DON'T ARGUE THE CAPTAIN
TO BE FAR OUT OR NOT TO BEEFHEART OUT
from ZIGZAG #34
by tony barrell
is feature / 19-22.04.73 interview
[editorial note by connor mcknight:]
in september of 1970, i moved into a new flat in bayswater. it has about it an air of what indifferent novelists invariably call faded gentility. all our neighbours seemed very old and very quiet, but it was still a nice place. now one evening when i was sitting on the toilet, of all things, a faint trace of music wafted through the door, and upon closer listening it bore a great similarity to 'space-age couple' from 'lick my decals off, baby' - in fact it was 'space-age couple'.
'my god, beefheart has made it onto radio 1,' i thought, and all life's certitudes evaporated. i mean, if captain beefheart can be on the radio then they'll have dan hicks doing the news soon. fortunately for my peace of mind, when that number was finished i wasn't greeted by some jerk like terry wogan (can you imagine: 'that was little old don van vliet, and don would like to tell you the recipe for his blimp cookies...'?), but by the strains of 'the clouds are full of wine, not whiskey or rye', but since someone has borrowed my copy i can't be sure of that.
now with piercing logic i grasped that there must be someone in this building who was playing 'lick my decals off, baby' and that someone i had to meet - so by dint of a lot of voyeuristic listening at letter boxes, i tracked it down to the flat below mine, and with great trepidation i knocked, half expecting a little old lady to come to the door and scream as by this time i was in a state of frenetic, eye-rolling curiosity.
the door opened and there was just another long-haired, wild eyed beefheart freak standing there; an instant friendship developed, and when the band were over here earlier this year i asked tony if he would like to write it all up. he did, and what follows is the result. it is a bit of a departure for us since it isn't a fax and info article at all, but with your customary friendliness, you'll doubtless let us know if you don't approve.
maybe there are all kinds of beefheart freaks, but two i know about. there's the original got-it-from-john-peel-in-1967 generation - the days of 'safe as milk', the heavy boogie blues band with the weird singer and the weird words. and there's the 'trout mask replica' people: fans (is that the right word for a beefheart follower?) who were prepared to throw themselves into the weirdest stuff around and come up smelling of sunshine.
now there's a whole new lot of people discovering beefheart through 'clear spot' and 'the spotlight kid'. doing the heavy boogie 'safe as milk' thing, but backwards. well, i am somewhere there in the middle getting squeezed from both directions, but the thing i find myself getting nearer and nearer to (although i still run away from a lot of it) is good old 'trout mask replica'.
the point of this ramble is just to say that even though a lot of people would prefer to forget that captain beefheart and the magic band ever recorded 'trout mask replica' or 'lick my decals off, baby', they are there. also to all those people who wish he had never recorded 'clear spot' but had gone on laying down more 'trouts' the same thing applies. those far out stuff records exist. nobody is gonna take them away. keep on ordering your replacement copies and remember: just because you dig back, it doesn't mean you live in the past. one way or another this 'clear spot'/'trout' matter came up several times when i met the band.
some of us may not realise just how much it costs to make far out stuff records like 'trout mask replica' and 'lick my decals off, baby'. according to artie tripp (ed marimba), bill (zoot horn rollo) nearly died and mark (rockette morton) was too starved to get out of bed for months. they were eating welfare dogmeat. a long way from the coffee shop of the marble arch holiday inn.
so if any of you think that 'going on tour with the magic band stars' is a bit like that flo and eddie stuff - you know: mudsharks and being filmed by andy warhol and truman capote and immortalised by raoul duke - well, forget it. the nearest thing i got to the big gonzo experience, was shooting the ticket on the way back from bristol. that's blackjack. i lost £2 to the captain.
the first thing that hits you about american tourists of any kind - whether they be little old ladies looking for harrods or horror-show rock magicians seeking a snort - is that they are incredibly polite. the british are brought up to believe that they have the most impeccable manners in the world and that americans are just brash trash. not true. inside nearly every redneck, hardhat, ivy leaguer or fazed out freak there is a southern gentleman eager to get out and shake hands. when they're over here anyway.
