DON'T ARGUE WITH
THE KOOK WHO FELL
growing up with captain beefheart
1 and 8 april 1978 NEW MUSICAL
by lester bangs
is article / 27 november 1977 usa interview
note: edited version. with the ups and downs of a beefheart fan, too
part 1 - THIS is PART 2 - part 3
part two: on the 8th day he bombed out
my second encounter with beefheart took place in late 1972 - he played detroit, opening for 'the kinks' [from england - t.t.]. it was an odd bill in the first place, and things weren't helped any when ray davies spiced up his campy patter by dedicating a song 'to captain beefheart - one of the best platers in the business'. 'what the hell does that mean?', growled beefheart when i told him backstage. 'it's british slang,' i explained, 'it means you give blowjobs.'
for the rest of the night i had to listen to him intermittently rant about how he was going to murder davies. it had been a warm re-union when i first entered the dressing room, although the concert itself was peculiar even by the captain's standards, not so much for the content of his act as for the atmosphere in the room at the time. the crowd - probably 80 to 90% kinks fans and / or aspiring glitterites - simply didn't know what to make of this strange wolfman jack type character shrouded in a cape which i thought really corny ('yeah, i wore it to hide the fact that i had gotten fat,' he admitted to me recently). he was snarling and growling into the microphone while a bunch of guys dressed and made up like utter geeks played this incomprehensible, backwards, chinese music.
it was just a pure and simple stand-off: the crowd too perplexed to boo or laugh, the band so alienated from their environment that they did what one would consider the unthinkable for them: they played a cómpetent set! few jagged highs or lows, everything in its disconcerting, disorderly place, yet somehow lacking the real edge of the records.
after the show beefheart asked me up to the hotel, so we hopped a cab to a holiday inn in the centre of detroit. i sat and had a drink with a couple of the magic band in the bar, while beefheart disappeared somewhere. it was the first time i'd ever really talked to any of them, and i found them totally down to earth. they were not at all the zonkos the record jackets suggested, just hardworking musicians on the road talking about the usual stuff like what went right or wrong at the gig tonight, where they were gonna be tomorrow, and the legs on that waitress.
we'd been sitting there about 15 minutes when suddenly we became aware of a commotion in the lobby. i walked out to find beefheart remonstrating with his long-suffering road manager. 'look at that,' he said grimly, his eyes burning as he pointed up at a plastic plant set in the wall. 'i can't be expected to stay in a place where they actually have things like that!' he was totally serious: we had to leave.
the road manager went through all the checkout hassles, and soon we were in a cab headed for another hotel closer to the centre of town: the sheraton-cadillac - which until quite recently was generally thought of as one of the swankier lodgings in the city, site of countless conventions and civic gatherings. our whole party schlepped up into the lobby, beefheart swooping along imperiously, doodling non-stop on a little pad, oblivious of everything else, still wearing that stupid cape. the road manager spoke to the desk and the bell captain showed us up several flights to a room. i swear beefheart did nót look up from his sketchpad till we walked into the suite, and then he just took one curt glance, snapped his head no, and dived back into his doodles as he swooped out.
by this time i was getting both embarrassed and irritated. the bell captain kept asking what had been the matter with the room, and the poor road manager of course had no answer. beefheart remained oblivious, imperious - a real 'king of the duchy grand fenwick' act. i had to admit that the room díd look kinda halfway hideous, but so what? it was only one night. staying in hotels is a drag in the first place - and if we were really gonna have this big intense discussion beefheart had kept talking about, then who had time to notice or give a shit about how ugly the wallpaper was?
i told him i was getting tired and thought i'd go home. i thought he was gonna strong-arm me. 'no! we've gót to talk! góddamn it, there must be a decent hotel in this fucking town sómewhere!...' i should actually correct myself: when i said strong-arm, i didn't mean to indicate any kind of actual physical force. it wasn't necessary.
so there we were again: back in another cab, riding around and around the streets of detroit in the middle of the night. we finally found a hotel to beefheart's satisfaction 20 or 30 miles out of town, all the way out by an airport which is in the middle of farmlands. it just looked like a regular old hotel to me. but at least we were out of the cab.
once he and jan (mostly jan, that is) had settled all their things in their room, the captain and i sat down to talk. that is: i sat down, while he talked and drank almost the entire contents of a fifth of chartreuse. for once i got to play the babysitter for another drunk. he kept insisting that the chartreuse was for his voice - as he had said previously at the record plant - although it was hard to see why he'd need to keep oiling his vocal chords áfter the gig.
he talked for about five hours. for the first hour, i thought it was the most brilliant discourse i had ever heard. during the second hour it seemed to get a little less brilliant, or maybe i was just beginning to get tired. he also seemed to be getting more and more testy, constantly jumping back to ray davies and other pet rages, which he mauled and masticated with identical venom - if not identical words - each time. by the third hour he was getting genuinely worked up, you might even go so far as to call it ranting and raving. the fourth hour was chaos with overtones of tantrum. the fifth hour he could have been any other drunk on a barstool.
