DON'T ARGUE WITH THE CAPTAIN
A RAP WIT' DE CAP
from SOUNDS 221175
by vivien goldman
is mid 11.75 interview
captain beefheart is back in britain. and despite those hassles over 'bongo fury' he has lots of laughs...
people often say they find you frightening. why do you think that is?
dumb people. dummies. they certainly can't carry on a conversation. 'cause they are afraid. afraid of themselves. of course i tease them. what else can i do?
don van vliet is a real jokester. he's got a highly refined sense of fun, which made it lots of laughs to gather with him for a few hours at warner bros' tastefully decorated greek street pad. our conversation was wide-ranging. central heating, chanel no. 5, frank zappa. whales, cabbages, kings.... do you remember your childhood? i certainly don't. but donald does - in fact: he can remind you of what it's like being born and then some.
i remember every bit of it. i remember when the jerk slapped me on the fanny and i saw the yellow tile and i thought; 'what a hell of a way to wake somebody up'. i remember that. definitely.
what happened next, don? where do you come from?
well, it would be hollywood, really. near the griffith park observatory, near the place where they did, er - did you see 'clear spot'? (one of cb's most wonderful waxings.) did you see that [mixing-]board on the sleeve? that's at the observatory. that's where i was born.
at the mixing-board?
very near. i was born near the zoo.
do you feel this has had a marked effect on your progress?
i definitely do, because i went up there and sculpted from the time. i was there till the time i was 13, at this zoo. marble, everything....
lots of things seemed to happen to the cap when he was three. things actually seemed to start for this hollywood prodigy at age two:
i whistled when i was two. i refused to talk till i was about three-and-a-half. i told my supposed mother, sue, when i was three that 'mother' was a cold word and that i would address her by her surname and that is the way it has been all along...: we are very good friends.
i have a terrific grandmother. she is second cousin to wallis simpson warfield, the duchess of windsor. her other cousins were slim pickens, the cowboy star, and earl halpert. he was a wealthy man whose son, richard halpert wrote 'golden voyage' and all those exploring books. you should read that, it's good.... swum the hellespont and all that stuff. you would love those books.... did you hear the song 'debra kadabra'? it's about my grandmother. those people were real hip....
which brings us to the reason why i was fortunate enough to have a chinwag with this most jovial man in black. beefheart's celebrated long-term association with another well-known american eccentric, frank zappa - a friendship that has survived well chronicled ups and downs - has culminated in a new album entitled 'bongo fury' on which you can hear 'debra kadabra'. this album, on warner brothers, is not likely to see the light of day in this country due to an injunction from virgin records, beefheart's last recording label. according to a warner bros spokesman, this state of affairs "could go on forever".
the result is that 'bongo fury' will, for the foreseeable future, only be available over here on import and the last i heard was that even import copies are thin on the ground. the release of this record, beefheart and zappa's first collaboration since their famous feud, raises a few questions that must be answered. the first is, natch, what do you think of the elpee?
i'm happy with it. it's a happy album. we had a great time on that.
right. now, how about frank zappa? you quarrelled, right?
it was just silly, silly on my part.... i was two at the time. we weren't speaking at one time for five years. which isn't any big thing, you see: we have known each other for twenty years. he's real nice, real nice.... we never really stopped working together, we were communicating.... he is the only person that i could ever record with, that's for sure. and he allowed me to get out an album that i think is my best one yet: 'trout mask replica'. i really enjoyed doing that. he was awfully busy at the time. i mean, he had so many things going....
at that time of his career (1969), beefheart was with what many people regard as the classic magic band line-up, featuring among others zoot horn rollo and rockette morton. beefheart's split with that group was another headline horror shocker. the boys (with the exception of winged eel fingerling aka elliot ingber, who is now playing with the man again) have now formed a group called 'mallard'. cap, what do you think of mallard?
never heard of them. quackquackquack!!! (he suddenly breaks out into a raucous, highly realistic imitation of a duck.) it's thát sick. i like ducks, but théy are blunt. the new band is way better. see, that was just a thing that i was doing at the time - i mean, other than painting and stuff. now i'm really doing it, i'm really into music. i mean, i have had some of the best times of my life with this new band, in france [during the preceding european part of the tour - t.t.] and everywhere. the old band - well, zoot horn rollo's roll got stale.
that seems a bit rough to me on the band about whom beefheart once said something like: 'they're so good that if they left, i would follow'. anyway, i always rated them and said so.
they did very well at carrying out my orders....
not much you can say to that hitchcock-esque attitude, except that perhaps it is unfortunate that anyone's natural changes of opinion should be documented to haunt them for ever.
