DON'T ARGUE WITH THE CAPTAIN
history - interview
IN SEARCH OF AMERICA
from usa 1 april 1971 ROLLING STONE #79
the lights in the studio brightened as barry richards, wdca-tv's terribly hip television personality, swept onto the platform surrounded by the inevitable cloud of leather fringe. as the cameras rolled forward and the red light clicked 'on', the captain and the magic band stood stiff and at attention, richards caressed the microphone, smiled and with a marvelous top-40 dj guttural push said: 'well, you'll never guess who we've got on 'turn on' today. it's caayaaapt!...'
beefheart (don van vliet) suddenly jumped forward at the master of ceremonies and tickled him in the ribs. richards dissolved into giggles and quickly tried to regain the composure he'd lost from the sudden sneak attack on his well-varnished cool. when the propriety of grooviness returned, richards asked the captain to introduce the group and left them to play what turned out to be a rare treat for any television audience: forty minutes of uninterrupted beefheartian music and associated antics.
uncompromising to the medium or its audience, the group moved into its wildest material. ed marimba (art tripp) peered around the room with his silver opera glasses and fired at the cameras with his mattel special sparkler ray gun. drumbo (john french) then joined ed in a frantic drum duo, pounding his gone bops congas. zoot horn rollo (bill harkleroad) and rockette morton (mark boston) advanced long and intricate solos on guitar and bass, performing like segovias on the ed sullivan show. meanwhile, winged eel fingerling (elliot ingber) brooded in the background, almost unnoticed.
the captain, as usual, blew his shiny new alto full blast, directly into the microphone. offering no mercy to the station's equipment he sang 'woe-is-a-me-bop' and 'when big joan sets up' at their highest operating levels. occasionally he would step back to give the hand and toe investment or lift his pants cuff to reveal the significant fact that his shoes contained feet but no stockings. at the conclusion of the set beefheart removed his right hand from the saxophone he was blowing and thumbed his nose contemptuously at the audience. 'they really love that,' he said later.
the tv program in washington dc was merely one moment in an unprecedented historical occurrence - captain beefheart's 'lick my decals off, baby' tour of america. in his six years in the music business, don van vliet had almost never left the quiet confines of his san fernando valley living room. he had become legendary among musicians and fans as the genius that no one had ever heard perform. the number of live gigs in his career stood at about thirty-five and on only one occasion he had played east if the rocky mountains. now, with the help of a subsidy and a hefty organizational push from warner brothers records, captain beefheart and the magic band, plus ry cooder and a back-up group, were on the road at last.
when beefheart began his trek in mid-january, in detroit, the tour was shrouded in an atmosphere of intense doubt and anticipation. people in the music industry asked themselves: 'will this man actually perform?'. side bets were taken on just how much of the six weeks' agenda the motley group of travelers would actually complete. the odds were ten to one against finishing.
in the previous six months beefheart had played a number of jobs, but had cancelled out an important concert in berkeley (on 13 november) and a weekend at the fillmore west (8-11 october). in both cases van vliet staunchly maintained that he had been misled. he said the berkeley promoters billed him as a freak show and bill graham offered him an amount too small even to pay the expenses. 'i've been cheated and misrepresented too often to do it again,' beefheart complained. 'it's just too old fashioned.'
this time however, the captain and his men were anxious to play. the long-heralded re-emergence of the magic band came off exactly as scheduled. following a strenuous trail of one-nighters, the warner brothers tour played for enthusiastic crowds in cleveland, columbus, cincinnati, new york, philadelphia, washington, new orleans, atlanta, des moines and other cities in the east, south and midwest. the tour drew 2,000 delighted fans at boston university while 700 more waited outside in the snow. in pittsburgh the bands did two performances apiece for sell-out crowds at super-sophisticated carnegie mellon institute. through most of the tour, beefheart attracted capacity or near capacity audiences.
to the surprise of practically everyone,
both the beefheart and cooder organizations seemed to thrive on the experience
of travel and hard work. the members of the unlikely caravan became increasingly
weary of the bad sound systems, tedious bus rides, ghastly restaurant food
and antiseptic motel rooms, but it never showed in their music. the level
of excitement rose steadily with every performance, as if each whistle
stop could add something to their collective whistle.
