DON'T ARGUE WITH
DON VAN VLIET
1 march 1991 COPYRIGHT art-magazine #5
by lars movin
is 30 january 1991 denmark telephone interview
note: beside the danish text the writer published the original english versions (with some wrong dates corrected by me - teejo):
THIS is PART 1 - part 2 - part 3
am i hearing myself back?
yes, i have the speaker on to be able to record what you are saying. is that okay with you?
yes, as long as i cannot hear myself too close - he, he, he!
you don't want to listen to yourself?
the voice. the voice don van vliet didn't want to hear the transatlantic echo of is the same voice that made him famous in the sixties and seventies as captain beefheart. avant garde rock's answer to howlin' wolf. a great rusty locomotive of a voice, said to command over five octaves: the perfect instrument for translating van vliet's dadaistic, expressive, brilliant-absurd words into a kind of music the world had never heard before. on a dozen elpees, from his debut 'safe as milk' in 1967 to 'ice cream for crow' in 1982. about half of them are reckoned to be among the masterpieces of rock. nuff said.
the voice today is a bit thin, a bit worn, and the words come as if from someone who spends most of his time alone. but the musicality, and the ability to create unexpected links and images via choice of words and tone of voice, are intact. and the fame which the myth and the musician captain beefheart never really achieved is gradually being earned by the person and painter don van vliet.
don van vliet had decorated several of his later sleeves with his own drawings and paintings, so after a career of almost endless problems with uninterested record companies, humiliating contracts and impossible producers, van vliet decided to retire to his mobile home in the mojave desert in california in 1983 with his wife jan and concentrate on painting.
from this point on the story of captain beefheart began to roll in earnest, whilst out in the mojave desert all what really happened was that the road runners ran, the prairie wolves howled - occasionally in harmony with van vliet's bass clarinet - and hundreds of neo-expressionist paintings piled up, from fertile figurative to wild abstract. van vliet was soon discovered by one of the world's leading galleries, michael werner of cologne [germany], and from there the raod was open to new york and, from the mid-eighties on, the rest of the world.
in 1988 a tribute album to captain beefheart came out: 'fast 'n' bulbous', on which a roll-call of the leading groups of the eighties acknowledged the inspiration of one of the most original figures ever in the world of rock. captain beefheart's music explores a borderland between rock, jazz and avant garde which no-one else set foot in before or since with the same conviction. but its roots are and always will be the swamp-deep delta blues, with an occasional whiff of fifties rhythm and blues.
in his autobiography 'the real frank zappa book' zappa tells us how he and 'donny' would spend hours together at the end of the fifties listening to artists with names like howlin' wolf, muddy waters and sonny boy williamson while eating stacks of cakes and drinking quarts of pepsi. if they weren't driving from coffee bar to coffee bar in don's light blue oldsmobile, passing the time chatting about people with big ears.
at the beginning of the sixties, don van vliet turned up at zappa's 'studio z' in cucamonga with his group 'the soots' and recorded a cover version of little richard's 'slippin' and slidin'', but as sung by howlin' wolf. they took the tape along to milt rogers at dot records in hollywood, who said: 'we can't release this - the guitar is distorted!'.
this episode turned out to be symptomatic of van vliet's relationship with the record companies the next twenty years. either he couldn't get a record contract, or he couldn't get out of it again. and when he finally did record something, there were instances of the music being remixed behind his back and issued while he was on tour (specifically goes for 'strictly personal' - teejo).
this led van vliet back to the pal of his youth, frank zappa, in 1969, who offered to produce and issue the double elpee 'trout mask replica', arguably the most original yet weirdest product ever published under the title 'rock'. countless stories are told about this record. some of it was recorded in captain beefheart and the magic band's house in the san fernando valley, with the drums in the bedroom, the bass clarinet in the kitchen, the vocals in the bathroom, etc. during their sessions, van vliet began to worry about the trees around the house, and insisted on a tree doctor being sent for. this was refused, but some time later zappa's record company 'straight' got a bill for inspecting the trees in the captain's garden.
