DON'T ARGUE THE CAPTAIN
THE KOOK WHO FELL TO EARTH
growing up with captain beefheart
from NEW MUSICAL
EXPRESS 01+080478 england
by lester bangs
is article / 27.11.77 usa interview
note: edited version. with the ups and downs of a beefheart fan, too
THIS is PART 1 - part 2 - part 3
part one: on the 7th day he invented a whole new universe
captain beefheart is back. where did he go in the first place, you might ask. which is not such an easy question to answer.
like many things to do with don van vliet - who has been around in one incarnation or another for over a decade now and is considered by many people to be one of the few authentically avant-garde artists in rock - it may devolve to a simple statement that there is the world, and then there is the captain, who even in his material and musical presence might just as well be broadcasting beast linguals through a foghorn on the dark side of the moon so far as the mainstream pop audience of ány era knows or cares.
if that's the way you feel, you might as well feel free to skip this article altogether. because after a brief period of commercial compromise in the name of 'accessibility' followed by a couple of years off the set entirely, he has returned to the music and the english language on his own terms - the terms he invented almost completely alone - and has been able to school a handful of other musicians over the years, offering his rare gifts to a world which has mostly found him difficult, eccentric at best, sometimes unnerving, perhaps insane, and generally incomprehensible.
there are just some things that are not for everybody and never will be, and the consensus with the captain is that you either take him whole and revel in what almost amounts to a parallel universe, or not at all.
beefheart and i go back a long way. way back to 1969, when i first managed to crack into print via the 'rolling stone' record review section and still was awe-struck that somebody would actually be willing to pay me the lordly sum of $12.50 just for putting down 500 or so words about a new album. beefheart's 'trout mask replica' was about the fourth or fifth album i got to review in public, and i guess i seized the time.
for years i had been listening to rock 'n' roll and jazz of all sorts, particularly avant-garde 'free' jazz. and, while eagerly following the rock experimentalism of the '60s, i had been just wáiting for somebody to combine the two in a truly effective way. i don't mean that type of stuff where the jazz and the rock were just sort of stapled together - 'blood, sweat & tears' lounge music or this bumblebee muzak they call 'jazz-rock' today, which is total garbage that compromises both its sources and remains in a dead heat for ultimate offensiveness with disco.
i mean a kind of crazed, rangy, smokestack lightning to an explosion of zagbop noise that churned and rumbled with rock 'n' roll gristomp while it found the swooping freedom of the new jazz and took that liberty not to be fettered by things like time and key: which shoot off musical skyrockets in all directions at once, gripping and holding you precisely by the alchemical way it worked this tension between earth and heavenly fire.
it seemed to me that if just one person could figure out how to link these seeming polar opposites in some natural, organic way, then we would surely have a quantum leap in our collective musical language, or at least that part of it about which i cared most passionately. i didn't know a damn thing about music technically then - as i still don't now - but early on i could hear the atonality and primeval shrieks of john coltrane and ornette coleman in the feedback exploding from all those electric guitars, especially when everybody wandered down the garden path to outer space with acid rock, freak-out jams, all thát stuff.
i dallied in the eclecticism of the beatles and mothers of invention, but as we all learn sooner or later eclecticism just basically sucks and is usually the cloak of 'geniuses' who fail to have any real ideas of their own. that's why frank zappa has remained a professionally contemptuous shit-head whose only really good song ever was: 'troubled every day'. i was much more interested in the velvet underground - who took rock distortion influenced by free jazz concepts just about as far as anybody would have thought it could go in things like 'sister ray' - and maybe it was exactly because they were basically a garage band and just didn't know any better that they were able to push the music to that kind of unprecedented extreme.
i had bought beefheart's first two album, liked them okay and even heard a little bit of that stuff i kept hoping for in there. but the first, 'safe as milk', was actually a pretty conventional record, and 'strictly personal' - while seeming to lean out of a delta blues gully into some interesting directions - was so wretchedly produced (or, in fact, re-produced via phasing etc. by blue thumb records president bob krasnow to make it more 'palatable' to the 'acid rock market') as to be offensive and nigh-unlistenable.
then, in about july 1969, came 'trout mask replica'. it hit like a bomb; in fact, the shellshock stayed with me long enough to seem as natural as breathing. i went to the record store one day, and there it was: this weird looking double album with a man with a fish's face and a most peculiar hat on the cover.
on the back this same guy, minus fish, was holding a table lamp out like a lethal weapon, encircled by his cohorts who had somehow managed to be even more bizarre looking than he was. one wore a dress. i could have sworn the guy next to him had lipstick on. one looked like a mad scientist who had let his hair grow for a year and then stuck his tongue in an electric socket. lurking under the bridge they stood on, was some insect man from a japanese monster movie.
