DON'T ARGUE THE CAPTAIN
the interviews - band members
MY LIFE AS A MIDNIGHT HAT
richard 'midnight hatsize' snyder
STEAL SOFTLY THRU SNOW #6 010496 england
by justin sherrill
is early 1996 written interview RICHARD SNYDER
note: originally appeared without title
part 1 - THIS is PART 2
are there any other interesting stories about touring that you have?
hoo-boy! maybe too many to mention - and too many that would get too personal (and would serve to alienate me even further from that particular social circle, however dormant it may be), but...:
once we were in bellingham, washington (at what was probably the very best holiday inn on the planet), and several of us were hanging about in don's room late in the evening. don's legendary insomnia came to the fore, as don saw jeff napping in a chair nearby and, placing his face within mere inches of jeff's, made a remarkable vocal sound that could easily rival the volume and intensity of a foghorn, arousing jeff from his nap. don said something to the effect of: 'you can't fall asleep - i'm still awake!'.
another unusual interaction occurred while don and i were sitting together in a hallway alcove in our liverpool, england accommodations. don began to introduce me to a pair of fire extinguishers (one larger, one smaller) and a fire alarm bell that were attached to the wall as if they were old friends of his that he wished to acquaint me with, calling them by their respective names: 'pyrene, pyrene junior... and bell!', always with a little pause before announcing 'and bell' as if to indicate its primacy. the surreal nature of this life moment shall never leave me, and i dó appreciate it.
while we were in new york, don was being interviewed by some magazine on the night that john lennon was killed. at one point during the interview, don stopped speaking, closed his eyes and then opened them again, saying to the interviewer: 'something big is happening tonight - something horrible. you'll read about it in your papers tomorrow.' knowing full well that the doubting thomases among you will say: 'ah, yes - but he wasn't specific about the event. the way the world is, you could say something like that ány day and still be right more times than not'. nevertheless, it was the strangest coincidence - if indeed, that was áll it was.
before going too much further down this path, i must tell of the time that don summoned all of us from our rooms and took us to a big ice machine in the hallway of our hotel, only to show us, with the enthusiasm of a pirate plundering a great treasure, his great delight at having found 'diamonds!' - all the while digging his hands into the ice and letting the cubes fall from his hands back into the bin and continuing to intone: 'diamonds!'. it was a delightful moment - further proof of don's playfulness in all life-matters, however small.
what was it like working with don? is he that hard to get along with?
in the fewest words: 'great' and 'no', respectively. he admittedly presents a challenge to any rock-bred musician who generally perceives music as having a specific time signature or key center which, once established, remains so for the duration of that particular song. loving his music as i did, i accepted any unusual musical instruction i was given and for the most part i was eager to please him in other ways as well (specifically, in welcoming a 'nickname' as the others were reluctant to take, and allowing him to fashion the stage clothing that i wore for the duration of the tour, the album cover photo and the video of 'ice cream for crow).
his lack of formal musical training was his own enemy and his greatest asset. it was his nemesis insofar as it presented him with little or no vocabulary with which to communicate to musicians on their terms. example: at one time he instructed cliff martinez, the drummer, to play a beat that he had just given him as if he was 'juggling a plate full of pencils'. don really meant for him to play it in free time, without concern to making the downbeats of the phrase occur at regular intervals - but he couldn't say it that way!
at no time could don request of any of us that we play a specific note by name (e.g. 'play an e flat there') - he would instead whistle it, play it on a harmonica or, in a fit of exasperation, grab the neck of your instrument and percussively hit the fretboard with his hands in search of the note he was looking for. he frequently assumed the responsibility for any difficulty we were having, apologizing for not being able to tell us, in musical terms, what he was asking us to do.
armed, as it were, with a distinct lack of musical convention or vocabulary, don was conversely able to create some of the most remarkable artistic 'compositions' (he never called them 'songs'), as if the noises made by our instruments were little more than colors to be applied to a canvas of air - nothing more, nothing less.
in fact, the only time that we had an outright disagreement was when he instructed me to cut my hair (which i was quite fond of at the time), stating that if i insisted on keeping it long that i would not be allowed on either the album cover shot or the video, saying that i looked like 'somebody's old aunt' with hair of such length. i eventually yielded, but not without a certain amount of grief on my part. a small price to pay...
how did you find out about his retirement from music?
ohhh - almost by complete accident. no great announcement was éver made - in fact, very little communication followed the release of 'ice cream for crow' from don or his management for several months, but i was fully under the impression that we wóuld be going on the road again to promote the album - eventually.
well, eventually i received a phone call - from gary lucas, i believe - informing me that no plans were going to be made for a tour and that don was, in effect, retiring from the music business.
