DON'T ARGUE THE CAPTAIN
CAPTAIN BEEFHEART'S FAR
he's alive, but so is paint. are you?
from THE VILLAGE VOICE
by lester bangs
is early09.80 interview / feature
* text reprinted
- as captain beefheart's iridescent logic in usa 010181 musician #29
- as beating 'round the bush with beefheart in usa 010581 boulevards vol.3 #5
- in usa 2003 book (a) lester bangs (reader) * mainlines, blood feasts, and bad taste
- without subtitle in england 010311 classic rock #155
* edited version
* all pictures by deborah feingold, taken from 'musician'
part 1 - THIS is PART 2 - part 3
'we don't have to suffer, we're the best batch yet.' would you care to comment on what that might mean?
yeah, what i was doing there was having these cardboard ball sculptures, fake pearls, real cheap cardboard constructed circles, you know what i mean, floating through that music. actually, i was afraid to sing on that track, i liked the music so much, it was perfect without me on it. and so i put those words on there, you know they're just cheap cardboard constructions of balls of simulated pearls floating through, and it's an overwhelming technique that makes them look like pearls. 'we don't have to suffer, we're the best batch yet' were these pearls talking to themselves.
as opposed to the other ones. what does it mean when you say: 'white flesh waves to black'?
god, i don't know what that means. it means, it's just a, uh, it's merely just a painting, you see, that's poetic license.
i thought you were talking about racism.
oh, no. i don't know what to do about racial or political things. it was just a poem to me. a poem for poem's sake.
i was also thinking of when you walk around looking at people who have turned themselves into commodities.
yeah, we're the best batch yet! we're the newest best that has been put out. well that has to do with that, too. you know i'm, uh, ahm, what do you call it, it isn't schizophrenic but it is, uh, what people in the west think of people in the east, you see, meaning that in some instances they think that people are crazy who think multifaceted, that there's many ways of interpreting something. i mean 'em all. i can't say i don't know what my lyrics mean, but i can say that, uh, yeah i know what they mean, but if you call it you stop the flow.
van morrison has said that he doesn't know what a lot of his own lyrics mean, and even if beefheart does, or they mean something different for each of us, i think, as with morrison, occasionally you feel that the voice of some 'other' just might be speaking through this singer at this particular time, as if he were an instrument picking up messages from '...? doc at the radar station'.
about the various voices he switches between, often in the same song: i'll tell you the truth, some of those guys really scare me, that come out at me when i do some things, like 'sheriff of hong kong,' i never met him before. or she, i don't know.... it's like different, uh, uh... you see, i don't think i do music, think i do spells.
wherever don van vliet gets his rules and messages from, it's rarely the external, so-called rational, i think psychotic 'civilized' society we've known and lived in. he chooses to live óut of it, mentally and physically, and began trying to escape from it at a very early age:
i never went to school. i wet my pants and my mother came and got me as i was running and i told her that i couldn't go to school because i was sculpting at that time a hell of a lot. that was kindergarten, i think. i tried to jump into the la brea tar pits when i was three, whatever that means. they caught me just in time. i was so intrigued by those bubbles going bmp bmp. i thought i would find a dinosaur down there.
i told my mother when i was three years old - she showed it to me not too long ago, in this baby book in that horrible palmer penmanship method of writing that she used, you know that fantastic curlicues type stuff that had everything to do with everything other than what it said, on this old yellow piece of paper it's written out, that if she would stay on one side of the room and i would stay on the other, that we would be friends the rest of our life. i used to lock myself in a room and sculpt when i was like three, five, six.
what sorts of things did you sculpt?
oh god, things that i would try to have moved kinetically, try to move these things around. these were my friends, these little animals that i would make, like dinosaurs and... - i wasn't very much in reality, actually.
do you feel bad about that?
no, i feel good. i was right. the way people treat animals, i don't like it. one of my horrible memories is the great auk, the fact that it was extinct before i was born. what a beautiful bird.
what were your parents like?
pretty banal. they moved me to mojave, that's where they kept the japanese-americans during world war two. they moved me up there to keep me out of a scholarship to europe for sculpture. they wanted to get me away from all the 'queer' artists. isn't that awful? periscopes in the tub, right?
he's still not very much in 'reality'. his problems with record companies over the years are legendary. yet he has, somehow, kept on making those amazing albums; just when you've almost given up hope, somebody else comes along and offers him a contract, and he does another one, and it doesn't sell. jon landau told me in 1970, when he was my record reviews editor at rolling stone: 'grand funk will be more important to the history of rock and roll than captain beefheart. and you can quote me on that.'
but there are other occasions, like the time i met a young woman in a bar who was not a scenemaker or into avant-rock, and when i asked her what kind of music she liked she said: 'this guy i heard named captain beefheart. there was just something kind of real sensual and musky about it, i don't know... it was different, but i loved it.'
beefheart himself thinks women tend to understand his music better than men, so especially since he can be so elliptically, obscurantistly difficult to pin down in interview and describing his music in prose is kind of like trying to catch the prism of a dragonfly wing and hold it intact in the palm of your hand, i'll talk about his wife. jan is a young woman of such radiance and wholehearted sincerity that it can be a little stunning at first meeting. phrases like 'earth mother' are too quaint, dreary, way off the mark. she is as active an artist as he and the complexities of her mind are fully up to his moodswings, which can give you jetlag. which doesn't mean she is the archetypal great artist's nursemaid either - she won't take his shit, and he can be a tyrannical baby at times. like a lot of us.
jan helps mightily at broaching some kind of rapprochement communications wise between this man and the world at large. in other words, she translates. in both directions. you'd see the same thing at the united nations and if don is not exactly intoning 'klaatu baraada niktu', he does at times seem almost like a visitor from another planet, or more precisely someone still stunned by his first sight of this one, as i suspect he always will be. perhaps he just doesn't have those filtering mechanisms which enable most of us to cope with "reality" by blocking out at least 80 percent of it.
according to his set of filters, in-animate objects are alive, and plants and animals share with them the capacity to think as well as feel. don sees perspicacity in a mesquite, an old broom handle even. if his lyrics are about anything absolutely, they are about ecology.
you're a painter. in 'run paint run run' are you saying that the paint itself is a conscious entity with a will of its own?
yeah! definitely! hey, you got it. yes, it does have a will of its own.
so it's alive.
i think so. i definitely feel that it is.
do you generally feel that about the things around you, inanimate objects?
um hm. yeah, i really do. i think they're all alive. don't you?
i don't know.
come on, you do too.
so how do you and the paint get along?
pretty damn good, i'll tell you. i'm just looking forward to getting enough money to be able to really paint big. i don't want to paint any littler than five by five. but i'd like to paint twenty by twenty. (probably don means feet nót meters - t.t.)
do you and the paint ever have fights?
do you feel the same way about the electric guitar, that when you plug it into the call it's this battle of wills sort of?
i think so. it'll spit out at you anything that's out there.
was that what you were talking about in 'electricity'?
yeah, that had a hell of a lot to do with it. it always seems to come out the way it wánts to, you know.
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captain beefheart electricity
as felt by teejo