DON'T ARGUE WITH THE CAPTAIN
history - interview
DON VAN VLIET mijn hoofd is mijn enige huis, tenzij het regent / 'n verhaal over normen en vormen, kaders en kategorieën en CAPTAIN BEEFHEART
from holland 19 november 1975 OOR vol.5 #23
by jos knipscheer
is article / 2 november 1975 interview
note: reprinted as don van vliet: mijn hoofd is mijn enige huis, tenzij het regent in holland 1976 book DE ZAAK OOR april 1971 - april 1976
DON VAN VLIET my head is my only house, unless it rains / a story about norms and forms, frames and categories and CAPTAIN BEEFHEART
i want to start this article with a kind of warning: this story doesn't have much to do with journalism, with objective criticism, with informative, actual values; but all with feelings, with my sensibility to sphere.
the reports about the latest record (bongo fury, with frank zappa and the mothers of invention) and the performance (on november 2nd last at the concertgebouw in amsterdam) by captain beefheart set my mind to thinking about the use, or rather the preferable form of art criticism. for the moment being my tentative conclusion is that in any case there are some artists to whom this criterion simply doesn't apply. anyone who tries it anyhow and has eyes to see, feelings to feel, will find out that his objective norms irresistibly change into prejudices. or a bit less tentative: objective norms of criticism only hold good to the minor, contemporary gods, the best of those we call excellent. captain beefheart isn't excellent; he is brilliant, unique. (repeated warning: so this is a subjective story.)
before his last european tour beefheart was deserted by his magic band that still can be heard on unconditionally guaranteed, beefheart's first mercury/virgin elpee. during the concerts he was accompanied by a group of musicians that was scraped together hurry-scurry, with which he also recorded the contractual 'bluejeans and moonbeams'. the captain loathes when he thinks back to that period.
they almost castrated me then, these guys who swept winged eel fingerling (elliot ingber - t.t) off the album ('bluejeans and moonbeams' t.t.): andy and auggie dimartino.... shit! when i wasn't around, they changed my music. they took my guitarist away - wiped out his track - and put one of theirs in his place! i wish nobody has bought those two records 'unconditionally guaranteed' and 'bluejeans and moonbeams'
i've said it before and i'd like to shout it loud again: return them…! that's not mé!! i mean, there is something on it from me which they have left so, but they've tried to make it a real, nice commercial album. criminal - that's what it is. i really was at the point then to knock with music entirely.
the man who thwarted that was frank zappa. they hadn't spoken each other for five years when van vliet made a phone-call and informed zappa about his intention.
and he said: 'oh no, you can't do that, man. come over here and join me for a tour.' so i moved along and everything went great.
the captain by then already had broken with virgin ('no more virgins') and so he is heard anew on a zappa label, discreet, on bongo fury, mainly recorded during last spring's tour. van vliet exclusively has good words for zappa ('one of the few people in business which are incorruptible') and to the last five years he says:
there is no way of being at odds. i know frank for around twenty years and such a relationship - of two wayward musicians like us - does have its ups and downs. last years we were on different roads, but on a certain moment those roads just always meet at some point.
without offensive meanings i remind him of charges from his side towards zappa, published in music mags at that period.
i don't wanna deny i have said some unkind things about frank occasionally. but in general those kind of remarks did come through very distorted. journalists tend to give it eternal worth. a temporary distance instantly becomes a definitive split, and so on. that's bullshit; it's not working like that. at least not in my life.
two of the four musicians who play with captain beefheart this evening, also can be heard on bongo fury: slide guitarist denny walley and 'air-bassist' bruce fowler who plays the bass lines on a trombone plugged into a synthesizer. both the others are old hands: guitarist winged eel fingerling and drummer john drumbo (no, it's john french ór drumbo - t.t.), who were active for the last time on the spotlight kid, to my sense the best elpee beefheart ever made. i ask whether he sees this group as temporarily, just for the tour, or as a new magic band.
a new and better magic band. better than i ever had. on the road we already did recordings for a new elpee, and it's really far-out. it is gonna be the farthest-out album i've made.
what that means, could be heard and seen that evening during a concert which soon sent home a bewildered and shocked part of the audience - amongst them most of the critics. there he was again with his spastic soprano sax, his long unaccompanied recitals, with his roars and screams, in songs like electricity from his bizarre early period ('safe as milk'). last year's concert didn't give any hold: they played none of the tracks from both the virgin records that made up the program then. for all those new fans, who have listened to other things on those albums than the tiny bit of captain beefheart self, it was a disenchanting evening.
VINCENT VAN GOGH
we are sitting in one of the talking-rooms of the amsterdam pulitzer hotel, a few hours before he has to go on stage after jean luc ponty. he's tired. france, belgium and scandinavia already have been visited; last nights there wasn't much time left to sleep. the hands have been shaken, the latest news exchanged (bongo fury in one week in the dutch elpee-top20). content he lets himself down. tomorrow is a day-off, at last. he already knows how he, his wife and the band are gonna spend it: in the presence of vincent van gogh.
besides a musician don van vliet also is a painter and a sculptor ('since i was five'), and not in the last a writer. what most speaks to me in him, i think, is that he hasn't specialized on óne talent - which in our culture usually is considered to be necessary. i dispute that specialization by definition leads to better quality.
van vliet agrees: specialization rather leads to restrictions, limitations - indeed. but it already begins in school. i have already said it more often: kids just shouldn't go to school anymore.... however, i can imagine that people sometimes need knowledge or a specialization to proceed when they're at a dead point. not everybody has enough strength to do it on his own feeling, in his own way.... school is essential for certain people; not for me. i've never been to school and i think it would have ruined me.
so your music actually is more than merely music, i mean: you aren't influenced by music and musicians only, but also by other forms of art.
that's just another strange quality of mine: i haven't been influenced by anything or someone at all, except for nature.... animals, all the things in nature influence me; and people sometimes too. when i meet someone who is unique, who does or makes unique things, i pick it up.
someone like van gogh.
someone like van gogh, yeah. what he has shown me, what i feel when i look at his paintings, when i hear the leaves of the trees rustle, when i feel the sun on my face, thát is what i've stored inside, that has become mine. my experiences are all my experiences, are part of my personality. so without doubt, what van gogh means to me will be found back in what i'm creating, in my music and lyrics too. but i just can not point out how or what or where - and i really don't care.
so you also don't feel any need to frame the things you do, to categorize them?
no, not at all. even worse: i really cóuldn't. i don't know anything about norms and forms and frames and categories.... i just know where the things i make are about. they are about nature, and especially about the magic power of nature, about magic....
but about big cities, paranoia and schizophrenia too.
about that too, but not from the big city. my music is what you hear when you come from the desert and experience a metropolis for the first time.... i hate cities. i hate buildings.... i once wrote a thing called my head is my only house unless it rains. that's not just 'said funny': i really believe that...! it's how i live.
(and as an after-thought:) i love the rain. when it rains, i go outside.... i wish i made things which soak you when you look or listen to it.
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