WITH THE CAPTAIN
RAP'N WITH THE CAP'N at home with beefheart
in the desert
inside TALES OF TRANSMUTATION from the mojave magic man
1 november 1980 NEW MUSICAL EXPRESS
by paul rambali
is first half october 1980 usa interview
* text reprinted as captain beefheart: navigations from the mojave in usa 1 december 1980 unicorn times vol.8 #3
and as if you had too much to think last night, see doc at the radar station in australia 6 february 1981 ram #152
and as 'i sold aldous huxley a vacuum cleaner...' in england 1 october 2016 (the history of) rock #16
and as 'use my exploding note theory' in england 1 april 2019 nme gold #7
and as 'use my exploding note theory!' in england 1 july 2020 uncut #278
* all pictures by anton corbijn
THIS is PART 1 - part 2
A JOURNEY TO THE OUTER LIMITS OF CAPTAIN BEEFHEART - KING HEX IN A VOLVO WITH A CLOTHES-PEG IN HIS POCKET
'god-damn that beat!' don van vliet slams out a foursquare tattoo on the dashboard of his blue volvo estate. 'that mama heartbeat. that bom… bom… bom! why do they do that? don't they know it's bad for the heart? i would never treat my heart that way: i don't want my heart to attack me!'
don van vliet is railing against the evil monotonous mama heartbeat of what passes for music in a world of limited sensibility where he lives with his unlimited sensibilities. and he isn't kidding. where he hears a myriad symphony, i hear only the wind whistling through the window. where he sees a terrifying menace, i see only a large, gleaming truck. but if his grip on reality is slack, his grip on the wheel is sure. for a moment, it's hard to tell which is enjoying the greater acceleration, his mind or his car.
'i have four wheels beneath me, one in my hand, and i'm trying to do this interview. you have a lot of nerve, sir,' he exclaims as we slide past the gleaming menace. 'you're not even worried!' why should i be? i'm safe. safe as milk. i'm in the hands of someone who knows how to plug in, to connect, to strip away the surface and feel the sensation. his nerve ends are alive to sensory input most of us have learned to tune out for sanity's sake. don van vliet may be a lot of things but he will never be bored.
'i breathe with every pore,' he says, and i have no reason to doubt him. besides, before he became captain beefheart, the legendary captain beefheart, when he was just don van vliet, a teenage beatnik prodigy, he used to race porsche 904s, a sleek little '50s fastback that could turn on a dime. he used to race them out in the desert to which we are heading, out of los angeles on the freeway via antelope valley at far less than racing tilt.
when at a very early age he won a scholarship to study sculpture in europe, his parents tried to curb the young artist by moving to the most culturally barren environment imaginable: the mojave desert. their son still lives there - with his wife jan - in a rented trailer located somewhere between los angeles and death valley. it affords plenty of solitude, some unusual wildlife, and ample room to race cars….
not that don van vliet does that anymore, although in his youth he wanted nothing more than to be a great racing driver - or a great sculptor. one of his desert haunts was 'pancho barnes' fly inn', where x-series rocket test pilots from edwards air force base would go to unwind after burning up a mixture of alcohol and liquid oxygen in the atmosphere and before doing the same to the empty desert highways in imported ferraris and three-litre austin healeys.
and if he wasn't at the fly inn then he'd be at clubs like the insomniac in los angeles, digging blues, jazz, folk and poetry and hanging out with lenny bruce. it was at the insomniac that he saw a.j. lloyd and ewan mccol perform english folksongs from a collection called 'blow boys blow', still his favourite record. but don van vliet is much more than just a product of the salubrious intellectual climate of california during the '50s beat uprising…
'when i was three, i said to my mother: 'you be sue, i'll be don and he - my father - will be glen. don't step over the line and we'll be friends'. i said that to her when i was three. i sent my mother home my navel! what else could i do? she appreciated it, she went along.'
