captain beefheart electricity

the interviews


captain beefheart spills all

from usa 1 december 1980 NEW YORK ROCKER #34
by john piccarella
is mid october 1980 interview

* reproduced in germany 1993 (art) book DON VAN VLIET * STAND UP TO BE DISCONTINUED
* all pictures by laura levine

THIS is PART 1 - part 2 - part 3


whatever the relationship between the music of don van vliet (captain beefheart) and new wave, it must be more than coincidence that after fifteen years as a largely ignored but legendary eccentric, he is making music that is as strong and strange as any he has ever made, and is receiving more recognition than ever before. captain beefheart has always represented the final frontier of rock weirdness, but his vintage records were only taken seriously by a few at the time of their release. few critics - langdon winner foremost among them - tried to negotiate the maze of the music's roots and the essence of beefheart's ability to transform the elements of pop music into an otherworldly language.

the first magic bands, which recorded 'safe as milk' (1967), 'strictly personal' (1968) and 'mirror man' (recorded 1967, released 1971), were wild electric blues outfits that presented in pop / psychedelic form the contorted guitar rifts and growling vocals that are the essentials of beefheart's music. but it wasn't until van vliet was assured complete artistic freedom on frank zappa's straight records that he fully realized his conception.

he composed the twenty-eight tunes for 'trout mask replica' in one day at the piano, and then spent a year at his home, teaching the material to his new band which included drumbo (john french) and antennae jimmy semens (jeff cotton) from the old group as well as zoot horn rollo (bill harkleroad), rockette morton (mark boston) and the mascara snake (victor haydon). with zappa producing they recorded the double-album masterpiece, beefheart laying down the vocals without headphones to hear the backing tracks.

the crucial difference between 'trout mask replica' and the earlier records was beefheart's total control  over the band. a band usually works off the lowest common denominator, the beat; but a blues singer, with just a guitar for accompaniment, can break up the beat according to the jerks and starts of his feeling. this is how a robert johnson or a son house would render a song, with the whims of the wrist offering spontaneous counterpoint to the vagabond voice.

through note-for-note composing of all the instrumental parts beefheart was able to orchestrate this process, and that is the magic of the magic band. rather than work as individuals off a common pulse, they move, by a combination of fascism and telepathy, through the captain's personal rhythms. in this way he arranged four or five different melodic compliments, worming around each other within the twisted unison of his jagged musical motion. though one can readily identify rock and roll in the electric instruments, delta blues in the vocals and slide guitars, surrealism in the lyrics, and free jazz in the horn solos, the juxtaposition and recombination of these elements is so original that the whole process of classification is thwarted. and one can understand why a genius of this  magnitude dismisses the question of influences.

the classically-minded mallet work of ed marimba (art tripp) was the added element that broadened beefheart's palette on 'lick my decals off baby', a more concise and lucid distillation of the 'trout mask replica' style. personnel shifts, stylistic changes and a gradual attempt at commercialization of beefheart's sound by various producers characterized the next few albums until the magic band broke up after the hopelessly compromised 'unconditionally guaranteed' in 1974.

captain beefheart / don van vliet - new york, usa mid october 1980 - new york rocker 011280 - picture by laura levine

'the spotlight kid' (1972) saw beefheart introduce keyboards [no way! - t.t.], revert from saxophone to harp and a bluesier feel, and top the sound with stinging guitar leads by winged eel fingerling (elliot ingber). oréjon (roy estrada), of the mothers of invention and little feat, took over bass and rockette morton moved to guitar for clear spot (1972). the album featured a horn section, backup vocalists and some gorgeous ballads, and achieved a unique beefheartian rhythm and blues, rhythmically sparked and well produced.

it wasn't until six years later [i think early 1974 till summer 1975 is a bit shorter - t.t.] when a new magic band was formed, again from former fans, again with beefheart in total control of every note, that he recovered his complex excellence. the band's first elpee, 'shiny beast (bat chain puller)' in 1978, was recorded with a presence and clarity that none of the earlier albums had. the combination of tripp's marimba, eric feldman's keyboards and bruce fowler's trombone woven through the revitalized two guitar riffing (by richard redus and jeff tepper) redefined the sound.

