captain beefheart electricity

the interviews


('sidelines' series)

from MELODY MAKER 141089 england
by david fricke
is ±late09.89 telephone interview

note: some printing errors have been corrected


can i play something for you?

captain beefheart puts down the phone with a clunk. in the background, he can be heard bustling about in his northern californian retreat, apparently putting a tape into a cassette player because the next thing that comes blasting into the earpiece is a wild slice of delta blues, real antique mississippi dementia with strangled slide guitar and mean lupine singing. in fact, it sounds a hell of a lot like beefheart himself, a primordial blues lament on the order of 'ah feel like ahcid' on 'strictly personal' or the immortal 'china pig' of 'trout mask replica'.

what did you think of that? wooh, wooh?, beefheart chartles with delight. that's one string jones! he was a black hobo. i think that cat is about the best slide player i have ever heard. the thing is, it's broom wire that he plays that on. one string! i've been listening to that thing with my left ear and it wiped me out!

he goes on to explain that former magic band guitarist winged eel fingerling (elliot ingber to his mum) turned him on to one string jones back in the seventies.

he told me about him a long time ago. but by god, i couldn't believe that man.

it is too bad that beefheart can't get up the same enthusiasm for his own singular blues muse these days as he does for that of one string jones. after the release in 1982 of his final virgin album 'ice cream for crow', beefheart dissolved the last edition of his magic band and retired from music - bitter at the way he had been abused by record companies, frustrated by his inability to reach a wider, receptive public and broke from a combination of the two. he has not officially recorded a single note or performed in public since. it is a decision he does not regret.

making records, it's ridiculous! who are they kidding? who the hell do they think they are?... i think the only way to compose is to embalm. it's horrible. i feel a lot better now that i'm just painting.

for the past seven years beefheart, aka don van vliet, has been pouring out his heart via a paintbrush, or as he puts it, 'turning myself inside out on canvas'. where as a composer and performer he had been ignored and misunderstood for nearly two decades, as an artist he is becoming something of a star in about a third the time. his art, previously seen only on his album covers and in a few select publications, has been exhibited in san francisco, new york, london and europe.

when he picked up the phone recently to chat, he was working overtime with his brush and palette in preparation for shows scheduled for early 1990 in cologne and new york at the galleries of rated art dealer michael werner. beefheart's remarkable art - a raw vibrant collision of colours, muscular brushstrokes and vivid physical tableaux - has a strong element of mischief about it. he challenges your sense of dimension and natural order while reaffirming, with a kind of aggro-primitivist delight, his love of nature itself, a trademark theme of his music and poetry as well.

[description of a painting left out - teejo.]

the way they have treated animals, i can't believe it. when i was three years old, i was looking at a dictionary trying to learn the fucking thing and i came to a page that said: 'great auk, extinct'. it made me sick.

the swiss-german publisher gachnang & springer tried to make amends not too long ago with the publication in 1987 of 'skeleton breath, scorpion blush', a slim but illuminating paper-bound volume of beefheart's art from 1985 and '86 supplemented with examples of his poetry and lyrics selected by beefheart himself, some previously unpublished. the trade paperback size of the book does not really do his art justice - some of the original works measure ten feet by nine feet (about 305 x 275 centimeter - t.t.) - but it is a rare opportunity for fans not on the exhibition circuit to drink in his recent ink and oil.

i'm the music i'm making when i'm painting. i'm doing the same thing. but i'll tell you one thing: i sure as hell ain't gonna be no writer. you know who i like? philip larkin. the best poet that ever lived. good god. he says: 'and looking out to see the moon thinned / to an air-sharpened blade'. is that frightening?

what was frightening was a rumour that briefly circulated about three months ago that captain beefheart had died. a junior deputy of something-or-other distantly involved with his song publishing mistakenly started the 'don is dead' rumour, passed it on to a writer, who in turn passed it on.

that's bullshit! that's what they would like. it was kind of corny, saying i'm dead. kind of assertive....

indeed, beefheart has every intention of turning himself inside out for some time to come. maybe not on record, but fortunately his landmark recordings - 'trout mask replica', 'lick my decals off, baby', 'doc at the radar station' - live again on ceedee. actually, he often listens to 'doc at the radar station' in particular these days when he's painting.

i make music for myself, he told me a few years ago, around the time of 'ice cream for crow'. but it pleases me that other people are as bored as i am with everything else that they would listen to these things.

as for everyone else, well....

the people you don't make an impression on are fucking hard, man, beefheart remarks before signing off and heading back to his canvas-in progress. i may get hardening of the arteries, but i'll never get hardening of the eyes. that i won't do.


the chat was illustrated with a picture from 1978 of don showing an untitled drawing of a couple of old folks


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captain beefheart electricity
as felt by teejo