DON'T ARGUE WITH THE CAPTAIN
and now for something completely different
HIT PARADER 010381 usa
by stuart cohn
is mid 12.80 interview
a genuine, unsung rock and roll hero who has inspired the likes of johnny rotten, devo and the clash
there is no such thing as an interview with don van vliet a.k.a. captain beefheart. 'i don't like to talk about myself. i just don't have that kind of ego,' he protests. 'look at me. i wear loafers, i don't even tie my shoes!'
despite the captain's reservations about his self-importance, there can be no question about his work, which includes some of the wildest, most uncompromising music ever filed under 'rock' in a record store. but he won't talk about that. or he'll start to and suddenly change the subject to comment on a book he has read or a sound coming from the teevee in another room.
'i'm interested in periphery,' he announces. 'my mind has to investigate everything.' his gray eyes dart around the room and his ears stick out like two radar receivers.
van vliet's latest album is called 'doc at the radar station' and it's just about the best batch of tunes he and his magic band have ever recorded. relentlessly rhythmic with unsettling melodic and tempo changes, this unpredictable record more richly rewards diligent listening than any other released this year. van vliet plays harmonica, soprano sax, bass clarinet and shows off his vocal range and seemingly endless string of voices and vocal characterizations.
he explains it all while sipping tiger's milk and saying: 'some monster in me is responsible for it, this boredom puzzle i present as music.'
the puzzle welds pieces of delta blues, doo-wop, free jazz, beethoven and stravinsky into something totally different. the slashing guitars on his earlier 'trout mask replica', 'lick my decals off, baby' and 'clear spot' have been a profound influence on such new wave groups as talking heads, devo
and the b-52's. both joe strummer of the clash and john (rotten) lydon of public image ltd. claim to have been inspired by 'trout mask replica' which, along with 'shiny beast (bat chain puller)' [no wonder, it's just two years old - teejo] and the new album, are the only beefheart elpees - out of twelve - still in print on a u.s. label.
while van vliet is bitter about his lack of commercial success (he and his wife jan, a painter, live a spartan existence in a mobile home in the mojave desert) he retains a wide-eyed love for all the things of the world. he has an evident affinity for animals.
'i love moths,' he exults. 'it grieves me to see them fly around a light bulb. they're like little air cats: their faces are so beautiful.'
he fondly remembers visiting upstate new york and seeing fireflies for the first time. 'i couldn't believe it. i thought the place was going to catch on fire. i had never seen them. i thought sparks were going from a barbecue next door.'
man's inhumanity to animals and nature is a dominant theme in his songwriting and it pops up in our conversation as well. he is outraged over the japanese slaughter of dolphins (more likely: whales - t.t.), pollution in lake michigan and is intrigued by the relationship between the human body and those of other animals. he points out how our shoulder blades resemble birds' wings.
'look at a praying mantis,' van vliet says. 'they got kung fu, the martial arts from it.'
while van vliet walks and runs to keep in shape, he doesn't practice yoga, an ancient art in which the body twists and bends into positions patterned after animals. 'i think i do that in music, more mentally than physically,' he explains.
singing and touring is grueling for van vliet, now 39, who puts all of himself into a performance. 'i've got to stay in shape,' he remarks. 'i lose eighteen pounds a night on stage (or eight kilos on an other scale - but i refuse to argue the captain... - teejo). as a singer, i have a tremendous amount of responsibility to the band. i would like to stay up and stay out late, but i just can't.'
that discipline is just one of the many sacrifices van vliet makes to create music the way he wants. he carefully maps out all the musicians' parts and has even taught some of his magic band members how to play their instruments. but while the band's sound is jazz-oriented, there is never free jamming. he composes on a portable cassette recorder as his home is too small for a piano.
when asked if the sacrifices are worth it, he looks shocked, then smiles and replies: 'i don't know. i really don't know.' for an evergrowing legion of admirers, though, the only answer to that question is: 'yes.'
click clack back to the history or return to the power
captain beefheart electricity
as felt by teejo