DON'T ARGUE THE CAPTAIN
THE BEEF OF THE MATTER
conversations with the captain - part 1
from NEW MUSICAL
EXPRESS 140473 england
by ian macdonald
is 05.04.73 interview
together with part 2 reprinted in england 010311 UNCUT #166 as [untitled]
don van vliet and his orchestra are here for their third british tour (correct, as on the first visit to england they didn't leave london - t.t.). the current line-up of the magic band features zoot horn rollo (aka bill harkleroad - t.t) - first guitar; rockette morton (mark boston) - second guitar and bass; alex st. claire (alex snouffer) - third guitar; oréjon, otherwise known as roy estrada - bass; ed marimba (art tripp) - drums; and captain beefheart on vocals and harmonica.
in london this week, suffering the listless effects of jet-lag but nevertheless looking immaculate in black suit and navajo turquoise jewellery, the captain talked about whales, women, mohammed ali, and his newest album 'clear spot'.
some reviews of 'clear spot' put it down for being too straightforward, whereas 'the spotlight kid', which is very much simpler, obtained good reviews from the same critics. what do you make of that?
i'm glad to hear you say that about 'clear spot' because i don't think it was that simple. as a matter of fact, i don't think it was simple enough. that's funny they should say that. i think they're kidding themselves.
perhaps it's an unconscious process in which they simplify the music themselves. otherwise, i can't account for the popularity of something as complex as 'trout mask replica'.
i've often wondered about that, but at the same time i think we all hear everything.
maybe people are supplying a structure which isn't there in order to invest innovation with a kind of personal familiarity - a matter of faith rather than understanding. not many people would take to the art ensemble of chicago or ornette coleman as readily as they seem to take to 'trout mask replica', and yet the two sometimes aren't that far apart.
i don't really know how to answer that. i mean - they may hear it better than i do. i think every flower has a different face, you know? but if you go past a row of flowers at a fast speed, they all become óne flower. you can't pick out the subtleties. do you mean that people aren't picking out the subtleties?
i don't know what they're picking out, but your music doesn't seem like a row of flowers to me - more separate chumps. maybe people aren't prepared to admit the density of what you do?
i see what you mean. i do think about music differently from other people. i do all the music - write each note, each drum-beat - but i'm beginning not to have to do that.
i mean, i don't usually enjoy doing records, but i enjoyed 'clear spot'. the band seems to be getting out of that ego thing - i think. i don't watch them that close.
and they don't watch me that close. they used to watch me and i used to watch them - like it was a plot or something. they used to look at me for direction. but this last record i enjoyed. i thought the group was really playing on it.
the production was good too.
maybe a little loo good. you know what i mean? on the other hand, i think it's a lot easier to pick out things on this album. they were disasters, those other albums.
you don't like any of them?
well, i like them - but they were disasters as far as connecting what the group was playing with what got recorded. there were too many people just being there to have their names there. maybe they were doing what you say to the music - simplifying it.
but do you know what? - i'm not so sure that there are very many people that would be áble to be there. i mean, to do what they were there for, they would have to be able to hear the whole thing - which could take a great length of time. they were just hit-and-run people.
but take this fellow who produced 'clear spot' (ted templeman - t.t.). he stayed and listened a lot. an awful lot for a human being who isn't in the group, and maybe not enough. but he stayed.
are there any moments on the album where your ideas and the group's playing and the production are in perfect harmony?
let me think about this. (closes eyes and thinks for about thirty seconds.) 'too much time' was a pretty good harmony. another would be the one called 'crazy little thing'. and 'big eyed beans from venus' and 'golden birdies'. i think they got down pretty good. and..., let's see... --
'sun zoom spark'?
that got down pretty good. you knew that got down pretty good? i can see you got into this. would you like a cigarette? (pause for exchange of cigarettes.) i have to give up cigarettes. in fact, i'll change to cigars today. cigarettes interfere with my singing and i want to sing more.
i really want to get it out there. if i can get it out there as far as someone like john lee hooker, that would really please me. maybe i'm getting selfish?
but i want to sing a whole lot more on this tour and i hope the group will stay down enough - not down, but túrned down. i don't like it that loud, do you?
i'll tell you - the people i really like to hear are the whales. they make fantastic compositions. fourteen-and-a-half pound brains - and two-and-a-half for us! great brains, you know?
i wish they'd stop whaling - i mean, stop it now. i'm doing everything i can do to stop it. they're really something to look up to and they're killing them all. it's ridiculous, man. i listen to them a lot. not on record, i mean. we live right by the ocean and i hear them.
i thought you could only hear them by sticking a mike under the water?
