captain beefheart electricity

the interviews


from ROCK & FOLK #167 01.12.80
FRANCE monthly music magazine

(1:) a shorter version published as talking pictures  in ENGLISH 011180 melody maker
(2:) actually HALF OF:

from ROCKSTAR vol.2 #4 01.01.81
ITALY monthly music magazine
from SOUNDI #2/81 01.02.81
FINLAND monthly music magazine

by dali de clair (an alias)
is 07.1980 usa interview



"the plastic substance caught fire and destroyed the needle. we had to start all over again."

general plan: don van vliet and his wife, janet, arrive at the john f. kennedy airport in new york. gary lucas, guitar player and yale educated doctor in literature, and ling ling, the chinese manager of van vliet, are waiting to bring them to a motel in long island. captain beefheart is in new york to finish off his eleventh album (a grand piece entitled 'doc at the radar station') on the new cbs 'discomputer'. the fascinating lucas - who plays guitar on flavor bud living', one of the two instrumentals on the disc - keeps me informed of the situation from day to day.

tuesday, four o'clock in the afternoon. i wait in front of the 720 that departs into greenwich village…. gary lucas gets out of a car, followed by janet, picturesque and sweet. don arrives twenty metres later. he is a large tree, a natural. he is wearing black clothes and big sunglasses as thick as his voice.

i love your shoes, don begins as we get ready to enter the building where ling ling lives - who has enough talents and love to spread his music around the éntire world, as it should be. beefheart's shoes are immense and gray; a female dancer gave them to him. he carries an inconvenient drawing-map and a bag made of brown package paper. he is very calm. in the elevator he says to me in a grave voice:

new york is dirty and in decay, isn't it? 'when the ocean is ill, the whole world suffers'. that's not from me - but it does apply here.

we finally enter an apartment, modern and sensitive styled to the ideas of the owners: gary and his wife ling ling. along the walls: hundreds of books and records, and paintings by wyndham lewis and don van vliet. don beefheart takes a seat at a transparent, round table and we make acquaintance. he has a hoarse, deep voice. it resembles that of tom waits. don speaks slowly, like people used to solitary silences. nothing escapes his attention, gestures and sounds. face to face with him, i feel like the fox in front of the crow. when the rare bird finally lets fall its titbit, you can't sit still no longer. captain van vliet speaks in images, defying time, logic, space and rhythm…; like his music. delightful. it's here, where the movie starts.

captain beefheart takes off his glasses. i discover clear and merry eyes. he takes his sketch book:.

you see, the way i want to be able to paint - i can almost do it now - is to just have my paintbrush in my hand like it was connected to a jackass's tail... you know the way they just move their tail without any thought. they just swish the tail at different times. like them, i want to swish my tail in the air - to me: the air, that's the painting.

we decide to listen to 'doc at the radar station'. don sings the lyrics, continuously gestures while he is listening and indicates the small parts drumbo is playing. (frustrated the musicians of the original magic band have left the world of music and nowadays make a career somewhere else.) he cries and is having fun like a child. i like his joy of living. a fantastic experience. i hazily remember dreaming about that record in my cradle! the sound is unmatched and forceful. the juxtapositions of the instruments, the incredible sound textures, fresh and moving melodies which scintillate at each turn of phrase.

(dazed:) you use the mellotron in a surprising way on two or three tracks….

(smiling:) yes. i believe you have to use it parcimonously, at the right moment. most of the musicians use it like a small, ridiculous thing in the background. in my opinion the mellotron is a main instrument, of which very little is sufficient.

it's not good for the brain either...

true. too much of this music for mellotrons isn't good either. it's - by the way - what you hear daily on the radio, isn't it. i'm not 'rock 'n' roll', i --- (ling ling enters the room and installs a miniature fan. don salutes her.)

ling ling, that's the sound of jade… i love the chinese music. i'd like to tour china. on 'sheriff of hong kong' from the new album i've used real gongs from the chinese opera, a male gong and a female one. like a mandarin i sing: 'i love you, woman', and in it i talk about chinese violins: the er-hu and the zing-hu… my voice now covers seven and a half octaves. when i was in italy they even invited me to sing in the opera. my voice gets the longer the better. (he demonstrates his vocal range to me.) it can accomplish more and more complex things.

gary lucas: his voice is so powerful and mighty, that when we started to engrave the groove of the new record, the needle didn't support the intensity. it started to trace a groove that was too deep. the plastic substance caught fire and destroyed the needle. we had to start all over again.

beefheart, laughing: that's true; a similar thing has happened to me during the recording of 'safe as milk'. my voice killed a telefunken micro. it totally blocked at the moment where i was singing 'electricity'. you can hear it on the disc. 'electricity' is a square dance… yes, yes: a dance.

is your music written down, or is it only recorded on tape?

all has been written out in advance, except the soprano sax, the clarinet and the gongs. bruce fowler has written down e-v-e-r-y note of the previous album 'shiny beast' and i'll do e-a-c-h note of 'doc at the radar station' - simply as reference. we do it for the author's rights. there is copyright on every note of the album.

i didn't know you could read music.

