DON'T ARGUE WITH
CAPTAIN COURAGEOUS VERSUS THE DISCO-FUTURE
ELSE #3 010384 england
by charles platt
is end 11.80 usa interview
a squid eating dough in a polyethylene bag, is fast and bulbous. got me? - captain beefheart
long ago, before the dawn of the 'mé' decade, rock music was wide open. some of us still remember that mad carnival of experimentation - guitar feedback, 5/4 time, vocal tracks played backwards, fuzz boxes, jazz-rock and classical-rock fusion - all running amok during the sixties. back then, the future seemed full of promise, full of adventure.
well, here we are, fifteen years later, living in that musical future, and it's anything but adventurous. of course, there are new wave bands pushing their dadaist nihilism: progressive-regressive exercises of minimal melodic content. but mainly the 1980s are a top forty world of second-hand riffs, golden oldies and packaged predictability. beatles songs that once fired a wild-eyed youth culture have been gutted and revamped as elevator music. hendrix is dead, lennon is dead, dylan lost his bitter, idealistic fervour...- the list goes on. it seems there isn't a single innovator from the sixties who hasn't subsided, sold out, died of an overdose, or simply gotten tired and lazy.
actually, there is one exception. i refer to don van vliet, alias captain beefheart.
van vliet retains the old idealistic spirit. he still relishes musical adventure and experiments with as much energy as when he started out in 1965. his most recent album, 'doc at the radar station', is a startling reminder of how wild and wonderful music can be when the creative forces are allowed to run amok. somehow van vliet has withstood periods of poverty and obscurity, has resisted pressures of commercial exploitation, and has weathered his many conflicts with unsympathetic record companies. how do you hold on to your identity and integrity, and sustain the essence of your art, through fifteen years of that?
sitting opposite him in the new york city apartment of ling and gary lucas (his publicist and his sometimes guitarist, respectively) this is just one of the questions that i want to ask. van vliet, placidly chain-smoking and chatting away in his gravelly yet lyrical voice, certainly seems willing to talk. he'll ramble on in a stream-of-consciousness, absurdist monologue about his favourite foods, movies, animals, painters, musicians.... it's hís conversation (he's the captain!) and the naive interviewer who wants to run a direct question-and-answer session and nail down some hard facts is going to be unlucky. for instance, when i start by asking van vliet how he feels:
...about people who complain his lyrics are obscure.
how can they say that, when they have eyes and ears? i mean, it's right there. i don't understand... i don't understand how a pineapple can be like a turtle; but it is, isn't it though? and an alligator. i haven't eaten any turtle or any alligator. have you? no? but i've eaten pineapples! oh yes! you know, in death a pineapple can take unsightly odours, and dispense with them. but did you ever smell a dead human being? well! well, what about the political election right now!? formaldehyde. mothballs. disgusting! horrible dye jobs, funeral-parlor makeup...: they'd better watch how they vote this time.
and so on. i ask him if he'll ...let me know when i can ask another question.
do, do, do! ask a question. although: there's no answer to any question, you and i both know that.
you just speak for yourself - i don't necessarily agree....
i ám speaking for myself. only for myself. truth has no patterns... (hesitates.) at least, i don't think so.
i knew, of course, that the interview was going to be like this. van vliet has a reputation for giving oblique answers to direct questions, playing perverse linguistic games, and seizing on every metaphor as an excuse for making a pun. i want to know why he runs this elaborate routine, but obviously there's no point in asking straight out. i'll have to work around to it.
his song lyrics are often as evasive as his interview rap - hence the complaints of 'obscurity': don't you agree that art is pointless if it fails to communicate with an audience?
no. i certainly don't agree with that. i don't think there should be an áudience. (he seems to be thinking of a static, passive crowd.) i mean i don't think people should stand still and see a train go by without getting dízzy...
he gives me a meaning look. his eyes are pale gray-green; they maintain a wide and steady stare.
so you don't care about the reactions of his record-buying public?
hopefully they're breathing with all their holes open. i mean: i hope they líke it. my baby likes it. my baby - i'm very good to my child.
