captain beefheart electricity

DON'T ARGUE THE CAPTAIN
the interviews


 

THE HOST, THE MOST, THE HOLY GHOST
the cosmic genius of captain beefheart

 from MELODY MAKER 021082 england
by david fricke
is mid(?)08.82 usa interview

part 1 - THIS is PART 2

*

most beefheart stories talk a lot about what he throws up. few tell you how he throws it up. there's a good reason for that. it isn't easy to describe, confesses gary lucas, who ought to know. by day a staff writer in advertising for cbs records in new york, lucas spends his lunch hours, evenings, weekends, and whatever time he can con out of cbs as one of beefheart's two guitarists and his manager as well.

gary lucas: every note from the get-go is don's. there is not one utterance that escapes our instruments that has not been programmed and shaped in advance by don. he started his career as a prodigy sculptor and he has really just carried that process over to music.

as a classically trained musician on french horn - though he has spent most of the last 19 years playing self-taught guitar - lucas had problems adapting to beefheart's musical modus operandi when he joined the band full time last year. playing guitar under composer leonard bernstein, playing obscure sixties and seventies english imports on yale college radio, and staying up late nights with 'trout mask replica' hardly prepared him for the experience of playing guitar for beefheart.

gary lucas: we're creating an exoskeleton, a superstructure that supports don's efforts at the top. another way of putting it is: we're a canvas on which he's going to paint.

the first brush strokes come on tape. shortly after the new elpee was completed, lucas played me a tape of beefheart playing a two minute piano piece, music of rich dissonant grandeur and inventive harmonic logic, that lucas had to adapt to guitar as 'ice cream' solo instrumental 'evening bell'. by his count, it took six weeks, four hours a day, to memorise the piece, figure out the fingering on guitar, and develop the concentration and stamina to play it all the way through.

gary lucas: obviously it's not going to be exactly the same - because a guitar has only six strings and he's playing all over the piano keyboard. i had to tune the low e string down to d because it was the lowest note he struck on the piano. i literally went over the tape note for note, played a second of it, backed it up, played it again, and then tried to find the notes by ear. it was not easy. i'm ranging all over the fretboard and using a lot of contrapuntal finger picking.

to beefheart, the guitar really is, as he quips, 'a stand-up piano'. unlike the linear riff-oriented mire rock and pop guitar is currently fumbling in, beefheart uses its raw electric shriek to galvanise his piano clusters of notes into unconventional harmonies and almost conversational voicings. the jarring thrust of the music is often so hard, as on 'ice cream for crow' or 'the past sure is tense', so that you don't have time to worry about its awesome complexity.

gary lucas: another method that he uses with the band is to take the guitars and play them himself with his own technique. he would also sing the parts - he's a very good scat singer - imitating the instrument sounds. he'll also play the drums for cliff, teaching him these unbelievable rhythm patterns. it's organic, hís rhythm and that's the hardest thing to get right.

sometimes he would draw a picture and say: 'i want more of this', or he would crinkle up a piece of paper in your ear and say: 'sound like this'. there was one story we had going through the session about this derelict who was beat up by some punks outside the starwood in los angeles. this wino would stand there and yell things like: 'punk's bullshit, new wave's bullshit, and finally the skinheads pummelled him. and he got up and started running down the street with one of his shoes missing, hobbling like a chicken yelling: 'devo got me, new wave got me!'. and when i was recording 'evening bell', don said to me: 'when you get to this section of the song, think of that guy'.

*

reagan's the president. ea-a-u-u!

beefheart cringes in his seat with mock fear, cradling his bottle of beer like a security blanket.

what does he call his wife? 'mommy'? jesus, that's weird, real frightening.

'ice cream for crow' shivers with that kind of fright, an apocalyptic dread mixed with scorn for the way we've dug this hole we're sinking into. listen to the cracked chiding tone of 'the host, the ghost, the most holy-o': 'why, not even a rustler would have anything to do / with this branded bum steer world / this pirate flag headlong disaster course vessel / misguided charted this nautical numbskull hull'.

it's true, isn't it? whew, they're getting too ridiculous, imbeciles handling such high mathematics. hey, what about 'ink mathematics' (a particularly fearsome entry on 'ice cream')? (in a solemn tone:) 'death antiques / wrong deductions / poor instructions / math destruction'. i am scared. a little paranoia is a good propeller, ha, ha, ha.

it's pretty scarey. i know the world will be here later on, but in what way will it be here? they're fooling around with something they have no business fooling with. einstein could fool around with it, but i wouldn't even try. man, i dug him, einstein. he was really cool. einstein didn't know what they were going to do with his knowledge. they have no business...

ironic then, that in our darkest hour don van vliet - a former child sculptor prodigy now living in barren isolation in a trailer in the mojave desert - could possibly enjoy his biggest year yet. talk of a major new york exhibition of his paintings, recognition in a class literary organ, a stunning album with a possible rock-disco hit and a video (for 'ice cream for crow' with camera work by daniel pearl of 'texas chainsaw massacre' fame) recently exhibited in a music video programme at the museum of modern art. the only rain on this parade is beefheart's steadfast refusal to tour, a distressing attitude considering the frustrating infrequency of his past jaunts.

then again, i've never been dead. you know what i mean? i dó play live.

captain beefheart / don van vliet - 821002 melody maker - picture from 1980 by deborah feingold
picture (from 1980) by deborah feingold

but the prospect of beefheart and the magic band never gracing a stage again is a sad one. there are few performers left in the battered rock arena able to communicate such imagination and passion with such force and clarity. consider the show he played at new york's irving plaza [091280] the night after john lennon's murder only a short uptown cab drive away: without introduction, beefheart walked on stage carrying his soprano sax and proceeded to blow possibly the most touching, infuriated and somehow yet celebratory solo i have ever heard. at its end, he dedicated the solo 'to sean from john, through don'. moments like that money could never buy.

i enjoy playing live, if i'm dressed and out of my pyjamas i'll get up there and do something. the reason i don't want to tour is because they've made it so i can't. i can't afford it. i want to paint. but it costs a lot for canvas. this silly thing (picks up a cheap sketch pad full of brand new van vliet ink drawings) cost almost four dollars. twénty fóur sheets for thát?

it's not that i don't wánt to play live. (almost sorrowfully:) i cán't. reagan won't let me.

but, he reassures, he will continue to record. that morning he worked out a new piece with gary lucas on guitar. lacking a tape recorder, beefheart called jeff tepper in california and told him to record it over the phone.

yeah, i'm going to play on record and that's a lot right there. that big black canvas is real expensive.

with any luck, 'ice cream for crow' could go all the way and eat up some of those canvas bills.

by the way, don, what would you do if you had a real hit record?

(objecting:) i had one once. 'diddy wah diddy' by bo diddley. i enjoyed covering that one. (that single, his first, was a minor hit in los angeles.) and i had one with 'too much time'. it was number six in boston, but they took it off the radio for some reason.

they would dance to this one. but why didn't they dance to 'tropical hot dog night'?

but what would you do if you had a réal hit record?

he thinks for a minute and then looks up with a shrug, as if even a stupid question deserved a sensible answer.

i doubt if i'd buy a radio.


*

thanks to helen foster for providing this one!

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captain beefheart electricity
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