DON'T ARGUE WITH
BEEFHEART'S FAR CRY
he's alive, but so is paint. are you?
from usa 1
october 1980 THE VILLAGE VOICE vol.25 #40
by lester bangs
is early september 1980 interview / feature
* text reprinted
- as captain beefheart's iridescent logic in usa 010181 musician #29
- as beating 'round the bush with beefheart in usa 010581 boulevards vol.3 #5
- in usa 2003 book (a) lester bangs (reader) * mainlines, blood feasts, and bad taste
- as le cri lointain de captain beefheart in FRENCH 2005 book lester bangs * fêtes sanglantes et mauvais goût
- without subtitle in england 010311 classic rock #155
* edited version
* all pictures by deborah feingold, taken from 'musician'
THIS is PART 1 - part 2 - part 3
don van vliet is a 39-year-old man who lives with his wife jan in a trailer in the mojave desert. they have very little money, so it must be pretty hard on them sometimes, but i've never heard them complain. don van vliet is better known as captain beefheart, a legend worldwide whom the better part of a generation of new wave rock 'n' roll bands have cited as one of their most important spiritual and musical forefathers: john lydon / rotten (from 'the sex pistols'- t.t.), joe strummer of the clash, devo, pere ubu, and many others have attested to growing up on copies of van vliet's 1969 album 'trout mask replica', playing its four sides of discordant yet juicy swampbrine jambalaya roogalator over and over again until they knew whole bits - routines out of his lyrics, which are a wild and totally original form of free-associational poetry.
there are some of us who think he is one of the giants of 20th century music, certainly of the postwar era. he has never been to music school, and taught himself to play about half a dozen instruments including soprano sax, bass clarinet, harmonica, guitar, piano, and most recently mellotron. he sings in seven and a half octaves, and his style has been compared to howlin' wolf and several species of primordial beasts.
his music, which he composes for ensemble and then literally teaches his bands how to play, is often atonal but always swings in a way that very little rock ever has. his rhythmic concept is unique. i hear delta blues, free jazz, field hollers, rock 'n' roll and lately something new that i can't put my finger on but relates somehow to what they call 'serious' music. you'll probably hear several other things.
this is going to be a profile partially occasioned by the release of his 12th (and best since 1972's 'clear spot') album, 'doc at the radar station'. this is also going to be, and i hesitate mightily to say this because i hate those articles where the writer brays how buddybuddy he is with the rock stars, about someone i have long considered a friend and am still only beginning to feel i understand after 11 years. which is perhaps not so long a time to take to be able to say that you have learned anything about anyone.
meanwhile, back in the mojave desert, don van vliet is enjoying a highly urbane, slyly witty (anecdotes and repartee litter the lunar sands like sequins 'n' confetti on the floor of a halloween disco), and endlessly absorbing conversation with a gila monster. 'graauuwwwkkk!', says the big slumberous reptile, peering out its laser-green lidless bulging eyes and missing nothing. 'brickbats fly my fireplace,' answers van vliet. 'upside down i see them in the fire. they squeak and roast there. wings leap across the floor.' 'kraaeeauuwwwkkk!, advises heat-resistant gila.
van vliet the captain nods and ponders the efficacy of such a course. they've both just washed down the last of the scalding chili full of big eyed beans from venus which glare at you accusingly as you pop them downwards in your mouth. the captain, van vliet, call him which you choose, has chosen to live out here, squatflat wampum on this blazened barren ground for many a year. don't see too much of the homing side of the varmint family out here, but that's fine with cap vliet, 'doc' as he's called by the crusty prospectors hung on lak chiggers from times before his emigration to this spot.
have you ever had somebody you idolized or looked up to as an artist?
can't think of anybody, other than the fact that i thought van gogh was excellent.
how about in music?
never in music, i never have. a hero in music. no, fortunately.
so you didn't listen to like delta blues and free jazz and stuff before you started to ---
not really. . . i met eric dolphy. he was a nice guy, but it was real limited to me, like bliddle-liddle-diddlenopdedit-bop. 'i came a long way from st. louie', like ornette, you know. it didn't move me.
dolphy didn't móve you?
well, he moved me, but he didn't move me as much as a goose, say. now that could be a hero, a gander goose could definitely be a hero, the way they blow their heart out for nothing like that.
is that because you think that people generally do it for purposes of ego?
um, yeah, which i think is good because it gets your shoes tied. you know what i mean, it doesn't scare old ladies, you get dressed. so i think that's nice.
you don't think it's possible to create art that's egoless, that just flows through you?
that's possible, i'm trying' to do that, on this last album definitely.
well, one thing i find is that the more i know the less i know.
me too. i don't know anything about music.
as reviews over the years have proved, it's always difficult to write anything that really says something about don van vliet. perhaps (though he may hate this comparison) this is because, like brian eno, he approaches music with the instincts of a painter, in beefheart's case those of a sculptor as well. (when i was trying to pin him down about something on his new album over the phone the other day, he said:
have you seen franz kline lately? you should go over to the guggenheim museum and see his number seven, they have it in such a good place. he's probably closer to my music than any of the painters, because it's just totally speed and emotion that comes out of what he does.
when he's directing the musicians in his magic band he often draws the songs as diagrams and shapes. before that he plays the compositions into a tape himself...:
usually on a piano or a moog synthesizer. then i can shape it to be exactly the way i want it, after i get it down there. it's almost like sculpture; that's actually what i'm doing, i think. 'cause i sure as hell can't afford marble, as if there was any.
much of what results, by any 'normal' laws of music, cannot be done. as for lyrics, again like eno, he often works them up from a sort of childlike delight at the very nature of the sounds themselves, of certain words, so if, to pull an example out of the air; 'anthrax', or 'love' for that matter appears in a line, it doesn't necessarily mean what you'll find in the dictionary if you look it up. then again, it might. contrary to rolling stone (magazine - t.t.}, 'ashtray heart' on the new album has nothing to do with beefheart's reaction to punk rockers beyond one repeated aside that might as well be a red herring. ('let's open up another case of the punks' is the line reflecting his rather dim view of the new wavers who are proud to admit to being influenced by him.)
i don't ever listen to them, you see - which is not very nice of me, but... then again, why should i look through my own vomit? i think they're overlooking the fact they're putting it back into rock and roll - bomp, bomp, bomp - that's what i was trying to get away from, that mama heartbeat stuff. i guess they have to make a living, though.
he laughs about the misinterpretation, but since the song is pretty clearly about betrayal, i asked: what was it about the person in the song that could make you care enough to be that hurt?
humanity. the fact that people don't hear it the way you really mean it. probably for a similar reason that van gogh gave that girl a piece of his flesh, because she was too stupid to comprehend what he was doing. i always thought that he gave her that as a physical thing to hold onto because she didn't accept the esthetic value of what he was saying.
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