captain beefheart electricity

history - interviewflits


from usa 1 april 1971 COAST vol.12 #4
by bob chorush
is second half december 1970 interview

THIS is PART 1 - part 2


editorial note on the index page:
keep your doors open - and guarded: captain beefheart (alias don van vliet) has arrived, and rock-and-roll will certainly never be the same again. for better or worse, you can forget 'hard' rock, 'soft' rock and other nifty-keen medium-is-the-mass age labels and categories: the captain and his magic band play a mean maidenform set (on tour, no less). find out how... in this month's cover story by bob ('i-still-don't-understand-your-music!') chorush. super beefy cover photo by bruce wilson. and special thanks to grant gibbs & god's golfballs.

if andy warhol (pop-art artist - t.t.) were commissioned to construct a teddy bear it would be captain beefheart. big in the middle and cuddly-looking, with a suit that's too small for him and not nearly furry enough. the bear wears a pilgrim's mayflower hat and has hair sticking out from around the brim, and there's an inverted shuttlecock on top. it talks. it dances. it sings. it hides behind things. it doesn't do encores. it teases, pleases, freezes and sneezes; it chooses, amuses, confuses and loses. and - depending on your definition - it makes 'music'.

the teddy bear would be an original; even, maybe, a very original. campbell's soup would want to make copies at five cents an ounce. you could put it on records, call it 'lick my decals off, baby', and come up with nothing but some seemingly cacophonous shit, marketable as 'avant-garde' in new york, as 'comedy' in nebraska, or muzak in a boiler factory.

whatever you did with the bear though, it would be pure, original, innovative and distinctly different. you might compare it to frank zappa on acid, or to spike jones on koolade. it would be a preparation h for the hemorrhoids of your mind, a propaph for the acne of your spirit, penicillin for the gonorrhea of your soul. it would cure you if you were sick, sicken you if you were pure; deafen you if you were alive and well, or aliven you if you were dead and buried. it might even make you believe in jesus..., or lydia pinkham.


nine o'clock in the morning finds me shaking off the drowsiness of three hours' sleep in the cold air of a dewy woodland hills morning, tapping timidly on the door of the rented domicile of mr. don van vliet (alias beefheart, captain). i recall a warning from a friend at warner brothers records, that the captain probably set up the appointment for that time because he just wants to make sure i'd get up early enough to enjoy a full day. for a moment, i watch the dew slowly evaporate from the white and yellow plastic daisies in the decaying wood windowboxes in front of the house. the dew seems as out of place on the artificial flowers as i do on the doorstep.

in a bit, the door opens and there stands the captain, filling up most of the doorway. at close range, he looks something like richard burton (film actor - t.t.) at long range. the resemblance is only reinforced by the deep resonance of van vliet's voice. he seats me by a quiet fireplace and momentarily parries my questions and my confessed confusion about beefheart music, wandering off to make some tea. he seems disturbed that i want coffee, answering my request for a substitute and commenting on his art in a single word, one central to both the man and his music: nutrition.....

i think nutrition is very important. if you eat bad, you feel bad. if you feel bad, you do bad things. most of modern rock and roll is a product of guilt. people cop licks off of dead people, like stealing pennies off a dead man's eyes. the movement needs a bowel movement.

nutrition to beefheart is an all-encompassing life force that makes apricots suitable replacements for eggs, carrots more important than potatoes, bananas more digestible than the encyclopedia britannica; white sugar, unthinkable; the ingestion of drugs, forbidden.

for instance, the captain begins, with an air of relaxed self-assurance that leaves no doubt he's speaking the exact, absolute truth (at least so far as he sees it), the english language is the only language that has an 'i' before 'e' except after 'c'. what's before an 'i'? before my eyes is a sea. but the 'c' i see is a sea. i'm not that word-oriented. i'm trying to use words like music so that they don't take your mind anywhere that i want them to.

captain beefheart / don van vliet - usa march 1971 - picture by bruce wilson
picture by bruce wilson

lyrics like these: 'woe-is-uh-me-bop / um-drop-a-re-bop-um', common in beefheart rock, seem to bear out the truth of the captain's non-objective, free-form, antithematic conception. song lyrics and words in general seem to be mere toys for captain beefheart to bounce and juggle around like so many unbreakable rubber easter eggs. his phrasing and word sequences squeeze as many meanings out of a word as it has letters, the result often becoming a broken scrambled rubber omelet which leaves you like a shattered humpty-dumpty looking for unity..., or at least a semblance of conventional meanings.

earphones are almost indispensable for listening: beefheart's lyrics are often obscured by grunts, drums, hums, soprano sax and audible excitement. in one song: 'space age couple / why don't you flex your magic muscle? hold a drinking glass up to your eye / and after you've scooped up a piece of the sky / it ain't blue anymore / what's on the leaves / ain't dew anymore'.

as far as 'space age couple'...: i meant, why don't you enjoy your mind? why don't you think? of course, when i really get into it, it's hard to understand what i'm saying because i just use sounds.

then why use words at all?

i guess the reason i use lyrics is because i'm a singer and the record companies and everybody would think i was ridiculous if i didn't use the english language.

it's hard to use the english language. i'd rather play a tune on a horn, but i've always felt that i didn't want to train myself. because when you get a train, you've got to have an engine and a caboose. i think it's better to train the caboose. you train yourself, you strain yourself....

furthermore: 'the clouds are full of wine / not whiskey or rye / and the sky is full of bluebrains / bluejays, mermaids, bluelays / bluebirds, bluelays, mermaids / bluejays, bluebirds, rainbows / and the sky is full of rhinestones / pinecones, telephones, wolf-howls / milkcows, shadows to somehows'... after hearing such lyrics, and songs like 'i wanna find a woman that'll hold my big toe till i have to go' and 'japan in a dishpan', i've found myself muttering the same question over and over again:

why can't i understand your music?

but you do understand it, if you've heard it. if you've heard it at all. there's no way you can shut out sound. interpreting it is another thing. how can you enjoy something you have to interpret? someone like bob dylan wants people to interpret him. it makes him feel more important. i feel good anyway.

but why can't i understand your...?

you probably understand as much as anybody else. nobody has indoctrinated you and put you through some kind of trip.

but why can't i understand...?

i think that probably a lot of the trouble people are having is that people don't know enough about nutrition. either that, or they know too much. cooked foods are real bad.

but why can't i...?

i don't do lullabyes. i'm tired of lullabyes, like the beatles. i heard 'lullabye of broadway' when i was a baby, and i still hear it now, and i'm still a baby. we're the only people doing anything significant in modern music. i haven't heard anything else that gets away from mother's heartbeat. all i've heard is a rebelling against parents, and i'm tired of hearing that.

but why can't...?

there's no competition with our music. it can't be compared or impaired, or impaled with points or justifications.

but why...?

i don't think there's any way you can knw music. the minute you knw it, you stop playing, and the minute a person stops playing, the music isn't playing anymore.


i think most people try to get others to see through their eyes. and if you look through enough eyes, like in books, you end up not knowing how to use your own eyes. then you have to be started by something. it all has to do with 'the one'. people can't realize that a one is really a zero split in half. it's like splitting the world in two; choosing up sides.

but, your music - what about your music?

it means absolutely nothing, just like the sun.

here i pause, pretending that my recorder has run out of tape. he hasn't answered my question, i say to myself in a rather accusing way. i fumble with the tape recorder, which is guaranteed by the company to be unfumblesome.


click clack back to the history or return to the power station

flits captain beefheart electricity
as felt by teejo