DON'T ARGUE THE CAPTAIN
IN SEARCH OF CAPTAIN BEEFHEART
the elusive don van vliet tracked to his lair
TROUSER PRESS #82 010283 usa
by jim green
is fall 1982 interview
note: also interview with magic band members
THIS is PART 1 - part 2
the teevee screen brightens on a desert scene. following a rolling tumbleweed, the camera pans past some shrubbery, a series of metal uprights which carry electrical wires off into the distance, and stops at a trailer. it slowly homes in on a mustachioed, fedora'd man painting at an easel next to the trailer. he is whistling an utterly incomprehensible tune while dabbing away at an expressionistic three-quarter view of an iguana sunning itself on a nearby rock. with a final flourish, the man stops. he squints at his work appraisingly, picks up the canvas and walks it over to the iguana, asking it: 'well, what do you think?'.
the camera withdraws a discreet distance to a cactus, in front of which stands rod serling in characteristic pose: head tilted slightly downward, eyes straight ahead and one eyebrow cocked not quite sardonically. in his clipped, believe-it-or-not fashion he says: 'artist, poet, sculptor, musician - don van vliet is a man of many parts, all of them distinctive, even unusually so. yet he chooses to be known publicly by the comic strip alias of captain beefheart, and lives most of his life in virtual isolation from civilization'.
cut to a close-up of the iguana, which says: 'mmm, not too poor, but i think you picked my bad side'. serling's voice-over resumes as the camera pulls back for a panoramic view of the desert, the sun just grazing the horizon: 'this is the mojave desert, where the real becomes surreal as you pass the signpost that reads: 'the twilight zone'.'
ha ha. the humor of dismissal. how quaint. even some of beefheart's fans would accept this teevee fantasy scenario as an accurate reflection of the man, or how he sees himself, or how he would like others to see him (depending on how far one's tongue is thrust into cheek). but to dismiss captain beefheart and the magic band is not just convenient; it's unfair.
consider: 'ice cream for crow' is arguably the best beefheart album since his landmark 'lick my decals off, baby' twelve years ago. the same was said about 'shiny beast (bat chain puller)' in 1978 and 'doc at the radar station' in 1980. in other words, it's no fluke: the guy is on a roll. that's remarkable in rock, which dictates almost unfailingly that if you ain't dead before you get old, you become dead bóring.
what's more, van vliet is at the apex of his public exposure. he isn't touring to support 'ice cream for crow', but he has appeared on david letterman's network talk show and the nationally syndicated 'entertainment tonight' in the same week. the video of his new album's title track is played on cable tv and in clubs, not to mention the museum of modern art in new york; it's in m.o.m.a's permanent collection. conjunctions, a literary magazine, has a van vliet painting on its cover and some poems and drawings inside. 'people', the pop swill barometer, is checking him out as a bona fide phenomenon of interest.
so much for attention. the question now is: will don van vliet - alias captain beefheart - be undermined by his own myth?
picture by kate simon
from a professional point of view as well as a fan's perspective, i have a bone or two to pick with the mythical figure of captain beefheart. with all due respect and admiration - he is owned plenty - it's frustrating to find the overwhelming majority of articles on the guy are written by people totally in awe of their subject. granted, only the already converted would take on someone everyone else regards as recondite or even buffoonish. but uninitiated readers must find such gravity misplaced, credulous and off-putting. the results are often embarrassing to us thoughtful admirers (harumph) of van vliet. i firmly resolved to restrain my admiration when faced with the man - to be as matter-of-fact, nitty-gritty and nuts-and-bolts as i could. it wasn't easy.
van vliet seems to have been eagerly awaiting me when i meet him in the greenwich village digs of his guitarist / manager gary lucas. both personally and artistically, though, van vliet can be a rather private fellow. a reticence to discuss his work, coupled with charming and disarming enthusiasm for a vast range of topics, make conversation a series of tangent-hoppings. in short order he touches upon liberace, brian donlevy, foreign technology and workmanship, painters franz kline and claes oldenburg and dorothy kilgallen ('wasn't she wonderful? the bouquet of goiters, that box of blue curls...'). but a stray reference to the residents sets van vliet off. he suddenly explodes:
they're lóusy. smut. trash poets. i'm 41, but i try to keep up with what's in the marketplace. (with nary a pause, he adds:) i'm nót a thief. i've never taken anything from ányone. i don't have to. i have too much respect for myself to take anything from anybody.
have you often gotten such criticism?
yeah! but i don't fuck éasy. i am ághast at some of the things they write. must have had a lack of oxygen as infants. they oughta leave octopus alone, because the ink they use looks better in the ocean. underwater. (lucas later clarifies that van vliet finds not only jibes but some positive 'insights' bewildering or simply off the mark.)
the storm passes as quickly as it came. i pull out a cigarette and van vliet exclaims: pall málls? oh wow!. he lights up and quotes from the spaniels' 'play it cool' ('suck a pall mall'), which suggests the teen queens: 'beautiful black girls in tight-fitting dresses with spaghetti straps / and gloves all the way up to here with excuse-me white sequins'.
how does one go from this to discussing creative technique? gingerly! under slight prodding van vliet supplies an occasional detail. the 'prop horn' he plays on 'ice cream for crow', for example, is exactly that: an old movie prop[erty], slightly battered, like the one he posed with for the gatefold photo in 'strictly personal' way back in 1968. he just wanted to hear what sounds it could make.
minutiae is ok, but what about the big picture? asked about his trademark - disjointed rhythms and leaps in lyrical perspective - van vliet is gently evasive. he has to be pressed before he replies.
oh. i'm just a silly ass. i have no method to my madness. i really don't.
that sounds even more evasive. finally he opens up, just a bit:
i'm real serious about my music, everything i do. i'm an artist. i turn myself inside out; that's my method. if people don't mind seeing some guts, my way, well... 'what's wíth that guy?' it's pretty scary sometimes. but thát's a composer. nobody in the magic band does anything other than what i say.
it's tough working with him, he admits.
i'm a rascal, an infant. it's a wonder, really, that anybody can be áround me.
he grins and thanks his luck for having such a fine band - i've néver had a band that worked this well before - and janet, his wife of thirteen years, who 'corrects' him. there would be no more primary material on van vliet's art, although he compliments me on my questions. we wind up discussing cars and shoes. it's as if he would rather know me as anything éxcept an interviewer asking certain questions.