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
part 1 - THIS is PART 2
i decided to seek out the magic band's perspective. van vliet hears his music in his head, and uses a multitude of methods, most of them unorthodox, to communicate exactly what he wants each musician to play. évery note. this has to require a great degree of artistic communication. van vliet has referred to himself as a sculptor of music, using the magic band to chisel notes from their instruments at his direction.
the members of the latest magic band were all big beefheart fans before they met him. by contrast, early line-ups were composed of friends, some of whom - like mark boston (rockette morton) and bill harkleroad (zoot horn rollo) consequently turned pro. van vliet taught those two their instruments, yet they broke away with drummer artie tripp (ed marimba) to form mallard amid accusations that their leader was lazy and didn't want to rehearse. van vliet agrees:
hell nó, i don't want to rehearse. i'm the one that tells them what to play!
according to current bassist richard snyder, harkleroad claimed van vliet wasn't writing the music - that the band put the arrangements together, and van vliet only supplied the words and the ideas. snyder's own experience, however, indicates quite otherwise:
richard snyder: none of my ideas are on 'ice cream for crow'; they're áll don's. we're completely unlike any other band. don writes to people's capabilities and strengths. i'm not as technically gifted as, say, gary, but don will make the most of what i can do, of what we can all do.
the other present magic band members confirmed this - including guitarist jeff moris tepper, who has played with van vliet since 1976 and therefore seen several incarnations of the group. perhaps concerned with letting a cat out of a bag, a reticent tepper mentions that van vliet might give him instructions on tape as well as in person, in neither case necessarily employing the intended instrument. van vliet also talks, sings, and whistles to make a musical point, and has even drawn pictures to illustrate his meaning.
drummer cliff martinez says van vliet will ask for a basic rhythm, then pick up drumsticks himself and add the desired beats and accents. for a specifically awkward feel he once told martinez to imagine he was playing while holding a plate of pencils without letting any fall off. lucas had played guitar for such diverse outfits as the yale symphony orchestra (under leonard bernstein, for his 'mass') and a taiwanese punk band.. he learned 'evening bell', a dazzling two-minute guitar solo from a tape of van vliet playing it on piano. he says of the complex, rhythmically unstable piece:
gary lucas: it took me six weeks to figure it out. each day i would get up in the morning, practice guitar for an hour and go to work. after i came back and had dinner, i'd work on it for another three hours. i was happy to get 10 seconds of it worked out per night. when i went to los angeles to do the album, don corrected me all over the place. he changed some of the structure of the piece too.
snyder recalls lucas struggling so hard with his intricate guitar parts that his fingers frequently bled all over his stratocaster.
originally a guitarist himself, snyder learned 28 songs in one week [but why did don tell on tour it had been thrée weeks? - t.t.] when guitarist john french got booted out of the band just before a 1980 european tour. snyder switched to bass - which he claims to prefer - after bassist / keyboard player eric feldman took a sabbatical to work with - hmm - residents colleague snakefinger.like other trained musicians who have worked with van vliet, snyder had preconceptions.
richard snyder: i thought the part don gave me for the mid-section of 'cardboard cutout sundown' was wrong. i said: 'these notes just aren't in the key of the song - they aren't even in the scále!'. but don just smiled and said; 'i know'. i played them, and when we put it all together i realized: 'yeah, it dóes sound right!'.
another time van vliet instructed snyder to dance around while playing for the right feel.
richard snyder: it felt so good that i kept on doing it, even when we recorded the song.
picture by kate simon
martinez was no novice when he joined the magic band, having played with lydia lunch and los angeles punkers the weirdoes. he had studied the drumming on beefheart records for years, purely for personal edification; he even made tapes of what he considered accurate beefheartian drum lines, which he gave to tepper 'just in case'. van vliet heard the tapes, liked them and asked martinez to audition.
martinez says the audition - and the days leading up to it, during which he neither ate nor slept - was among the tensest times of his life. leaning the songs, once he was in, was relatively easy thanks to explicit instructions. still, van vliet asked him to do a couple of things he had never heard on a beefheart record before.
cliff martinez: he wanted me to play completely out of synch with the rest of the group in the middle section of 'ink mathematics'. from all the listening and studying i'd done, i thought that no matter how fractured the rhythm sounded you could always find some interrelationship, some metric lowest common denominator, in his music - even on 'trout mask replica' [by consensus beefheart's magnum opus]. it was hard to force myself to do it, but i did.
this demanding precision is mind-boggling compared to the way most rock music is put together. yet spontaneity makes it come alive; van vliet has spoken about the danger of 'losing the spark, the heat' by rehearsing (and, presumably, touring) too much.
richard snyder: don's music is more emotional than technical. it's feel music.
frank zappa and don van vliet go all the way back to 1963, when they played together in the soots (plural of soot, not a phonetic spelling of suit). the relationship has always been volatile, with much bad feeling on van vliet's side for the shabby treatment he has received at zappa's hands, financially and otherwise. in the mid-'70s van vliet toured with zappa's mothers of invention and collaborated on the 'bongo fury' elpee. lucas says he did it for the money.
gary lucas: frank treated him like: 'look! i've got my weird pal captain beefheart on a leash!'. oddly enough, when they were alone, frank acted deferentially, like he wanted approval.
lucas, a yale graduate, first met van vliet for a college radio interview. they remained in touch, and eventually van vliet asked lucas to become his manager. apparently the slime quotient of van vliet's previous managers was so high that lucas declines to talk about them.
gary lucas: i'm no clichéd rock-biz manager; i'm certainly not in it for the money. i believe in don and i've done the best i could.
in talking with van vliet, and later lucas and snyder, i gradually realized that don van vliet / captain beefheart never abandoned the way of viewing the world he (and all of us) had as a child. there are no filters or blinders on his perception; his remote mojave residence - from which he would like to move but can't afford to - keeps him relatively free from media bombardment and the consequent screens we erect to avoid supersaturation.
richard snyder: don doesn't intentionally come up with metaphoric language - that's the way he sees the world, relates to it.
unfortunately, the world relates to van vliet mostly as an oddball to be tolerated at best. some reactions to 'ice cream for crow' indicate he can no longer even count on unanimous critical cachet, as has been the case with all his records save an unabashedly commercial mid-'70s pair ['unconditionally guaranteed' and 'bluejeans and moonbeans' of course - t.t.]. clearly, not everyone can take the rarefied atmosphere where van vliet dwells, nor the brilliant view.
record companies may consider van vliet a prestigious signing, but in these record-industry dog days, prestige will carry you only so far. snyder thinks van vliet did a bang-up job mixing 'ice cream for crow', but it would have been wonderful not to have had such stringent financial restrictions.
richard snyder: if a record company ever gives don enough money to make the kind of record he's really capable of, he'll blow everyone else away!
click clack to the power station, the news or the other INTERVIEWS
captain beefheart electricity
as felt by teejo