captain beefheart electricity


history - interview band memberflits


from e-paper england 29 june 2004 PLAYLOUDER
by grahame bent
is 19 june 2004 interview JOHN FRENCH

* used by permission
* the very long french redressing interview mainly dealt with the magic band reunion, but also contained pieces which could be put together into the following memories


there are so many myths that have grown up around the infamous recording sessions that became 'trout mask replica' - just how crazy did that whole period get?

captain beefheart's (aka don van vliet) personality had a very dark and controlling side to it and i don't like to go into details about this but i'm writing a book about this and it will be out soon. i think the book will help answer a lot of questions about how it happened. i don't think it can answer how it happened. i don't know why it happened except there was something very evil going on that i still can't explain. it's very hard to describe in a few paragraphs something that took months and months to evolve to where it did. but basically don van vliet told me he had been diagnosed as a paranoid schizophrenic and through his paranoia he seemed to feel that the guys in the band were friends with each other then we would gang up on him and he wouldn't be in control.

there was no freedom at all. it was absolute imprisonment basically. we were stuck in this house in los angeles and we had no money. don's mother and bill harkleroad's mother were sending down cheques to support the band and we were all really hungry most of the time. we were working fourteen hour days sometimes and don would centre on one person and this would happen over and over and he would call it a 'talk' and this would turn into completely humiliating whoever was put in the barrel for that day.
i can remember several times being reduced to tears and just sobbing after these sessions because sometimes they would last two or three days. there were rumours that don's girlfriend was putting lsd in the tea we were being served so he could control us more easily. i don't know if any of that's true but i do know i would get into situations that i couldn't logically find a way out of.

drumbo / john
                          french, captain beefheart / don van vliet -
                          'strictly personal' photo session 1968 -
                          picture by guy webster
john and don in 1968 outfit
picture by guy webster

we all tried to leave the house on more than one occasion except for bill harkleroad (aka zoot horn rollo - t.t.). bill actually got to leave the house because his mother was giving money to the band and he would drive off into the desert for a day or two and then come back but the rest of us were sort of trapped in this environment. i can remember a couple of times thinking i was going to be killed when i was there. but a lot of that was just my own paranoia, being young and unsure of myself.

don had a very strong mind and a mental power that could overwhelm everybody around him. i think the experiences we went through recording 'trout mask replica' made us all disfunctional in society in different ways. i never felt like i was completely functional of course, but i feel like i got an extra dose of disfunction.

another widely held myth about 'trout mask replica' is that don taught the band how to play their instruments so they could then play his compositions....

that was total fabrication. i'm not saying he didn't write the music. he did create most of what you hear. for the most part it's what he played on the piano. he had some great ideas but not as far as putting them together. he didn't practice much, he would just sit down at the piano and say: 'that sounds good - write it down!'. then later i had to figure out what instruments were going to play what.

i taught the band the music. i'm not saying i taught them how to play because they definitely knew how to play. i did a lot of arranging and i'd say: 'ok, this goes with this and this works with that'. i taught them their parts one at a time and they'd go off and practice and then i would come back and tell them how many times to play it.

if you had to choose your favourite magic band line up which one would it be and why?

that would be the one from the 'lick my decals off, baby' tour from 1971 with art tripp (aka ed marimba) on marimba and elliot ingber (winged eel fingerling) playing guitar, bill harkleroad, mark boston (rockette morton) and myself (drumbo). that was my favourite line up. i think the band right at the end with richard snyder (midnite hatsize), jeff tepper (jeff tapir / white jew) and robert williams (wait for me) was a great band, but my favourite would be the band from the 'lick my decals off, baby' tour. i loved the marimba and bill harkleroad was such a great guitarist. he was so dedicated and he worked so hard in getting the music just exactly right. he was so conscientious. he was the most dedicated person i've ever seen. he was more dedicated than i ever was. i would take breaks because i liked myself a little more than he did. i would take breaks and get away from it. i would say: 'that's enough, i'm going out and having some fun', and he would be working the whole time i was away.

which albums do you hold dearest and which ones do you like revisiting most of all?

well, 'trout mask replica' and 'lick my decals off, baby' are the ones, but i'll tell you, when i listen to 'the spotlight kid' i think don's voice is at its fullest. it just seemed like he was right there with everything on that album.

so 'safe as milk' wouldn't figure among your favourites....

i love the album but it was really simple. it was really rudimentary while 'trout mask replica' was all about breaking new ground. the songs on 'safe as milk' were still in the chordal structure. they were pretty much regular songs although you had weird things happening in the middle section of 'autumn's child' and 'zig zag wanderer'. to me, the era of 'mirror man' and 'strictly personal' was a lot of wasted tape. there were a lot of improvisational things that could have been done a lot shorter. i didn't care for that scattered, drug-induced whatever it was that was going on there. 'trout mask replica' was a labour of love and the people doing it weren't doing it for the money. i knew i wasn't going to get any money for it and i was right!

                        beefheart / don van vliet, drumbo / john french
                        - 'doc at the radar station' photo session,
                        summer 1980 - picture by michael kent rothman
john and don in 1980 dress code
picture by michael kent rothman

money, or to be more precise: the lack of it, always seems to have been a key subject with the magic band....

you know, not one of the magic band members that i know ever got paid one penny in royalties for any album. not ne penny. and i found out no one ever got paid for most of the tours either. we would get back from tour and don would come in and say: 'the money got lost in transfer', or 'expenses were too high so there's no money', and at the same time he would be driving a brand new car.

i did get paid once in 1975 when don was working with frank zappa. zappa's manager herb cohen was handling all the money and i think i made $300 a week when i was on the road plus $10 per diem. we played the knebworth festival in england and i made $1,000, and i think i made another $1,000 from [the studio sessions for the still unreleased album] 'bat chain puller' and that was about all the money i ever saw.

it wasn't a living. i was supposed to get paid a little extra because i was the 'musical director' but it never happened. herbie told me that don spent the money on clothes. he kept telling me: 'man, i got these pants for $3!'. they were yves saint laurent (famous french fashion designer - t.t.) pants! yeah, three bucks.... there was a lot of that stuff going on....

don lived very well. when i went up to northern california don was living in a four-bedroom two-bathroom house overlooking the ocean, he was driving a brand new volvo, and he had tons and tons of beautiful clothes. bill on the other hand was living behind somebody's house in a twelve by twelve foot wooden shack with no rest room and no insulation or anything. that was the condition of the players and that's always the way it was. they were living on food stamps and government surplus food. it was awful.

incidentally, how did the nicknames come about?

that was during the 'strictly personal' era. we were taking a break from playing. jeff cotton, jerry handley and alex snouffer were in the band besides myself and don who just started making up these names one day and one of the names was zoot horn rollo and that was the name that was given to me. jeff was antennae jimmy semens, i can't remember what alex and jerry's names were but i know that rockette morton came into being when mark boston joined the band and it was still a kind of a joke then.

don would just call us these things as nicknames and they sort of started sticking and then one day he had a drum head in his hand and he had written 'drumbo' on it and said: 'hey man, look at this'. and he turned around and pointed to me and i said: 'that's a great word - where did you get that idea?'. and he said: 'it just came to me. why don't you take that name, man? that's a heavy name, man.' so i said: 'yeah, i'll take that', and he said: 'from now on yu're zoot horn rollo' and he pointed to bill. so that's how it happened.

what do you think don would be doing today if he had never become captain beefheart, and all this incredible music had never come into being?

probably dead in vietnam.


find out more about john french aka drumbo

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flits captain beefheart electricity
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