captain beefheart electricity

DON'T ARGUE THE CAPTAIN
the interviews


 

IN SEARCH OF AMERICA
captain beefheart and the smithsonian institute blues

from ROLLING STONE #79 010471 usa
by langdon winner
is early 1971 interview

notes:
* also a great article, too beautiful to leave out
* reprinted in SPANISH translation in 010871 PIEDRA RODANTE #4 mexico as ¿quién es el capitán beefheart?
* reproduced in usa 2007 (book+4dvd)boxset ROLLING STONE * COVER TO COVER 40 years of rolling stone 1967-2007

THIS is PART 1 - part 2 - part 3

*

the lights in the studio brightened as barry richards, wdca-tv's terribly hip television personality, swept onto the platform surrounded by the inevitable cloud of leather fringe. as the cameras rolled forward and the red light clicked 'on', the captain and the magic band stood stiff and at attention, richards caressed the microphone, smiled and with a marvelous top-40 dj guttural push said: 'well, you'll never guess who we've got on 'turn on' today. it's caayaaapt!...'

beefheart suddenly jumped forward at the master of ceremonies and tickled him in the ribs. richards dissolved into giggles and quickly tried to regain the composure he'd lost from the sudden sneak attack on his well-varnished cool. when the propriety of grooviness returned, richards asked the captain to introduce the group and left them to play what turned out to be a rare treat for any television audience: 40 minutes of uninterrupted beefheartian music and associated antics.

uncompromising to the medium or its audience, the group moved into its wildest material. ed marimba peered around the room with his silver opera glasses and fired at the cameras with his mattel special sparkler ray gun. drumbo then joined ed in a frantic drum duo, pounding his gone bops congas. zoot horn rollo and rockette morton advanced long and intricate solos on guitar and bass, performing like segovias on the ed sullivan show. meanwhile, winged eel fingerling (elliot ingber) brooded in the background, almost unnoticed.

the captain, as usual, blew his shiny new alto full blast, directly into the microphone. offering no mercy to the station's equipment he sang 'woe-is-a-me-bop' and 'when big joan sets up' at their highest operating levels. occasionally he would step back to give the hand and toe investment or lift his pants cuff to reveal the significant fact that his shoes contained feet but no stockings. at the conclusion of the set beefheart removed his right hand from the saxophone he was blowing and thumbed his nose contemptuously at the audience. 'they really love that,' he said later.

the tv program in washington dc (on 06.03.71 - t.t.) was merely one moment in an unprecedented historical occurrence - captain beefheart's tour of america. in his six years in the music business, don van vliet had almost never left the quiet confines of his san fernando valley living room. he had become legendary among musicians and fans as the genius that no one had ever heard perform. the number of live gigs in his career stood at about thirty-five and on only one occasion he had played east if the rocky mountains. now, with the help of a subsidy and a hefty organizational push from warner brothers records, captain beefheart and the magic band, plus ry cooder and a back-up group, were on the road at last.

*

when beefheart began his trek in mid-january, in detroit, the tour was shrouded in an atmosphere of intense doubt and anticipation. people in the music industry asked themselves: 'will this man actually perform?' side bets were taken on just how much of the six weeks' agenda the motley group of travelers would actually complete. the odds were 10 to 1 against finishing.

in the previous six months beefheart had played a number of jobs, but had cancelled out an important concert in berkeley and a weekend at the fillmore west. in both cases van vliet staunchly maintained that he had been misled. he said the berkeley promoters billed him as a freak show and bill graham offered him an amount too small even to pay the expenses. 'i've been cheated and misrepresented too often to do it again,' beefheart complained. 'it's just too old fashioned.'

this time however, the captain and his men were anxious to play. the long-heralded re-emergence of the magic band came off exactly as scheduled. following a strenuous trail of one-nighters, the warner brothers tour played for enthusiastic crowds in cleveland, columbus, cincinnati, new york, philadelphia, washington, new orleans, atlanta, des moines and other cities in the east, south and midwest. the tour drew 2,000 delighted fans at boston university while 700 more waited outside in the snow. in pittsburgh the bands did two performances apiece for sell-out crowds at super-sophisticated carnegie-mellon institute. through most of the tour, beefheart attracted capacity or near capacity audiences.

to the surprise of practically everyone, both the beefheart and cooder organizations seemed to thrive on the experience of travel and hard work. the members of the unlikely caravan became increasingly weary of the bad sound systems, tedious bus rides, ghastly restaurant food and antiseptic motel rooms, but it never showed in their music. the level of excitement rose steadily with every performance, as if each whistle stop could add something to their collective whistle.

