DON'T ARGUE THE CAPTAIN
PHONE CALLS TO DON
DAMP #5 010190 usa
by kevin kraynick
is fall 1989 telephone interview(s)
note: part of the 'beefheart extravaganza' special that also contained the interview with bill harkleroad playing that long lunar note with zoot horn rollo
i had been warned by everyone i knew who had previously associated with don van vliet, alias captain beefheart, that he could be a real bastard. i had acquired his unlisted phone number through devious means and now i was minutes away from calling my favorite rock and roll singer and songwriter of áll time. this was no simple chore. not only does he relish his isolation from all things musical, but he has a way of twisting the english language into a language all his own. only a cautious and skilled professional could pull this one off, but i made one fatal mistake - i called to ask him if i could do an interview with him first.
i had no questions prepared, no means of taping a phone conversation, absolutely no short hand skills and no inkling that my initial call would last twó hóurs. as a matter of fact, it was me who put an end to the call, announcing that i had to pick up melissa. he told me that her name sounded "kind of purple" and asked me if i was married to her. when i told him that i wasn't, he belted out: "you've gotta make that little girl honest".
we hit it off right from the start, don even going as far as to say: "i know a very nice hungarian and his name is kevin kraynick". we talked about his hungarian auto mechanic who escaped hungary "just in a nicotine" and the fighting cock he once owned that would sit on his shoulder and "come out with his little spurs moving" if anyone appeared to be aggressive near don.
he played me some music over the phone, so i could "dig that monaural sound", always preceding it with: "want me to blow your mind?". i was treated to duke ellington and his orchestra performing 'take the a train', two old willie dixon cuts and an excellent blues piece by one string sam ("...or one string jones or just string bean") that elliot ingber ('winged eel fingerling') sent to him. he thought elliot "was too much" and he said it several times.
then, of course, talk turned to dogs and we discussed the labrador. he informed me that they were excellent swimmers and that they had webs between thier toes. i said i wasn't aware of that and he told me to "grab a paw and dig it". then he told me to write that down. he then said he liked the dog that "looked like it was carved out of a bar of soap" but he couldn't remember its name. i asked if it was the pit bull. it was the pit bull.
he also admitted a fondness for the malamute. and havana cigars. he said he had been in a car accident when he was younger and developed a respect for percussion as a result. he asked me when was the last time i'd seen a real good mahogany sock darner. i told him it had been ages.
i asked him if he had heard the 1988 'fast 'n' bulbous' compilation elpee of other artists peforming his material. he said he hadn't listened to it because, in his words, "they fucked with my chrome". he had harsh words for a certain underground guitarist/vocalist who had fucked with his chrome and had "washed up against the coral" as a result.
he claimed that jimi hendrix approached him while he was in london around the time of 'safe as milk' [so in 1968 - t.t.], and asked him if he'd record with him. don responded that he wouldn't consider it until he got his heroin dependency alleviated. "first, you get rid of that porcupine. i can't stand to see you suffer like this."
there was a lot more said between us and, after we hit the two hour mark, i was sure i had this in the bag. we set up a time to do the interview a week later on a saturday morning at 9:00 am, his time. i made sure that he wanted me to call that early and he said: "i don't mind being woken up. i just hate being told when to go to bed."
a week later i traveled out to storrs, connecticut, from providence, rhode island, so that i could record the interview on good equipment at my old college radio station, and made the fatal call. it rang and rang and rang. no answer. i went downstairs and played pool for an hour and tried again. no answer. four more tries and i gave up. the son of a bitch had blown me off.
two weeks later i tried to give it one more shot - one last gallant effort for the 'damp' reader. so i called him up and don, of course, claimed he was waiting by the phone the whole time i couldn't get through to him; and that, because he was "packed to the gills" trying to get paintings completed for his two upcoming gallery shows in new york city [but would take place in summer 1991 - t.t.] and frankfurt [january 1990 - t.t.], he honestly didn't have the time to do an interview. he had a cold and he sounded awful, but he was cordial as all hell.
don: i played you some góod music last time.
yeah, that one string sam stuff was incredible.
(coughs.) excuse me. (coughs.) ...cold.
you sound a little sick, don.
first time this year.
really? are you getting any sleep? you said you were staying up around the clock.
of course not. (goulish laugh.) of course not. no, hell, they don't let painters sleep. ít doesn't let painters sleep - the muse. no way. einstein didn't sleep.
well, he looked like he didn't sleep.
he looked fantastic. (laughs.)
he had that beautiful hair. it's the hair that looks like it's been slept on; the way it's poking up. i call that 'sleep head'.
it looks the best. it scares christians.
does it take practice to stay up that long, night after night?
no, it's the way you can actually beat the clock. the clock is a cocksucker. i hate the clock. i like to travel and go to different countries and beat the clock there, too. just to stay up, period. (laughs.) it's fun.
so jet lag doesn't bother you?
no, i think if you drink a lot of water and tea you can fool it.
but you have the caffeine in the tea...
it's pretty good. (laughs.)
i was listening to one of those breakfast radio talk shows a couple of days ago and the guy on there was adamant about his belief that coffee doesn't help to perk up in the morning. he said he doesn't drink it.
i like coffee.
i love coffee.
it's a wonderful brew.
wónderfúl. (says something in french.) the dangerous herb. that's what the french call it. they're funny. that's bright, isn't it?
yeah, but i don't know about it being dangerous.
yeah, well i mean pro-vo-ca-ti-ve.
how many paintings have you turned out so far?
(counting to himself.) thirty-five. and every one of them's good.
oh, you haven't scrapped any?
no, because they're all good. i'm lucky this time. i usually do that.
yeah, i read an interview with you where you said you only keep one out of five of your paintings.
yeah, i do, but this time i got lucky.
that's great. so they've all been keepers.
'it's a keeper'. what song was that from? (pause.) 'ice cream for crow'.
you also said you'd only keep a painting if it was disturbing.
yeah, who would want to keep a fucking lullaby? (we both laugh.) there's nothing as bad as a lullaby.
i have seen a couple of your paintings that were kind of beautiful, like 'bromboline frenzy'.
well, that's the most disturbing one of the bunch.
you think so? why do you think that's disturbing?
(referring to the people in the painting:) who áre those people? who the hell are they?
i don't know. you tell me, you painted it. i didn't find it disturbing.
well, me either, but then i'm the screwball who painted it. it should disturb everybody.
do you think you're keeping more of your paintings because you're getting better at it?
yeah, i am. i'm definitely improving. i'm being able to get out more - to get through the crack.
and that was about the extent of that, minus any unnecessary gibberish. not much of an interview, more like a conversation, but it was the second one i'd had with the greatest voice rock had ever produced, so you won't hear me complaining. he asked for my phone number, so who knows, maybe we'll have something else for you down the road... thanks don.
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captain beefheart electricity
as felt by teejo