the part-time job that i had taken in the interim was soon to become full-time....
would you rejoin the band if it ever came back together?
hmmm... a tough one, that. i participated in two unique incarnations of the band.
the band that tóured (with robert williams on drums) never got a chance to record as a unit, which was unfortunate, since the volatile chemistry and musical mastery that we had come to achieve by the end of the tour was never adequately preserved in a representative recording - which i have always regretted.
equally unfortunately, the 'ice cream for crow' band - with cliff martinez on drums, gary lucas on guitar and myself switching to my beloved bass duties - weren't able to achieve the same chemistry and / or intensity due to the relatively short preparation and acclimation time before and during the recording of that album. this band never really had the chance to prove itself or live up to its full potential.
there are probably a few too many 'if only"s and 'what if"s to be able to answer that question confidently, but with don firmly in retirement, the answer would have to be no. i know you understand what i mean.
have you analyzed the music you played in the magic band? what did you think (be plenty scholarly here)? also, contrast if possible the way you looked at the music growing up versus once you joined the band.
i must admit that i never have tried to analyze don's music - at least in the same ways that one might analyze classical passages or works (e.g. in terms of motivic transformation, rhythmic / melodic variation, modulation, overall harmonic structure, etc.) - and i suppose i've never thought about why i hadn't. perhaps the answer could be thus: don, at this best, has written music that defied all previously established conventions. i can't imagine ányone being able to explicate, in either a convincing or a sufficiently interesting manner, just what the hell is réally going on in a piece such as 'frownland' or 'japan in a dishpan' - at least by using the language of conventional music theory.
don may have said it best (and he said it regularly): 'you've had too much to think!' any time that we looked like we were in 'danger' of understanding his music on anything other than a playful or visceral level, don would stop us dead in our tracks and redirect our attention with anything at his disposal that would serve to get us out of our thínking about the music and into féeling it, including inventing new parts for us to learn - only to dispose of them later. if don hated anything, he hated the sound of refinement in our performance, as though it resulted from our having gone into an unfeeling, automatic state.
on a few occasions i caught myself questioning some of his choices for my basslines during the 'ice cream for crow' rehearsals, especially if they seemed to harmonically conflict with the guitars. in every instance, however, his opinion was áll that mattered - and after a while you became conditioned to what can perhaps best be defined as a state of 'ego loss': a total surrender of one's musical will.
as far as how my viewpoint of music was altered by joining the magic band, i suppose i'll invite disbelief by saying: 'not very much'. music, as it is traditionally understood and practiced, exists on a plane that has no intersection with don's brand of 'noteplay', and may actually be better analyzed using artistic concepts - especially those that might be used to describe not only the work of the 'action painters' that he admired (especially willem de kooning) and the 'impasto' technique that they regularly employed, but also the work of the 'dadaistic' school and its effect on don (or, to paraphrase tristan tzara, 'anti-music for anti-music's sake').
what's your favorite beefheart song to play? to hear?
my favorite beefheart 'composition' to play was 'brick bats', as it seemed to require more of a sense of esp (extra sensorial perception - t.t,) than a sense of timing to get through the a-rhythmic middle section, sandwiched as it was between some of the most beautiful counterpoints written for a bass and two guitars.
one song that i've never played, however, is probably the one that is my favorite to hear: 'frownland'. i defy ányone to find a more intense and challenging chunk of musical thought - that clocks in at well under two minutes! only by the daily rigor of long hours of practice could such a moment be accomplished by human beings - and this is the one that don chose to ópen 'trout mask replica' with. can there be any single greater act of defiance, musical or otherwise?
to close off, some funny trivia from a 1982 usa tv talkshow guesting captain beefheart:
[dumb host:] let me ask you one question about this gentleman [on the back cover of 'ice cream for crow']. a picture, obviously of a guy who performed on the album: richard 'midnight hatsize' snyder...
i know that you sometimes give musicians names.
well, i had to in this case. i mean 'snyder'.... i mean i had to give him 'midnight hatsize' because we got him that hat. i had him put those bow ties on the front and the back (points to band photo on back of album). black one and the white one. now it looked better. that red derby didn't make it without them.
but..., uh..., he's a winnibago sioux indian!
mmm hmm. (laughter.) so 'midnight hatsize', that's a very unusual name.
he needed a hat. he called my manager, gary lucas, he called him in the middle of the night - said he wore a size eight hat.
now that's impossible.
it is impossible? that's a pretty big hat isn't it?
well, i mean, it's possible, but impossible in his case.
well..., uhmm... (laughs.) what size hat does he wear?
seven and three eighths.
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