while we are talking about the old days, what about the two albums you recorded for virgin records: 'unconditionally guaranteed' (whose guarantee on the sleeve proudly declared the enclosed produce '100 per cent pure and good') and 'bluejeans and moonbeams'? many of your old-time fans took umbrage at those two, which seemed comparatively innocuous, to say the least.
i think that they ought to take those records back, present them and get their money back. if they wouldn't give you your money back, i would be willing to play a concert in your house...!
beefheart feels extremely dismissive about the virgin outfit these days.
all i can say is that i'm bored. they are so old-fashioned, i have seen better jokes in bubble-gum wrappers. corn, pure corn - comparing this young sprout (mike oldfield) to stravinsky, 'tubular bells' or whatever the name is. that's disgusting! i left the table.
well, errumm. he certainly has a forceful way with words. before we continue these probing into the murky depths of the van vliet family and proclivities, let's have another quick taste of the new and already rare 'bongo fury'. the album features, apart from a lot of beefheart vocals, two beefheart numbers - 'sam with the showing scalp flat top' and 'the man with the woman head'. the latter opens with the lines: 'the man with the woman head / polynesian wallpaper made the face stand out / a mixture of oriental and early vaudeville jazz poofter'....
that final word recurs in a song title. 'poofter's froth, wyoming plans ahead'. so imagine my surprise when in the middle of a civilised literary chit-chat regarding the merits of that timelessly witty author damon runyon, don pipes up: "tell me, what is a poofter?" my astonishment evident, i give the appropriate answer [a queer - t.t.]. don screams: "is thát right? you see, frank and i didn't know that. we didn't know that it meant thát. we are both naive." i just thought any homosexual reader of 'sounds' might be glad to know.
'sam with the showing scalp flat top' has typically dense, poetic beefheart lyrics, which don explained to me painstakingly. he was most distressed at the reactions of a colleague on an óther music weekly to the songs.
it's not that bad damn poetry, and they didn't even know it was poetry. did you read the ***!? he thought i was just hollering things. although he was cute, a nice guy, but he really didn't understand. and they have so much poetry background here, for god's sake. i mean, it's too bad he didn't realise that was poetry. i don't know what he thought it was.
'sam with the showing scalp flat top' is about growing up in the city, music, pictures and the maimed war veterans on the american (and come to that, british) sidewalks: 'up a wrought iron fire escape rolled out a tiny wood platform / with hard dark rubber wheels / rolls squeaked rolls squeaked rolls squeaked / sam with the showing scalp flat top / particular about the point it made / sam was a basket case / a hard dark ivory cup held saleable everyday pencils'... don put it this way:
this fellow is obviously a war victim. he is deformed by the war and he is a basket case, you see. you have seen those people selling pencils. i thought it was time that that was brought out. although it has been said befóre (e.g. in 'johnny got his gun' and 'when johnny comes marching home') - but not as much as it should be.
so, since that fairly explicit item of poetry was ignored, how do you feel about journalists?
it's not that i don't like them. i feel sorry for most of them because i think they're underpaid and they have to write sensationalism. last time i was over here i was representing 'project jonah' [an organisation for the preservation from extinction of whales - v.g.] and i passed out around 1,000 petitions. then some of the people over here on the papers said that all i do is come over here and talk about whales. as if i should say something new, you know, a whale with a sequin or something (unadulterated disgust here). such stupid stupidity.
extra-stupid stupidity when you bear in mind the diversity of this particular musician's talents and interests. at my north californian home are the redwoods, the big trees, to the back of me and out front is the ocean - the 'blue million miles' of the song - there are whales right in my fish pond. they sing, and i play the horn to them....
and 5,000 beefheart original full-size paintings, not to mention innumerable sculptures. apart from various short films he has made for himself, he has made one short that received american distribution ['lick my decals off, baby' - t.t.].
a minute long, and it's adequate. i mean, it says what i want to say. i'll tell you: it is good. it only cost 1,400 dollars to make. black and white. there's music playing - 'woe-is-a-me-bop / om-drop-a-re-bop-om / everybody's doing it / please don't let them ruin it, om'...
his artistic appreciation extends to his wife janet's pictures ...-
she's real good, i mean: réal good. she has perfect composition, something that is very unusual.
as well as the physical perfection of the creature that appears to be janet's only rival in his affections:
i was in love with a female mandrill before i met my wife...: very high style with a rainbow across the nose. (wistfully) beautiful....
oh drop-a-me-bop, don!
p.s. he's on tour this week. be there.
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