DON'T ARGUE THE CAPTAIN
a few words with good captain beefheart
from ROCK vol.3
#15 130372 usa
by jody breslaw
is ±18.01.72 interview
as well as the shorter version
BEEFHEART: THE ROLL AIN'T
a few words with the good captain
from SOUNDS 110372 england
note: with the fragment headings from the english version
what can you say about captain beefheart? eccentric genius, musician, poet and painter, cryptic prophet, metaphysical humorist, creator of grand schemes… nothing quite does justice to this mysterious recluse who bursts into the public eye and ear, now and again, with some of the strangest mind-and-spirit-stretching music heard on this planet. for those in the know, all this has meaning; for the as yet uninitiated, there's no way to convey beefheart's ineffable essence but to suggest they partake of the music.
and what music! from the legendary 'safe as milk', an unheard-of blend of delta blues, vocal pyro-technics, eerie electronics and surreal poetry hailed as 'one of the forgotten classics of rock and roll history (as declared by langdon winner – teejo)', through 'trout mask replica', which added avant-garde jazz elements to the bizarre beefheart brew, up to 'the spotlight kid', his new album, he has earned the tagline with which warner / reprise proudly heads up its press kit bio: 'captain beefheart - 10 years ahead of his time’.
not that anyone is likely to be making music quite like beefheart's ten years from now, so totally realised in his own idiosyncratic, panoramic vision. that vision is transmitted through an amazing variety of growling, moaning and whining vocals spread over an incredible five-octave range, supplemented by his blues harmonica, tootling saxophone and the redoubtable magic band. would-be imitators must shrink from the awesome task: 'you have to be some kind of weird, insane genius...' precisely.
jumping on the beefheart bandwagon would be less than a sure thing commercially in any case, given his relatively select following in the past. his music hasn't been the most immediately accessible, certainly - but beefheart's peculiar manner of pursuing a career is probably the main reason.
since coming upon the scene in 1965, the captain has run through at least three managers and five labels in putting out six albums, creating not only incredible legal snarls but a disaster in terms of marshaling the necessary financial and promotional support. it has proved next to impossible to maintain equilibrium between beefheart's jealously guarded artistic interests and those of the music biz, hence his erratically up-and-down relationships with kama sutra records, bob krasnow and his blue thumb label, childhood friend frank zappa and his business enterprises, among others.
over six years of interminable hassles, the captain - sequestered in northern california with his band - appeared in performance less than thirty times, which didn't help matters either. somehow, despite the paranoia on all sides engendered by previous fiascoes, relations with reprise records and current manager carl scott seem benign at the moment. it is to be fervently hoped that beefheart's time has come.
encouraged by a successful (usa only - t.t.) reprise-sponsored tour last year, the captain - or don van vliet, as his birth certificate reads (be it without 'van' - t.t.) - is back on the road again with his magic band. on the new album, the band includes zoot horn rollo (aka bill harkleroad), 'glass finger and steel appendage guitar', ed marimba (art tripp) on marimba, piano and harpsichord, rockette morton (mark boston) on 'bassus ophelius', winged eel fingerling (elliot ingber), guitar, and drumbo (john french) on drums.
a few days after their enthusiastically received opening gig at new york's anderson theater (15 january, line-up with art tripp on drums instead of john french, and with new member oréjon aka roy estrada on bass - t.t.), i got together with beefheart, zoot horn and rockette at the fifth avenue hotel to discuss their recent re-emergence on the performing circuit, their thoughts about the music and their plans for the future.
the captain indicated he was:
really looking forward to the tour. the anderson show was great - a fine audience, very open. two fellows showed up in white tie and tails, saying they had dressed up for the occasion (a good indication of the fervor of his fans - j.b.).
then you like touring?, i ask a little doubtfully, considering his spotty record in the past.
i think it's more fun than anything. i always wanted to do it, but just haven't been able to get it together until joining with warner / reprise. before, nobody would take a chance on sending me out. isn't that absurd?
it immediately becomes clear that beefheart has set about changing his eccentric and erratic image.
why, then, the previous confusion about the direction of your career, the hassles with management, record companies, etcetera?
it's all due to the fact that they were with me for the wrong reasons. i was there to be an artist, not to explain what an artist is. i wanted to play to people, but they all wanted to know what i was before putting out their 50. i put out my 50 all the time....
so beefheart is no less anxious to protect his identity from outside influences - indeed, from interpretation of any kind. this brings to mind langdon winner's comment that 'the crucial problem in beefheart's career is that people are never able to accept him as he is'.
what about that?
now more people are getting to realize what i'm doing, which is nothing.
i mean, i'm just up there blowing my nose, playing and living my life up there on stage.... when i was a baby, i knew that i was ón. it's like the current is on, but it doesn't get used up, it goes somewhere else.
the musician is there, but the music leaps from one to another. people have to use their own imaginations.
they do indeed: it's no wonder even those who take great pains to 'understand' him can't quite peg beefheart - the delphic oracle of contemporary music. with increasing obscurity threatening coherence, i turn our conversation to the new album.
