DON'T ARGUE WITH THE CAPTAIN
history - interview
from england 22 april 1972 MELODY MAKER
well, it was a train going, but returning it is a coach, vroom vroom down the motorways from newcastle, cutting through the artery of england, back to its heart: its capital. through the darkness of the night and early morning, the increasingly seldom blobs of headlights and the lone beacons of transport caffs. special party, london-bound.
who is this laughing fat man with the black spade beard and woollen hat pulled tight over his ears? let me introduce roy estrada (beefheart-given names: oréjon and audi hon - t.t.), one-time bassist with francis vincent zappa and the mothers of invention. that strange young man with his unsmiling face and curling waxed moustache like a tabby's whiskers is rockette morton. a bass and rhythm guitarist. it takes five minutes every morning to wax this hairy appendage, he says. real name marcus (but usually mark, last name: boston).
further back in various stages of post-performance repose lie the others. zoot horn rollo, born william (aka bill harkleroad), his glass fingers curled round his brown-tufted chin. elliot (ingber), stage name winged eel fingerling, former extra in elvis presley movies, breathing heavily through a mouth hidden in black hair. two guitarists. and a drummer. ed marimba, alias arthur tripp, his thin moustache wiped clean of its green stage make-up. the magic band.
and this, this solid figure half-distinct in the gloom, voice now booming like ahab's whale, now croaking like tropical bullfrogs, this god's golf ball, is don van vliet, patron of tree surgeons, player of mouth-harp, singer of songs. 'you should write a song about coaches', say i. 'i might do just that,' replies captain beefheart. vroom vroom.
but it begins with zappa as the coach rolls through the streets of newcastle, away from the city hall where the captain and his band have played this night and his wife, janet, has sat behind the speakers wearing ear plugs. roy estrada talks naturally about the mothers. they had been, he says, 'the soul giants', playing 'shotgun' and stuff like that. him and ray collins and jimmy carl black. and then frank had come along.
roy estrada: he had been making party tapes, him and some chick. you know, tapes of chicks groaning, intercourse, and all that. and they busted him. he went inside for six months. he'd just got out and his hair was short. so he came to us. he asked ray if he could think of a name that was groovy.
estrada, who is announced onstage as 'big ears' (in spanish: audi hon), giggles good naturedly. he's explaining pre-magic band events. the mothers' first gig with zappa had been in movies called 'mondo hollywood'. [....]
roy estrada: when he joined, it was
just like guys getting together and doing it, you know, but all of a sudden
his tunes started creeping in and it changed completely. i mean, as far
as the vibes between us and frank. at first we were real close. as soon
as we started to get into records, it changed completely. i guess he had
to do it his way. he always used to tell me his mind was a computer, collecting
jokes from everybody. he got it all together and put it out as his stuff,
you know. that was all it was.
roy quits laughing. not everyone is crazy about frank zappa, like you and me. don vliet, for instance. he is suing him for alleged non-payment of money on albums he made for straight productions.
i wouldn't wanna make possession of people. i think that's silly. i don't wanna flip people out by saying: 'wow! i got one over on god'. that's zappa, man.
inside this coach the night grows darker.
but, enough melodrama. that is, unless it's beefheartian. as don van vliet eases his portliness into the next seat and takes out his box of sullivan gaspers with their balkan tobacco, the subject of frankie the zee slips away in the background and hovers like a dread incubus, while the captain proceeds to tell in tones of absolute sincerity stories that would tax the imagination of baron von münchhausen. captain beefheart has a genius for the incredible, the fabulous, the larger-than-life. he recounts the most amazing anecdotes in a manner that is almost apologetic of the fact that they happen around him and no one else.
he is a big grown-up man, hippie, and
certainly no nut. he's a big grown-up man, whose perspective on life's
endless pageant is a little, um, unusual - and whose mind is as open and
fertile as a child's and equally as endearing. most of all, he is a humorist.
though he may be as deadpan as buster keaton, his conversation can bust
your braces with its marxist (harpo) hilarity, its topsy-turvy craziness,
its twists of language and imagination. he moves in an eccentric orbit,
believing as he does that reincarnation is a brand of milk. the dame edith
sitwell of the west coast rock generation. we love you, you big dummy.
you know what? i'll tell you something very funny.... when i was up in scotland this time, in glasgow [on 2 april - t.t.], and i was playing the part with ed marimba [the instrumental 'spitball scalped a baby'] - and he saw this too, it's really funny - i was playing the horn and i was kind of labouring. i was tired, really tired, about ready to scoop myself, and all of a sudden pow! i just went completely out. we played for two hours and i didn't see two minutes of it. and after i had played i heard my voice saying over the microphone: 'go down and see the loch ness monster, 'cause it's here'. now, that's funny, that's funny.
he looked across to see if i thought it was funny too. yep, it was funny.
my wife said: 'what are you doing man?', and really, i could see her point. but then ed came up and said he saw something on stage. 'now wait a minute,' i told him, 'did you see it, too?'. and he said, before i even mentioned it: 'i swear i saw something gold on that stage'. it's silly to talk about it, but we both saw it. it was gold and it moved, like some sort of energy. a circle, and it came down on stage. and - you won't believe this - there was a little woman with it.
he looked across again, and shook his head in bewilderment.
i know, i know.... i thought myself: you're crazy! but i saw it, and now i am convinced that those things, those people are there. it has to do with the magnetic poles, you know. i have heard people say leprechauns, maybe that was, what it was. but i've never had them described to me.
it certainly didn't have any clothes on, i can tell you that.