and let's face it: on a five week tour of britain there is a lot you have got to be polite about. the waitresses in the new motorway service cafes actually apologise before you eat your food. after they have been open a few weeks they say: 'i just work here'. but nobody in the magic band could be persuaded to say anything really nasty about the way travellers are forced to feed in this country. come to think of it, it may well end up as force feeding. give a thought to our truckdrivers and travelling salesman.
britain is a little country still trying to remember how to act big and americans are incredibly polite about it because they know that it's not really all our fault, that we probably think it's theirs, so they don't rub salt in. anyway that's by way of saying that all the time i was with the magic band, they never once made a heavy complaint about the appalling way we handle things over here. maybe because we're not armed.
i met captain beefheart after the second rainbow gig. he was upset by the p.a. growl that messed with the latter part of the act ["will the audience please stop humming..."] and was drinking a bottle of courage light ale by the neck and being politely hustled away by john peel who was giving him dinner in a restaurant that didn't take orders after 11.30 pm. he was lucky enough to have a paper cup.
backstage at the rainbow is like after a freak's wedding in a wasted carpark. you look at the ground and expect to see cider-stained cinders. you certainly feel them in the air. nobody said anything. maybe they assume we suffer in silence because we just know something better is going to turn up. micawberism - the creeping british disease. the most contagious one anyway. don't worry about the revolution/apocalypse/millennium, man; it will turn up.
anyway, we can't complain because now we have a full set of holiday inns. the magic band stayed in the brand new one: a miami-style cheesecake-on-its-side, hidden in there behind the cumberland. there is another one at swiss cottage. there will be more and more everywhere soon. watch out for them....
artie tripp was seen wrestling with a rasher-style steak in the coffee shop. before i told him i was writing this, he informed me that he was thinking of getting some holiday inn stock. "at least you know where you are." one of those remarks you can take any way you like. he also told me that the band had suffered terribly from doing that far out stuff weird shit music, but more of that....
once the bus was underway and the boys in the band are shooting the ticket, i cornered the captain. let me tell you that as i write this, i can still feel his presence. he is one of those heavy people who is always laughing. his eyes are bright blue and they burn. he shakes his shoulders when he has made some truly cosmic verbal outrage and he draws and draws and draws while we chase a thunderstorm towards swindon. he uses a felt-tipped marker and notebooks of various sizes with tear-out pages.
the drawings come through fuzzily on the other side of the paper too, so each picture has a mirror-man image. "some people like them one way, some people like them the other. there's another!" he holds up a flock of golden birdies, then a shoal of fish. there is a primeval tortoise giving a ride to a black-faced rabbit.
"what's he doing there? oh, my god, look at that poor guy." he has drawn a man with an impossibly lumpy head. "i write a hundred and fifty pages a day. today i only did thirty." "how do you do all that and work?", i ask. "wórk?", he says flinching, "it's all pláy.... some people think it's a terrible thing being a human being," he says ruminating over the lumphead. "but you don't have to be weird to be weird." again we are getting into the too far out area. maybe he still wears the trout mask, but he is into stomping his feet now, boogieing around the stage, letting some of that funky stuff hang out. maybe it's because the trout mask was really a carp anyway.
after the bristol gig he was interviewed by a reporter from radio bristol - pete johnston. the captain remembered him from last time. "what about the possibility that some of your audience are on hard drugs?", asked pete. pause. "marijuana grows by the road," said the captain. not that he was being smart-ass to dumb questions. captain beefheart talks to anyone who wants to talk to him. backstage at bristol was like a family party with the local far out freaks jostling with lads who had come down from cardiff, the bristol bouncers getting autographs for their daughters and the support band beckett all loosening up together.
the captain has things to say. he doesn't want interviewers to go away with fleas in their ears and stars in their eyes. whales of course get their plug. as he said to pete, dogs never used to go swimming out to sea to catch and eat whales, so why should we do it for them? "a whale has a fourteen and a half pound brain, think about that."
captain beefheart has a hawk's eye for animal oddities. drawing with one of them and watching out of the window with the other, he spotted a beagle pointing in the middle of a football field. also a smart tree. "i know a smart tree when i see one." the magic band lives up in north california where they used to have millions of sequoias - the giant redwoods - forests of them. "redwood trees purify the atmosphere." roy estrada told me that there was a lot of oxygen in north california.
