captain beefheart electricity


history - interviewflits

the making of 'clear spot'

from usa 20 november 1972 warner/reprise CIRCULAR vol.4 #46
by leonard brown
is october 1972 interview

note: main part of text reproduced in england fanzine 1 november 1998 STEAL SOFTLY THRU SNOW * #7 SINGIN' FOR WOMEN!

THIS is PART 1 - part 2


some scenes are purely beyond imagining - for example: me squatting on the floor of a large broom closet at amigo studios in north hollywood, interviewing captain beefheart interviewing leonard brown interviewing don van vliet.

'let me,' i had said for openers, 'turn you on to eucalyptus buttons', handing him three or four from my pocket. it was my trip - for maybe five seconds. don van vliet knew personally, had cared for and nurtured a giant eucalyptus in the western san fernando valley. he wrote the address down carefully, so that i could visit and admire his big friend.

we went on to talk about dolphins: 'when i see a dolphin, i know it's just as smart as i am. sometimes i would rather be thought of as a dolphin than as a human being.'

automobiles: 'i've been wanting a datsun 240z....' (a sports car. he subsequently bought a new corvette and having thitherto eschewed credit buying, found himself deep in the arcane easy-payment maze, where imperfect strangers may challenge the integrity of even poets and painters. certainly a watershed experience for the automobile financing profession.)

gravity: 'it is the worst whip in the world....' (how we turned that up, is because i ventured a question about the spiritual beatings a creative child experiences. i am still mulling his answer, gravity having always seemed to me to be marvelously efficient, except perhaps when your kite string breaks or you slip on the stairs.)

feces: 'i'm not the type to look in the toilet. english toilets have a place where you can look before it goes on down....' (í am to blame for this one, having offered a vividly literal interpretation of catharsis in comparing attitudes toward the product of one's art. one flushed and went on to the next project.)

don added: 'looking back, you can run on into someone in front of you, and that's not fair.' (true and decent enough i suppose, were there likely to be someone ahead of don van vliet.)

deer: 'they are beautiful: they fly on the ground.'

school: 'i didn't go to school because it would have put an impediment in my palate.' (his painter's palette, i think. yes, that would be his meaning.)

identity: 'you know what? i don't think of myself as being an artist or a poet. but i am constantly apprehended for things i say that seem to be elliptical and things like that....'


of course there is a question of context, but to each subject as it appeared before us the captain addressed himself with an intent and epigrammatic courtesy, reminding me of the ardor and concentration of a self-taught tennis player of innate talent and conspicuous eccentricity.

there were several contexts, the primary one being the beginning of a new and stimulating friendship - for i felt this happening at once - if such human relationships may be said to have begun at a finite signal. the practical context, the reason for my being there and his excuse to break away from his recording session to talk with me, was my assignment to see what was happening with his new album 'clear spot'.

the subtler context, that of the ideas which flowed in our conversation, had as its principal motifs don's almost religious respect for nature, his indignation at human presumptuousness, and his refusal to be indifferent to the plight of other living creatures. and while most people see and evaluate as two separate, sequential processes, don perceives directly in an act of moral scrutiny - somewhat as young children are apt to do before experience erodes the circuit between sight and conscience - in don van vliet, experience appears to fortify that circuit.

captain beefheart / don van vliet - october 1972 - picture by ginny winn
picture by ginny winn

he spoke of forms of intelligence other than human. 'i live up in eureka, among the big trees, and i tell you, those things are really saying something. you gotta work to hear what they're saying. they are great! but the eucalyptus is so far my favorite. they brought them over from australia for lumber, but when they grew here they curved and there was no way they could be used for lumber. i think maybe they threw a curve on the lumber companies. and i think that's heavy.'

presently i realized that we had talked of nearly everything but the captain's work in progress, and i had to take a firmer tack if only to justify my presence. i had already heard a scrap of a gentle, pretty song called 'too much time' and a couple of titles: 'my heart [whát? - t.t.] is my only house unless it rains' and 'nowadays a woman's gotta hit a man'. considerable excitement and an unmistakable disharmonic of anxiety centered on the sessions, from which a new captain beefheart was expected to emerge.

and what does it mean, a 'new' captain beefheart? not until much later did i hear the whole album, so that i could begin to understand the declensions of beefheart's 'old and new, then and now'. the present differences are imposing, and may cause 'old' beefheart fanatics to suffer brief flashes of vertigo: lady back-up singers, orchestral arrangements filling interstices around the magic band, all the artifices of the 'produced' album.

the missing beefheart saxophones and bass clarinet: 'i left my horn home. i'm like an alcoholic without my horn. if i had it here i would be playing it, and we would be making another of those albums people don't buy.'

but the beefheart voice is ubiquitous, singing, growling and uttering mystifying incantations (the album concludes with a enigmatic vale: 'webcor, webcor...'). 'i have a very unusual voice. i have seven octaves. i have a way of going from a high note completely down to the bottom. i can just completely relax, and i'll almost go to sleep to get that low note, but not so asleep that i don't have the blood there.'

and the magic band is appropriately magical: no heavy hand descended to oppress, no cautious finger waved to admonish. the beefheart feel and substance are merely made translucent, without dilution of the statement. 'clear spot' is lyrical beefheart, possibly tenderized beefheart. inviting and, to stretch the point, digestible.



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