periodically i'd say that i had to go, and again he'd get all worked up over the absolute necessity of my staying. i was getting as docile as jan seemed - through all of this, she just sat off to one side, smiling, occasionally interjecting a word or two. maybe she was reading a book; i don't know. all that counted was that it was a one-man show. finally, at some point after dawn when i was almost stuporous with exhaustion and he had at last wound down his harangue, he let me go. i said a warm goodbye to jan, and he followed me all the way out to the cab, which he paid about $20 to ship me back to my car at the original holiday inn hotel.
it was as if he did not want to let me go, as if i was somehow vitally necessary to something i couldn't begin to comprehend except that it had to do with him or his plans or both. i had to wonder what he could want out of me, when it was he who had done all the talking? but at least the 'do you know what i mean-s' seemed to have de-escalated.
i am probably making this incident look worse and more important than it really was. god knows i've been a boring raving drunk enough times in my life, and there had been real warmth between us - both he and jan had inquired about my general health and state of mind, how i was doing with my girlfriend, etc., and seemed genuinely concerned when i confessed to romantic unhappiness. i mean, we were like old friends but i still remained weirded out by things like his reaction to the plastic plant and the whole scene in the sheraton. i just don't dig this imperious genius stuff.
a guy like beefheart intimidates or awes almost everyone so much that almost nobody is ever gonna figuratively kick his ass, which is too bad. it's exactly how so many brilliant men who might have started out bordering on the 'idiot savant' can end up as big babies whose brilliance is finally just not worth the trouble.
i've seen the same thing with people like lou reed [from the velvet underground - t.t.], and i'm sure a todd rundgren fills the bill too. lou likes to humiliate waiters and throw food around in restaurants on occasion, while a friend who stayed at rundgren's house told me that bebe buell looked after him in every possible way though he almost never spoke to her at all. most of these guys end up turning thoroughly decent - or even remarkably - women into mommies. which is just as ancient a part of the artist's mistress syndrome as the tacit assumption that his creations and the maintenance of an environment conducive to them must come before everything else in the entire world, including anything creative the woman might want to do on her own.
i suppose that, when they read this, don and jan may end up hating me, thinking: 'some friend he turned out to be!', but it's true all the same. and what's at least as sad as the rest of it, is that this constant catering by all concerned to the whims of these professional geniuses only ends up shielding them from that very reality which art is supposed to reflect and illuminate.
eventually, i do believe, in almost every case this type of artist tends to disintegrate creatively, personally, mentally and physically. it brings childish petulance, tantrums, strident demands for constant instantaneous gratification - and frustration since that's impossible for any human being, self indulgence / pacification which leads to self abuse and dissolution from alcohol and / or drugs: the cycle is so well-known as to be a cliché. but it's especially rampant in the music business which is one of the few industries where absolutely anyone - no matter how much of an imbecile or asshole - can and automatically will be referred to as an 'artist'.
once when i interviewed ian anderson [from 'jethro tull' - t.t.] - who had probably the single most offensive megalomaniacal monologue i've ever encountered - his publicist and i ended up down in the lobby just mutually shaking our heads and agreeing that it was a pathetic shame that a grown man should reach such a state, and an even greater irony that it was we, the very people who were supposed to be helping or at least monitoring him, who were perpetuating it every step of the way.
meanwhile, beefheart kept releasing records and people kept not buying them. 'the spotlight kid' was a good deal less radical than 'trout mask replica' or the even more extreme 'lick my decals off, baby', which strained even my capacities for sonic hurricane although i considered it brilliant. there were parts of 'the spotlight kid' which sounded almost conventional, approaching the heavy metal genre. alongside this development, beefheart's apocalyptic dada image-swarms and aphorisms, which had always carried a strong moral undercurrent, began to take on a sort of self consciously 'oracular' quality.
the social comments in 'dachau blues' and 'veteran's day poppy' on 'trout mask replica' were never pompous, and his ecological concerns seemed to emerge naturally from his total mammalian identification with the physical, natural world in all states having nothing to do with human attempts at synthetic manipulation. there was always something primeval about beefheart's sensibility, so that on one level he almost belonged in a museum of natural history, which is a comment not on any failing in him but rather the utter degradation of the world as we have it in this century.
like michael mcclure's poetry, beefheart's work has always been obsessed with his sense of man as pure meat animal, and of his place in what kerouac called 'the wheel of the quivering meat conception', all those cycles of birth and death and food chains.
this, of course, accounts for the almost overwhelming juiciness, the peristaltic áliveness and (in rock 'n' roll especially) remarkable healthiness of his songs about sex, which are so teemingly ripe, overloaded and bursting with outrageously lubricious imagery that they'd probably come off obscene or deranged from anybody else. beefheart sings about fucking with pure joy, groins imperatives manifest on the most primal level imaginable, a lust that's obsessive, delirious, yet always totally wholesome, delighting in its delirium as perhaps only animals or humans without two thousand years of christian crap shoved down their sensibilities can be.
in 'trout mask replica' all of this came wriggling out with shouts of joy, trailing placenta, sperm, drool, and a tenderness which seemed to encompass all creation. by 'lick my decals off, baby' though, the sex remained a holy whoop but in certain other respects the captain seemed to be getting a bit cranky, if not downright pretentious. i found it there as close to the surface as beefheart's new name for his publishing company. i mean: do we really need to be told that the earth is 'god's golf ball'? the ecology songs were more explicit, bordering on sermonising. you almost began to get the feeling he was telling us all to shape up - which, naturally, meant: be like me!
