SUGAR AND SPIKES
THE MAGIC BAND
diary of an unlost weekend
1 june 1975 ZIGZAG #53
by connor mcknight
is ±april 1975 interview
note: shortened and edited version. mind that the group had no name yet: 'mallard' was a later invention
THIS is PART 1 - part 2
the 19.30 fast train to plymouth left london 15 minutes late, and zigzag is proud to report that the outlook for trees is pretty grim. a few days later - after spending the weekend with the old magic band and having heard the incredible music they are putting together - i will be glad that the outlook for music is altogether brighter. i heard only the basic tracks of ten numbers, but not even the prospect of large amounts of egg content all over my face can deter me from announcing that this album will be seen as the first product of a truly mighty band.
round about the wiltshire border my mind wandered onto the thorny problem of don van vliet. how do you try and understand a man who is incredibly generous and yet capable of terrible acts of spite? a man who gave the world some of the greatest lyrics ever penned, but also has been responsible for driving two of the best los angeles musicians - roy estrada and artie tripp - out of the business? a man of awesome intelligence and yet a man who could describe angela davis [a human rights activist - t.t.] as a 'piccaninny on a pogo stick'? a man who would deplore the evils of the music business machine in most scathing terms, and yet a man who had no hesitation in training some very heavy artillery in my direction to stop me reporting that statement?
finally, after thrashing vainly towards understanding this ambivalence: what are we to make of a serious musician who can produce works of genius - yes: ge-ni-us - like 'trout mask replica' and yet a musician who can let some worn out hack fart like del simmons take ten minutes to parade every clarinet cliché on a foul gimmicky rendition of 'sweet georgia brown'? i could go on interminably framing and pondering the paradoxes about beefheart, but to reach a conclusion, the train would have to be out in manchuria somewhere - and most likely the conclusion would be something like: 'well folks, that's the other side of a genius mind'.
the only iddy-biddy reservation i have is that the progress of a genius - like that of a comet - so often leaves a legacy of profound damage to other people. parents, husbands and wives, and friends are actually made to suffer excruciating torments. syd barrett nearly killed his girlfriend by hitting her head with a mandolin - thát's the other side of the coin. beefheart is a genius; the word is properly used to denote the sort of person who can write lines like: rather than i wanna hold your hand / i wanna swallow you whole / and i wanna lick you everywhere it's pink / and everywhere you think / whole kit and caboodle 'n the kitchen sink, and it's no surprise that he has damaged people. thank christ the damage hasn't proved irreparable.
as tiredness was closing in, i abandoned my attempts to examine beefheart in neo-freudian terms and got on with reading my guide to islamic asia. finally, three hours after our departure, the train arrived at newton abbot station in exeter [in the county of devon in southwest england]. on the platform there were bill shumow and bill harkleroad to meet me.
i had first met these fellows in 1972 when i went to a few beefheart gigs, an occasion that had a profound effect on my life. bill shumow was then beefheart's road manager. by that term i don't mean a roadie: bill was much more than that - really a salaried manager undertaking tasks like equipment and instrument hire, collecting money from promoters, checking that warner bros had put up enough promotional stuff for the albums, and blowing reveille in the morning.
bill harkleroad was the guitarist in the band, and was known then as zoot horn rollo. he is about 6ft 5ins tall [196 cm] and weighs about eight stone [51 kg]. at that time he struck me as being very much under beefheart's spell. he echoed, almost verbatim, beefheart's judgement on ry cooder - 'he's digging into the past' - and was a very shy person, wary even of my amateurish enquiries. but, and i should have realised the importance of this event, i will always remember bill plucking away at a red gibson, working out a terrific tune called something like 'california timber'. and he was doing it with mark boston (then known as rockette morton) while beefheart held forth to the assembled journalistic multitude about what an impossible person frank zappa was.
a year later the band was over here for another tour. i managed to tear myself away from golf to catch a few of the band's gigs - and what magnificent gigs they were! not even the absence of beefheart's awesome sax playing could detract from the brilliance of that music. one night - tuesday, i think - at the rainbow was staggering. they played their normal set to perfection and returned for the first encore: 'big eyed beans from venus', but the enthusiasm of the audience literally wouldn't let them leave: this was a genuine heartfelt cry for more, not the contrived clamour you can find at most concerts.
so the band trooped back - plainly at a bit of a loss as to what to tackle - and ripped straight into 'steal softly thru snow', 'hobo chang ba' and an instrumental based on 'japan in a dishpan'. all played at a furious level of intensity which left the band whacked and the audience silenced. it was a truly majestic finale: several hours later i was still short of breath, with shaking hands.
the band seemed to have reached a new peak. this was what ian macdonald wrote in new musical express and it was typical of the critical reaction: 'playing material from every album except 'strictly personal', this version of the magic band is the one you have all been waiting for. once the equipment difficulties are straightened out, this will be a musical experience only a nutcase would turn his nose up to. no put-ons, no weirdness - not that there ever were. this is some of the most nátural music in the world and it's got to be heard'. no wonder that during a long conversation beefheart uttered the prophetic words: 'shit man, if bill and mark left me, i would follow them'.