'the spotlight kid'?
i've taken a step towards extending myself on this album, which i enjoy, it's another facet. i think it's the warmest album i've done, and a little bit closer to the middle than some of my stuff. there's not a big frown area on the audience, who thought there was something more to be made out of 'trout mask replica' and 'lick my decals off, baby' than there was. but this album is right there to them.
is it deliberately more accessible then? tailored to the tastes of your audience?
i'm not so pompous that my mind has turned to stone. i've had people ask me, why not try another feeling in the audience? why not try it, so long as it doesn't put me in a can. i really meant lick my decals off, baby - get rid of the labels.
beefheart continues on this theme as i ask him how he relates to musical influences which are obviously essentially black.
i think everybody's colored or you wouldn't be able to see them. i don't see it as black or white or... - i mean, everybody gives blood, the same the water gives life.
i just think that certain people try to intellectualize things... i have a certain amount of intellectualism myself as a writer, and i'm not trying to get rid of it, i'm going to let it all come out in the wash. but to hear somebody who tries to play blues like a march or the 'blue danube' is ridiculous to me....
but you've done a lot of strange things to the blues too. a lot of your stuff has obvious country blues roots, but within a weird musical and psychological framework.
it's my blues. i'll tell you the truth: i haven't been influenced by anyone.
you don't think that other people's musical ideas ever creep up in your music?
i don't think they do, because i have too much respect for the people i listen to, to do that.
the form and content of beefheart's music is certainly very much his own. even the rest of the band's playing is more an individual than group creation:
i taught my own people just how to play, and kept them away, from obvious trips and pitfalls. like little grooves that go too deep when the wax is hot..., things that make scars that you can never get over... that's not too elliptical, is it?
i think maybe it is, i answered wryly.
the world is, you know... - but let me get this to where people can understand it in print. (turning to his meekly attending sidemen:) what would you say? let rockette morton tell it.
(mark boston:) when i came into the group, we were all living in one house, and that helped keep out outside influences - music or talk or the people who would tend to delude our young minds... we worked all that out, and just started taking away the barriers, the hang-ups -
(captain beefheart:) - that were put upon you. a teacher tells you about music and that it's óne, twó, thrée, or else you're expelled, and then the cops come for you.
beefheart goes on to attack the customary classifications of music into rock, jazz, blues, etcetera, calling them arbitrary and limiting. on this note, i ask:
how about your own music, then - do you prefer not to call it rock and roll?
i did 'lick my decals off, baby' - man, you know i'm not a rock and roll player. i mean, i know more than rock... and... roll. in the first place, you can't eat a rock, and rolls get stale.
switching metaphors, he continues:
you see, the idea of the roll being ba-ba-dum, ba-ba-dum, ba-ba-dum-dum-dum - i refuse to do that kind of thing in my music.
there ensues an extended rap on music and militarism, one of many esoteric ramblings which continually pop up throughout our conversation. a ringing telephone sends beefheart into the other room, where his wife lies sleeping. in his absence, i press zoot horn rollo and rockette morton for a bit of historical background:
(mark boston:) zoot horn rollo and myself have been in the group for three and a half years. we both have a completely different style of playing than anyone else. when i came in i had been fooling around with the bass a little bit, but i didn't know anything about it. i didn't know how to let the feeling out of it, because i was starting to get into a bag of being a musician.
when you can let all your inhibitions out, it comes through as a feeling rather than just notes. i want to make people feel good if they'll listen. the bass to me isn't a bass, it is more like a --
(captain beefheart, who has just returned:) -- juicy platform.
(mark boston:) yeah, like a juicy launching platform.
(bill harkleroad:) i didn't play much before either. i had picked up a little guitar, but i quit when i was taking a lot of drugs...: acid (aka lsd - t.t.), psychedelics (anathema to beefheart and his circle of disciples - j.b.). i picked it up again when i joined the group, but without any old influences.
what díd contribute to your playing style, then?
i had always enjoyed what don had done, always thought he was the best. when i joined the group i was caught up in that feeling, the magic, being a part of that....
the comments of beefheart's sidemen, both what they say and how they say it, reveal the overwhelming impact of the group's leader and mentor. their music lends the same impression. considering the almost biological contact between beefheart and his band, i ask the captain:
i get the idea that much of what develops between you is never communicated verbally, but more through a certain collective consciousness. is there something to that?
absolutely. there's a lot of interplay in the group - we even influence each other's thoughts. i've been around them to such a degree that if someone is thinking about something i can get it down on the piano. i get the feeling of the room and do it right like that. telepathy is a corny word, but... take out all the stop signs. you know, what i mean?
an apt metaphor - beefheart is proceeding full speed ahead on all fronts. when i inquire about his other artistic enterprises, he responds with unguarded enthusiasm:
i have about six or seven hundred paintings now, my own private collection. i'm going to have an exhibit of my work soon. i also have a book coming out: a poetry collection called 'singing ink'. then i have a novel coming out, a lot about the group when we were first starting together at the house, called 'old fart at play'.
a film venture is also in the works, as well as a new album. spotlight kid, bravo!
click clack to the power station, the news or the other INTERVIEWS
captain beefheart electricity
as felt by teejo