(flying out:) yes, i cán. but it isn't important. it's an useless obstacle. those written notes look like black ants crawling across white paper, on lines… there are no lines in nature. einstein has proven that.

you're acknowledged by jerzy kosinski, who - without knowing your music - said of your poems: 'this man is a very sophisticated lyrist', by igor stravinsky who invited you over two months before his death, by charles mingus, miles davis, pharoah sanders, woody allen…. gary and me aren't the only ones who qualify you as a genius. why isn't your music better known?

(takes a draught of st. pauli girl dark beer:) ignorance…. all my life they've repeated to me that i'm a genius. they have said that about all my sculpture by tapping me on the shoulder… but they taught the public wrongly that my music is too difficult to listen to. but people hear it.

what kind of control have you had over your visual presentation over the years? in the photo on the back cover of 'doc at the radar station' you all wear colourless jackets and suits…

(observing a nude man on the roof of the opposite building:) disgusting… who's that man?… i told the musicians what to wear for that black and white photo. i've always told them what to wear. i thought it would look good in black and white.

why did you call it 'doc at the radar station'?

(smiling:) it's another creation. i like that sentence very much, that's all. it's not the title of a painting either. it's the record.

you possess so much material, why didn't you release a double-album?

i don't think people can afford it. they would be deceived. i have tried to give them a diversion, within a very limited space. (sketches an imaginary frame to explain his conception for the record.) it's a shame, sháme i couldn't release a double. that's sure.

your compositions seem like short movies. do you intend to make a movie oneday?

i will again, yes, i did a one-minute movie… i'll go and ask jan. (stands up - he really is a trunk, that man - and knocks three times on the door of the side-room…. he remembers.) it was a television commercial for the cover of 'lick my decals off, baby' back in '71. the businessmen in los angeles thought the title of the record was too obscene. that's the sort of ignorance we have been talking about… i was singing about children licking decals. it was a black and white movie.

what do you think of 'baby snakes' (latest frank zappa elpee - t.t.)?

captain beefheart's filthy sulk and gesture say much about his relationship with zappa.

zappa and you were born (must be: have lived - t.t.) in the same town, lancaster in california. do you still live there?

(escaping burning his fingers when he lightens a cigarette and exclaims: 'timing':) i live in a trailer in the high desert of mojave, in lancaster. i lived there all my life… 'mojave' in indian means 'big winds'.… there's a lot of wind there. i hear it.

when you paint, when you compose, do your surroundings lose their importance?

(investigating all my gestures, my 'space' as he calls it:) the surroundings are very important. i'm nocturnal. the sun is good, it makes things grow. without the sun, there wouldn't be anything. but i prefer the moon. it's more intense. look at my skin, it is pale…. i'm a night being. i only go out at night. sometimes i leave for whole days, and play in the desert for the coyotes. and i write, continuously. i have thousands of poems, stories. i have (speaks with emphasis) 8,600 compositions on tape…. (startled:) i guard them!…. it's paranoia…. a little paranoia is a good propeller, i think. it makes you move.

where are you afraid of?

(sarcastically:) cancer… of this environment.

but your music is so rich…

(resigned:) yes, i'm so poor and my music is so rich. (smiles.) we try to change that state of things. i would like to work in a [painter's] studio, instead of being confined in a caravan.

what does that mean to you: an 'artist'?

it is someone who doesn't have any means to restrict or lock up whatever you are… a completely open-minded being.

you, you're an artist.

i don't have the choice. i néver had. when i wake up in the midst of --- (hesitates - as he had stayed aware of all the come-and-go and sounds outside the apartment) my period of rest, i gotta paint, i have to write…. all at once the urge is there, and i write or make sculptures…. i can't avoid it. it is a need. there is no other --- (pricks up his ears.) what's that, that instrument?

traffic which compacts….

(keeps on listening to the sound outside and finishes with an imitation.) ah…

musicians over there most of the time make their compositions around five o'clock in the morning, when everyone's in bed….

(laughing:) the residents of the city….

although you live in a quiet region, in seclusion, your music sounds like urban music, even aggressive….

(pensive:) maybe, only maybe, my music could be very gentle… people have been educated to listen in a certain way… they believe a certain music is aggressive. i don't think my music is aggressive.

gary lucas: the listening habits of people have evolved. people today will be more open, more able to listen to captain beefheart, because they've heard adultered versions of his music: devo, television, talking heads, xtc…. don has invented the punk, the new wave… he's the father of it.

beefheart: punk, new wave…: sháme on them. they could have gone far…. i talk about it on the album. on 'ashtray heart': 'you use me for an ashtray heart'.

a gorillacrow trancelation © 100597 / revised 010499


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captain beefheart electricity
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