captain beefheart electricity

the interviews


the cosmic genius of captain beefheart

 from MELODY MAKER 021082 england
by david fricke
is mid(?)08.82 usa interview

THIS is PART 1 - part 2


on a recent grey august afternoon, bradford morrow - the bookishly handsome young editor of the new york-based literary journal 'conjunctions' - sat on the front step of his greenwich village townhouse chewing the fat with his downstairs neighbour, english painter david hockney. joining them were local graffiti artist diego cortez and a roly-poly gent with a bushy snow-white beard and cheery candy-striped shirt named henry geldhazer, an esteemed art expert and the city government's liaison with both the metropolitan museum of art and the museum of modern art.

the conversation turned to morrow's recent marriage break-up. 'you okay?,' asked hockney with some concern. 'i'll survive,' morrow replied, adding: 'i can do much better.' hockney beamed an encouraging smile. 'oh,' he nodded sagely, 'i think so, too.'
morrow immediately perked up. 'that's funny. that's the second time i've heard that today from an intelligent man.' 'who's the other one?,' hockney asked. 'there's one upstairs. don van vliet.'


man! did you dig that shirt?

don van vliet , aka captain beefheart leans over the arm of a sofa in bradford morrow's upstairs apartment, his eyes bugging out in admiration of geldhazer's candy-striped shirt from under the wide brim of his king-size desert-brown fedora.

god, that shirt was só hip. and he gave me these swan matches and this little toy apple for jan (beefheart's wife).

and that other guy (meaning hockney), he's a nice guy and sure as hell knows about having his pants made the right way (referring to hockney's fire-engine red sailcloth painter's pants). and those
posters he made, they were sure loose. really lóose.

less than 24 hours after he had arrived in new york to edit a new video, beefheart had already formed a mutual admiration society with some of the new york art mafia's biggest dons. at morrow's drop of beefheart's name, hockney and company urgently requested an introduction. beefheart liked their style; they liked his style and his work, certainly enough to propose a campaign to get beefheart a major new york exhibition of his paintings.

that's not all. the reason beefheart was lounging in morrow's living room sipping st. paulie girl beer, was to go over plans for the inclusion of some beefheart black ink drawings and poems (one, hollow smoke, is a particularly scathing tongue twister on the music business) in the fall issue of 'conjunctions'. and then there's 'ice cream for crow'. a genuine hit record may be too much to ask, but the title blast from beefheart and the magic band's latest vinyl missive certainly has the power to pack dance floors.

drummer cliff martinez (ex-lydia lunch, no less) vaults into a brute boogie stomp divided into bizarre fractions by the greasy metallic slide of jeff tepper and gary lucas's guitars and beefheart's own wolfish rap.

captain beefheart / don van vliet - 821002 melody maker - picture from 1980 by deborah feingold
picture (from 1980) by deborah feingold

other prize moments include the spiritual dread and pleading guitar wail of the pulpit-pounder 'the host, the ghost, the most holy-o' and the awesome shrieking sax dog-fight - both of them beefheart - over the roaring magic band rumble in 'the thousandth and tenth day of the human totem pole'. 'the past sure is tense', a textbook example of classic beefheart-band interplay, cooks with alien fire and 'cardboard cutout sundown' is a postcard portrait of his home desert turf in california, coloured by his strange melodic inventions and the campfire drawl of the guitars.

some gloomy gusses complain that 'ice cream for crow' does not have the transcendental quality of 'shiny beast' or 'doc at the radar station'. true, 'ice cream' misses the potent mellotron expansions of 'doc' and beefheart rants in a crusty thinkspeak more than he actually sings. but compared to the hack avant-gardism that gets passed off as beefheart-influence these days, this is no minor work, sparked by its foreign guitar vocabulary and beefheart's dramatic lyric worddance. why do you think he calls his publishing company 'singing ink'?

the best i've felt, beefheart immediately declares in making 'ice cream for crow' (in america, his twelfth album on eight labels). the laser glare of his eyes, the mischievous curve of his smile, and his paintbrush moustache combine to give his face a slight mad professor quality.

definitely. i did 'skeleton makes good' right in the studio and the band picked it right up. and i was able to play gongs not like gongs. i played them with a hammer. i cracked the gong but it was worth it. did you hear the pieces of metal flying off?

you can also hear pieces of metal flying off those jeff tepper / gary lucas guitars. if nothing else, 'ice cream for crow' is a wicked guitar album, a primer in beefheart's inventive, off-world voicing for a tired rock 'n' roll instrument, while exploiting its energy.

(exclaiming in exasperation:) i don't want to hear rock 'n' roll guitar. jeez, i use it as a stand-up piano. it's so stupid. i'm really annoyed that they play telecasters in rock. i mean, that's a hell of an instrument. i know a líttle bit about guitar.

(abruptly shifting the gears of discussion as he frequently does:) you know, a fellow i really enjoyed - not an influence, but i just really dug him - was a fellow named lightnin' slim. whew! (his voice drops down into a nasty blues moan:) 'those bed bugs sure is evil / they don't mean poor lightnin' no good / they thinks they am a woodpecker / they mistakes me for a chunk of wood'. (he grins broadly.) that's fine art.

what beefheart does with traditional rock instrumentation and a voice that sounds like he gargles with battery acid, is pop music only by the most tenuous association. as far as he's concerned, it's like painting with strings. and his painting - lying abstractions of nature and emotion in arresting strokes of black and white, the black often exploding into colours like one of beefheart's desert dawns - is art of the most personal kind, the expression of the singularly stubborn muse he calls with gruff affection his 'baby'.

(grumbling with a wide hint of humour:) damn thing - wakes me up in the middle of the night.

ask him why he paints, writes songs, and orchestrates the vivid cacophony of the magic band and his reply is 'selfishness'. but this is not the howl of an arrogant lone wolf. for one thing, it's a constant test of his muse, a non-stop wrestling match with that 'baby'.

what do i think about when i paint? i don't know. i never look at it like that. it's like opening the refrigerator door to see if you can see johnny kilowatt. i tried to trap that son of a bitch once, when i was two... i don't líke music either. it's an irritation, always has been. that's why i do it, just like a cricket grating its legs together. man, they play the best african music i've ever heard.

yeah, i'm real selfish. i do it for myself, but i really enjoy people hearing it, certain people. not to be like (phil) ochs, you know: 'small circle of friends'. i do it because i like jeff tepper so much. i love to give him the chance to really blast. you're one of them, too. lester too, surely. (critic lester bangs, a close friend of beefheart's who died in the spring.) god, that made me sick.

sure, i make records for myself. but it pleases me that these other people are as bored as i am enough to listen to these things.

but what of the big break, the one critics and die-hard fans have continually predicted for you in apparent vain?

(consoling:) it frustrates you more than me.



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aptain beefheart electricity
as felt by teejo