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
part 1 - part 2 - THIS is PART 3
part three: on the 9th day he was resurrected
it has been two years now since the zappa thing, and i had just about forgotten the captain ever existed. but one day a friend mentioned: 'captain beefheart is coming to town'. 'oh yeah?', i said, only half paying attention. 'think he'll be any good?' 'jeez, i dunno - i'm almost kinda scared to go: it could be réally pathetic. but i promised somebody a story.' he had an extra ticket, so i went along - more or less for the ride, though i was mildly curious to see what the old guy might be up to.
he walked onstage calmly, with the sober, knowing, probably more than a little resigned air of a man who has been there and back, seen the whole cycle and ended up just about where he started out. you see lots of ageing musicians with that look: it's tired and very, very set. but it's not as cynical as it seems or probably should be: it even carries a certain taint of majesty, the kind of authority or even wisdom built up by hard dues paid steadily, boringly, soul-crushingly. on the road, in bars, waking up in strange rooms in the middle of the night and not even knowing what country you're in; never having enough money and having to do gigs you loathe just to get enough to try to catch up for once; countless nights lying awake, knowing that - though you've put out a dozen brilliant records and have fanatical fans around the world - it doesn't make a damn bit of difference...: because there's no new record coming out and they've been deleting all the old ones steadily.
at least, i thought, he doesn't look pathetic. he looked very good - in fact: very strong - in a dark brown suede hat from a bandito movie. the lines in his face and his air of solemn assurance were saying that unlike most rock 'n' rollers he wears his age very well. but then: he was never exactly a rock 'n' roller, was he? perhaps part of the trouble with public acceptance of the man's music was that he always resisted easy pigeonholing.... his band set up, plugged in - all new young kids, not an original magic bandman in the lot. they're dressed kind of funny: one wears a sort of priest's robe - like in the old days, though not so freakish.
they began to play: it started with one guitar player, whanging out a jangling, angular solo. a kind of wave seemed to roll across the room - everyone at my table felt it, at any rate - a tidal blast of recognition in dank centres in the mind and heart long since shut down, stirring as of some love supreme rekindled. then the whole band began to play, railing at and ricocheting off each other in that familiar beloved paradox of how such caterwauling cacophony can be so tight. packed with swing and rock solid as oak, broad enough to span decades on end, slithering up to recoil off the banshee blares and hottentot honks of the captain's soprano sax from which he hurls the most monstrous growly reptiles.
and just when you think it can't get any more intense, he begins to sing - no: bellow like a bull in heat, caw like a crow, laugh like a wolf one half second from tearing his prey to shreds, growl like a bear, then grunt and snort like a hog. as we whooped and cheered and beat our beer bottles on the table - when we weren't agape in astonishment - we might have wondered how long it had been in these poisonously sterile times since we had seen a stage full of humans who played like beasts? who threw themselves with such animal gusto into what they were doing that they fell out of themselves entirely and into a collective riptide with a momentum of its own?
here take this, new york, and all you cats that sit around practising at raising one weary unflappable eyebrow because you think nothing can ever knock you off your cool highchair again. because this was it: the real raw-faced unalloyed hoodoo devil jive-drive - which felt even better because for some stupid reason we hadn't been expecting it at all. yet here it was, naked and looking for nothing but trouble.
the totality of the feeling is what stays in the mind, what that music made happen in that room, the atmosphere so dense with heat and energy. we rocked. all of us, maddened with the love of it; and it felt so strangely thrilling that we were almost embarrassed. as if reminded of all the goddamn stupid boring tepid contemptuous uninspired superstar competent professional drudged-out concerts we'd sat still and even sometimes made excuses for... i don't even know exactly which songs they did - although i know there were a lot of whoops of delight when they launched into 'abba zaba', the show spanned all his eras except the mercury bilge, and that i kept screaming for 'pachuco cadaver', which he finally did play in the second set.
there was a whole lot of new stuff too - strong as the old - from the finished album bat chain puller that still has to find a record company. which is almost laughable when you consider how alive this music is and simultaneously how it runs against the entire grain of the music industry ca. 1977. how much stronger then is its self-belief and more important its fuck you to the dispensaries of tissue music for total regressive.
yeah, nobody wants this weirdo shit.... i only went two straight nights and would have gone as many as they played and both nights there were only people hanging from the rafters with their tongues lolling out in ecstasy. so you can eat shit, you puny souls who would deny this music in favour of sure-sell treacle. and also: what was that i heard saying about a 'new wave' of something or other that was supposed to be such a challenge to the existing order, such a brave stand? yeah, right, tell me all about it when even the best of them aren't really gonna even barely catch sight of the captain's flying boot-heels for years in terms of sheer audacious originality of lyrics or music.
i don't know or care what's going to ultimately become of most of the music being slung out today or the people making it. but i do know this: that we all got something out of our systems that night, exorcised some clotted strain of death from our collective gorge, and felt a little more vibrancy in ourselves and hope in our musical culture. there's no escaping it: we became as beasts. and, especially in a time when most people seem to be aspiring to machinehood, it felt so good there really seemed no reason to go back.
