DON'T ARGUE THE CAPTAIN
CONVERSATION WITH CAPTAIN BEEFHEART
from OUI vol.2 #7
by eliot wald
is early 1973 interview
THIS is PART 1 - part 2
captain beefheart is not a military hero, the star of a kiddie show or the symbol of a brand of dog food. after spending some time with him, though, you get the feeling that he, if he really wanted to, could be any one of those things.
what he might be is the most unorthodox, most creative pop musician of this decade. if his fame is less than that of, say, james taylor, it's partly because he has - like many of history's eccentric geniuses - a disturbing capacity for being ambushed by reality. beefheart, now 32 years old, is eight years into a musical career marked by incomprehension, incompetence and deviousness on the part of those entrusted with his financial and artistic future. he is just beginning to gain acceptance beyond the cult level.
a southern californian whose real name is don van vliet, beefheart dropped out of antelope valley junior college shortly after enrolling in 1959. he hung out with frank zappa before the latter joined the mothers of invention. then, in 1965, don van vliet rode into los angeles from the california desert, equipped with a collection of strange-looking musicians known as the magic band. he promptly recorded a single (his version of 'diddy wah diddy', popularized by bo diddley) that became something of a local hit, but he was turned down by the same record company when he tried to convince them to release an entire album of his songs. they called the songs 'too negative'.
the album, titled 'safe as milk', was released later by another company. it joined that limbo of low-selling platters, becoming what 'rolling stone' refers to as 'one of the forgotten classics of rock and roll'. 'strictly personal' was the name of his second album, but don is reluctant to claim credit for it. he believes that it was ruined by an unapproved last-minute re-engineering job that buried the music in layers of extraneous electronics.
next he was offered 'artistic sanctuary' by frank zappa's straight label (later sold out to warner bros). beefheart spent only eight and a half hours writing an album called 'trout mask replica'. it then took him more than six months to teach his band how to play it. rolling stone described this one as 'the most astounding and most important work of art ever to appear on a phonograph record'. however, it was not to everyone's taste.
the tunes are a weird mixture of free-form jazz, mississippi delta blues, and rock - often all three simultaneously. rhythms are totally unpredictable; what starts out as a blues boogie may end up sounding like a surrealist waltz. everybody seems to be playing whatever comes to mind, including beefheart, whose sax, musette and simran-horn solos ( played through tubes that allow him to play two instruments at the same time) swoop and dive, mirroring his incredible four-octave voice. lyrically, it's absurdist poetry, with beefheart ad-libbing such lines as 'a squid eating dough in a polyethylene bag is fast and bulbous / got me?'. 'trout mask replica' was not an overnight sensation.
after splitting with zappa over alleged double-dealing (the company countercharged that any man who would hire eight [? - t.t.] tree surgeons at its expense was too much to handle), beefheart settled down to make a series of albums with titles like 'lick my decals off, baby' and 'the spotlight kid'. his newest, 'clear spot' (packaged in a clear-plastic envelope, a tactic adopted when warner bros refused his request that the album be pressed on transparent vinyl), was written in its entirety during a two-hour auto ride to a gig. he hummed the tunes into a cassette recorder while dictating the lyrics to his guitarist.
onstage, captain beefheart looks like the beefy ringmaster of some satanic circus, with his long cloak flowing as he raunches away on harmonica, saxophone and gravel throat. listening to him talk has been likened to hearing the english language collapse. but his rap is the same as his music: after you listen to it for a while, it all begins to make sense.
you have been in the music business for some time now, and your music has changed a lot. did you find it necessary to commercialize your approach, or are you still doing pretty much what you want to?
i don't think you have to make any compromises: just get to the basic 'play what feels good to your hands and sing what feels good to your voice'. it's all a matter of feeling good, and i think we have that in this band. now, the group before was just experimenting. on 'trout mask replica' zoot horn rollo [bill harkleroad] and rockette morton [mark boston] were people that had never played before.
have they left the band?
no, they're still with me. they have been with me for over four years.
and they had never played at áll before that?
nothing... i got together with them and told them not to play. i táught them how not to play. i wrote 'trout mask replica' in eight and a half hours - words and music. the only reason i wrote words is that i knew the record company would make me put the album out, even though i didn't want to. it was a rhythm exercise to get them to be able to do what they do now. on this new album 'clear spot', they really get on that rhythm, like a shadow does on the ground. oh, not so ón it that it goes out of shape or bogs down. not like some cowboy digging his pointed heels into the dirt, trying to stop the earth from moving.
why didn't you want to release 'trout mask replica'?
i didn't want to put it out for straight records. even when they did release it, they didn't push it or promote it - which is too bad because the musicians had worked so hard on it. those guys were bórn on that album, and hardly anybody has heard it. and the result is that one of the great art statements of all time was lost to the world.