(smiles.) that's what they say. but (touching forehead) i hear them. i've never cut them off. i play my horn to them and when i play it i can hear the birds and the animals moving.
i can hear the herds in africa right now. we have spiders out in the desert and they knów us. réally. (pauses.) you know, in america they think i'm crazy.
they have to, don't they?
i know, but it's so terrible. you know - muzak. i mean, look what they just did to mohammed ali (alias cassius clay, famous boxer - t.t.). did you see that fight?
i think he's a great percussionist, in fact he's probably my favourite musician. roland kirk (an other musician - t.t.) thinks that too. and now they're trying to finish his career. he wón that fight. he didn't want to hurt the guy - it's an art to him.
it obviously isn't to a lot of people.
sure. to the audience maybe, and some boxers. but to most boxers it's an art.
i thought the foreman-frazier fight was painfully undignified.
painfully? i have to raise you on that. i thought it was disgustingly undignified. i don't think frazier is a boxer. but ali is a boxer and he's really good. i don't think he wants to go in and lacerate anyone. he just wants to go in and...: touch.
it's got to be so unsubtle before most people will enjoy it - and that's the same in music. those groups who play so loud to subdue their audiences. but i think people are beginning to realize it's going to have to be more subtle. i mean, the dangers of hearing-loss are very real.
personally, i can't understand why they should want it so loud. surely it defeats art? i mean, i could probably make a million dollars with my voice and the proficient musicians i have, if we all turned up that loud.
because they're very strong people in this group, tremendous energy. i expect 'trout mask replica' is probably the most energyful music that has ever been out. i think i can safely say that, and yet it wasn't directed to hurt anybody, you know.
but it wasn't done properly. i mean, the person who was supposed to be producing that album (frank zappa) went to sleep at the board. he had to be awakened by zoot horn rollo. i won't mention his name because i don't think it's even worth mentioning. and i admit i made a mistake by even wanting to be produced by that individual.
how did it happen?
i was promised artistic freedom. i was promised all kinds of exaggerated things. the group had only been playing six months and we were trying to do something new. i mean, i know music but i couldn't pass an exam in it. even after all these years i couldn't go to a piano and pick out c.
i never thought music was enough of an enemy to memorize it. i have never been frightened of it in my imagination. but the fellow who produced that album was into a lot of that fright and guilt.
have you heard anything by david bowie?
i have seen his picture. he looks like he was very impressed by flash gordon (a comics hero - t.t.). i think i heard him or met him over here a long time ago - seven years ago (can only be five - teejo). i'm not sure. why do you ask?
well, part of what he is doing is concerned with mental evolution as far as i can see and it seemed to me that that's what you're up to.
yes, but he's very loud, isn't he? i mean: like out the window. is he playing city blues or city glues? or is he afraid of gravity? i don't know, i'm just teasing. i would like to hear him.
didn't you have that idea in mind in 'big eyed beans from venus', for example?
certainly i have that idea in mind. sure. i do wish people would realize that 'there's more'. yes, i do have that idea in mind and it covers so many things. like women.
i wish men would stop treating women the way they do. the way they put them in 'playboy' magazine and they paint them up - and it looks ridiculous, man. they make sport of them. it is almost like the male pin-cushion, like a porcupine in reverse. i wish men would wake up to women and stop keeping them a secret.
i have never been afraid of women. i never went into a dark corner with other men and whispered about them. i think men are much more secretive than women. that's partly what i was doing on this 'clear spot'.
(a siren goes past in the street outside, causing beefheart's concentration to falter). oh that sound, it's so monotonous. such an attention-getter. you know: hot cop, right? all authority needs that attention. in music too, authoritarian music.
i don't want to dictate to an audience. i want to present music that people can con-si-der, not be violated by. so they can take it or leave it, man, that's all.
CONTINUES NEXT WEEK
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