there are other things i think you should know about captain beefheart. for one, he tells me that he went for a year and a half without sleep. it was easy - if you knew how.... and then: watch where you are pointing that mirror. he doesn't like mirrors. never looks in them, if he can help it (although i saw him straighten his clothes before one in the dressing room before the show, on reflection). he has even written songs about them: 'mirror man - son of mere man'. but he doesn't dig them. thinks the world is a better place without them. recently he has written another song, 'look through the mirror and let go of the handle'. it is almost the same as 'lick my decals off, baby', he says.
it's just that that funny image you get, isn't true. and you always have to make an expression for it. make like you're happy or sad. it's so silly. crazy. a pool of water at least ripples....
it gets curiouser and curiouser. now i bet you always thought don has had a big thing for the delta blues. no so. that was villainous old frankie going round and saying that with his crooked smile and his long black opera cloak. no, more than anybody, don has listened to al jolson. that's right.
he sang in black and white, and that's heavy. i sing in yellow and black and white.
i don't know either.... that's just what i feel. i see those colours when i sing. sometimes for periods of months, i'll see only black and white. i know, it's very strange....
rockette has been lying the while full-length on the seat in front. he is somewhat supra-normal, too. he has, says don, a highly developed sense of smell. like, when ed marimba joined the band he went up to him and smelt him carefully.... how those whiskers must have twitched. still, art tripp must have come out of it pretty well.
you know how rockette came to join the band? one night he sat in the audience with zoot horn rollo, known then as bill something, in lancaster, california and the captain became aware of these pair of eyes glowing out of the darkness as he played and thought, shit, he'd gotta known whose they were and have these two cats in his group. two years later he called them up:
i told a friend who was with me: 'i want the guy with the eyes', and he said; 'who's that?', and i told him: 'you know who i mean, you gotta get this guy'. finally, when i got his number and called him, he said his brother was getting him into the army. i said: 'don't worry, we'll get you out of that - you're gonna play for another army'.
mark boston: the first time i saw him i just knew i had to be in his group. it was just a matter of time.
it's true. love at first sight.
mark boston: i got the album 'safe as milk' and listened to it solid for a year, day and night. i would fall asleep with it on the record player.
he had never played before. he had a bass, but he didn't do anything with it.
but you sure play it now, don't you? i think charlie mingus said he was about the best. oh, yeah, oh yeah.
the captain nods vigorously and the tip of his glowing cigarette moves rhythmically up and down in his mouth.
before the momentous meeting marcus boston didn't do too much of anything. he lived at home with his parents on top of a quartz hill in the southern californian desert. he didn't go out.
you gotta see this place. go to lancaster, california and ask someone where quartz hill is. the hill is a source of energy. a lot of flying saucer scenes, you know.
mark boston: probably because there's an airforce base there.
i don't think that's right. it's more for the quartz, not the airforce base. these people aren't violent.
do you think captain beefheart and his band are weird? well, you didn't see antennae jimmy semens (in real life: jeff cotton). that's him on the back of 'trout mask replica', wearing jeans, a dress, a jockey cap and mary whitehouse spectacles. but at that time the whole band dressed a kind of strange. they wore women's clothes around the californian house they had. for months they never left the grounds, except maybe to go to the store nearby for groceries. weird?
mark boston (in disbelief): what weird stuff? it was just the way i dressed.
oh, antennae, he loved it. i really like him. i still wish he was in the group. and the mascara snake (aka victor haydon).... ed marimba, you know, still mentions the mascara snake in the act because he loves that name. but antennae, he sure was funny. i mean, fúnny.... on nights when there was a full moon, he used to go out and eat a loaf of bread in the bushes. and he used to make noises like a bird. he didn't talk much, just...: (brings out his hand to his mouth and whistles like a curlew) - scary stuff. but he was authentically that way, and i thought: 'that's fine, i've seen worse things than people talking like birds'. i enjoyed him. he didn't hurt anybody. he was a nice cat. but he didn't want to wait until i got the group together. some people don't think they have very long. some people are ruled by the watch: that's terrible....
don van vliet has never been ruled by anything. he has always gone his own way. born thirty-one years ago in glendale, california, of parents as straight as yours and mine (his father was in the bakery business), at the age of five he started sculpting and to hell with a formal education. he has never had any education to speak of. never wanted any.
it scared me, because i couldn't walk a straight line.
even now he doesn't read.
i will start to read a page and then i go to sleep, and that's weird. makes me think something's wrong with me! my wife reads to me. she tried to read a book to me every night, but by the second page i was asleep.
but sculpting as a five-year-old!
they said i was a prodigy and all this crap. i couldn't handle all those women picturing me with a violin, rubbing my hair and saying 'isn't he a cute little devil? isn't that something? that someone that old could do this....'. living through me, breathing through my play. when i was five, i had a tv program until i was seven. it was only about a half an hour thing, but i used to lecture on animals and things. in fact from the time i was five until i was eleven, i was at the griffith park zoo in los angeles. i knew every animal. i've been to every cage.
he's totally untutored therefore, on every instrument he plays - soprano sax, bass clarinet, guitar and piano. but:
after looking at a piano once i may have memorised the way a piano works. i may be capable of that.
he looks down the length of the now-silent coach, then back to me. finally he arrives at a decision. and mumbles: i've always thought of my music as a fish. to sing the scales of a fish - forget the scales of a musician. know what i mean?
it has to do with time. i can be in or out of time, it doesn't matter. that's what it's about. it's not a formal time. rockette's stuff - that's not formal time. he's not his own time, everyone has, but zappa told him he was out of time. i said: 'man, you gotta go when you want to'.
before we close this little epic, i am reminded of the snotty kid who somebody had told about ornette coleman once. he came up to beefheart in this transport cafe and tried to bandy words with this master of linguistics. fool.
what does money for old rope mean?, said don van vliet afterwards.*