however, time has rendered those words as hollow. for in 1974 the news came that beefheart and the band had split up. he formed a new band - or rather had a new band foisted on him by his then management, the di martino boys - and toured this country. the effort was pretty disastrous. it had always been very hard to assess the contribution of the band, because beefheart's presence was so dominating. that is, until one had the chance to see what beefheart was like without them - and then it became painfully clear that their contribution had been of paramount importance.
anyway, i didn't hear anything until about two months ago when bill shumow's mother rang to say that the band would be in england in a week's time, and would i give them a ring - would i? christ, i could hardly wait. eventually, i established contact and got the story. the band had effectively dispersed around october , leaving bill harkleroad, mark boston and artie tripp stuck in northern california working at odd jobs to buy the beans, wondering what to do and where the money to do it would come from. then, like the proverbial fairy godmother jethro tull [an english band - t.t.] arrived in los angeles to sell out the forum five nights on the trot - and earn the supreme accolade that all musicians aspire to.
during jethro tull's stay, mark called at their hotel in his 1955 pickup truck to take ian anderson out into the desert for a spot of bike riding, and the upshots of it being that they offered their support for the making of an album. the magic band and jethro tull had toured together in the south of america doing about fifteen dates in 1972, during which time a complex web of friendships grew up based on mutual respect, but perhaps most of all on the band's unashamed admiration for the musicians in the magic band. at beefheart gigs in england in 1972 it was usual to find a couple of whopping great black motors stacked outside the stage door, which had ferried various members of tull to the gig.
naturally, the band accepted: their efforts to get the support of the los angeles music business had been plagued by the business' belief that they were irredeemably weird, odd, crazy loonies, hopeless to deal with on a business level, unsaleable on a musical level. what rats most business people are.... so, briefly, that was how i came to be meeting the two bills at newton abbot station. we travelled back to the house they were living in and i learnt that the recording was going satisfactorily, given that the band members were possibly being distracted by their comprehensive research into rough devon cider and darts playing.
as we arrived artie and mark emerged from downstairs, and it wasn't long before reminiscing began. there was the topic of - in artie's memorably terse phrase - 'that fucking elliot'. elliot, as you are probably aware, is elliot ingber, known in his magic band days as winged eel fingerling. 'jesus, that elliot,' artie goes on, 'he was really weird. i once went round to his apartment, man, and it was the middle of the californian summer and he had every fucking heater in the place turned on. he even had the oven on with the door opened, and he is taking a hot shower - can you believe that? i walked in, and he gets out of the shower and asks why i'm sweating!'
this tale has everyone present in stitches, and artie only has a chance to add, imitating perfectly elliot's earnest mien: 'hey, art, you want some seaweed?'. collapse of conversation. 'no kidding: he used to have these great big discs of seaweed, and as soon as you bit into them, they broke up leaving little bits of the stuff everywhere.' michelle shumow added: 'his records! in his apartment he only had a bed, a little card table that he ate off, and the rest was just records.' bill explained: 'he once shared the apartment with some guy who owned one of the largest collections of pre-1960 records in the world. then he disappeared, leaving all the records with elliot. i think he probably knows as much about post-war black music as anybody in the world - and rockabilly, and pop, and texas music. he's just got thousands of these records, which he listens to all day.'
'but he could play, man,' artie resumed, 'bill, did we ever keep that long version of 'alice in blunderland'? you should hear that - whew! old elliot really let go on that.' 'no,' bill replied, 'don kept all the tapes.' the mention of beefheart cast a momentary pall over the gathering, but i thought it might be a propitious time to see if any of the people present could help me solve the beefheartian paradoxes that had been rolling around in my head earlier in the evening. the response was immediate, like a chorus: artie: 'that thieving arsehole.' mark: 'the old fart.' bill: 'oh fuck man, i can't figure him out. he certainly is a great musician - really great - but he treated us pretty badly. i am just glad we are finally away from him and able to work on our own.'
the responses were amplified in subsequent conversation. artie was definite. 'man, i have worked for two of the worst people in the business: frank zappa and that fuckin' vliet. the only reason i even thóught of coming over here was because these guys' music is really fine, and the only reason i actually cáme over was because they gave me some money in advance. i have been fucked so often and for so long by so many people that i have to be like that about it.'
mark's sentiments were similar, although - being an easy-going amiable fellow - they weren't expressed in nearly as venomous terms. however, one remark remains in my memory from what he said before we turned in on friday night: 'well, connor, we are just hoping that this album might be the start of a new career for us'.
a combination of the spartan bed, artie snoring in the upper bunk and all those country noises that seem to the city dweller even noisier than garbage lorries and sports cars, had me wandering around the house at some unearthly hour - and deciding to set out for a mooch about the place. the house and outbuildings were beautiful - maintained in the way that only a successful rock musician's income can insure - and the setting was superb: on a south-facing slope of a valley, providing some sublime perspectives of the english countryside. the recording was taking place in a barn decked out with about a hundred army surplus blankets tacked to the wall. i clouted artie's drum kit a bit, producing the sort of horrible racket that one would expect from someone who had never come nearer to a set of drums than being struck by one of keith moon's wayward sticks. what was a revelation however, was to fiddle about with the marimba: what beautiful instruments they are, and what devastating use artie was to make of it later that day.