after it was over a few of us went backstage to congratulate him. jan was there, of course, quietly carrying those same angelic beams as when i first saw her back in '71, and beefheart himself seemed delighted by our presence in a way that contrasted remarkably with memories of dressing room receptions past.
there was something ineffably calm, settled, resolved and resolute about him: you sensed no rage, no jangling neuroses, no obsessive clutching need for that all-consuming 'talk'. no getting around it: the beast had mellowed, had seemingly come to terms with at least some of his demons in spite of all the commercial rejections and artistic frustrations.
we went to a bar around the corner where he held court. i think it was probably the first time i was ever able to sit next to him and just relax while he talked to somebody else, just like you would with an old friend instead of someone who is almost more of an idea than a person. he hadn't stopped giving out with the occasional verbal pretzel. but it seemed more as if he was having fun with them: toying with the possibilities of language and others' possible responses to them - rather than setting up a complex and highly strained evasion system all around himself. he joked, he laughed, he could give and take, he was fun as well as the captain - a responsibility he seemed to take a good deal less seriously than ever in the past. if this is what failure does to the creative temperament, then let me never be a success.
the next day, two fellow writers and i went up to his hotel to interview him. i almost never bother interviewing people i do stories on anymore, schlepping the tape recorder up and all that crap. it usually is so boring and ultimately pointless for both of you, since most of them have nothing to say that would come out in a situation like that in the first place.
but this felt good. we knew that there was no reason to even bother thinking up a bunch of questions. we would just turn our recorders on and the captain would start to talk about whatever was on his mind, and it would be good and funny. he'd ramble all over hell and back and we would interrupt him every once in a while to ask some question which he might or might not answer. and even if he did, we might not know the meaning of the answer he gave - in fact, he might not even know what it meant himself. but in any case it would all work out fine.
somehow there was a palpable feeling that in being all a little older, we had not only sort of aged together but miraculously all of us seemed to have aged for the better - won some kind of battle that could not be verbalised but nevertheless constituted a real victory over what forces had driven us to demolish and diminish ourselves in the past. i don't know if there are very many feelings finer than that. so, in the transcription which follows, i've left out the 'old home week' stuff, but i hope you will forgive me if information and free association may seem to flow out of this subject in the manner of oil and water.
one of my friends mentioned beefheart's new york appearance on his ill-fated mercury records era tour with the hurriedly assembled post-magic band pickup group. beefheart said:
i put on a pair of size 32 underwear, and i like to wear a 40. and that group played as good as they could, but they didn't have my stuff down. i think those guys had more guts than the magic band ever had. thát group kept me in fucking slavery under my cape; if i'd leave for one minute they'd fall apart."
when you did 'unconditionally guaranteed', was it just that you'd gotten fed up and decided: 'fuck it, i'll give them what they want'?
no, i did that for the group. because of lending me their fingers - that sounds real corny but it's the best i can say it - for 'trout mask replica' and 'lick my decals off, baby'. i just wanted to make some money for those guys - and for myself, because i had to survive, and i can't take welfare. but to just stand there all the time and play for money, i can't do that either. i'd rather be a salesman. i'd make a great one, too. never have been able to sell myself, but....
that album 'bluejeans and moonbeams' was out-takes. those assholes figured they'd put them out because that would be stupider [hence more commercial - l.b.] and they got $280,000 for that. i called mercury and they wouldn't even talk to me. i said: 'i don't want that out!'. my cousin, victor hayden - the mascara snake - did that painting on the cover, and it ain't that bad a painting. he went down there and... - gód dámn! that's too loud, i can't take it! he has abruptly leaped out of the chair across from me and stalked across the room.
some kind of a way-out clock, he growls, picking a weirdly futuristic sort of little digital clock off the mantle-piece and shoving it in a drawer which he slams shut. i'm of a mind to flush it down the toilet, only i don't wanna bother the alligators.
now he is up and pacing around the room, free associating full-tilt but with a perhaps slightly self-mocking good humour, from country music - i like hank williams sénior and slim pickens is my cousin by marriage, but screen doors don't make it - to andy warhol:
he did soup things up. i like warhol, but what about elizabeth taylor telling him that she'd let him have the poodle in her trailer on location, but not to let him 'pee-pee'?... she also said that success is the best deodorant.... a psychiatrist is somebody that wants to die in your other life.... did you see liz in 'virginia wolf'? she was great in that. but you can't be bad on a tin roof: a cat, a mouse, a human being - the percussion alone is enough.
so, interjects my co-interviewer john morthland, what made you decide to jump back in? he's referring to beefheart's current band, but the captain takes it to mean the mercury records phase:
well, i was writing and everything, and these people got hold of somebody that was feeling sorry for himself, and goddamn, you gotta have a right to yawn, but the thing is when you're yawning in public.... those songs were good, though, man, before they did what they did to them. they took winged eel fingerling [elliot ingber] off. he did a bád thing on that cut 'party of special things to do', and they took it off after i went up to the redwoods to finish this novel i'd been working on for a long time.