i sense this is another metaphorical hook for the literal-minded interviewer to swallow, but i decide to swallow it anyhow. i ask innocently: how old is your child?
he's delighted that i went for the bait. he points to his forehead:
my báby. i take care of it....
all right, let's try another question:is it true that you have a lot of unpublished manuscripts?
i have seven-and-a-half sea trunks full of writing. i store it at 'beacon's van and storage', which costs me about all i can make. i don't even have a house. 'my head is my only house unless it rains'.
he's quoting one of his own song titles - a frequent habit, as if these pop epigrams are the best way he knows to explain who he is.
i was truthfully saying that, in that song. that's true. i live in a trailer up on the high desert. and i have a lot of raven friends! ooh, they're thís big! they're bíg!... and turtles - i live near a turtle reserve. but now people shoot at them...: they drive those r.v.s [rented vehicles? - t.t.] across the desert - what's the mátter with those people? to have a beautiful house like that? (he means the turtle shield.) i expect the turtles think they're páranoid! (laughs loudly.)
will those trunks full of manuscripts ever see print?
(vagely:) i must put out a book of drawings and paintings. i would like to have an art exhibit here in new york.
ah, so it dóes matter to you that you have an audience.
'stars are matter / we are matter / but it doesn't matter'. i wrote that on an album years ago ['the spotlight kid' - t.t]. but that's what i méan.
gary lucas interrupts to say he used that epigram in a school term paper. thank you!, says van vliet, as he usually does when someone acknowledges that they like his work or own one of his albums.
no, i mean that. really! you know, i didn't go to school. i'm a dífferent fish: i jumped out of the schóol! too smart! i was whistling before i talked! i sculpted. i used to sculpt in my room. they moved me out of an art scholarship in europe to the mojave desert - my folks did - moved me to where they kept oriental americans during world war two. i didn't get any free marble there to sculpt. so i went into music, because it's more perishable..., elusive...
so you had no formal musical education?
i taught myself, oh yes. i don't like anybody else fooling with my baby. no, i don't. i won't allow it. i said a long time ago, i think that music (he means written music) is 'black ants crawling across white paper'. i mean that. i'm not kidding. if they are black ants, and they're mobile, when they reach the edge of the paper...- ooh! where'd the music go? i think it's absurd. i think it's very limited, don't you?
is there any classical music you enjoy?
i like stravinsky a lot.
well! stravinsky was formally educated and used conventional notation to write his music, didn't he?
he wrote it down..., but i doubt that they interpreted it properly. i heard this thing that he conducted himself - a lot of people say it's too sloppy, but hé wróte it! he has a right to be the way he wants to be! and i like it better than the strict interpretations.
myself, i usually play on a grand piano and get it on a tape recorder, then shape it after that. i'm a sculptor, you see - so i do that. a lot of people do music leaving too much to chance - it deviates so much that it isn't right.
he seems to have allowed some of his evasiveness to tape, so i try a more direct question.
many of your contemporaries have sold out or compromised - why haven't you?
well...: 'a carrot is as close as a rabbit gets to a diamond' (another song title.). meaning, i'm not mean enough to be mean to myself. i don't have any money, i don't have a cárat - i have a carrot.... (assuming i still haven't got it:) that's c-a-r-r-o-t.
as long as i can eat, what else is there? paper, that burns up in a fire? with silly drawings on it? i haven't seen that many great people on dollar bills. i mean, you don't see ván gógh on a dollar bill. do you like van gogh? he's brilliant. and what about shakespeare? what about him, eh?... (pauses.) i have lenny bruce's autograph on a dollar bill. he was a hip one... -
at this point the phone rings in the next room. van vliet flies off on another tangent:
i can't use a public phone...: my ear breaks out so badly, i have to put a tissue over it. i do - like howard hughes. i met him once, at a party at liberace's, driving a yellow biscayne chevrolet, four-door, towered all the way around but more in the back. he had long, long hair and long, long fingernails. i liked him, he was a nice fellow. i said: 'you're howard hughes, obviously'. he said: 'don't tell anybody!'. imagine!... and he got in the car and split. ooh, nice, i mean: réally nice. he was a smart son of a bitch.