people are always pressing the captain to talk about zappa and acid. i didn't ask him about either but he told a story about the time he was given a spiked drink during a street acid test in 1966. it was pure sandoz. one minute he was walking down the street, the next minute he was all over the universe. and he didn't know why. then it happened again. another time somebody spiked a drink with some other [unspecified] stimulant-intoxicant just before he was due to go on stage.
he played and sang for two hours and when he walked off he literally walked off into the auditorium, right off the stage, in mid-air. he was that high. he doesn't touch that stuff now.... i didn't ask him about zappa, but roy estrada told me that in the early 'mothers of invention' days when the band wanted to play lots of funky rock zappa used to stop them and tell them they were ruining his music, even though it was theirs too.
not far out enough? beefheart probably does worry about what people think of his current act. he is sure that 'too much time' should have been a hit single, but maybe not that sure. it wasn't included in the tour act, because there were no backing singers. he has had hit problems before. he says there were seven or eight hit singles on 'safe as milk'. i said, what about 'big eyed beans from venus'? he said he thought it was a little too far out. artie tripp on the other hand thought it was "easy to get off on".
there it is again, exactly what is and what isn't too far out or weird shit? i told him about a 17 year old greek i had met on an island. a long-hair waiting to go into the army for two years. he knew all the words to 'lick my decals off, baby'. "hey bill," said the captain, "come and listen to this." i told the story again. "wow," said the captain, "that's far out." he thought i had said a 70 year old man. i wish it had been that way.
beefheart worries like hell on tour. it has to be right. i watched him do over an hour of testing on the p.a. before the gig at bristol. "it's got a key of its own," he yelled at the mike, "can't you hear it?" he belted out some 'low yo yo stuff' and stopped abruptly, the band did too. he cocked his ear up. "you hear that?" something was echoing around the hall. "it's too thoroughbred. i can't get intimate with it."
the problem was solved when beckett's singer terry slesser lent him his mike. afterwards he asked him what p.a. they had. "kelsey morris," said terry. "that's expensive, isn't it?," said the captain. "we couldn't afford one of those right now," terry grinned and admitted that somebody else had paid for theirs. good old 'bread up front'. beckett may have been spared their dogmeat days.
the captain told me he had been through 5,000 dollars worth of hohner harps in order to get three right ones for this tour. now they were almost worn out. he played a few scintillating screams on two of them to prove his point. the first one sounded incredible. the second fantastic, and the third out of this world. "they don't make them like they used to. ever since the beatles."
would he do another double album? yes, but people can't afford them. "getting this band together is what i want to do before anything else." "do you extemporise when you record?" "isn't that a dog's disease?" he is the only man who can sing and whistle at the same time with a cigarette in his mouth, and make it sound like a moog synthesizer. "put don preston out of a job," i joked. "that arsehole," he joked back in that affectionate way he has of talking about certain other musicians. the next week he was off to holland to do dutch tv. "a touch of the dutch," he said, "hey mark, write that down. two ways: 'a touch of the dutch' and 'a dutch of the dutch'." mark got it both ways.
back home where the big roads flow captain beefheart drives a 1972 chevy corvette stingray. he used to be a racing driver; before he was a sculptor. "i can get it up to 170 without it fading away." something more abrupt than a fade-out stopped them playing their southend university gig. the roadies pronounced the hall electrically unsafe.
alex snouffer later told me he felt a latent power surge - as if someone up there was waiting for them to plug in, strike a chord, and then zitt!: no more magic band. that's something else americans are politely sure we don't understand here: electricity. so much, that before he sings it captain beefheart gently recites the words of 'electricity' to his audience.
some of the venues on this tour were a bit of a farce, not just echoing ancient victorian barns but brand new ones. take canterbury, the last gig. it was played in a huge brick shithouse also used as some kind of basketball gymnasium. presumably there isn't a concert hall or suitable auditorium there. why not? well because people up there still think that students are better off playing competitive games than listening to far out stuff in comfort. they would be better off with neither, wanking is better than art if it is done better!