… and much more than just educated in hip. he came to know the world in ways you don't learn at school, to which he never went, and where he never learnt to think in a straight line. 'hey! if you want to be a different fish, you've got to jump out of the school…'
MORE OUTER LIMITS
captain beefheart has just released a new album. a lot of people didn't even notice. 'doc at the radar station' was written in thirty-five minutes and recorded in just over a week. like almost everything he has done over the past thirteen years, it is powerful, complex, raw and uncompromised. it has nothing to do with fashion or tradition or any art doctrine or movement, it's purely and simply a howling affirmation of lífe.
life is precious and too easily squandered. captain beefheart doesn't like to waste a moment. 'i once stayed up for a year and a half. between the ages of 25 and 26½ i didn't go to sleep at all… lost all my friends though!' when so much of what is considered pertinent in art these days is produced out of fear and alienation, beefheart's music is more than just bracing: it's impertinent. breathe in its breadth if you can. but be warned that you can't dance to it and you can't wear it like a badge. if it means anything to you, it will mean more than that.
'doc at the radar station' is his most urgent work since 'lick my decals off, baby', the album that a decade ago followed hard on the heels of 'trout mask replica' - easily the most unique and overwhelming creation ever to languish in the general category of rock. it demands a momentous and equal critique. portentous statements merely sell it short. and i'd be baying at the moon before i came close.
but back in the frownland that beefheart invited everybody to leave behind in the opening moments of 'trout mask replica' there are still some to whom his music is just noise and accidents, a shapeless head-on tumult of sound. not so. every note, every discord is pre-ordained. his are some of the most meticulous compositions ever. in what can seem like cacophony there is a splendid sonority, with all the resounding excitement of chaos.
and like the music, his verse is also irreducible. if you could boil down the music, you might get naked free jazz and swamp-root blues but the words would just evaporate. beefheart's lyrical terrain ranges from the salty to the surreal. he plays with words like a child with toys, and they seem to have a vividness for him that they lose in the minds of most people.
he takes delight in metaphors, puns and similes, which are so abused and under-used by lazy and dull minds that we forget they have the greatest illuminative power of all language. beefheart finds in such word play the only adequate vessel for his delirious perceptions, and it can be a heady cup to drink from. for instance, he doesn't like to smoke dope. 'it makes me feel like a fly with a wing caught in honey!'
the b-52s share his fondness for the wild metaphor (as well as his strong ecological concern) and numerous other new rock figures pay tribute to him as a source of musical inspiration (in the case of devo and the pop group) and sheer inspiration. because captain beefheart has done what all art should aspire to, and that is: to touch people's lives, not just decorate their lifestyle or adorn their clothes but actually strike deep down on a dormant nerve, awaken and flex sleeping senses.
(scan from the photo book 'famouz')
beefheart doesn't just entertain with dirty king hex mojo navigation (as he proved he could with 'clear spot', the unsung soul album of the decade), or provide any of the other things we look for in our leisure hours. he provides a key to limitless possibilities and he sounds the alarm on everything that is shallow, bogus or mercenary. take my word for it, or ask jerry dammers, or johnny rotten (former sex pistols frontman - t.t.)...
the latter recently did himself a dis-service by passing up the chance to meet beefheart. the two of them were invited by a woman who works for the los angeles times, but rotten never arrived, a show of apparent bad manners that appals the gentleman in mr. van vliet.
'a lady invites a man to dinner and he doesn't even show up? shít. i thought he was alright before that, but who does things like that to a lady? that's too casual for me. and i would have liked to have met him because i've seen him in many audiences of mine, many! hell yes, i recognise people in audiences! i've seen yóu before....'
at the age of thirty-nine, don van vliet cuts a strange and hidden figure. he shuffles along like a janitor, but a second glance reveals some minor discords: a sketch book clutched under arm; an old, expensive felt hat; in one pocket a pair of sunglasses bought so long ago they're almost fashionable; a clothes-peg clipped to the other. unlike the healthy, tanned californian animal, he wears the look of a man for whom the night-time is the right time. in fact, he says he came out of the van gogh museum in holland and was disappointed with the sun. has been ever since.
he shakes hands meekly but fixes you with eyes like pins. his presence is slight but uncanny. people barely notice this creature in their midst, and he himself is far more relaxed when surrounded by the eerie joshua trees of the desert. 'they can't even see us,' he will later remark of the plastic patrons of a plastic desert motel bar. 'they don't even know we're here...' an automat waitress chooses that moment to look right through me.
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captain beefheart electricity
as felt by teejo