as the tour moved farther and farther along the map of america, it became apparent that the magic band's special brand of sorcery was actually working. during the second performance at carnegie-mellon, a young man in the audience inflated a 100-foot long balloon which was then passed from hand to hand like a gigantic communal phallus. everywhere beefheart went, his fans approached him with peculiar little gifts they had made - a black velvet warlock's redingote with white fur cuffs, an intricate 'nativity scene' for his dining table, and large assortments of ray guns and robots.

but captain beefheart is not for everybody. as the warners excursion made its way from town to town it soon became evident that the magic band's extraordinary aura was dividing concert listeners into two distinctive groups. on the one hand there were the specifically beefheart oriented crowds who had obviously heard the band's albums, knew the songs and were absolutely committed to enjoying the show. tenacious devils, nothing could have swayed them from their goal. on the other hand, most of the performances also drew a large number of persons from what might be called the 'grand funk audience' - young listeners who are primarily interested in hearing rock and roll. 'ten years after was here last month and, boy, did we all dig it.' most of the people in this category had never heard beefheart's music and had probably come in response to the massive advertising campaign launched in each city. in most cases they were either angered or simply baffled by the sights and sounds they experienced.

*

philadelphia is a good example. several weeks earlier a petition had been posted in a local music shop: 'we the undersigned demand to see captain beefheart and his magic band at the 'main point' as soon as possible,' followed by 84 signatures. ignoring the fact that the performance would barely cover the daily expenses, the warner brothers' staff scheduled a gig for the main point, a tiny but very friendly folk music club near bryn mawr college.

both bands had been confined to chilly greyhound buses and over-heated motels for several days and were nearing the point of exhaustion. when they arrived at the club they discovered that, as usual, the house sound system emitted little more than screeches, squeaks and squeals. five thousand years of western civilization and you can't find a p.a. system that works worth beans. but the audience was ready and so were the musicians.

ry cooder began the evening with a set of blues and bottleneck tunes from his new album. reaching back to the music of the great blues masters - sleepy john estes, blind willie johnson, leadbelly, and others - cooder plays a very pleasant and technically impeccable style of guitar and mandolin. throughout the tour he was plagued by the fact that his back-up band could never get the feeling he wanted. the musicians were competent enough, but had been picked up at the last minute. they wanted desperately to play cooder's music as he wanted it, but could never quite comprehend the vague instructions the leader issued to them. in philadelphia, as in most places, the group performed adequately and the crowd seemed to enjoy it. cooder received enough applause to merit the traditional encore.

captain beefheart / don van vliet - on tour, usa early 1971 - rolling stone 010471 - picture by jeff albertson
picture by jeff albertson

*

when the magic band took the stage, the small room crackled with electricity. the captain's visit was apparently a social event of no small magnitude. the bryn mawr 'trout mask replica' contingent was present in force and completely a-titter.

the band began its set with a long version of 'alice in blunderland', one of the few true rockers in its repertoire. ed marimba states the dainty opening theme on marimba: the beautiful alice is seen stumbling across a meadow filled with pingpong balls, tripping over her delicately tailored sharkskin brocade skirts. zoot horn rollo then steps from behind an amplifier stroking his telecaster with his steel finger. as drumbo puts the rhythmic structures firmly in place, rockette morton joins the ensemble to see if a new bass theme might save alice from the hovering bungle syndrome. there is a brief intermission as rockette humbly declines an award from arthur murray for accomplishment in mambo dancing. at this point captain beefheart, dressed in an inexpensive but suitably immodest bright red smoking jacket, walks through the audience and joins his boys on the small platform. with alice's theme pounding in the background, he proceeds to single-handedly revive the bebop tradition. leaning into his saxophone and exhaling every molecule of air in his lungs, beefheart begins to sound like every good note ever played at the monterey jazz festival.

the philadelphia audience was exactly where it wanted to be - in a trance. the magic band blew its way through the buzzing and feedback of the p.a. to one of its best sets ever - 'japan in a dishpan', 'abba zaba', 'gimme dat harp boy' - all of them executed to perfection. beefheart was so happy with the music that he burst into an a cappella version of the old blues standard 'black snake blues', and let his voice slide freely up and down along its four and a half octave range.

at the end of the session the crowd rose to its feet and began the familiar chant, 'more! more! more!'. what, after all, could be a finer compliment than to offer the band an encore? but beefheart doesn't indulge in showstoppers or rave-up and couldn't care less about encores. 'how could we ever top that?,' he sighed as he nonchalantly packed his selmer into its fur-lined leather case.

the hoi polloi continued the uproar. 'more! more! more!' when van vliet noticed that the small tumult was not going to subside, he walked to the microphone, frowned and with apparent displeasure said: 'well, alright, if that's what you want....'

the audience fell into a deep hush as beefheart began to whistle his encore. the tune sounded strangely familiar. then, almost in a single voice, the people in the room burst into laughter as they recognized that beefheart was actually following their request to the letter. the song coming from his lips was that maudlin ditty from the sputnik era - 'more' (a tv program - t.t.).

