DON'T ARGUE THE CAPTAIN
'EVERYONE SHOULD GO FLY A KITE'
from TIME OUT #120
by connor mcknight
is 24.03.72 interview
* text reproduced as 'blabber 'n smoke' in book about cb 'the lives and times of captain beefheart'
* second part of text reprinted in england 1998 book TIME OUT INTERVIEWS 1968-1998
beefheart is an incurable jester. he has often said that it is important that his music is played in an unselfconscious, playful way and on his recent tour he interspersed wisecracks and surreal little bits of dialogue with the songs. most of these episodes have great significance. 'meditation soothes the mind and body', which beefheart proclaimed, was a slogan that the maharishi used in los angeles, and the gabbled bit of spanish that oréjon replied with, is what all the mexican kids use to beg a bob or two off american tourists. get it?
anyway, talking to him is just like that and all the interviews that show him docilely waiting for the question to end, were either a different guy or a faulty cassette machine. one of his favourite tricks is to ignore questions so that a backlog builds up, from which he will then choose one, and then, in the middle of answering that, he'll start answering another. whew.
so what follows is an attempt to capture the feeling of talking with a luminous intelligence, but as well a twinkling, humorous player. (his talk is constantly punctuated by winks and little smiles that he employs to reassure the listener that he is just playing and not to get too upset by the apparent illogicality of it all.)
while the usual preliminaries were being gone through, bill shumow, the group's road manager, put on 'the spotlight kid'. the captain asked whether i minded the music playing while we talked.
not if you don't mind talking over it.
wasn't there an album on before? who was it?
no wonder it was so insignificant, i couldn't even hear it. ugh, i can't make that cat.
he stole my hat, you know. he wears a hat exactly like mine.
well, there is a similarity of hats, but i had always thought of beefheart's hat as the pilgrim hat featured on the cover of 'trout mask replica'.
what happened to that hat?
ah, hammomd hammond has that one. geoffrey hammond hammond, he got it in new york. but i like geoffrey hammond hammond, i don't mind him having it.
the hat in question has a mighty peculiar brim, like half of it is missing. is it a beefheartian illusion, allusion or what?
oh, i made it like that, with just two bits sticking out. well, all of a sudden that cat leon russell appears with my hat, the top hat, dickens hat or whatever: that dickens got my hat, you see, wore a hat like mine. now where's that at, you know what i mean? he's too thin to wear a hat like mine.... no, i'm just kidding. no, i'm not really.
what? too thin?
yeah, up here, mentally. (beefheart kind of bores his finger into his temple and gives a little wink.)
well, where do you suppose he got the vest from?
oh, hendrix, or somebody else like that.
i asked who the fellow called bermann was who had been credited with co-authorship of the songs on 'safe as milk', the captain's first album [from 1967 -t.t.].
the bearmann did you say?
that's about it right there.
alice in bearland.
you said it.
...- who co-wrote some of the songs on 'safe as milk'.
well, he was a fellow that i met up in the desert; he was a writer and i sort of collaborated with him on some of the songs on the album. he didn't really write that much, but what he did write was nice. i got together with him because at the time the group that i was with wouldn't listen to a thing i said, and i thought that if i was with what they thought was a professional writer, that they would listen to me. you see, my stuff seemed too far out for them.
but it didn't work out: they still wouldn't listen. as a matter of fact, they came over here [in 1968 - t.t.] and we played at the middle earth and they really dug it, you know, everybody was really there, you know, we were there, but they - the group - weren't there. i mean: they were still over in america thinking that nobody wanted to hear them.
so that's why i have the group i have now, it took me five years to get this group together. they're honest men and they don't look down on people, they look straight across at them. which is important to me. honestly.
well, honesty certainly hasn't been evident in the way the business has treated the captain. i had been rather puzzled by the absence of lyrics for either 'trout mask replica' or 'lick my decals off, baby'. both albums contain some of the captain's most potent images. take this, for example, from 'the buggy boogie woogie' on 'lick my decals off, baby': one day i was sweeping down by the wall / i bumped a mama spider and the babies began to fall / off of my broom / now i gotta keep sweeping and sweeping / before they fill the room....
there weren't any lyrics over here? oh, the bastards...! the bastards...! why do they do it to me?... oh why?... the shits!... and if you want man, i'll sign that. you send that to me and i'll sign it. was that put out by thát mán (a reference to frank zappa)?
the captain feels that zappa was not at all interested in his music and that this explains why the magic band were promoted as 'one of the animal crackers' by zappa's label - along with other 'weirdo' groups like the g.t.o.s and alice cooper. i thought it only fair to point out that if it hadn't been for zappa 'trout mask replica' - an astonishing creation - would never have got made.
oh shit, man, he did nothing. the boys did all the work, they were great. that man just curled up in the control room and went to sleep. anyway, i don't want to talk about it.
at this, some of his composure returned and that little devilish smile that he finds so hard to curb, returned as he added:
i did it, man; i did it. i put myself in the music business, so they naturally gave me the music business' trademark: the bum's rush.
beefheart feels that much of the poverty of modern life is connected to the divorce between ourselves and natural things like organic shapes and colours. he commented some time ago on the decline in kite-flying as a clear indicator of this malaise. well, as he was staying near hyde park, i mentioned the kite-flyers that played there.
