DON'T ARGUE THE CAPTAIN
PLAYING IT BY EAR WITH CAPTAIN BEEFHEART
from VANITY FAIR
vol.46 #2 010483 usa
by jim miller
is early months 1983 interview
note: main part reprinted in fanzine 'steal softly thru snow #6'
for nearly seventeen years, captain beefheart has been an outrider of the avant-garde. through eleven albums and a number of tours, he has blazed a stunning new style of music: rock 'n' roll with the bite of blues, the discord of free jazz, the disciplined whimsy of concert music after john cage. the captain is the singular creation of a singular artist: don van vliet, now forty-two. he booms out his lyrics - a sort of silly putty poetry - in a sturdy baritone yowl. besides playing harmonica and saxophone, he composes on the piano or by singing or whistling into a tape recorder. van vliet currently leads a magic band, consisting of two guitars, bass and drums. not a note is improvised. as one of his musicians, guitarist gary lucas, has explained, his songs are "frozen events. it's as if a deck of cards were thrown in the air, a snapshot was taken of it, and we learn to reproduce that snapshot."
recently van vliet was in new york promoting his newest album 'ice cream for crow' and i interviewed him. without giving him any information in advance, i asked him to respond to a variety of records i played, ranging from the blues-rock of van morrison to the folk music of bulgaria. he proved to be voluble, blunt, with a tender shell; the slightest sounds distracted him. with his zigzag wit and wide-eyed bafflement, he's like a child at sea in the world.
peter the wolf was really a nice puppy. there's too much going on. you don't use a bass clarinet as a backdrop. i really like stravinsky, but that's not a very good piece by him. i loved his haircut: i mean the way it was real thin, and the way he combed it with a thick-tooth comb.
igor stravinsky * ebony concerto: first movement
it ain't no big jay mcneely and it ain't no gerry mulligan. horrible. they can't blow like me: i can do that on a goddamn piece of wax paper at home. whoever that is doesn't get it. can i really be myself? i'll look like an egomaniac - maybe i am - but i don't lift ego barbells. there's too much guilt connected with this music. they copied too many people. i don't think music that is copied from other people is healthy. all that brown beta-ray stuff that comes out of somebody stealing something. an artist is the one that kids himself the most gracefully.
world saxophone quartet * sundance
(1980; cubist neo-bebop - four reeds, no rhythm section)
go back to germany! that beat that loud - that's the thing that makes the money. who's that? john lydon? they're copying my drum sound. how corny of him. i thought he was better than that.
public image ltd * swan lake
(1979; screams and yelps from john lydon a.k.a. johnny rotten, of sex pistols infamy)
da dee dip dip dip - that popped out in the wrong place. that was blind willie johnson? i haven't listened to that much blues, although i do like one-string jones. he was a hobo. one-string jones makes that sound like an eveready battery.
blind willie johnson * dark was the night, cold was the ground
(1927; wordless moans and eerie slide guitar from the great gospel singer)
it sounds like they copied jagger. that's jagger? he copied jagger! he got too cute. 'get off of my cloud' was pretty good. but there's too much filler here. the few pop-out things they did weren't done with any feeling, in my opinion - or a lower feeling than my opinion will take.
rolling stones * gimme shelter
howlin' wolf. he could blow a harmonica - he was the best. and hubert sumlin: deep stir, bad musicianship. but i never listened to him that often. a lot of those english boys copy people. i don't. never did.
howlin' wolf * commit a crime
(1967; with hubert sumlin, guitar; gale-force blues from the singer beefheart most closely resembles)
ornate coldman. i liked 'dee dee' a lot. but that doesn't move me much at all. he was a nice man to me at one time. he told me on the phone once that i was 'born too late in st. louis'.
ornette coleman * una muy bonita
(1959; vintage 'free jazz')
clarence 'frogman' henry: real nice. very gutsy. good voice utilization. talking about myself - as an aside - the thing is that i'm outrageous: i'm not even on this planet as far as what i can do with my voice. it's got nothing to do with anyone at all. maybe an animal - like a rhinoceros snorting.
clarence 'frogman' henry * ain't got no home
(1956; famed impersonation of frog - an obscure beefheart influence? - on chorus five and six)
balinese? african? i don't know. peter potter's jukebox jury - do you remember that? i'll give this a ten. it's bulgarian? i always did like balkan sobranie cigarettes. good harmony, refreshing - like watercress in a stream.
chorus of the ensemble of the bulgarian republic * mother has decided to marry me off
(1955; a folk lament)
that saxophone line: it almost makes me think of ornette. it's james brown, but it's such an unusual thing for him to do . he decorates the clock better than anyone.
james brown * tell me what you're gonna do
(±1961; a neglected masterpiece by 'the godfather of soul', with plangent horns and a scuffling backbeat)
doo-wop - that way of singing things - was really a way to fill a space like a horn. that was a real class arrangement - no rococo embellishments.
the moonglows * sincerely
(1954; vintage rock 'n' roll)
a cacophony, a thievery. it isn't anything new, that's for sure. it's really like a placebo, isn't it?
the go-gos * we got the beat
(1982; vintage rock 'n' roll)
you should ask me about this. i love xylophone, but i don't like to hear it played in this context. that was harry partch? i met him once. but i prefer spike jones.
harry partch * barstow: eight hitchhiker inscriptions from a highway railing at barstow, california
(1943; from a 'hobo concerto' for voices, marimbas and original instruments designed by the composer)
that would be a nice thing to dance to with a girl close in, and feel through her dyna-match wool hair as thick as ticonderoga pencils. that came out a long time ago. i would have been thirteen. who was it? i never liked ray charles, except for one thing: 'lonely avenue', especially that line 'my pillows have turned to tombstones'.
guitar slim * the things that i used to do
(1954; with arrangements and piano by ray charles)
another bo diddley lift. if that is van morrison: he asked me for harmonica lessons at the whisky a go go. the best way i can think of learning how to play harmonica, the best harmonica i ever heard, i just rolled down the window of my folks' '41 chevrolet coupe, held one out the window, and heard it, heard the whole damn harmonica blown better and freer than i've ever been able to play it.
them * mystic eyes
(1965; early van morrison)
that's interesting. sounds to me like cannonball adderley, also like some cajun stuff. there's a conglomeration, congratulation of songs. that guitar part - da da da da - that's good. but it gets redundant because they thought it was good. that's the thing i can't stand about music. people that enjoy echoes: they're just bumping their mothers.
james 'blood' ulmer * are you glad to be in america
(1980; primordial 'punk funk' from the celebrated free-jazz guitarist)
a cute variation on chopsticks. the drums tag along like telescoping vibes, wrong end. i really like thelonious monk. but he has done better things, like 'epistrophy'. a great arranger. i saw him once in a theater in the san fernando valley. they gave him a grand piano, a really beautiful steinway, with a cut-glass bowl of roses. he came in late, wearing a trench coat. he dumped the bowl in the piano, knocked down the lid, and hit óne note... the sound: everything going into the piano, the strings, the water splashing, the roses. and then he left. god, óne note. i clapped off my fingernails.
thelonious monk * mysterioso
(1948; with vibraphone)
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captain beefheart electricity
as felt by teejo