now the band's newest record 'doc at the radar station' refocuses the central angular guitars of tepper and drumbo in stark relief. produced completely by beefheart and done mostly without overdubs, horns and percussion pared down to a few integral colorations, the two slashing guitars etch out a rough surface. mellotron, synthesizer, french horn and piano offer symphonic relief like an orchestra phasing in and out of the airwaves with the band. there are two brief instrumentals, a solo guitar piece and a duet for guitar and piano.

beefheart hasn't worked with such spare materials since the similar tracks on 'trout mask replica' and 'lick my decals off, baby', and his vocals are more spirited than ever. while jazzy bass clarinet and marimba dance around modernist orchestral passages on the album's final cut 'making love to a vampire with a monkey on my knee' he delivers his most powerful line ever: 'god, please fuck my mind for good.' for the uninitiated this 'doc at the radar station' may accomplish just that.

spending time with don van vliet isn't much different from listening to his music: he opens his mouth and you're on acid. i interviewed him at the home of gary lucas, who plays 'flavor bud living', the solo guitar piece on the album, and his wife ling, who is beefheart's manager. while we waited for don and his wife jan to arrive i was entertained with beefheart outtakes, a great one from 'clear spot' that should have been on the album and one from 'the spotlight kid' that rightfully wasn't. i was shown a tv commercial for 'lick my decals off, baby' which was banned because someone thought the title was obscene. i also saw some of beefheart's artwork, including a drawing done in the dark during a performance of the peking opera.


the interview began while everyone was talking and at various times ling, gary and jan joined the conversation.

gossip, man. tape.

funny how everybody stops talking.

do you blame us? after nixon? yeah, he scared me. he was so hip... well, i don't know. i don't like the imitation of ed sullivan that much .... that was it, man! ed sullivan was a funny cat... okay, ask me a weird question.

no, let's not start with the weird questions. (phone rings.)

that song i did is right, isn't it?


yeah...: 'plastic horned devil!' let's see, i'll show you.... i mean, really! (picks up receiver and replaces it upside down.) look at this!

gary lucas: 'it's like a plastic horned devil - a grey udder'.

great album, by the way.

oh, thank you. it is good, isn't it? i think maybe the best i've done.

a lot of people are saying that ---

no, but... the best i've done.... i'm not even done.... finally hit a clear spot. i did the whole thing... everything; and that's the way it should be because that's a true representation of that band.

but it's not the first album you produced yourself. you did 'lick my decals off, baby' yourself.

oh, yeah. yeah, i even fired somebody when i did that.




kunc... i had to. i mean, i can't go back to the past. i haven't any idols and what i do is what i do. anything else doesn't work. isn't that odd?

captain beefheart / don van vliet - new york, usa mid october 1980 - new york rocker 011280 - picture by laura levine

yeah, you've often said you don't have many influences.


you must've in the beginning.


but the early magic band was a very blues-based thing.

but i don't.... well, 'electricity' is blues, you know: singing through you to me / thunderbolts caught easily / shouts the truth peacefully / electricity. blues is obvious.

'china pig'.

'china pig' was... you know what that's about? it's about a human being, how fragile a human being is. i mean the body as opposed to all the forces. i mean... it isn't easy. have you ever been injured?

yeah, i got hit by a bus....

ooooh man!... glad you made it. really?

that's why you don't live in the city, right?

i don't live in the city because i don't need all those extraneous noises. they just absolutely... - i mean, i feel like a puppet, you know.... my ears, i've developed my ears, or they were developed and here i am with them. look at that! three and a half inches long, man! so it traps a lot of...: trouble.

i wanted to ask you about 'clear spot'. did you intend to do sort of a rhythm and blues record and get ted templeman [the producer - t.t.] with that in mind, or did he come and lay his arrangement thing on top of what you did?

his arrangement thing?

you know...: the horn section, backup vocals ---

i did that! blue mitchell played on that thing. do you know who that is, man?! ted templeman had nothing to do with it.

he just had his name on it?!


he wasn't in the studio?

he was there..., i guess.... [he sure was, as you can read here - teejo.]

gary lucas: tell him what he said about the harp thing on 'nowadays a woman's gotta hit a man'....

'you wanna do that over?', that was what he said. i said: 'absolutely not. that's correct!'.... i mean, my baby won't let me have a baby. my artist won't. i mean that's it. that rejected it... - shouldn't be there. i think an artist is one who kids himself the most gracefully.... that's what i do. i like to tease myself.



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captain beefheart electricity
as felt by teejo