DON'T ARGUE WITH THE CAPTAIN
is summer 1983 interview
by lou stathis
from usa 1 august 1983 HEAVY METAL vol.7 #5
note: main part reprinted in italy 1996 book pearls before swine ice cream for crows
there's no doubt in my mind that don van vliet (better known by his 'nom de disc' captain beefheart) is one of the most extraordinary humans on the face of the earth. a few years ago, in a youthfully effusive frenzy, i called him an 'übermensch' (superman, for you non-nietzscheans), something he has never let me live down. but the man isn't so much a superman, as... well, a separate genus and species of humanity all his own.
that's utter dogshit, of course - the man's body has the same creaks and groans, and produces the same stinky waste products as the rest of us stuck here on god's golf ball. but it's trying to figure out the workings of his mind - the wildest bouncing day-glo colored ball of vaseline you've ever chased - that gets you into trouble groping for metaphors beyond the linguistic fringe. like all great creative anomalies, he's hewn his own universe from the meat of our cast-offs, and deposited himself at its center; a passionate, curious, intensely sensitive, cranky, and hilariously funny child who refuses to 'grow up', and probably couldn't, even if he wanted to.
he's an artist because his mind won't allow his body to sit still; his chosen mediums are oil on canvas, marker on sketch pad, words on paper, and vibrating air molecules on ear drum. his music is an exhilarating, euphonious cacophony, composed either on piano or whistled/hummed/scat-sung into a tape recorder to be meticulously transposed according to his exacting specifications by his band (including at the moment: gary lucas, guitar and management; jeff tepper, guitar; richard snyder, bass; eric feldman, keyboards; cliff martinez, drums).
the sounds made by the magic band ring in your head like no other music you've ever heard. audacious, unheard-of harmonies dart and shimmer in the light, and leave strange, exotic tastes in your mouth. swamp-motor rhythms both support and subvert the foundations of listener expectations - every time you reach out to lean on one, it's suddenly no longer there. it is an assaulting, cataclysmically intense, vastly entertaining, and fucking húmbling body of work - one that i'm convinced will one day be regarded as a high point of our age.
these days don lives in a trailer in the middle of the mojave desert with his wife, jan. he is busily preparing for a major new york gallery show of his paintings, planned for sometime in the fall. in his spare time he has written about eighty songs for the next elpee, scheduled for recording in the late fall, probably for a christmas release.
he recently turned down an offer to produce laurie anderson's next album in order to concentrate on his paintings. (thát olympian clashing of sensibilities could have produced something interesting, to say the least). this interview was conducted during one of don's infrequent visits to new york, when by all accounts he is at his worst: terminally wired, sleepless, paranoid, overloaded with sensory input, and painfully sensitized to everything around him.
it was one of the most difficult interviews i've ever done, and one of the best times i've ever had. you had to be there.
A USEFUL MEMBER OF SOCIETY
you once said that not going to school enabled you to remain a child.
yeah, i still feel like a child - every day, everything is exciting and brand new to me.
you think school removes the child from all of us?
yeah, i think so. why do they do that?
to make you a more useful member of society.
well, i'm certainly not useful. i'm quite natural, and that's why they don't want to use me. i don't want them to....
it would be economically disastrous to have 200 million people like you in this country - lots of fun, though. how extraordinary do you think you are?
i don't - not at all.
do you think you're different from most people?
no, i don't think so. well..., i do what i want, and most people don't. so in that way i guess i'm definitely different, 'cause i dó do what i want.
and that's all that sets you apart? you don't think you're gifted in any special way?
i'm smart as hell - i know that - and i don't have that many roadmaps on my head. people have roadmaps - i didn't want them, i didn't take them.
and that was a conscious effort?
i fought it - totally. i may get hardening of the arteries, but never hardening of the eyes. i'm stubborn, real stubborn.
how long can you hold out?
all along. why not?
and why haven't others done what they wanted to do?
they're lazy. i work all the time. i haven't taken a vacation in my life. i'm working - writing, painting, and doing music all the time, day and night. i've seen the sun and the moon almost every day of my life. i make it a habit to see both of them. i want to see all of it, if i can.
what do you think your art does for people?
i think it makes them breathe. i mean, i'm not so sure they should pay tóo close attention - i wouldn't want them to get hurt.
why not? it would probably do them some good.
probably. it has never hurt mé.
LAST OF A DYING BREED
how does it feel to be one of the last remaining members of the avant-garde?
i don't think there ever was any. do you?
yeah. i think so: there has always been a group of people doing something totally different, working outside existing parameters and ignoring everyone else.
you know, various art movements in the past: dada, shit like that.