still, not being overly smitten with the last two albums and bearing in mind that this guy was somehow associated with zappa - which meant that the whole thing might well be some kind of los angeles goof - i remained unconvinced, and probably walked home with something like 'illinois speed press' that day.
but those were the times when record buyers were as experimental as the musicians, and you found yourself walking home with totally unknown quantities half the time. so it wasn't long before i found myself cruising down to a local department store where it would be easier to switch price-tags; i figured that even if it turned out to be a bunch of bullshit i'd still be getting two records for the price of one. when i got it out of the car and slit open the shrink-wrap my perplexity was compounded: the four sides listed 28 songs, and almost all of them had titles like 'pachuco cadaver', 'bill's corpse' and 'neon meate dream of a octafish'.
when i got home the bomb dropped. 'trout mask replica' shattered my skull, realigned my synapses, made me nervous, made me laugh, made me jump and jag with joy. it wasn't just the fusion i'd been waiting for: it was a whole new universe, a completely realised and previously unimaginable landscape of guitars splintering and springing and slinging and even actually swínging off in every direction, as far as the mind could see. it was like a mad herd of pecos bills hooting at the moon and hand-standing on jimson weed, while this beast voice straight out of one of michael mcclure's 'ghost tantras' [sound poems - t.t.] growled out a catarrh spew of images at once careeningly abstract and as basic and bawdy as the last 200 years of american folklore.
the whole thing thrashed in a brambly dissonant tangle which nevertheless maintained an unique internal structure and logic of its own, the guitars occasionally rounding a particularly precipitous bend to find themselves eyeball to eyeball with a madly squawking sax which hooted and jeered right back at them. cacophony or kingdom come, i stayed under the headphones and played 'trout mask replica' straight through five times in a row that night....
the next step of course was to turn the rest of the world on to this amazing thing i'd found, which perhaps came closer to being a living, pulsating, slithering órganism than any other record i'd ever heard. next day i carted it around just as i'd done with the velvet underground, and feverishly inflicted it upon all my friends, most of whom were even less impressed with this than my last find, whom they'd considered a bunch of new york fags who couldn't play their instruments.
they couldn't come up with much of anything to say about this one, except that it was a bunch of crazy shit and get it the hell out of here. i played it for my girlfriend, a barbara streisand fan who'd come across for the rolling stones and found the velvets titillatingly 'perverted' - she pronounced this 'disconcerning'. christ, here i was carrying around a box which only contained an entire new language in it, and receiving a general consensus that jabberwocky might be too kind a word.
finally i sat down and wrote all the reasons why i thought this was the most amazing record i had ever heard, mailed it off to 'rolling stone' and damn if they didn't print it. my editor told me later that some people there liked the elpee, but nobody really knew what to do with it, much less what there might be to say about it. as near as i can recall my own review consisted mostly of hyperkinetic babblings, but it was as unqualified a rave as was ever written. so straight records picked it up and reprinted every word in a full-page ad in all the music papers, which made me very proud of course, but didn't help the record sell any more copies.
i don't think any of the early straight albums sold any copies. alice cooper's first album came out about the same time, and alice was still pretty much of an oddball in those days himself, although his music was more your standard homebake psychedelic fruitnutcake. of course beefheart got lumped in with stuff like that and the g.t.o.s and wildman fisher, and a certain magazine even tossed in the mc5 and called the article something like 'rock's lunatic fringe'.
as far as i knew, about the only people besides me who thought much of 'trout mask replica' at all, were a few other rock critics. and even them i was suspicious of: i knew when left to their own devices they'd really rather listen to 'mother earth' or 'creedence clearwater revival'. for some reason they just didn't seem too interested in going berserk.
one day the phone rang. it was beefheart, calling to thank me for the review. i was somewhat agog, but not so much that i failed to notice immediate differences between communicating with this man and just about any other human being i had known. he'd be talking along about the record and i'd be enthusiastically nodding over the phone, when suddenly - just like one of those hairpin curves in his music - he'd say something like: 'all roads lead to coca-cola' (the only one i can remember from that first conversation). and then he'd say: 'do you know what i mean?'. 'sure', i would say. i've always been an enthusiastic liar.
a year or two later i finally got to meet my idol in person. i was in los angeles, crashing with friends and eating and staying drunk at record industry press parties, when somebody told me beefheart was going to be doing some sessions for his third album in the cycle begun by 'trout mask replica'. this was 'the spotlight kid', starting at about 3 a.m. at the 'recent' plant.
i was so excited i could hardly wait. but the evening - as evenings in los angeles had a way of doing in those days - progressed through a tequila drinking contest at a press party at the troubadour theatre, where they told me i ended up turning over a table, after which three of us piled into a car and headed down to meet god. i don't remember any of this. what i do remember is sitting at a table in the bar pouring salt all over my hand and everything else, then waking from a black abyss in some unknown hallway on a waterbed. they told me later that beefheart walked in, looked at me and said: 'who's that?' 'lester bangs.' i was dead comatose drunk with record company promotional tee-shirts spread out all over me like a blanket of rags. 'oh,' he said, 'i always wanted to meet him.'
