DON'T ARGUE THE CAPTAIN
BEEFHEART AND A MOTHER FIGURE
from SOUNDS 020875
by andy mcconnell
is 06 or early 07.75 usa interview
'excuse me, i've got to take a call,' says captain beefheart standing up. he walks across the room towards the silent push-button appliance, sits down and waits. seconds later, the bell signals an in-coming call. he picks up the receiver and begins to talk....
when the call is completed, beefheart returns to his seat and continues the conversation where it had left off. 'you're a catholic, aren't you?', he says confidently to the photographer busily capturing his subject on celluloid. 'er..., yeah,' replies the bewildered snapster. 'how do you know that?' 'i just know these things,' beefheart replies nonchalantly before returning to our interruption-haunted conversation.
he is showing off, of course. nevertheless it's hard to remain unimpressed by his peculiar powers of extra-sensory perception, which manifest themselves regularly if you hang out with the tall barrel-voiced californian long enough. throughout his nine-year recording career, captain beefheart - or don van vliet, to be more precise - has been promoted as 'wild man from borneo meets the missing link' by companies eager to capitalise on his eccentricities. certainly he is an odd fellow, but not as his current mentor, zappa manager herb cohen, suggests: 'mad, fucking mad'.
'i haven't been with a record company that understands me yet,' don half-laughs. 'and i've been through six of them in eight years! it all helps the mystique.' it has certainly created more stumbling blocks across his path than a score of average bands ever has to contend with. indeed, the promotion afforded him while with straight/bizarre records in 1969/70, is still the source of some bitterness within an otherwise delightfully calm, sensitive and overtly gentle person. 'i was being projected alongside the g.t.o.s and alice cooper like some freak show,' he recalls. 'that cooper guy is a sick punk - tearing up chickens and axing plastic babies. jesus christ!'
van vliet grew up alongside frank zappa in lancaster, 70 miles north of los angeles. he quit school at five - after pulling his mother out of the path of an oncoming car on his way to kindergarten. 'and shé was meant to be looking after mé,' he recalls, smiling at the irony. the result of his total lack of formal education is that he still finds it hard to read and write.
but his mind is constantly on the move, latching onto words and phrases and moving off on a totally different tangent, vaguely connected by semantics. many of those who declare beefheart insane are simply unable to adjust their thought patterns swiftly enough to understand what he is talking about. by the same token, some people find him obnoxious, but don is a man to speak his mind and makes quick character assessments upon meeting people. if he doesn't like them, he often gives them a hard time; while if his impression is favourable, he makes no secret of that either.
he spent much of his youth drawing and sculpting. it's generally believed that he ceased both when embarking on his musical career. not so. 'we let everybody think that i had stopped - so that they could concentrate on the music without any other distractions.' however, he says his house is overflowing with sculptures - while his sketchpad is a constant companion. sitting in a restaurant he will pull it out, pick a bunch of felt-tip pens from his pocket and draw cartoons of strange looking people around the room.
from the outset of his musical career, don displayed an outrageous lyrical sense and an untamed, avant-garde approach to melody. nobody had ever heard anything like it before. there is no hard and fast reason for his uniqueness, but perhaps it's a combination of growing up without formal education in a tiny town where a mention of pop music conjures up images of spike jones and his city slickers or glenn miller. his first album, 'safe as milk', went virtually unnoticed in the united states. yet when released on the cut-price marble arch label in england, it's 70 pence price tag made it accessible to thousands of people who would never have heard it if it had been a full-price effort.
from the very beginning beefheart has been far more popular in europe than in his home country. in los angeles he plays small clubs, while his third-billing at the  knebworth festival under pink floyd and steve miller is just some indication of the extent of his english following. it was the legendary 'trout mask replica', beefheart's personal favourite and a four-sided orgy of jig-saw timing and semantically extraordinary lyrics, which aroused some interest in the us and earned him the cover of the rolling stone .
'i often can't understand what he's saying in his lyrics,' admits john 'drumbo' french, percussionist with the magic band through beefheart's first six albums and now to be reunited with van vliet in his new band. 'but his timing and melodies are the most incredible i've ever heard from anybody.' yet it are the apparent inconsistencies in his output that have left hardcore aficionados baffled and dismayed. like the release of 'mirror man', his recent 'bluejeans and moonbeams' and - to a lesser extent - 'strictly personal', released in 1968. one isn't surprised to hear that all were the results of alleged record company tom-foolery.
[this paragraph is literally recybered, and beyond my responsibility - teejo.] 'mirror man' was a collection of tapes recorded before and after 'safe as milk', but held up by buddah records who refused to release them, regarding them as too noncommercial. they subsequently reassembled, packaged and shoved them out to cash in on the interest aroused by 'trout mask replica'.
as for 'strictly personal' and 'bluejeans and moonbeams', both had original tracks erased, then re-recorded by respective companies eager to increase the product's commercial potential. though don retains a soft spot in his heart for 'strictly personal', he seethes at the very mention of 'bluejeans and moonbeams' and the company that reassembled the album: mercury. 'these companies all think i'm totally mad,' he groans. 'and they think they can do wonderfully sane things to me behind my back and get away with it.'
don has recently made a return to the usa spotlight by going out on the road with zappa and the mothers of invention for a tour of the south, where they recorded several dates for a future live album. zappa and beefheart had parted ways unceremoniously in late 1969 after the 'hot rats' sessions amid much mutual insulting. 'i was a silly child,' is don's stock reply to questions about the original split.
[this paragraph is literally recybered, and beyond my responsibility too - teejo.] with the release of 'clear spot' - his most commercial album ever - don split with the magic band or, more specifically, guitarist zoot horn rollo whom don accused of trying to re-channel his music for the sake of public acceptance and commercial success. a note on the sleeve of 'unconditionally guaranteed' states pointedly: 'love over gold', a poignant confirmation of don's uncompromising pursuit of his own music over what others expect from him.
don is currently without a united states record deal, though he is still with virgin in england. he's in no hurry to record, so there is no pressure to sign a new deal. however, herb cohen is handling his affairs - so there must be speculation that he will sign with discreet records. in fact cohen was the one responsible for pulling the current magic band [knebworth line-up] together and providing rehearsal studios for them.
it seems possible, indeed probable, that the current band might stick together for much longer than the two dates originally planned [wrong, but then: that's afterwards - t.t.]: a chicago television show and the knebworth festival. a two-night stint at hollywood's roxy theatre has already been added. though trombonist bruce fowler will probably return to the mothers [wrong] when beefheart and the magic band prepare for an autumn tour of the usa and europe, drummers jimmy carl black [no, he quit] and french and guitarists greg davidson [succeeded by denny walley] and elliot ingber are likely to want to stick together.
but whatever happens, you can rest assured that the captain's career is not entering a twilight period. he will continue to cause havoc with his insatiable appetite for creating. he may never make the waves within the music industry that many predicted he would in the late sixties, but the day he stops working will be a sad one indeed.
as he sat in a tiny hollywood studio he browsed through a rolling stone story proclaiming his reunion with zappa [may '75]. 'rock's sometime genius?', he read aloud self-mockingly. 'the only time i'm a genius is when i'm wearing levi's.' think about it.
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captain beefheart electricity
as felt by teejo