i tell you who else i met - aldous huxley. i sold him a vacuum cleaner. i said: 'i assure you, sir, thís thíng súcks!'. he bought everything in my car. i was selling electrolux vacuum cleaners. i quit right after that - probably some time before 1959.
i sense van vliet would like to be famous himself...
do you have top forty fantasies?
fantasies... fantasies? (like an unwilling customer turning over a bad piece of meat:) fantasies? fantasies?... i've béen on top forty. in san francisco. and they took me off, as soon as they found out i was white. am i whíte? am i? (sighs in despair.) do you knów how many colours i have? really, though... they took my record off the radio - a song called 'too much time' - because it was a 'black' station. i don't think there is such a thing.
i decide to ask him about the new album. dissonant, jangling, with staccato riffs and hoarsely shouted/spoken lyrics, it's powerful in a haunted, manic way, clamouring angrily for attention. there are some subtle and delicate moments, but most of the songs are strident. 'ashtray heart' is one: its line 'case of the punks / right from the start' has been taken by music columnists as part of a diatribe against punk rock.
what's that 'case of the punks' all about?
(deadpan:) maybe i'm going to start a new beer franchise... i don't know. i'm open for suggestions. i think i know what you're thinking about that song, but it's a poem. it has absolutely nothing to do with..., with - ah - what you're thinking...
he won't even use the words 'punk rock': do you like any new wave or punk bands?
are you kidding? all it is, is: (pounds his chest rhythmically) a heart-beat. and very badly performed, in my opinion - don't you think?
in the hallway the doorbell rings, interrupting us. van vliet gestures at the source of the noise:
you hear that? éveryone can hear that. if they can hear that, why can't they hear my music? why? because: they don't want to! very few people will admit anything. they won't! why don't they admit that that rock 'n' roll beat, that bomp bomp bomp, is nothing but a heartbeat? i mean, it's so stupid! why does the new wave say that i've influenced them, when my main message - if there is any massage other than a poem - is to álter that catatonic drum beat? ohhh! (throws up his hands and sits back in his chair.) you know why i originally chose that name 'captain beefheart'?... (more philosophically, but just as seriously:) it's because i have beef in my heart - it's true.
some other people arrive - despite don van vliet's relative obscurity, he has a fantastically loyal following, and disciples are liable to show up any time - and the interview seems about finished. i ask him if he'll autograph some of his albums for me.
(exclaims:) of course! i lóve doing that! hey, thanks for buying these. no, really. do you believe that i mean that? (starts writing in careful, angular block letters.) i won't dot that i... because i never went to school. too smart!
i look to see what he's written. one inscription is: 'love over gold'...
although, i l-o-o-ve to get money. no - i just like to survive. i like to buy 'winsor & newton' paint, and that's éxtremely expensive. you know, i won't use a sable-hair brush - because it means killing sables.
a little later, we got out in a group to get a meal. it has to be vegetarian food: van vliet doesn't eat meat. he walks down the street clutching a crumpled paper sack full of art materials - he likes to be able to do impromptu sketches, wherever he is. he walks very slowly, in an old man's shuffle, often pausing and interrupting his own rambling monologue to exclaim over the sights and sounds of the city. he can't be hurried - it takes a good five minutes to walk each block.
during the meal - as the disjointed reminiscences and mangled metaphors keep on coming - i see more clearly how this eccentric, gentle, but incredibly stubborn man has remained true to his art and himself for all these years, commercial frustrations and disappointments may have made him increasingly bitter (he's convinced that he has been ripped off by everyone from 'the talking heads' to frank zappa) but this has strengthened rather than weakened his resolve.
deprived of everything from an education to top forty success, his kernel of creativity, his identity as an artist, is his most basic and precious possession. the conversational games are a way of flaunting it while at the same time protecting it behind a tangle of wit and misdirection.
i told my mother, when i was three years old - and she wrote it in my baby book - i told her: 'you'll be sue, i'll be don, you'll be glen - and we'll be friends, the rest of our life, if you don't cross the line'. i said that to her - i said that because i didn't want to be bothered.
and so far as i can see, it's been that way ever since.
thanks to helen
foster for providing this one!
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captain beefheart electricity
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