*


the non-beefheartian crowds were, if anything, even more interesting to observe than those who came with their wool already dyed. in wilkes barre, pennsylvania, i sensed the fact that the grand funk listeners had shown up in great numbers. 'this beefheart guy's supposed to be really gross,' one of them announced to me as he took his seat. i decided to station myself strategically at the rear of the auditorium near the sign marked 'exit', thinking that this would be the place to catch a representative sample of those who were less than thrilled with the captain's music. after about two minutes of the act, sure enough, dozens of people started pouring towards the exit.

they were determined to leave. the first few to pass by were obviously stoned and had nothing to say for the press beyond. 'man, just let me out of here.' the more coherent evacuees stated politely that they preferred hard rock and could not understand what the captain was doing. 'i would have liked it even better if he'd had a funky organ,' one of them told me.

captain beefheart and his funky organ? forget it.

yet it would be a mistake to assume that grand funk audiences did not like captain beefheart or could not understand what he was about. for about a tenth to a fourth part of the audiences had left, the rest always decided to stick it out and try to enjoy the music. on such occasions beefheart, rollo, morton, drumbo and marimba were able to score their greatest triumphs.

the remaining crowd would start by digging the magic band's distinctive high jinks - ed marimba and drumbo playing pat-a-cake in the middle of their drum duo and so forth. then the people noticed a disturbing fact - these fellows really mean that crazy stuff they're playing. from that point on the real education in music began. the magic band would move through its bag of tricks into higher and higher realms of musical investigation. the crowd would sit frozen like little aborigine tribesmen at their first demonstration of an electric light bulb. when it was all over and the band was about to leave the stage, captain beefheart would step forward to deliver the final blow, a poem - 'little golden birdies'. using his most sepulchral tones to heighten the comic effect and gesturing like some over-done 19th century political orator, he would conclude:

those little golden birdies, look at them / the mystic egypt tozzle dangling down / old sleeper man; sssh! don't wake him / up wand hand broom star was uh obie man / revered throughout the boneknob land / his magic black purse split open let go flocks of them / sssh! sookie singabus / snorred like a red merry-go-round horse / an acid gold bar swirled up and down , up and down / in back of the singabus / and the pantaloon duck white goose-necked quacked: / webcor! webcor!

the audience would continue to sit in confused silence. this is the grand climax? 'webcor, webcor'? after a minute or so, they would rise to their feet and applaud.

*

if one element held the tour together, it was the magic band's unwavering dedication to the opportunity warners had handed them. beefheart, rollo, morton, marimba, drumbo and their manager, grant gibbs, were determined that this time everything would go right. in contrast to its reputation as a group of incorrigible prima donnas, the magic band on tour was positively unflappable.

a crucial test of this determination arose exactly two weeks into the tour. guitarist winged eel fingerling, the sixth member of the group, decided that he could no longer continue playing the magic band's music. winged eel had long felt ill at ease in the ensemble and his bleak moods had begun to affect the sound of the whole group. he was also upset that the tour gave him little opportunity to find the organic foods he usually ate. in wilkes barre, just after the concert, winged eel announced that he wanted to go back to los angeles and begin playing rock and roll again.

in an intense all-night discussion, fingerling and the magic band talked about the circumstances of his departure. the motel room gradually filled with cigarette smoke and sadness as beefheart asked that the members of the group say exactly what was on their minds. 'we don't want any of this to drag us down on the rest of the tour,' he said with a downward swoop of his arm.

drumbo sat quietly in one corner of the room, staring at the floor, and said very little. ed marimba, a veteran of such conflicts in other groups, pointed out that winged eel was a fine blues and rock guitarist, probably the best around, but if he did not feel at home with the music, then it would be best for everyone if he tried something else.

most depressed of all were rockette morton and zoot horn rollo. they had spent many long hours teaching winged eel the songs and had tried to reach through the guitarist's indelible coolness to make him a friend. their remarks indicated a sense of deep personal loss at realizing that fingerling ultimately did not want to play with them.

the parting was amicable but very definite. with the number of players reduced to five, the band's on-stage performance improved noticeably. on the morning that winged eel flew back to los angeles, beefheart observed: 'this has happened to me many times before. after six years in the music business i'm beginning to wonder if it's possible to have two guitarists in the same group.'

as winged eel fingerling boarded the bus which would take him to the airport, the warner brothers film crew caught him mumbling to himself: 'i can be as weird as anyone wants me to be. fucking weirdos..., fucking weirdos.'

(*)

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captain beefheart electricity
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