. his lyrics and vocals both intensely reflected the release quality of the album, as is evidenced by the extreme urgency of his vocal on 'trust us' ('you gotta trust us / before you turn to dust'). he meant it.
'strictly personal' begins in much the same way as 'safe as milk', with a blues number ('ah feel like ahcid'), but vividly draws the line of distinction between the two albums. and by the time the voyage has ended, with the chaotic 'kandy korn', any comparisons one might have been tempted to make have been utterly obliterated.
yet despite the excellent music, it appears that before the album was released, krasnow got his hands on the tapes and added a few touches of his own. many parts of the album were phased and otherwise electronically reprocessed, a cheap device to try and capitalize on the captain's supposed freakiness. the bare honesty of the original sessions was gone, and although, in the captain's words, the music 'shines through like a diamond in the mud', the damage was done. krasnow's butchery and beefheart's innovation added up to no sales and little recognition, and the captain had been burned again.
to top things off, his new band quit after the second european tour (later that same year, 1968 - t.t.), and beefheart was once more on his own. this was not an unusual occurrence in the beefheart scheme of things, and he explained it this way: 'they went up to a certain point, and then when the money didn't keep coming they split. it's sure a shame, but i guess they got that damn ruler in there somewhere. that old golden rule'. he had no alternative but to retire to lancaster and try to regroup his forces.
enter frank zappa. the two teenage chums
ran into one another, somehow appropriately enough, at a colonel sanders
chicken shop. zappa had been doing well with his mothers of invention,
and was in the process of laying the groundwork for straight records. things
being as they were, an agreement was reached and beefheart was back for
another go at it. 'he told me that he would give me complete freedom, as
far as freedom goes. when another man tells me that he'll give me complete
freedom, all i can think is that he's in a cage. but since he was in a
cage, i thought maybe i could run around the outside and play a little
bit.' that 'little bit' turned out to be 'trout mask replica', a monster
achievement and beefheart's most representative work to date.
the band at the time of writing:
mark boston (rockette morton), art tripp (ed marimba), don van vliet (captain beefheart), bill harkleroad (zoot horn rollo)
the magic band on 'trout mask replica' was an entirely new assemblage, made up of artist friends of van vliet's, all non-musicians. the band was comprised of van vliet (bass clarinet, tenor sax, soprano sax, vocal), zoot horn rollo (glass finger guitar, flute), antennae jimmy semens (steel-appendage guitar), the mascara snake (bass clarinet, vocal), rockette morton (bass, narration) and drumbo (percussion).
(wrong again: jeff cotton had became 'antennae etc.', and 'drumbo' was no-one else than john french. by the way: the new members 'zoot' and 'rockette' were bill harkleroad and mark boston, respectively, and 'the mascara snake' was don's cousin victor haydon - t.t.)
being non-musicians (another myth created - teejo), beefheart had to teach them all from scratch. 'the thing is that i found out that i couldn't use anybody that was a musician. i tried to school them in sculpting, you see, by letting them school themselves as far as i could without going over into that form. in other words, they didn't leave the house for two years.' as a result, this magic band gave the captain the most empathetic and innocent support he's yet had.
the entire 'trout mask replica' production (a double album) was begun and completed within an eight hour period, due largely to straight's lack of finances. it was engineered by dick kunc, and they both turned in outstanding performances under the existing conditions. 'dick kunc wasn't happy with the fact that we weren't given enough time', said beefheart in reference to that session. 'he did the majority of the producing and everything. i think that frank was actually trying to stay out of my way, actually. the band played straight through on all the cuts in one night. it took them four hours to do the entire album. we didn't use overdubs or anything.' in many ways this one-take performance was an asset, in that it gives us a clear, untampered picture of exactly what went down that historic night.
on 'trout mask replica', beefheart severs all ties with narrow contemporary concepts of music. that people are still trying to categorize the magic band's music ('wasn't that an ornette coleman lick?') is beyond me. even those who term the music 'dada-rock' are hiding behind a classification, and totally miss the point. the band is actually playing (p-l-a-y-i-n-g) for once, a delightful practice that defies categorization. what seems like chaos is merely non-structure, what seems like no direction is the direction.
the bass and drums are not relegated to simple beat-keeping apparatus, but are free to make their own distinctive contributions. the guitars construct, and then harshly bend and rupture, rhythms and progressions seemingly without design. the music works as a whole, yet each band member is allowed to express himself in a very individual manner. and because the magic band is not composed of professional musicians, there is always that marvelous factor of discovery involved.
of the twenty-eight cuts on 'trout mask replica', beefheart's voice will invariably never be the same on any two (take your pick), leading one to suspect that he is rooted as much in cosmic vaudeville as the blues. his range is almost beyond human conception, and i still have the feeling that he has yet to really let loose (something that goes for the magic band as well). his lyrics, like the music, are beyond definition and not subject to earthly law: 'pappy with the khaki sweatband / bowed goat potbellied barnyard / that only he noticed / the old fart was smart / the old gold cloth madonna / dancing to the fiddle and saw'. words can be as powerful an instrument to be played as the guitar, and that is precisely the way in which captain beefheart uses them.
zappa made good on his promise of complete freedom, and as a result, 'trout mask replica' is an unparalleled work of musical art. its importance reaches far beyond rock, and it is doubtful that as paramount an achievement has been equaled in any genre. but, in leaving the musical public so far behind, beefheart has once again victimized himself; a full appreciation of 'trout mask replica' will undoubtedly be a long time coming.
it appears, however, that beefheart's troubles with the industry did not end with 'trout mask replica'. he now claims that straight (frank zappa) has promoted his album in an unethical manner. 'i was told by frank zappa that i would not be categorized with anybody else, i was told by frank that i would have, if you want to call it, special treatment, that i would not be advertised or promoted with any of the other groups on the label. but somehow i guess he got hard-pressed for cash, and decided that he would round me up and sell me as one of the animal crackers. i didn't like the idea of being labeled and put aside as just another freak.' the fact does remain, though, that were it not for zappa and straight, 'trout mask replica' would probably not exist; and it is a non-statement of such magnitude that no promotional campaign could ever detract from its worth.(*)
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