(wistfully:) oh yeah, wasn't that nice? all those painters....
well, all that seems to have disappeared. do you think there's any room left for the avant-garde?
there better be room for those of us doing exactly what we want, 'cause that's what i'm going to do anyway. it's like in the record industry: they're totally desperate. the only way they're going to get out of their hole is to start paying attention to real artists.
drowning people rarely reach for what will save them - they'll grab anything they can.
well, they won't get hold of me. they'll get sucked in with me.
that's optimistic, i think. they don't really hear anything unless it comes through their bank accounts.
then i'll influence them through their dollar bills (makes dumb bird gestures). i'll tell you what: i ain't going nowhere. i mean, i'm going to stay here and do what i damn well please. i'll never nót do what i damn please. there's no way i'll ever do anything i don't want to do.
do you feel at all like a dinosaur? a last member of a dying breed?
i feel like everyone else has been asleep. all along. and they'd better wake up.
picture by anton corbijn from the 1980 photo session
what's this shit about your never wanting to tour again. is that true?
(don grimaces painfully...)
have you had it?
i would have always had it. it was only a few people i played to, anyway. i mean, all the time that i was playing, there were only a few people - small pockets of people really listening.
it isn't worth doing for the number of people you can reach?
i can't afford it. and it takes up too much time. i'd much rather stay home and work. i've got too much to do.
but the thought of never seeing you and the band live again is painful to me.
me too, in a way. but i'm getting too selfish - í'll still see the band. we'll still make records - i've got more compositions to record now than i've never ever had before. and this band - there's no end to the things i can do with them. they want to do éverything.
come on, tell me the truth: will you réally never play another concert again? i would even fly to los angeles to see you.
you would? then we'll put on a concert for you.
talk about small pockets of people! if you're playing in a hall that seats two thousand or so, what percentage of them do you think are awake? five percent? ten percent?
(laughs:) i don't know; i never think of it that way - i hate lower mathematics.
PAINTING IN THE DARK
(cringing dracula-like from the light:) i'm photophobic. light just puts my eyes out.
don't you go out in the daytime?
of course not! for me to do that is really unusual. they (pointing at eyes) are really getting a treat when i do that.
don't you need light when you paint?
no, i know what i want on the canvas anyway.
so it's more head-to-hand than eye-to-head-to-hand.
sure, but the eye does have sómething to do with it. i am trying to get my head-to-hand in shape, though, like van gogh. it's ridiculous, but i'll do it. who's gonna tell me i won't? mé, and i'm not going to tell me i won't. i can do it with music, so i can do it with paint.
how many paintings and drawings do you have stashed away that no one has seen?
thóusands! that shade on the 'ice cream for crow' cover (painting used for album cover painted on window shade) was done during 'trout mask replica'. my wife brought it out - i had it in her purse - she was saving the thing. pulled it out one day and said: 'maybe you can use this'.
how are you preparing for your gallery show?
i'm painting like crazy - réally painting. i mean: put me in front of an empty white square and i go núts. and i'm doing these really big paintings - ten feet by ten feet (three by three in metres - t.t.}, seven feet square...
are you working in the trailer?
no, i'm working out front.
yeah. i put up lights, but sometimes i walk away and paint in the dark. sometimes it's just a feeling, and you really don't need to see what you're doing - what am i saying? of course you do. but i like to féel the damn paint and the canvas with its big teeth. i feel like i'm being attacked by a big cloth werewolf. i mean, the feel of the softness and thickness of the paint with the brush: it's almost like fur.
NOT HOT ENOUGH
i'm moving to arizona.
why the hell are you doing that?
it's hotter - it's not hot enough in lancaster.
do you líke the heat?
yeah, as long as i have a swamp cooler -
a fan and a pan of water?
- yeah. (laughs). then i can see the heat. i love that. i want it as hot as it can get. i like the extremes, and the extremes in arizona are fántastic! winter is really cold - there's snów - and the heat is real hót. extremes are kind of pleasant to me.
that would drive me crazy - it bothers me about new york city.
yeah, but you enjoy it. that's why you're here: you enjoy going crazy.
i enjoy the result, but not the process. doesn't it make you at all physically uncomfortable?
nah. i had asthma as an infant, so i need plenty of space to breathe.
how the hell can you breathe at all when it's so damn hot?
well, you have to really try.
and that's góod?
i think so. that way you can't relax - i would hate that. then you would get laaiid baaack (burlesques total muscle relaxation). yecch, i hate that - you know: 'hey man, i'm laid back'. like the music - fly spray music. yeah, i wouldn't mind leaving los angeles at all.
what sort of environment will you set up for yourself in arizona?
i'd like to be near tempe, but way out in the desert. i'll have a house, and a studio to paint in.
have you found a place that you want?
no, i'm going to build it.
with your own little hands?
yeah. (laughs hysterically). my own little hands.
besides a cartoon and the picture of captain beefheart, this interview was illustrated with the drawing by his alter ego don van vliet which had been printed on the cover of volume 3 of the usa literary magazine 'conjunctions' from spring that year
click clack back to the history or return to the power station
captain beefheart electricity
as felt by teejo