DON'T ARGUE WITH THE CAPTAIN
history - interview
CAPTAIN BEEFHEART ON STAGE AND OFF
from usa 1 february 1972 THE BOSTON PHOENIX
a few nights after the gig (on 22 january at the fenway theater in boston - t.t.), several press people had dinner with captain beefheart, zoot horn rollo (bill harkleroad) and rockette morton (mark boston) in their luxurious holiday inn. the evening was a casual, drawn out affair, the captain, still dressed in his black gangster get-up, joking and demonstrating the remarkable resilience of a well thrown bread ball.
he was upset that his record label (warner brothers / reprise - t.t.) had not arranged a press conference for him and had called us himself. he met us with about thirty drawings on holiday inn stationery that he had drawn the night before, later confessing they were just an excuse to sign his name.
upon meeting captain beefheart, you quickly realize that he in no way fits the image of the eccentric, mad genius that the press has created for him. on the contrary. he is friendly, even charming, quite interested in other people, and endowed with an incredibly high-speed mind and irrepressible wit. in fact, aside from his artistic talent, beefheart is actually a very normal human being, neither guru nor gadfly.
the most remarkable feature of captain beefheart is his childlike curiosity and enthusiasm; his mind races from subject to subject, and he seems to possess the ability to turn a conversation into an art form. he acts as a conductor or a catalyst for those who are with him, using subjects like themes that can be restated to support later themes.
he asks his friends to illustrate points for him, and is likely to ask you to go into greater detail on a subject that was discussed hours before. beefheart explains that his music is like a conversation, with the band members listening to each other and interrupting when they have a phrase to add.
the captain attended high school for three
hours. 'i couldn't accept that stuff. i went to school in the fifties.
do you know about the fifties? they were all crazy. i burned my books and
threw them out the window.' he claims he has never read a book in his life,
yet he writes about forty pages a day. words are too visually overwhelming
on the page for him to focus his mind on them. because spoken words are
an auditory experience for him, he treats them as sounds, rather than symbols.
for instance, while discussing structured music, beefheart stated: 'why do we need scales? fish have all the scales'. and, discussing bassists, he decided: 'most groups want an air force base', and that seems to be all too true. the captain is capable of bouncing these profundities around at a pace that stymies all those not accustomed to his open-ended mind.
the captain has little praise for most pop musicians, and he considers rock the most mechanical of idioms. to illustrate his point, he began pounding a four by four on the table, and cleverly transformed this into an imitation of a baby pounding on a high chair. he added: 'you see, it's just the way to get attention'. beefheart hates rigidity in anything but most of all in music. he also hates drugs, usually calling them 'poison', and this, too, taints pop music for him.
but beefheart is quite candid in his appraisal
of other musicians. he considers john lennon 'a cornball', and the jefferson
airplane as drug-using monsters who 'give poison to babies'. he considers
alice cooper as having mere shock value, and expresses anger over their
use of 'poor chickens' in their act.
having toured with ry cooder (second half of january through february the year before), beefheart calls him 'a big baby', because cooder was angry over the fact that the ads ran the captain's name in larger type than his. he thinks of mick jagger as a sap because when the magic band was in england (in 1968), jagger called him to find out what 'book of magic' the captain was into.
the captain has been making music for ten years, and has been abused by the best of them. he has received absolutely no royalties from four out of six albums, and considers people slipping him acid in a soft drink as 'another thing i have to tolerate to be in this business'.
but he reserves his unqualified disgust for his ex-producer, frank zappa. beefheart claims that zappa reneged on every business and artistic agreement that he ever made with him. by holding a contract over beefheart's head, zappa forced on him to compose and record 'trout mask replica' in seventeen hours.
beefheart explains that zappa has been scrambling all his life to be accepted because he is italian and dark-skinned. (according to the captain: 'we're all colored, or you wouldn't be able to see anyone'.) he accuses zappa of having hardening of the arteries, of being an automaton, a vampire: there's almost no end to his wrath.
the only musicians whom beefheart actually complimented were ornette coleman, cecil taylor, and the magic band. appropriately enough, two of the band members, winged eel fingerling (elliot ingber) and ed marimba (art tripp), are ex-mothers of invention, and beefheart, while angry about the way zappa treated the magic band ('he told rockette he couldn't keep time!'), he's obviously delighted to have snatched these two away from the infidel.
the captain has a variety of devices to teach
his band 'how not to keep from playing'. when rockette joined the group,
after spending a year without leaving his room, practicing bass eighteen
hours a day, beefheart gave him an erector set. the captain told him to
build something, then squeeze the pieces. the forms resisted shaping, but
hurt like hell.
beefheart takes paternal pride in his band, pointing out that ed marimba has seven years of formal training and once played with john cage. he explains that zoot horn rollo was fired by zappa after playing a fifteen-minute solo with his amplifier turned out. the captain takes great pride in this feat, calling it 'one of the most famous solos put down in the history of music'.
at the end of our evening with captain beefheart, we all went up to his room to listen to a tape. while we were there, he gave us each a poster and composed a different poem to write on each one, signed them, and dated them for all posterity. one read: 'keep your feather in the ink - keep your feathers in the pink - love over gold'. the captain uses this same energy and flair in virtually everything he does. he'll make some kid the greatest grandfather ever.
then the captain sprung his tape on us, and it was a pip. the recording had been made over a telephone, and the artist was a bum who lived in the los angeles railroad yard. he played a single-stringed instrument with a metal plate for resonance. the tape was horribly distorted, yet now and then you could hear flashes of sound that almost seemed to be the magic band (but were produced by 'one string' sam - t.t.). beefheart sat back and basked in the sound.*