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 - part 2 - THIS is PART 3
(the main editing starts here - teejo.)
his favorite device in the past was to always say some bigtime gonzo dada non-sequitur ('all roads lead to coca-cola' was the first one i ever heard), then look you straight in the eye and insistently enquire: 'do you know what i mean?...' 'yeah, sure, don, sure!', everybody (except jan) would always huff and puff. he is a very charismatic person; a guru, of sorts. he knows how to charm, and has a way of flattering you by asking you all. kinds of questions suggesting real concern. he really means it too, his basic philosophy has always been summed up in the open invitation to share his suddenly brighter sunshine in trout mask replica's 'frownland'. but see, that's just it: it was always his sunshine, on another level all these things were and are distancing devices.
i've been told that with don the best counter tactic is to try and pin him down: 'just exactly what do you mean?', but somehow i've never been able to draw that hard a line. the man is too magical. literally. once in detroit i walked into a theatre through the back door while he was onstage performing. at the precise moment i stepped to the edge of the curtains on stage right where i could see him out there haranguing the audience, he said, very clearly: 'lester!'. his back was to me at the time. later he asked me if i had noticed it. i was a little shaken.
the years of what career-oriented folks would file as 'failure' have ripened and mellowed don; like most of us, he's grown up some, albeit perhaps against his will. once i listened to him rant drunk and bitter all night; now i ask him: do you think the music business will ever find you 'commercial,' and do you care?
i don't think they ever will, he laughs, and i don't care. i'm just thankful that an audience is listening to me.
like almost all of beefheart's recorded work, 'trout mask replica' was not even 'ahead' of its time in 1969. then and now, it stands outside time, trends, fads, hypes, the rise and fall of whole genres eclectic as walking christmas trees, constituting a genre unto itself: truly, a musical monolith if ever there was one. since then he has released seven albums of varying quality. the immediate followup 'lick my decals off, baby' was brilliant though a little abrasive even for my ears at the time it was released.
many people regard 1972's clear spot, a minor masterpiece of sorts, as a dance album in disguise. two later records on mercury - 'unconditionally guaranteed' and 'bluejeans and moonbeams' - were baldface attempts at sellout. 'shiny beast (bat chain puller)', a charming but relatively minor work, was released by warner brothers in 1978. none of these albums has sold more than 50 or 60 thousand, and that's over a long period of time.
perhaps it is the 'success' (triumph?) of new wave that has emboldened warner brothers. in any case 'doc at the radar station' is one of the most brilliant achievements by any artist in any year. and in 1980 it seems like a miracle. it certainly is not compromised, and i doubt that it will get any radio play in this country at least. while some of his self-acknowledged acolytes have gone on to stardom, megabucks, popout lunch boxes, etc, the progenitor remains in his mojave trailer, where he barely has room for an indoor easel.
i'm not sawing violins in half - don certainly doesn't feel sorry for himself, and in late 1977 when he reappeared at the bottom line with a new band and 'shiny beast' in the wings, he had the distinct air of a, well, i don't even feel 'survivor' is the word. a patriarch, perhaps, a high priest, born again from ancient egypt - smiling [...], holding just that many mysteries, arcane secrets of hoodoo mojo coptic canebreak healings.
in the late '60s some hotshit young hitpicker got famous by proclaiming that don van vliet, if he wanted to, could be 'the greatest white blues singer in the world'. that would have been dumb [...] like van gogh doing pasteup for bloomingdale's. make no mistake, captain beefheart is an absolutely authentic hunk of taproot americana on a mark twain level with paul bunyan stature. (who are mark and paul? - t.t.)
but today an artist is expected to market him or herself as a commodity to be generally recognized. so in that sense it's no wonder don retreated to the mojave outback. i feel like even the word 'genius' should be put in quotation marks because the very concept has a way of getting out of hand, like an unruly child. artists often end up conspiring with their adoring audiences to ensure their own isolation. once, a very long time ago, i saw don go sweeping imperiously in and out of hotels until he found one that met his esthetic specifications, entourage (including me) trailing embarrassedly behind while he wore a cape and doodled on a pad the whole time. [see note below - teejo.]