anyway, my last memory of canterbury will not be captain beefheart at all, but the tearful, wasted, bopped out figure slumped alone at the front of the plywood stage, almost broken-down at the thought of it all being over for another year. beat your hands raw, boys. by the way, apart from the short hair that he (connor) displayed, the captain also digs baggy pants. "i don't want to display my sex organs in a cloth window."
so, time now to get back to that far out stuff syndrome. why is it the melody maker said 'clear spot' had no beef, no heart? why is it some people don't like the captain trucking around the stage exhorting the audience to 'git up' (he didn't have to at canterbury, they already were)? why is it that artie tripp says that the next record will be "even simpler" than 'clear spot'? well, artie - who certainly is something of the powerhouse that drives the magic band to new boogies - says that 'alice in blunderland' and 'steal softly through snow' and all those other far out stuff numbers that were played as encores on the second night at the rainbow are fun to play but that's all. they leave 90% of the audience cold and if that happens for long, it's back to the dogmeat. and we all know that even if we love the idea of an artist starving to produce his art, would he mind not coughing himself to death on our doorstep?
yes folks, it's cynical money talk time. for every person that says: 'go on, do another 'trout mask replica',' there are fifty more who will go out and buy 'clear spot'. maybe people don't like artie tripp doing his paper-tearing act, or rockette morton wearing an electric toaster on his head ("a toast from rockette morton") or beefheart finding and killing a fly on the mike and then dropping it onto zoot's strings to launch them into 'low yo yo stuff'.
maybe they had rather captain beefheart just retired to a mountaintop to utter infrequent but world shattering gnomisms. the truth is that they dropped 'alice in blunderland' and 'steal softly through snow' from the repertoire. the only far out tune left at the end of the tour was the set-piece feature duet-duel between rockette morton and zoot horn rollo, 'peon', but by now everybody can take that.
there's a lot more rhythm around. there is a lot more guitars: three on most numbers, sometimes all of them with bottleneck stitching. artie tripp gets through three sets of sticks on 'big eyed beans from venus' and everybody looked like a crocodile had been sucking it. the act was less like a dangerous circus. the jokes were more cosy, tv comedy type jokes. last year at the albert hall the captain wore a blazing satin cloak and he played a lot of sax. this year he wore a red tee-shirt with his own head on it, a black leather jacket, baggy corduroys and he hardly combed his hair. he certainly didn't play the sax. when asked about that he gave the impression that he is leaving all that weird shit to roland kirk.
he doesn't like alice cooper's act because it is mean to animals. sure, he's still a free flow giant tapped into the continuing cosmical metaphor rolling around the big roof (pseud's corner entry 341006b) and he sees things coming that some of us might miss on a pint of peyotal ale. he was here with the heaviest, most musically original and classy rock band in the business and yet not once when i was with him did he ever mention the word rock, let alone 'rock 'n' roll'. maybe he was being obscurely polite again. after all the british talk about it as if they invented it and it really must be embarrassing for those polite people from big muddy to hear us going on like the half-brain hicks we all are. maybe sometimes beefheart sounds like someone who digs dogs and trees more than he does people. there's a lot of that around at the moment and you can see why. my only piece of advice on that is that you can't have congress with a tree and shouldn't need to have congress with a dog.
personally i don't care if captain beefheart sings from a hammock - all tinselled up like a christmas tree. he has already been there, sixteen sides of the most electric music ever made. if he misses a new audience because he thinks he's too far out and goes too far back to meet them, they should have the sense to cheer anyway. especially here since we are in danger of becoming a nation of rock critics anyway. next year the music will be simpler. between then and now he will have been to japan, and who knows he may record a single like 'abba zaba' or 'big eyed beans from venus' and rip the charts apart. [both fantasies of the writer - t.t.]
while hopson & bates ad agency is trying to persuade the mcc that the good old english game of cricket should go blow football, long hair and groovy, we can't really expect any sense anywhere, i suppose, but at least the captain came and he did play some far out stuff and he took £2 off me towards its upkeep.
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captain beefheart electricity
as felt by teejo