DON'T ARGUE THE CAPTAIN
from MELODY MAKER
by john orme
is 22.11.77 interview
our reporter tracks down a revitalised captain beefheart, who has forsaken his desert home to work with a new band
travel through sun-blessed california, beyond the popular picture of america's tanned playground where peaches are canned and wine drips from grapes on the vine, and you come to the desert. this is the country of scavengers and heat creatures, flattening in shadows during the sun's beat, but waiting to slide out as the temperature eases down the scale. deep in the heart of the desert, though, there is also a solitary trailer. this is the home of captain beefheart.
i don't know if you know it, but i don't have a proper home. i mean, i have property in trinidad, california, but not a proper house. my héad is my only house - unless it rains. so i live out in the desert. there are ravens out there - huge and black - and coyotes. i moved out to the desert when i did the 'bongo fury' album with frank zappa, and i am still there.
my neighbours howl at night. all the animals come out then. we have owls and all those animals. those coyotes are tremendous. they have developed as a super-coyote. they have been able to breed despite all the poisons people have tried using against them. they have become as big as female timber wolves. i love animals. one of the guitarists in my new band is named jeffrey teaper (never heard of - t.t.), but he wants to be called morras tapir (ah, i see: jeff moris tepper! - t.t.). he likes animals too.
don van vliet is a happy man. a fortnight ago he brought his new magic band to paris for its european debut, and although the gig is now three days away, it is easier to whistle a dance-along selection from 'trout mask replica' than to stop him talking about the success of the concert and the band.
this band is só good - the best i have ever had! they play with a smile. they really breathe up there when they are playing. after all this time i have finally found the band i'm looking for. it's amazing! playing with this group is like going for a walk: they are so happy when they play. people i meet from the audience have been coming up and telling me how pleased they are that i have finally found a band that i am content with - and they are right.
the gig we played in paris was monstrous. it was three days ago, but i haven't slept since - it was só good! and my voice, well, i can still feel that show in my voice. it hit me so hard i am down to three octaves.... i couldn't get over the way the audience was singing along with it, singing the words back at me in énglish - and i don't speak a word of frénch.
this group, i tell you, i couldn't believe that there were such nice people still around on this earth. true, they are playing what i have written, but they really are playing. this band is moving so fast that very soon i won't have to tell them anything. i really must say: this band is the best....
whoa. stop. brakes on. getting this man to take a breath is like persuading cliff richard to advertise the new sex pistols album. in fact, the members of the band are morris tapir and denny walley on slide guitars, eric 'kittaboo' feldman on bass and synthesizer and robert 'wait for me' williams on drums and percussion.
moris can really laugh and still play our complicated music while dancing around the stage. he just picked the stuff up off the albums, and i hardly had to do anything. drumbo (john french), well, he is a really great drummer: on-stage he plays like a panther. artie tripp, the drummer with the old magic band, was a great drummer, but i choreographed the whole thing: his monocle, the pigtail, all of that. robert is so good, it is insane. morris and drumbo and denny played on my last album bat chain puller, along with pianist john thomas.
i have always thought that insanity is various degrees of disconnection and that losing touch with individuals only increases that disconnection. van gogh must have been one of the sanest people that ever lived. every time i see a painting of his, it makes me breathe so deeply. he was a real musician, a poet, a sculptor in the way he painted....
talking to the captain is like trying to hold mercury in your fingers, but any mention of 'bat chain puller' is enough to keep him on one track for a few minutes. those super-sleuths among beefheart's followers might be aware that 'bat chain puller' is the lost beefheart album. it was recorded early in 1976 and kept on ice until the time was considered right for release. unfortunately, don had to take to the courts to do battle with his former [di martino] management in a case that held up the release of any current material - that is: the 'bat chain puller' album. there was also a contractual dispute with virgin records.