1972's 'clear spot' was a step away from both this moralising tendency and the seeming musical concessions of 'the spotlight kid'. except for a bit of soul ['too much time' - t.t.], the songs both musically and lyrically were as complex - if not quite so abrasive - as ever, and what even many of the captain's most fervent fans have overlooked about that one is that it is a dánce record. still sounds like a berserk barnyard, but all the beasts are doing the bop. it seemed like it should have sold some copies. it didn't.
i guess that rejection was the last straw for him. apparently it wás for warner / reprise records, traditional supposed haven of uncommercial and eccentric talents. i don't know whether beefheart was dropped from their roster or left of his own accord, but 'clear spot' has been deleted long enough to be a fairly valuable album today. you really can't blame anybody who had done something as magnificent with as little compromise and minimal acceptance for as long as beefheart did, for getting fed up - even maybe for deciding at last to sell out.
in any case: he disappeared for a while, turning up early in 1974 on mercury records with 'unconditionally guaranteed' - an album in which he not only conked his music just short of total death, but made a point of declaring sell-out upfront by posing on the cover leering with fistfuls of dollar bills. it may or may not be unfortunate that that ploy didn't work either, but the worst was yet to come: a follow-up called 'bluejeans and moonbeams', the captain's last available recorded work. he apparently not only deodorised and generally blanded-out his music but actually seemed to have stooped to collaborating with some idiot who had about as much to do with what he was really about as bobby vinton.
i saw him again somewhere in this period, and it was not overly pleasant. there were the expected strange little touches, though: when i walked into the backstage area of the concert hall and actually got up close enough to see him and his new non-magic band, the first word i heard him say, very clearly and distinctly, was: 'lester'. then he paused briefly, and launched into a song. the only thing odd about it was that his back had been turned to me the whole time. there was no way he could have seen me enter. he just knew i was there.
his new band was pathetic, except for a smoking reed player straight out of the 1940's who played clarinet in a manner that can only be described as leeringly sexual - and it was all in his sound, no gimmicks or hipswivels. the captain's performance seemed at once half-hearted and petulant, the music was boring mainstream blah rock, and to top it all off he had equipment trouble.
he broke a mike and came off the stage in a livid, almost frightening rage. suddenly it seemed evident that this man might be quite capable of violence, irrational aggression. for the first time ever i sensed something in him dangerous on a level consonant with physical fear. his tantrum about the equipment was at once ridiculous and scary. up in the dressing room he made the clarinet player tear off an extended solo in our honour, after which he talked, and talked, and talked. almost all of it was bitterness, rage spitting impotent frustration, seething endlessly, self-consumingly.
of course we had to go back to the hotel and sit up half the night 'conversing'. i didn't mind, really. i had nothing better to do and there was plenty of beer. but whatever enthusiasm i felt for the encounter was almost totally based on my memories of what brilliance he had been capable of. he just ranted and rambled, and i had already become convinced that he was sicker than i had ever really imagined, perhaps even bordering on the psychopathic. his rages were stupid, pointless, and disgusting.
i don't remember much of it except one moment, which stands out most vividly: he had been pacing up and down the room, going on and on about whatever came into his head, while my girlfriend and i sat at one end and jan at the other - all three of us looking up attentively, submissively, more than a little sadly but not about to pick up any of the gauntlets he was tossing all over the floor like so many broken toys. none of it was really directed at us, anyway - until suddenly he turned on jan without warning or provocation, and roared in unbridled rage: 'get óut of that cháir!!!'.
she leaped what looked like a foot in the air and scurried to another seat. then he just resumed pacing and ranting as if nothing had happened. never sat in the chair. just decided - for whatever obscure reason - that he didn't want her in it. or perhaps just snapped and she was the handiest target. it was gut-curdlingly ugly. i wanted to leave right then but we didn't. later, after we had left, i decided that he was a madman, potentially dangerous, that he probably had no artistic future, and that i did not want to see him again.
i forgot about him shortly thereafter. my musical tastes seemed to be changing: i was deep into things like 'roxy music' - i hardly ever played free jazz or rough-hewn music except the stooges. almost all of the great avant-garde of the sixties and the early seventies, like so much else promised by that decade, seemed to have merely petered out of their own accord. what had begun when 'trout mask replica' first exploded on my turntable just looked like an experiment that had ultimately failed.
the captain did semi-surface once during this period, and in what looked like the most pathetic possible way. zappa picked him up and put him in his road show, and they made one album together. i didn't see them, but you got the impression he was being used as a sort of mascot or village idiot: 'king frank's leashed fool'. all the stories had him drooling drunk, the perfect stooge. i didn't bother listening to the album 'bongo fury'. i figured he was finished.
we are not very kind to our gods; sometimes it seems we just consume them like any other piece of crap on the market, take and take voraciously as long as they stay at the pinnacle, then toss them away with vicious unconcern the moment they begin to slide....
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