captain beefheart electricity


history - interview


rough trade from venus hits it big

from england 28 april 1972 FRENDZ #26
by nick kent
is 29 march 1972 interview & poem & two drawings

* text reprinted as rough trade from venus in england book THE LIVES AND TIMES OF CAPTAIN BEEFHEART
* all pictures by pennie smith

THIS is PART 1 - part 2 - part 3


the continuing rise of the spotlight kid and the boys in the band


mark, like most other seventeen-year-old boys, was going through the usual hassles which come with being young in the united states of america. there was the whole drag scene about going to school and then after that there was the grim prospect of being drafted and then after that....

but mark wasn't just another basically all-american boy; for a start he lived on quartz hill, a hill of solid quartz rock (a metamorphic rock of sedimentary origin - encyclopaedia brittannica) which is kind of weird and exclusive, you have to admit. and then, what with all the visions of violence and bloodletting summoned up from the fear of being drafted, mark had really freaked out and vanished into a mental hospital.

it was around this time that he got to listen to an album 'safe as milk' by captain beefheart and the magic band. nothing had made that much sense to mark before - sure, he had doodled around with a few things: dropped acid (popular term for using lsd - t.t.) a couple of times, smoked a little 'pot' (marihuana - t.t), you know; he even had a bass guitar laying around the house which he couldn't be bothered to get into - but this album really got to him.

he played it every morning and every night for almost two years, until one fine day he went to see captain beefheart playing live in los angeles. it was at that point that it all clicked together somehow. mark's eyes connected with the mad captain's right up there on stage "just like snails" - and a mystical alliance was formed.

beefheart befriended mark as well as mark's nineteen-year-old acid-freak buddy bill (harkleroad, aka zoot horn rollo - t.t.), and gave them a job in his new combo. the band - jeff cotton, perhaps better known as antennae jimmy semens; john french, the mysterious drumbo; and the mascara snake - went into the desert for eight months to practice a number of songs the captain had worked out on a piano in eight hours.

they got hold of an old acquaintance of beefheart's, a businessman and leader of a fifties pachuco rock band, who had pretensions to being stravinsky or varese or something but who was also well-known for his nifty work behind the switches at the recording studio (meant here is frank zappa - teejo) and, lo and behold, a double album was conceived containing inarguably some of the weirdest music ever to be found on black plastic: 'trout mask replica'.

mark boston / rockette morton, don van vliet / captain beefheart - 29 march 1972 england bus ride - picture by pennie smithmark boston (rockette morton) and don van vliet (captain beefheart)


well, friends, that was some three years ago, and there we all were on a coach travelling from kensington to brighton for a captain beefheart concert. some old friends had been lost along the way - antennae jimmy semens is living with his mother in a trailer situated somewhere in the desert, the mascara snake is painting and drumbo is still moving in mysterious ways, coming and going - but new friends have been added.

mark (boston), now re-named rockette morton, dapper, in multicoloured eggshell designed shirt, purple trousers and an immaculate slouch-hat was sitting beside the belly-dancer quietly reading 'the rise and fall of the third reich'. his hair was neatly cut, while his moustache was waxed out to accommodate two spreading antennae on his upper lip. just like salvador dali. no, not at all. that moustache shows a catfish influence. rockette morton doesn't even like salvador dali....

this was stated in no uncertain terms by the plumpish man who looked rather like a cross between orson welles and a pixie and who was easily the centre of attraction on the bus: don van vliet, alias captain beefheart, painter, writer, absurdist and dada to the delta blues tradition.

van vliet always states things in no uncertain terms, he is absolutely convinced of his own rightness. but this is understandable, for, in his own words, he is an artist and a genius. everyone on the bus knew that. even those who hadn't before, after direct confrontation with the charismatic mr. van vliet, were at least temporary believers.

and of course everyone in the band - zoot horn rollo, seven feet tall and now with short hair, looking like an all-american boy from saturn; ed marimba (art tripp) with the green moustache; winged eel fingerling (elliot ingber), who looked like he had stepped out of a particularly harrowing extract from the bible: all matted hair and beard, and intensity; and oréjon (roy estrada), a fat jovial greasy trucker with a voice like a hyena - they all held beefheart in a kind of awe.

meanwhile beefheart waxed ecstatic about his band: "you know, i'm totally happy with the band i've got. i tell you, i'm proud to be playing with them. rockette morton - have you seen him play bass? he's a killer: he claws the strings, uses all his fingers - just wait till you hear him play: you won't believe it. and zoot horn rollo - personally i believe that he is becoming the greatest guitar player alive. there is no end to his contribution as an innovator. his lines, man - his whole approach. there's no way you can turn that kind of flow off."

beefheart treats the musicians in his band as equals in all respects. he stresses that he is not the leader - "the only leader there is, runs down the back of your leg" - and that the band is starting to write its own music. winged eel fingerling, ed marimba and oréjon were all musicians in frank zappa's band. not any more though. but that's sort of a sore point and all will be revealed a little later on.

captain beefheart / don van vliet drawing - mark boston / rockette morton - england 29 march 1972
mark boston, as drawn by don van vliet

while the members of the magic band tend to keep very much to themselves (though perfectly sociable when approached for a rap), van vliet is more than gregarious. we talked for god knows how long, touching on numerous topics....

captain beefheart's whole concept of the artist / genius is structured around the idea of the primitive. to him creating is the most natural function, all forms are ultimately the same in the force of their expression.

"talking about different art-forms is like counting raindrops. there are rivers and streams and oceans, but it's all the same substance. not that art comes from one source - that's too pointed, too much investment in one thing, like jesus on the cross. i see a crosswalk out here, which is a joke to me. take an orange, right - if you pull it apart, it comes in segments. if you squeeze it, the juice just comes out."

had he heard the album 'songs of the humpbacked whale'?

"i don't use scales when i play the horn; and i used to play that instrument, feeling that certain things were communicating with me. most people look up in the sky after that kind of experience, but i don't: i look in the ocean. i just got hold of that record and now that i've heard it, i know who it is. i mean, the largest living land mammal is the absent mind, but those whales are out there. didn't you hear any whales or dolphins in my solo (a spontaneous piece called 'spitball scalped a baby', played at the albert hall gig - n.k.)? i couldn't hear myself because i was playing - but i felt sure they were out there."

he, his wife and the whole band live in eureka, which is seventy miles from the oregon border. "the whales are right outside our window cleaning their bornades and singing."

don's old friend ornette coleman was constantly brought up in the conversation:

"i was with him just before i came here. he is top-notch, you know, there's none better. but he's not a jazz musician, man, he's a painter. most people are afraid to play with ornette - a lot of people are afraid to go into the area of a genius. they don't think they can take it, because they keep believing they have to measure things out. you can't measure genius. measurements are just humorous to a genius. that's why someone like cecil taylor isn't a genius. taylor just keeps measuring up that piano - what's the point in that? now robert johnson and son house are the real geniuses. they're the primitive painters."

the names of john coltrane and charlie parker are brought up. beefheart dismisses them thus: "listen, the fish is in complete control of the scales. when man tries to play scales like a fish has, forget it. the fish, the armadillo - they have got it all down. ed marimba is doing an album called 'armadillo xylophone' - he is not going to even try and play the scales. first there is the cover of an armadillo and then there's the music. no-one plays ahead of the armadillo."



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