as the tour moved farther and farther along
the map of america, it became apparent that the magic band's special brand
of sorcery was actually working. during the second performance at carnegie-mellon,
a young man in the audience inflated a hundred-foot long balloon which was
then passed from hand to hand like a gigantic communal phallus. everywhere
beefheart went, his fans approached him with peculiar little gifts they
had made - a black velvet warlock's redingote with white fur cuffs, an
intricate 'nativity scene' for his dining table, and large assortments
of ray guns and robots.
philadelphia is a good example. several weeks earlier a petition had been posted in a local music shop: 'we the undersigned demand to see captain beefheart and his magic band at 'the main point' as soon as possible,' followed by 84 signatures. ignoring the fact that the performance would barely cover the daily expenses, the warner brothers' staff scheduled a gig for the main point, a tiny but very friendly folk music club near bryn mawr college.
both bands had been confined to chilly greyhound
buses and over-heated motels for several days and were nearing the point
of exhaustion. when they arrived at the club they discovered that, as usual,
the house sound system emitted little more than screeches, squeaks and
squeals. five thousand years of western civilization and you can't find
a p.a. system that works worth beans. but the audience was ready and so
were the musicians.
ry cooder began the evening with a set of blues and bottleneck tunes from his new album. reaching back to the music of the great blues masters - sleepy john estes, blind willie johnson, leadbelly, and others - cooder plays a very pleasant and technically impeccable style of guitar and mandolin. throughout the tour he was plagued by the fact that his back-up band could never get the feeling he wanted. the musicians were competent enough, but had been picked up at the last minute. they wanted desperately to play cooder's music as he wanted it, but could never quite comprehend the vague instructions the leader issued to them. in philadelphia, as in most places, the group performed adequately and the crowd seemed to enjoy it. cooder received enough applause to merit the traditional encore.
the band began its set with a long version of 'alice in blunderland', one of the few true rockers in its repertoire. ed marimba states the dainty opening theme on marimba: the beautiful alice is seen stumbling across a meadow filled with pingpong balls, tripping over her delicately tailored sharkskin brocade skirts. zoot horn rollo then steps from behind an amplifier stroking his telecaster with his steel finger. as drumbo puts the rhythmic structures firmly in place, rockette morton joins the ensemble to see if a new bass theme might save alice from the hovering bungle syndrome. there is a brief intermission as rockette humbly declines an award from arthur murray for accomplishment in mambo dancing. at this point captain beefheart, dressed in an inexpensive but suitably immodest bright red smoking jacket, walks through the audience and joins his boys on the small platform. with alice's theme pounding in the background, he proceeds to single-handedly revive the bebop tradition. leaning into his saxophone and exhaling every molecule of air in his lungs, beefheart begins to sound like every good note ever played at the monterey jazz festival.
the philadelphia audience was exactly where it wanted to be - in a trance. the magic band blew its way through the buzzing and feedback of the p.a. to one of its best sets ever - 'japan in a dishpan', 'abba zaba', 'gimme dat harp boy' - all of them executed to perfection. beefheart was so happy with the music that he burst into an a cappella version of the old blues standard 'black snake blues', and let his voice slide freely up and down along its four and a half octave range.
at the end of the session the crowd rose to its feet and began the familiar chant, 'more! more! more!'. what, after all, could be a finer compliment than to offer the band an encore? but beefheart doesn't indulge in showstoppers or rave-up and couldn't care less about encores. 'how could we ever top that?,' he sighed as he nonchalantly packed his selmer into its fur-lined leather case.
the hoi polloi continued the uproar. 'more! more! more!' when van vliet noticed that the small tumult was not going to subside, he walked to the microphone, frowned and with apparent displeasure said: 'well, alright, if that's what you want....'
the audience fell into a deep hush as beefheart began to whistle his encore. the tune sounded strangely familiar. then, almost in a single voice, the people in the room burst into laughter as they recognized that beefheart was actually following their request to the letter. the song coming from his lips was that maudlin ditty from the sputnik era - 'more' (a tv program - t.t.).(*)
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