i've been watching them, they're real nice. everybody ought to go fly a kite. you feel the wind and that strain. put a brush in your hand and do the canvas like the wind does the kite.
they have some beautiful kites, one is like a huge hawk.
well, if they do that, maybe they'll appreciate how beautiful the hawk is and won't shoot it out of the air. you know, if they can feel the way the feathers feel.... it's a good way to see over the hill, you know what i mean, you put your eyes in the kite and you can see over the hill.
to see: ...?
without seeing with your eyes. i think the hill is eye consciousness, you know: just seeing everything with your eyes, like interpreting who a person is on first glance without feeling them, with your eyes shut. you don't have to shut your eyes physically, but i mean you should look deeper than just the way they look.
but everyone has their own hills, don't you think?
anthills, or own hills - no, i'm only teasing. i think that a lot of those hills have been put there out of fear. i think that the long black dress and the fear of the female ankle and the worry about private parts and all these kind of things are ridiculous. now i don't say that everyone should jump out of their clothes and run around naked. i think that's really ridiculous, they would freeze to death and get sunburnt, but i think that everybody that's taking a shower shouldn't be that embarrassed. the rain when it falls hits everybody - everybody takes the same shower. water is the cheapest drink, now, but the glass is the lowest.
beefheart seems to be entranced by vacuum cleaners. he is shown holding one in the little photo on the sleeve of zappa's 'hot rats', and there is a photo of him performing in washington with several huge industrial cleaners draped in and out of the sound equipment. it emerged that these pleasant creatures had important lessons for us too.
i think that you can look at a vacuum cleaner and find out a lot of things, like the dust, you know, they collect a lot of dust and dirt and everything. you can find out what somebody has had for dinner, or you can find out what they do, or how they walk - which is far out.
you've never written a song about them; because they'll be in the smithsonian institute someday, for sure.
sure will, and one day i will, like it's.... to see the world, in an oldsmobile.
at this point, the captain began whistling a tune that sounded awfully familiar, but which i couldn't place until he continued:
remember that? holiday 88 (a tv show, i think). that was when everything got real pointed. like the dc3 as opposed to the f104 or the boeing, poking that on whatever they're doing. i mean, like the sabre jet, emulating the shark as opposed to now they're emulating needles and things.
an important figure in the captain's cosmology at the moment is jean-pierre hallet, a belgian animal lover who tried unsuccessfully to start a zoo in an area of california near the captain's home. he was unsuccessful because people were frightened that the animals would escape. hallet is also the author of two books which his wife is presently reading to him. i asked him if he didn't dislike zoos?
yeah, it's terrible that they have to lock them up in zoos. but man hasn't learnt how to communicate with animals yet. he isn't very intelligent.
that's why people are frightened of them.
i'm not. i used to go into cages with lions. you know the mgm lion, leo, their emblem lion? i used to go into cages with him when i was five, down at griffith park zoo in los angeles, to sculpt him with a good friend of mine. and do you know what happened? he was very old, the lion, and some idiot threw a cigar on him and it burned through and killed him. it burnt through his skin while he was asleep. made me sick. it was one of the most traumatic things i remember out of my childhood. isn't that awful. that sonofabitch....
of course, the extension of his concern for animal life takes him straight to the ecological conundrum. but not for him a trendy preoccupation with plastic bottles. beefheart's solution is quite clear - just love, cherish and care for the things of nature. in the songs that he has been writing since the very beginning, this care has been displayed. a most telling insight is in 'the smithsonian institute blues', on 'lick my decals off, baby', where the parallel between the fate that befell the dinosaurs and the stage that we have reached in our interaction with the environment is simply stated: 'all you new dinosaurs / now it's up to you to choose / before your feet hit the tar / you better kick off them old shoes...'. the captain explained:
well, that's about the la brea tar pits in los angeles; because if they don't change, then they're gonna sink into the tar pits. i've been saying it for years..., look at 'safe as milk'. i don't want to take credit for starting anything, i just wanted them to hear that they got deluded again. i'll tell you what, 'safe as milk' meant the mother's breast that's going to be unfit for the child because of strontium 90, the hot juices of the breast. everybody thought i meant acid, but i wouldn't talk about an aspirin at that length. i was referring that the feeling that something is 'as safe as milk' can't be a feeling anymore because milk isn't safe.
to attempt to reduce beefheart or his music to one neat little phrase is absurd. his music creates styles. it is, literally, incomparable. he himself creates a kaleidoscope of thoughts when he talks, and the only response is to lie back and enjoy it. perhaps the deepest impression is left by his reluctance to think in words but rather in images. on one occasion as he was talking, his wife jan was reading a book and the turning of the pages was distracting him. gently, he turned to her and said:
jan, jan.... i can't really hear with those pages going, you know: i want to pick up an instrument to that percussion....
a question that may be answered by 'yes' or 'no' is very often answered by a short little image culled from some past glimpse of the world. the captain carried a large book wherein these glimpses are often recorded and which may be published under the title 'the night my typewriter went daaaaaaaaa'. there was an obvious question for the conscientious interviewer:
do you use a typewriter?
there was an equally obvious captain reply:
what type of writer do you mean? a flesh writer, or a flesh writer with buttons?
a final quote from the book - entered on the flight over:
it's like someone that put on his brakes with an eraser in his mind.
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captain beefheart electricity
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