where are you from? i've always had the impression you might have come from the desert.
no, originally i'm from glendale, that's los angeles. but, you see, i started out when i was three - sculpting. in the bathtub first, like everyone does: my genitals, then a bar of soap, and on out from there. when i was five, i réally got into it. i used to lock myself in a room for three weeks and my mother would have to put the food under the door. i used to vacuum the carpet and get hairs from my persian cat to put in my sculptures.
no, this is not a well disguised captain beefheart - teejo
i sculpted every animal on the northern continent, then i started on african animals. by the time i was thirteen, i had them all done: aye-ayes, dik-diks, and all of these obscure lemurs. i love them all. after that, i did all the fish in the ocean, and that's quite a feat. my folks thought i was insane - of course - but i had my own tv show at seven, from griffith park, on sculpture. by the time i was eleven, i was lecturing in sculpture at the barzell art institute of the university of california, los angeles. then i got a scholarship from knudsen's creamery to go to europe to study for six years, all tuition paid. i would have gone as soon as i was sixteen.
then my parents said: 'all artists are queers', picked me up and moved me to the desert. isn't that funny? i tried to run away, but i couldn't do it. i missed out on that big scholarship, but in a way it's better that i did, because it really repressed me to be taken to the desert away from all my artist friends. my parents didn't really mean any harm. they were just protecting their kid, so they took me away.
and you quit sculpting?
that's the reason that it all came out later in music. i didn't do any sculpting or painting or anything from the time i was thirteen until i was 24. nothing.... i never even listened to any music. it embittered me so much. look, if i was thát dependent on it, they probably did the right thing. i probably would have burned out.
so at thirteen you went back and became a normal kid?
i went back and became a baby. i was like an egg rolling through time until i was 24. then the egg cracked and i popped out. into music. i never really played music before that, other than going to one rehearsal that this group was having. i bought this saxophone and i thought: 'i'm gonna go pláy something'. i don't know why i got an alto sax, although i did have an extensive pipe collection. i think i must have gone through this pipe collection and wound up with a saxophone.
anyway, i took this sax and went into the studio, where they were playing this thing called 'logan incident', a song written about this incident in - err - san diego. something really corny like the 'death march', only hyped up - like the fifties. so i grabbed the sax and started blowing how i felt about this thing. i was saying: 'hey, this is mé playing'. they said: 'hey, look, it's too weird'. 'hów can you say that to me in this day and age?', i asked, and they replied: 'well, we're saying it to you. as a matter of fact: you're fired!'. can you imagine that? they fired me the first day i went in - the same day!
what pushed you in the direction of music?
i was listening to the radio. i thought: 'i can hear a place in there that í could be'. i had always thought that music was too formal, and i thought: 'well, i'll get into this and fix it'. silly sculptor, going into music. what i am is not a musician but a sculptor, which is why my music sounds different. i put it together a different way.
how did you get started?
alex st. claire [alex snouffer] called me - you know, the fellow who was on 'safe as milk' along with ry cooder. he had a great influence on jimi hendrix when he was in england. anyway, he calls me and says: 'i'm putting a group together and we're gonna play tonight. you're gonna sing, van vliet'. he is a real prussian, you know? i said: 'give me a minute, will you? i never sang anything. i don't know anything about music'. and he says: 'tonight you're going to sing'. i must have sounded like a burro or something. and he says: 'that's horrible, man'. i say: 'i tóld you'. but he says: 'we're gonna do it anyway, and it'll get better'.
so that's how i went onstage in lancaster, california. out of paranoia, i took some of my art things with me. i took a hoover superchief vacuum cleaner - one of those really heavy ones with a mars light - and plugged it into the amplifier during the intermission. i had these mexican ducks - you'd call them jumping beans - and i got a single spotlight on them and even unveiled them with a little curtain i brought. i was doing an artistic show, and the people dug it. that's what got me on the wrong track, because i went on into that.
you consider that a mistake?
the worst thing i've ever done was to try and sculpt the people in the group. that's why the first group broke up. now i'm much wiser and i've apologized to everybody and they all agree that i wasn't that mean or anything. i could be a millionaire now if that band had stayed together, and i had had to listen to alex. now he has come back with the band and we play what feels good, and goodbye to all that phony art-statement shit: the vacuum cleaner, jumping beans, single spotlight, all that crap.
how did you come by the title 'safe as milk' for the first album?
well, i had gone down to los angeles to find somebody to put out this group. first we were with a&m records and did 'diddy wah diddy' before 'safe as milk'. the name meant the strontium-90 content of the woman's breast and nót acid, as it was taken to mean, as everything was taken to mean at that time. that's one of the reasons i split for a while. i didn't want people to think my imagination was due to...: something external. i'm a very pure type of '-ist'. i eat health food and i don't use anything.
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captain beefheart electricity
as felt by teejo