captain beefheart electricity

odds and ends


eleven straight hours in a desert denny's with captain beefheart

from READER vol.2 #31 300580 usa
by nigey lennon
is 03.75 meeting

notes: outtake. of course, five years later one can only remember the general tenor of a meeting...

THIS is PART 1 - part 2


a friend of mine, who is knowledgeable about new wave, punk, no-wave, musique brut, or whatever they're calling it now, recently pulled my coat about a fantastic new band from new york. 'you've got to hear these guys,' he said, 'especially the leader. they're called james white and the blacks - and they've got this wild song on their album 'almost black'.'

he proceeded to drop the needle on a conglomeration of cacophony - jagged, irregular rhythms, surrealistic vocals, nasal honkings from a saxophone of unidentifiable register. noticing my dubious expression, my friend grinned. 'isn't it great?,' he asked. 'have you ever heard anything like it before?'

'as a matter of fact, i have,' i replied. 'i think it's been lifted from captain beefheart - quite consciously.' my friend's animated expression evaporated. 'who's captain beefheart? i've never heard of him.'


early one morning in october 1975 (march is more likely - t.t.), my bedside telephone rang in north hollywood. i slept through the first couple of jingles, hoping it would go away, but it didn't. rolling over, i pried one eye open and gazed rheumily at the clock: two-sixteen a.m.. by now, the phone had rung seven or eight times. resigned to a wrong number or at best a crank call, i answered.

much to my surprise, however, the caller wasn't some insomniac teenybopper with a fit of the random-dialing giggles, nor was it your basic east valley overcoat getting in a little pre-dawn heavy breathing. instead, a voice more resonant than humanly possible - and twice as low - greeted me with: 'hello, nigey. this is don - how've you been?', just as if the time were two in the afternoon and he wanted to borrow the lawnmower.

groggy though i was, i immediately recognized the celebrated larynx of my old friend don van vliet, also known as captain beefheart - native son of the mojave desert, musician, artist, and idiot savant. i soon learned, in fact, that van vliet was phoning from the mojave desert - his call was emanating from his mother's trailer in lancaster. 'she's a widow, poor lady,' beefheart hinted mournfully, painting pictures of meager social security checks and old-age poverty in such a convincing manner that i finally said: 'give me the number and i'll call you right back.' not that i was probably any better off than mrs. van vliet - but beefheart is a very good salesman.

it was odd, indeed. i hadn't spoken to van vliet for three years, yet he was behaving as if we'd had lunch together only a few days previously. when i dialed back, he answered immediately, and the surrealism of the moment expanded as he explained that his mother had been listening to our conversation on an extension. this, he fumed, was despite the fact that he had turned up the tv - which was tuned to the late, late, late, late show (a monster movie, of all things) - in order to camouflage the conversation. van vliet is an only child, and his relationship with his mother, sue, is sometimes rocky. beefheart had settled the matter by yanking the extension phone out of the wall.

after some palavering, we agreed to meet in a desolate place called the soledad canyon junction, a half-hour's drive from my place. somehow, it didn't seem odd at all to be packing myself and husband, lionel rolfe, into the family citroen station wagon at two-thirty in the morning and heading off into the darkness to rendezvous with captain beefheart. not a bit.


the junction, located just outside of saugus in an inlying portion of the mojave, consisted of a flat plain with the highway running alongside, replete with sandy hummocks, scabrous desert vegetation, telephone poles, and the carcasses of old automobiles with crazed windshields and rusted-out paint jobs. (i had seen the landscape before, in the daylight.) our rendezvous point was a denny's twenty-four-hour coffee shop, a neon island suddenly flaring up in the middle of all that dark oblivion. as we pulled into the parking lot, i immediately spotted the imposing, broad-shouldered figure of beefheart, pacing back and forth in front of his car, a late-model sky-blue volvo sedan.

additional drawing by don van vliet
from book nigey lennon * being frank
captain beefheart / don van vliet - fine arts - drawing - nigey lennon (1971)
nigey during another rendezvous (probably early spring 1971)

don van vliet greeted lionel and me in his usual perfunctory manner (one gets the impression that he dislikes effusive greetings and leave-takings). 'nice car,' i said, nodding toward the volvo and noting that a surreal suburbanity was continuing to pervade our conversation. 'sure is,' beefheart responded seriously. 'have you ever seen the lgo?' he crooked his index finger toward the volvo's radiator grille.

the trademark was the biological symbol for male. it is quite possible that this factor strongly influenced beefheart's choice of automobile (although he had previously owned an old volvo sedan, which would most likely ruin my theory). van vliet, dressed casually in jungle-patterned forties sports shirt, baggy corduroy pants, and turquoise jewelry, seemed as robust as ever.

before we entered the denny's, he insisted on showing us something. yanking open the trunk of his car, he hauled out a pair of papier-mch wings, the kind kids wear at christmas pageants when they're supposed to be angels. only these were adult-sized and, given their shoulder straps, obviously meant to be worn.

'frank gave me these,' beefheart said, referring to his old high school buddy and sometimes enemy, musician frank zappa. i was soon to discover that don had recently been spending a lot of time in the laurel canyon home of his old friend. but we'll get to that later.

it's hard to imagine anybody building a denny's atop a desolate hummock in the soledad canyon junction, and even harder to envision three oddballs like us sitting and talking in that denny's for nearly eleven hours, with nothing but coffee and tea to sustain us. but that's what we did. beefheart had apparently been there before, and the waitress smiled a welcome to him as we sat down in an orange-and-pink booth in a corner.


our conversation that night illustrated beefheart's amazing stamina. over endless cups of rehashed teabag, he held forth in his amazing basso profundo on every subject under the sun - or in his case: under the sickly fluorescent lighting. the muzak didn't seem to faze him, but one annoying interruption did come - in the person of a busboy with a huge industrial vacuum cleaner.

around five a.m., we were the sole patrons of the establishment, and the guy must have figured he could do his cleaning in peace. beefheart shuddered as the ominous drone of the massive machine probed near us - he is notorious for having a love-hate relationship with all instruments of the genus hoover, probably because he once quite unsuccessfully sold them door-to-door in the desert town of pearblossom - but, to his credit, he continued talking resolutely, and the busboy finally gave up and retired with his machine to some obscure pink-and-orange closet.

beefheart's conversation is not easy to describe. what on paper might read as the disconnected mercurial ravings of an unhinged mind, are - when heard in person - actually rich, complex, and highly intellectual. for instance, in maybe five minutes, van vliet covered a whole hemisphere of subjects. we started out discussing coffee - 'i never drink that stuff,' he harrumphed, glowering down at his teacup. 'it's a drug.' (beefheart has, on more than one occasion, gone on record as against the ingestion of all foreign chemical substances.) meanwhile, he lit one menthol cigarette off another. 'i know i should stop,' he said, grinding into the ashtray the dead butt of one more foreign substance.



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captain beefheart electricity
as felt by teejo