DON'T ARGUE WITH THE CAPTAIN
history - interview
SVENGALI ZAPPA AND A HORRIBLE FREAK CALLED BEEFHEART
from england 12 february 1972 NEW MUSICAL EXPRESS 120272
'i've had my fun..., now i'm going to make myself far more accessible to the public.' in that brief statement, don van vliet alias captain beefheart - the spotlight kid - summed up ten long years of drifting in the twilight zone of artistic acceptance.
a period during which the captain - one
of the most mis-interpreted geniuses of his generation - has been forced
to exist in an environment constantly beset with poverty, disillusionment,
acute frustration and what he states as being a total misrepresentation
of his stature as a creative artist. he blames frank zappa, once his long-time
friend, and now focal point for a love/hate relationship entirely for his
'zappa is an oaf,' was his four-word opinion. 'all he wanted to do was make me into a horrible freak. i am not a freak,' he retorted in self-defence, when i met him in the states on the eve of a british tour.
i am an artist..., i paint, i write, i sculpt and i perform my own music. zappa made me look out of the question and the kids out there on the streets started to take dope because they thought that was the only way they could possibly get into my music.
it was disgusting and totally degrading that zappa should do this to me. zappa uses people. he used me by making it appear that i advocated the use of hard drugs...: the epitome of an acidhead.
because zappa couldn't really understand me, he was afraid of me so what he did was to make me out to be nothing more than a freak. the trouble with frank zappa is that he is not a good artist or a writer and by surrounding himself with good musicians and exploiting them, he boosts his own image.
if i hadn't been so pitifully poor at that time i might have been able to do something about it.
beefheart doesn't speak with the voice of malice, but with one of deep concern. the idea that a one-time friend could take it upon himself to distort his genuine motives and shackle him with an unwanted image full of unsavoury moral implications deeply offends the captain.
i'm terribly disappointed that the beatles (famous english pop group - t.t.) broke up, but more so that ringo (starr, the drummer - t.t.) is starting to play into zappa's hands. ringo doesn't need frank zappa. i'm not into pornography and so i wouldn't look at '200 motels' (a film zappa is working on - t.t.) but from what i hear, it's nothing more than cheap smut.
it's not worth getting into the bullshit to see what the bull ate.
amiably eccentric - erratic in his outbursts of pure outrageous creativity - the captain, who though born in glendale, california insists that he is a dutchman, 'i'm reincarnated,' elaborated on the immediate problems which he is having to overcome in order to further his career and regain respect.
i want clarity in my music.... i don't want to play my music to an audience consisting of pickles. it hurts me, it really does, to see little girls sitting there looking like porcupines.
the abuse and the almost religious pre-occupation by american youth of narcotics disturbs beefheart. he hopes that the new generation will avoid contact, learning from the mistakes of others but offers food for thought.
i read only the other day that half-a-billion dollars worth of snow was delivered to america last year. now this is the point. if someone wasn't getting a big rake off then i'm sure that the u.s. government could exert a much tighter control on this trafficking. they seem to avoid this question but get very upset by a little weed growing by the side of the road.
over the last six years, captain beefheart has hovered on the brink of enjoying a brilliant career, only to see his energies wasted - with the result that he has been forced back into near obscurity. internal and external chaos, brought about either by accident or intent, has succeeded in halting his progress. for every step forward that the intrepid captain has made someone else has forced him two steps back.
additional picture from
usa 14 february 1972 warner/reprise circular vol.4 #6
sorry for the irremovable fold...
at an executive level, managers, record company chiefs and promoters have all misconstrued the depth of his genius and in doing so they have all tried to fashion him in what they feel he should be as opposed to what his creativity dictates. to detail the events of the last six years would only serve to annoy and frustrate the reader, save to say that his progress has been shamefully hindered. it is to beefheart's credit that he has retained his artistry.
'people have always held me back,' he told me with the air of a man who has learned to come to terms with life and the hardships that he has had to endure. he continued without displaying any resentment or bitterness:
i've always been on the brink of starving, but i've got baby fat so i can survive. i'm lucky because i live on music and to me its energy is like food. but in the early days i worried about the magic band, because they were so thin.
about those days, he remembers: nobody saw me because nobody would book me, for the simple reason that the promoters couldn't relate to me. the result: the people didn't get me. i think if they had, then i would have made it.
once again, the captain was to offer one of his rather strange philosophies.
i bet that there are a lot of people who can't play because of promoters. you see, promoters in the states like artists to be short. if you're tall they're afraid of you.... it helps to be short.
the chaotic circumstances that have coloured the captain's career are more than evident in his recorded output which is strewn over a number of labels. though he is now with warner brothers, the fact remains that there is a lot of as yet unreleased material, some eight years old, which will eventually emerge at the whim of a label manager. the tales of beefheart's conflicts with his recording companies, mainly due to not being able to mix his own tapes, have become legend and much repeated. however, there is another facet: 'i've never had a royalty statement from any of my past record companies the whole time that i've been in this business.'
that being the case, beefheart still shows far more concern over the fact that until signing with warners he has never been allowed the prerogative of mixing down the tapes of his own material. his latest endeavour, 'the spotlight kid', he admitted has so far proved to be his most satisfactory collection.
i was thinking warm and nice when i did that one and i feel that it has all come through. actually, though there are only ten tracks on the album, we recorded thirty-five songs altogether.
captain beefheart prefers to look upon himself as being an artist possessing a diversity of creative facets. 'in the last three years,' he informed me, 'i have written ten full length novels, thirty or forty plays, fifteen thousand poems and produced six hundred paintings.' unlike so many artists, beefheart's efforts are to be made available to the public. an exhibition of his paintings is being arranged (4-22 april in liverpool, england - t.t.), a book of poems collated as 'singing ink' will be published along with a full length novel entitled 'old fart at play' which he describes as being 'a lot further out than my music.' beefheart doesn't follow any traditional concepts in his artistic endeavours, and such is the inter-connecting relationship of all these media: that he applies the same principles and techniques when dabbling in the arts.
being a painter, i use textures in my music. for instance, i never learned to play a saxophone, i just picked up a couple of them when i was playing at the middle earth club in london (on 3 may 1968 - t.t.) and started blowing. i don't think there's any particular place where i should place my fingers.
when i asked beefheart how he would describe
his approach, he laughed and replied: 'it's hairier than jazz.... it's
painting and sculpting in music. and if you know me you'll know my music.'
what has come to pass, it would appear that very few people know the captain.
perhaps now the situation will at last be reversed.