when it was finally decided to shift the recording sessions to a real studio, van vliet refused to wear headphones. instead, he sat in the box and tried to guess where they had got to in the number in question on the basis of the faint sounds penetrating through the glass. and when they went out on tour after the recording, it is said that captain beefheart started playing soprano sax because he couldn't bring himself to take his collection of long pipes on the road.
and so the story goes. as one might expect, 'trout mask replica' was not the great sales breakthrough for captain beefheart. up through the seventies he issued some good records and some not so good ones, and in 1975 - forced by circumstances - he was on the road with frank zappa again (the elpee 'bongo fury' is the result). but in 1978, when everything looked blackest, a reborn don va vliet popped up, with new music, new poetry, new musicians and new energy on the elpee 'shiny beast (bat chain puller)'. this time with his own paintings on the sleeve.
this turned out to be the starting point of a superb finale involving three powerful, poetic and personal works of art, of which the other two were 'doc at the radar station' and 'ice cream for crow'. three highpoints in don van vliet's production, and three exclamation marks in the history of rock. and then, from 1982 onwards, silence.
calling don van vliet on a january night in 1991, when you have been living with captain beefheart's music, is almost as unreal as eating cherry pie with laura palmer at the 'double-r diner'. it's not just the distance to humboldt county, california. it's quite another kind of distance: it's like ringing to another world, another existence.
but the voice is there at the other end, and it's real enough. constantly balancing on the borderline between deep resignation and infectious laughter. like a blend between an intelligent child and an oldtimer who has left the world the rest of us are stuck in but has never stopped being amazed at everything from the glow at the end of his cigar to the war in the gulf. slowly, very slowly the words emerge from the depths.
the conversation with don van vliet has been shortened, but the topics discussed were in the order given here. to edit the interview and iron out the occasional sudden changes of subject would be like trying to drag a comb through captain beefheart's music to try and make it resemble something recognizable. and who would have more against being tamed than a natural like don van vliet himself?
TELEPHONE INTERVIEW, COPENHAGEN / CALIFORNIA
30.01.1991, 01:00 A.M. DANISH TIME
what are you doing right now?
painting. i'm always painting, always, always, always...
i had a really strange feeling calling you on the telephone, because i have never met you in real life, and to a lot of people you are like some kind of a living legend...
he, he, he. yeah, i have heard that, but i can't accept it, because if i did i wouldn't be able to paint.
if you were too conscious about yourself...
but if you do think about yourself, is there any way you can describe yourself as a person?
er; he, he, he - pretty serious...
i mean, if you should compare the image or the imagination that most people have about the figure captain beefheart with the don van vliet you are today, what would you say then?
it makes me itch to think of myself as captain beefheart. i don't even have a boat!
but you live by the sea, don't you?
right by the sea..., about a hundred and fifty feet off of it.
are you living in a desert area or what kind of place is it - can you describe it to me?
i'm living in the redwoods, humboldt county, and i can look right out and see a lot of fishing boats...
can you also see some whales?
i have seen as many as thirty-six about four years ago, planing their barnacles, i suppose, on these rocks. they are pretty smart.
is it a very isolated place you live in?
very isolated? quite isolated, although once i saw some deadheads (fans of the group 'grateful dead' - t.t.) about nineteen miles from here, down at the coop.
when was that?
about five years ago. that's the last time i went out.
they said such things as: 'have you seen jerry?', hu, hu, hu!
'have you seen jerry?' - i guess they were referring to garcia.
probably. so they were looking for jerry garcia.
yeah, hu, hu, hu. can you imagine that, having somebody to look for you?
no, i am not sure...
i certainly couldn't. he is extremely popular.
yeah, i know.
i wonder why? hu, hu, hu...
the worse you play, the more they like you!
that might be true. you don't like the grateful dead?
no. not by any means.
do you listen to music today?
i like wagner very much.
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captain beefheart electricity
as felt by teejo