after breakfast - rampant american profligacy: twenty-four eggs between five people? - it was over to the studio to start recording. the track they were putting together that morning was called 'road to morocco'. and i say that it will be the killer track on the album. to my mind - and i must be one of the few people that can actually hum bits of 'peon' and 'alice in blunderland' - this piece is part of that great tradition of instrumentals. it has the same beautiful, spare, elusive quality that at a descriptive level characterises most of the band's work. it also has the band's trademark of exotic chord changes, outrageous patterns of accents, as well as their masterly use of pauses, not only to envelop the phrases, but also to give the number a real dramatic shape.
most of the morning was taken up with rehearsing the tune with artie: the drum part is extraordinarily difficult. but by noon it was sufficiently together to record. when the take was finished, everyone trooped into the mobile studio to hear it. bill listened intently and made some comments: 'it's a bit quick, artie. and on the fifth beat..., can you put something a bit flashier on? cymbal as well.... no, better still: i'll do a little twiddly bit to give it a bit more body.' back to record and then back to hear it through. this time it is near perfect, but bill still has some doubts. 'there are some interesting mistakes in that track. we'll keep it, but try the whole thing once more.' off they troop again, but the issue is finally decided by bill: 'let's use the first version, with the mistakes. i'll add another guitar part'.
at lunch, volunteers were called to man a detail to collect a piano for the afternoon's work. the band had become friendly with some neighbours, to whom they had turned after shumow spent the entire morning trying to hire one locally. by this time the band's singer, sam galpin, had emerged, and he joined in the journey. a local builder lent a lorry, the detail did a lot of grunting, 'down-a-bit'-ing, 'no artie, i'll take the weight'-ing, the outcome of it all being readiness to start work on the penultimate track. would you believe, it was an old floyd cramer tune 'desperadoes waiting for a train', a version of which is on the latest linda ronstadt album. artie's comment was apposite: 'man, there's no way a woman can sing this song' - even if it does imply a difference between men and women.
most of the afternoon was spent working out the piano part that sam was to tackle on 'desperadoes waiting for a train'. it took quite a while, since the piano wasn't in the barn but in the house, and bill has his own unique cryptographic style of writing music which requires trying in about six different tunings what he has taken down from the record. in the meantime i went out into the cow pasture to smack a few 'eight iron' shots here and there. earlier, one of those weird community of interest things arose when it was revealed that bill was a keen golfer. so i had lent him a few of my old clubs and some cut balls to fool around with and they were still lying about when i arrived.
since the only types of bore worse than a golf bore are a football or car bore - 'goes like a snake, it's easy with all that power you've got at your command' - or maybe a drug bore - 'wow man, that mescaline we scored last night was really heavy: i needed about four hits of coke before i came down, man, and then a shot of tequila to start my heart beating again' - i'll stop. but it still strikes me as being noteworthy that such a diverse collection of ex-sixties freaks as alice cooper, iggy pop, roger waters and now zoot horn rollo all suffer from serious fantasies about scoring a round under 80.
finally it was time to record the song. back into the mobile studio for a listen, and after two tryouts it's right first time. all i can say in a critical sense is: 'i don't know much about whether it's the magic band we all know and love - but i know what i like, and i like this'. sam, who doesn't really talk - it's more like a simmering volcano - put it as succinctly as i could, after hearing the playback: 'shit, we'll all go down to nashville and clean up - that's what they have been trying to do for fuckin' years.' and he was right: the way the band managed to be 'laid back' without toppling over, was remarkable. and unquestionably, the presence of a few songs more obviously locatable within the mainstream of 'rock' styles won't be bad for their career at all - and if it upsets a few die-hards, then: too bad.
just as that recording got took, along comes a piano tuner to do his bit. via the fold-back system, as they say in recording circles, the following exchange is heard: sam: 'oh fuck. what in hell is this?' voice offstage: 'er, sorry: i have come to tune the piano. is this it?' sam: 'sure is, man.' bill (in the barn): 'what's that?' sam: 'says he has to tune the piano.' voice: 'oops, what was that?' sam: 'a mike stand.... bill?' bill: 'if it's the tuner, tell him to wait.' sam: 'you'll have to wait.' voice: 'i have to tune the piano. do you want concert pitch or continental?' bill: 'tell him to wait, sam.' sam: 'he's starting - i can't stop him.' bill: 'shit, don't let him touch it: i want it out of tune...' sam: 'he says you're to leave it alone for a while.' voice: 'but you can't play it if it's out of tune!'
oh yes you can, mister piano tuner; and after listening to that take of 'desperadoes waiting for a train' the unanimous verdict of the assembled critical multitude is that the out-of-tune piano gives the number a good earthy, dirty feel - which should be kept. yet again the band troops off to have another try, but it is the first version that is kept.
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