when i came to, i had no idea where i was. i stood up, saw a door at the end of the corridor, pushed through it and found myself in the record plant parking lot, locked out. i vomited in a fishpond, and then began banging feebly on the door with my fists, hollering to be let back in. naturally nobody heard me, so after a while i started walking around the building, where it seemed somehow miraculous to find an open door on the other side. i passed through it, to stumble right into the middle of zoot horn rollo laying down a particularly abrasive and intricate guitar line.
beefheart looked up, asked how i was feeling. i asked for a beer and he said: 'why do you do these things to yourself?'. of course i didn't have an answer; in fact it didn't seem at all incongruous to me that he should be so concerned about my health while steadily swigging from a strange green bottle which turned out to be a fifth of chartreuse. i was so stupid screwed up at the time that i thought it was some kind of health food mixture.
i also met his wife, jan, who was beautiful in every way - she had a pair of the kindest eyes i'd ever seen, and was one of those people who seem to walk around with a ray of sunlight beaming out of themselves, a kind of translucent blessedness. she never stopped smiling, then and every time i have seen her since.
later we all got in another car and rode down sunset strip with them in the muzzy 9 a.m. hangover light. i felt like the smog had been pumped into my lymph glands. beefheart talked non-stop, and this time almost everything he said was one of those curious, surrealistic, askew-aphoristic non-sequiturs. and every single time he dropped one he would ask again: 'do you know what i mean?'. and i just kept on wearily lying and lying. i think when they dropped me off, i was actually glad to be left to my misery alone - out of his universe.
because this was something i was only beginning to understand: that because it is hís universe, don van vliet quite naturally takes command of most of the people who wander into it. there is usually little or no contest, which of course is not at all necessarily his fault. it is apparently an elemental truth - which we will forever refuse to face - that most people do not really want to think for themselves. in fact, in a sort of active passivity they will seek some sort of surrogate parental/authority figure or institution to structure their perception of reality and ultimately take responsibility for their actions.
beefheart tends to think in terms of mobilising people around him whom he considers talented in the interests of his various projects - once he told another writer that he wanted me to collaborate with him on a book, which was news to me - and being the kind of small but fanatical cult that we were and indeed remain, it was only natural that all of us with media access should more or less become publicists for the captain. it didn't even seem to matter to me personally when i perceived the irony that i had been rave-reviewing every album subsequent to 'trout mask replica' and then, often as not, filing said albums away. what mattered was the fact that something like 'trout mask replica' - which i still listened to and was the basis of all those reviews - existed at all. what mattered was spreading the word.
if all this sounds a bit evangelical, it's because beefheart - like many brilliant people gifted with powerful personalities - is more than a bit of a guru. now, i don't know about you, but i personally don't have a hell of a lot of use for gurus; in general, i would equate the term with 'megalomaniacs'. of course, you wouldn't expect someone like this to be anything less thán a megalomaniac. the simple fact of almost constantly saying things which seemingly make no sense at all, and getting everybody around you to agree with them, constitutes colossal megalomania on the most basic level: the level of seductively (as opposed to forcibly) restructuring the reality of anybody who comes within the parameters of your... - can i get away with saying: 'energy field'?
a mutual friend who knows beefheart far more intimately than i finally told me that the thing to do with all those 'do you know what i mean-s?' was to respond: 'no. what the fuck are you talking about, anyway?'. then, he said, beefheart would laugh, as if caught in his joke, open up and be straight with you.
because it must be understood that this man has never been some demi-mansonoid svengali preying on psychic jellyfish. he always wanted opposition to his flights; it was merely that so few of us had the wit or nerves to backhand it through that straw aura into his court. when a person is so possessed by an idea that all people around him forfeit their own capacities for reasonable argument in the glare of the idea's charisma, it only makes sense that they will not only treat him ás that idea instead of a person, but he will in fact become that idea. at which point - unless he's very lucky - he begins to die. meanwhile, of course, the drones may go on living off his cancerous host.
thus it was with beefheart and the magic band, whom he taught to play their instruments almost literally from square one. and who, according to insiders closer to the centre than i, were the type of people who in many ways lacked the mature sense of self, and would ultimately forsake the giant who had musically and in large part psychically sired them. it was nobody's fault -really - and everybody's. as i said to the captain the last time i saw him: 'man, back in those days sometimes i thought you were só pretentious...'. 'i probably was. christ, why didn't you tell me so?' i really had no answer.
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captain beefheart electricity
as felt by teejo