his problems were slightly compounded, he feels, when a tape of the album was sent to virgin in britain. within a few weeks a handful of pirate cassettes found their way down the fire escape and into the sticky grip of a coterie of eager followers. matters came to a head when a review of the unobtainable album appeared in melody maker. although welcoming the enthusiastic tone of the critique, the captain greeted the news that tapes had surfaced with the glee that richard nixon reserved for woodward and bernstein. (know some american history, please - t.t.).
i was aghast, completely horrified by it. i mean: that is my paint, my painting, and they let copies of it out like that when all the legal things were going on.
the legal battle is still in full spate, with the result that beefheart is between labels. his claim is that because of the management break, he is no longer contracted to virgin, and hence no british release of 'bat chain puller'. according to his current manager, harry duncan, the matter should be cleared within a couple of months, and a new recording deal will be signed. when the album appears - possibly in march next year - it will contain the bulk of the 'bat chain puller' material with some new songs recorded by beefheart and his new band. ideally, a series of british dates will be set up to tie in with its release.
this group, i still cannot get over how good they play. i saw a band that played with the spirit of this one once before: john coltrane's group in 1960, with elvin jones on drums, mccoy tyner on piano and jimmy garrison on bass. when they played, it was magic. i said i would have a band like that one day. that band was like a living sculpture, and now i have it. after that show i went and got coltrane's autograph.
the captain's autograph book is a wonderful document, a page-by-page movie of his close thoughts and delights. alongside the autographs of heroes like count basie and howlin' wolf are drawings, sketches, cartoons, doodles and quaint abstractions. on one page is the signature of sunnyland slim, a 70-year-old blues pianist he regards as thé undiscovered father of the blues. opposite the autograph is a black felt-tip sketch of slim at the piano. there is little detail to the drawing, a few background lines, a raised forefinger and a concentration on the bluesman's trampled features.
i would say that out of everything i do, painting is my most important thing. i always do it, i am always drawing something. i feel crazy if i don't have a pen or my book with me so i can get it down there. did you know i never went to school, not even once? yeah, i never spent one day in school. when i was five i won a scholarship to learn sculpture in europe, and stayed there until i was 13. (did you? - t.t.)
the first time i came to england i played at the middle earth. that was a great place, right by a vegetable market. i played my horn for two and a half hours, and it was the first time i had played it on stage. i just couldn't stop. i didn't know where the notes were or anything, and i am proud to say i still do not.
i produce sounds that other players do not get. i get sounds out of myself as opposed to getting them from a formal scheme of playing. i have never yet heard people play the horn like me. do other people like it? well, they didn't complain at the middle earth. for me it is an escape valve, another paintbrush.
i am always looking for new mouthpieces for my horn. i have just got one that is really big, so big i can almost feel my tongue coming out of the bell of the horn. i am really looking forward to coming over to england and blowing my paint at everyone from my horn.
so what really did happen with him and the old zoot horn rollo-style magic band? did they drop him - as bill harkleroad said later - or did he scrap them?
that was a stupid thing - that whole time. bill did say those things, but said later that they were taken and put in a sensationalist way, which was not the way he said them. he came and apologised afterwards. he was not sure how i would react, but what did he expect: that i would jump at him? i told him that friends do not mind, you just let things grow.
the whole thing was pretty bogus, all that seeming recrimination in print. he was tricked into saying those things. we had a good time playing together. bill played awful good at times, a great player. i played him 'bat chain puller' and he really liked it. he flipped over what i was doing with the band.
if, and when, beefheart does play britain next spring (would be: late 1980 - t.t.), he will bring vivid memories of britain, such as when a 13-year-old girl confronted him from the audience before a newcastle concert and recited all the lyrics from 'trout mask replica', word for word.
i was on a bus yesterday and started talking to this irish guy, a musician. he was a bit shy, but told me he had come over to give a bouquet of flowers to a girl he hadn't seen for two years. he was reluctant to tell me about it. he said that it was crazy what he was doing. i told him: 'no, everything else is crazy. what you are doing is great'....
note by teejo: the mention of john 'drumbo' french as a member of the band is left out because it must have been a misinterpretation: he had been in the prévious line-up for half a year, actually
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captain beefheart electricity
as felt by teejo