still, there ís something ingenuously natural about him. i don't think, for instance, that he necessarily 'tries' to 'create' these things, they just sort of happen to (through?) him. in the course of this process, he has managed to practically reinvent both music and the english language. he embarrasses you with his effusiveness; he feels misunderstood and craves desperately to talk with anyone who understands what he's trying to do. i don't know why he thinks i understand it. i only understand a little part of it. but you'll never miss the feeling however obtuse the structure, because this man is almost 100 per cent feeling - till sometimes you wonder if he has a mind at all or just threw the one he had away one day.
now, there is no reason on earth why such a creature should be articulate. except that he is. but on his terms, most of the time. and this is what has always bothered me. what good is being an artist, if you can't just throw down your defenses sometimes and share things on the common level of other people? without that, it's barren and ultimately pathetic. and i'm talking about the heart that flies between two or more humans, not to the ghost of the great auk, or a glob of paint, or any of his other little friends.
all this week, one song off 'trout mask replica' kept playing in my head: 'orange claw hammer', an unaccompanied field holler-like poem about a man who's been away at sea for years and catches first sight of his daughter since she was in swaddling. he grasps her hand and offers to 'take you down to the foaming brine and water [....] thirty years away can make a seaman's eyes, a round-house man's eyes flow out with water, salt water.'
now if that isn't pure true american folklore then you can throw everything from washington irving to carl sandburg and beyond in the garbage. i'm saying don van vliet, 'captain beefheart,' is on that level. but what i realized this morning, the reason why it was this song stuck out from 26 others: because it's not about the 'neon meate dream of a octafish', but something that happened between people.
why do you almost always talk elliptically?
due to the fact that probably it's very difficult for me to explain myself except in music or paint.
but don't you think talking that way all the time is kind of impersonal, a distancing effect?
it probably comes out very personal in the music. that's where i'm truthful and honest. i don't know how it happens exactly, but my mind becomes the piano or guitar.
what about when you're alone with jan?
we don't talk too much. because we trust each other, and we don't have that much faith in the spoken word. i guess it's true that i do talk selfishly, as a conversationalist.
well, don't you think you're missing something you might get from other people by being that way?
sure, but they usually won't accept me anyway. i'm comfortable talking to you. not many people seem to have things in common with me. i guess what intrigues me the most is something like seeing somebody wash my windows - that's like a symphony.
but if you and i are friends, and you trust me, we should be able to have a reciprocal conversation.
we're talking without talking. i mean that in a good sense. we're saying things that can't be put into the tongue. it's like good music.
in the end i'm not sure which of us is right. i am probably unfair in wanting everything so explicitly defined from everybody, demanding the rest of the human race (perhaps especially ironic in the case of artists and musicians) be as verbal or verbose as i am. i can't say that he's wrong in choosing to live out of society, because this society itself doesn't seem to have much of a future, and doesn't seem to care either.
as for art that deals with human situations, almost none of the art being produced from within the society these days does that, so why pick on beefheart because he'd rather commune with paints and bats in the fireplace? besides which on another level it's none of my business anyway, except insofar as he chose to make it so. and if he is somewhat in retreat - who isn't in retreat these days?
his kind takes a lot more courage than most, and as an artist he is so far removed from any kind of burnout that - like i said earlier - he can't be called a survivor. more like a natural resource. the difference, finally, is that, to use an example by one of his favorite writers, he'll never give us his version of macbeth. he would rather be the grand canyon.
* the MUSICIAN magazine also contained
three untitled DRAWINGS not seen before:
WOMAN SMOKING 1976
VAN VLIET FAMILY [year unknown]
HOLLOW SMOKE 1980
some of the happenings described here
get a better treatment in the 1978 feature the kook who fell to earth,
click clack to the power station, the news or the other INTERVIEWS
captain beefheart electricity
as felt by teejo