DON'T ARGUE THE CAPTAIN
MY BEEF ~ THE CAPTAIN REVEALS ALL!
BEAT INSTRUMENTAL and international recording studio #148 010975 england
by gary cooper
is ±05.07.75 interview / feature
sometimes interviewing rock and rollers is like wrestling with a well greased boa constrictor. you never know quite for certain how much of what you're being told is true and how much you're being used as the butt of a joke. or (more dangerously) as a vehicle for the artist's ego. that's the current dilemma surrounding an interview with captain beefheart (alias don van vliet), the one man to qualify for the salvador dali (surrealistic painter - t.t.) of rock music award with any real justification.
i met the captain in the offices of beefheart's old company, warner records, where the noise of the traffic threatened to drown out the man's sayings and push him into a state of nervous anger. strangely, far someone whose vocal power is legendary, beefheart speaks in a whisper - his words, though, are pretty much dynamite.
to start with, the captain is unhappy. unhappy with virgin records, the company which released his last two (and to beefheart cognoscenti) awful albums ('unconditionally guaranteed' and 'bluejeans and moonbeams' - t.t.) . he's also unhappy with the ex-members of his old magic band. to describe the feeling among beefheart fans when confronted with those last two albums as disappointment would be the understatement of the century. instead of van vliet's crazed visionary lunacy we were faced with not especially good love songs - certainly not beefheart material. why had he made them?
'i had a group of people who had been with me for six years who were very interested in money. i actually made those albums for them. i thought, i owed them that. i shouldn't have done it though because they came over here and talked me down.'
beefheart is referring here to an article in an english weekly where a survivor of the magic band of the period slagged him into the ground. he retaliates by producing photocopies of american magazine interviews with the musicians and showing me that they appear to have said two different things at different times. it's hard to tell if the captain is being on the level here - altogether he seems to be trying too hard to be agreeable - would he agree that the last two albums stank?
'oh yeah, cheesus, those two albums are disgusting, aren't they?'
it is hard to argue with a man who is that honest about his failures. the crux of the captain's problems, though, appear to lie with his managers (ex-managers, according to van vliet). the story goes that he was persuaded to make two commercial albums for the sake of breaking bigger than the cult figure he has been since john peel introduced him to an incredulous british public back in the flower power days.
certainly, the albums sold, but beefheart now feels that they were a sellout of his artistic integrity. it's hard now to decipher what really happened. quite probably (although it must be admitted that this is only informed guesswork) he made the albums willingly, but now bitterly regrets the change of style and is seeking to make up for it. certainly he does have a valid complaint against the old magic band if their slagging is unwarranted but how can you tell?
the facts now are that beefheart wants nothing to do with virgin who put out those two albums but is still under contract to them. his attitude is summed up in one simple sentence:
'i want to get a campaign together to get the record company to give their money back to the people who bought those albums.'
virgin, for their part, claims that they took the albums in good faith (and by the way, paid well for the privilege) and that van vliet is still under contract - a position which they intend to maintain. they claim that they have attempted to get in contact with him over the months but that every effort has failed and that they are quite happy to take beefheart's new material, whether it be overtly commercial or not, and release it.
the legal complications surrounding the captain's work are going to be interesting to watch. it's going to be a drag, however, to be musicless because of any legal in-fighting that might take place. in the meantime a new band has been formed which we had a chance to preview at the knebworth festival (050775 - t.t.). suffice to saY that they proved more than capable of handling beefheart's material, but that it was just too early to tell if they're going to be another magic band proper.
it's not a question of trying to tell if van vliet is being sincere (i'm quite sure that he is); it's more like trying to divine whether he is really giving you the whole picture of why he made the two albums and why he fells so bitter about his sometime buddies.
ah well - such is the way with artists; at least it makes for an interesting time!
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captain beefheart electricity
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