i was working my ass off on my vacation, just like i always do, but the mercury corporate structure... - i didn't even know that goddamn 'bluejeans and moonbeams' album was out! elliot ingber still hasn't got any money and he wrote some of those songs with me. andy di martino did that co-writing thing as mánager under the auspices that zappa's lawyer herbie cohen had something on me. boy, i'm talking about the jamaican switch, the flimflam.
what were you doing after the two mercury albums?
after i got over my poor lonely child hurt because of the magic band pulling out... - i dug those guys. i slept on the floor with my wife, six years, but those guys had houses with full accommodation. all the money i made went right into that group, and to have those guys go - he makes a fist-up fuckyou sign - that's juvenile delinquency.
i kinda had a sneaking suspicion, because they lied so cleverly. every day i would ask them: 'are you doing what you réally wanna do?' i mean - don't let me scuff your head - i mean every day before we'd play, and they successfully put me on all that time. i'm an only child and i'm not copping out, but goddammit, man: i never had a brother and they really flipped me.... whúh!
yeah, i was stupid. god knows the world didn't need the kind of shit that was on those last two albums, but i got bagged by 'i' consciousness - 'i see that, i do this'. it's easy for a painter, and in order to paint you have to do that: put on that ego cloak.
so when did you put this new band together? as i finish the question the traffic noises from central park umpteen stories below reaches a crescendo of blatting taxi horns, and beefheart seems caught between what's drifting up through the window and our questions.
between the horns.... i wonder if that's where they got 'between the buttons'... it's easy to write classical music or at least what they call avant-garde, but i put that thing together right after the ('bongo fury') tour with frank.
you hated me then.... i just wanted a goddamn cup of coffee with somebody i could talk to, but you were obstinate with me too, you wouldn't come to see me. zappa is like john phillip sousa - neither of them would let women come on the road; kept a real tight ship. so jan couldn't come with me. he just doesn't want to pay for the hotel rooms.
after i got back i bought a corvette and headed for eureka, california. after about three months, jeff (moris tepper - t.t.), the new guitar player you saw last night - with the long coat - he came up there and i went: 'uh-ah-oh, they found me!'. he was up there studying marine biology and art, and says: 'i'm up here looking for a house'. i said: 'i know who you are, i saw you at the bitter end in '70...'. 'look,' i said, 'why don't we do a group someday, i'll get you a fucking hóuse...'.
i had a house that was incredible, seals barking out there, deer, a doe came and brought her baby right into our yard, and that really flattered me. and then i went... -
we hear a siren outside, nothing unusual in new york city, but it sends beefheart click clack to a whole other track. several of them, in fact:
who is that guy? oh, did you ever see that painting 'broadway boogie woogie' by mondrian? boy, he got this thing right here, forever. elizabeth taylor's got them all now...
remember 'the man from utopia'?: 'there is a man who lives in utopia / he's a funny little fellow with feet just like i showed you...' you know that? oh, i gotta - i'll find it, and tape it and send it to you...
thank god there's still mén! you're one, pointing to me, you're one, morthland, you're one, fellow rock-crit billy altman, i'm one - we look queer. i'll tell you about the dictionary meaning of queer, not what that orange juice chick squeezes that acid on those poor cats. that's different: that's názísm! he slams his fist on the dresser. there aren't very many men and there aren't very many women, and i tell you, i hate to see that - it's the fish food.
this seemed as good a time as any to ask him of he liked reggae.
no. 'cause i'm tired of seeing those people's smiles wiped off their faces by american people. i've talked to some of them, and they're not in any bubble either, man; i mean, who is to say we're not in the bubble, with turrets? i mean those steel drums, man, the minute that little capricorn that went down there - what's his name? van dyke parks - the minute i met that cat i said: 'yeah, you're a capricorn; you've got too much corn in your cap'.
somehow this took a commodious vicus of geographic re-circulation to detroit.
detroit audiences don't intimidate me. shit, how could they - all they could do is ride over me with a whale.
they're pinheads in detroit.
i heard everything you said up to the word 'pinheads' and then i started thinking about that picture tod browning did - i tell you, those pinheads in there excited me. they were good looking women, man. that picture moved me in a way i haven't been moved before, other than a sea cucumber or something: the dresses were níce - dámn, that was nice.
and so on into the night. later we went across the street for a drink, and while waiting for the light to change beefheart said 'hi!' to a total stranger woman standing next to us. except the way he said it, it came out like a speeded up martian voice - or pinhead.
when we had finally packed up our tape recorders and caught the fast train home, i remarked to morthland on how easily maturity seemed to rest upon beefheart's brow. 'that's funny', he said, 'i was just thinking of how amazing it is that he has managed to remain so childlike'.
and the unity of that contradiction just about sums it up.
many thanks to helen foster for providing this one!
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captain beefheart electricity
as felt by teejo