DON'T ARGUE THE CAPTAIN
IN SEARCH OF AMERICA
captain beefheart and the smithsonian institute blues
from ROLLING STONE
#79 010471 usa
by langdon winner
is early 1971 interview
* 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
part 1 - THIS is PART 2 - part 3
the fingerling incident was the only significant flaw in an otherwise cheerful expedition. the magic band was clearly elated to leave the isolation chamber of los angeles and 'to get out and meet the people'. at every bus stop, motel and airline terminal the band would always talk to curious bystanders. rockette morton would proudly explain that this was the group all america had been waiting for and pass out copies of 'lick my decals off, baby' to gray-haired ladies whose last album purchase was probably 'glen miller: the golden years'. the spirit of the whole affair was expressed in ed marimba's title for a yet unwritten song: 'play a big chord and run out and listen to it'. the magic band had been lurking in oblivion too long. it now wanted to check out america to see who was really digging it.
most delighted of all was beefheart himself. after each performance he would saunter into the crowd and talk endlessly to anyone who seemed interested. most of those who came forward were young fans who wanted to learn the secrets behind his music. 'how long do you practice your horn every day?,' they would ask.
'i never practice at all,' he would respond with an impish look in his eye. 'every time i play my horn i discover new things in there. if i practiced, they wouldn't be new anymore, would they?'
without exception the next question to come up would concern the use of drugs. 'i've heard that no-one in this group uses dope at all. is that true?' beefheart would suddenly wax very serious. 'no, we don't use that stuff. our music comes from merely breathing in and breathing out, do you know what i mean? you aren't using it anymore, are you? god, you don't need it. it's just another trap. don't kid yourself. you're not as hung up as you'd like to think you are. there are too many people these days who wear their afflictions like a badge. their little marry wanna speed afflictions.' the captain would sigh and make a badge sign with his thumb and forefinger. 'it's just too corny.'
in some areas of the country the drug question seemed less important than another major scourge - the vietnam war. in alexandria, virginia beefheart encountered jerry and ron, two young 'green berets' who had just returned from vietnam. it soon became apparent that the men adequately represented the spirit of the 'new u.s. army', namely: 'get the hell out!'
as the captain nodded his high hat in agreement, jerry and ron told him: 'everybody's trying to weasel a way home now. they realize that it's all a joke.' they went on to say that they had spent the weekend trying to drown their memories of 'nam' in three fifths of booze. 'yes,' said the captain sympathetically, 'i suppose you'll need that much just to forget,' and handed them a freshly autographed copy of his album. 'maybe this will help too.'
beefheart's talents as a conversationalist and raconteur were particularly evident in his meetings with the press. availing himself to any and all requests for interviews, beefheart talked to reporters whenever and wherever they wanted. it was here that a number of incredible misunderstandings arose. possibly because of the requirements of their trade, media representatives are amazingly literal. they ask questions in straight lines and struggle tirelessly to keep the lines in order. beefheart, on the other hand, speaks in an inventive conversational style which delights in bending all lines and squares into broad, sweeping circles. he holds that this is the best way to reveal the truth without at the same time torturing beauty. in new york city the beefheartian way of using language succeeded in baffling members of both the establishment and underground media.
the first incident took place at radio station w.o.r., a middle-of-the-road talk and music operation in the middle of manhattan. beefheart was scheduled to give an interview concerning his visit to the east coast. he was greeted by the announcer in charge, john wingate, a lanky middle-aged gentleman with an affected english accent who quoted frequently from beaudelaire and moliere and whose appearance shouted 'tweed'.
'now, whatever you do,' wingate cautioned, 'stay away from the word 'fuck'. it takes us at least six weeks to get out from under the load of paper work when that gets by. the f.c.c. (federal communications commission; certain kind of media watch-dogs - t.t.), you know.' 'i see what you mean,' replied beefheart sternly. 'add to that a man and a woman ashamed and you've got a war for eternity.'
wingate seemed not to have heard the response. he went about adjusting the microphones and quoted further from beaudelaire. 'how shall we introduce you?,' he chuckled. 'here's captain beefheart, the well-known lesbian? heh, heh, heh.' beefheart grimaced and looked to the corner of the room where his wife, jan, was sitting. 'ah, do that and i'll need eight or ten cockatoos with little rhinestone neck-laces.'
once again wingate's nervous system simply failed to process the message he had just received. the microphones were ready now and he had decided on the interview slant: 'here's one of the men who lead our youth, bringing about the revolution in today's changing life styles.' the idea limped across the floor onto his notepad, leaving a trail of bloodstains on the carpet.
'rolling,' gestured the engineer in the control room.... 'today we have in our studio captain beefheart whose famous orchestra is on tour of the east coast. would you tell us, captain, what kind of music it is that you perform?...' there was a long silence, just long enough to be embarrassing.
'well, basically it's music without a lullabye.'
wingate winced and quickly asked if he'd care to be more specific for the benefit of the listening audience at home. this time the pause was even longer and more embarrassing.
'i suppose it's music to de-materialize the catatonia,' beefheart answered finally.
sensing the fact that the interview was about to fall on its face, wingate tried other lines of questioning. 'what do you think of john lennon? do you think that music has anything to do with the sexual revolution happening in our society?' the captain's answers continued to be brief and completely unsuited to the glib w.o.r. format. at last wingate jumped up from his seat, waved his arms frantically at the engineer and paced into the control room. 'this man seems to be talking epileptically,' he scoffed. 'it's interesting to me personally, of course, but it won't hold the attention of middle america. chuck berry didn't offer us such problems when he came by.'
after some hasty consultation with van vliet's entourage, it was finally decided that one of the captain's friends should join the interview as a kind of stabilizing agent. with that minor adjustment, the conversation proceeded nicely. each time beefheart would utter a particularly different metaphorical construction, the w.o.r. announcer was able to turn to a straight man and ask him the question. wingate admitted afterwards that he'd had a good time and thanked beefheart for dropping in.
on the following day a similar kind of befuddlement took place during beefheart's six-hour-long press conference with the underground press. as the reporters from rock, changes, zygote and several fm stations fired questions at him, beefheart sat back in an easy chair peering at the journalists through his world war II british field officer's sunglasses. he was in excellent humor and his language showed it. the words flew forth in a steady stream of paradoxes, conundrums, comic images, non-sequiturs and romps through what had once been solid linguistic structures. warm gusts from the captain's lungs thawed hundreds of long-frozen metaphors and enabled them to dance gaily about the room.
most of the people at the conference enjoyed the display and even managed to join in. there was one fellow, however, a young scraggly-haired reporter from changes, who just couldn't handle it. 'i've heard that you have remarkable powers of e.s.p.,' he began with a serious note in his voice. 'have you ever thought of having someone measure what you can do?'
beefheart grinned and replied: 'well, no. i'm really not interested in knowing the length of my wee-wee.'
the young reporter was taken aback by van vliet's answer and quickly rephrased the question. beefheart, however, could find nothing but fun in the suggestion that he submits his mind to some para-psychological testing procedure. 'maybe i ought to offer myself to 'car and driver'? i could accompany them with an unicycle and they could run all the tests they like.'
despite this setback, the man from changes continued with his list of carefully prepared questions. what do you think about musical structure? what were the major influences in your musical education? do you think that your music has any relationship to 'the revolution'? it was difficult to believe that at this late date anyone would bother with such antique matters. captain beefheart, bearing the burden politely, answered as best as he could. 'i think musical structure is really a laugh. it's like having a kite in one hand and a balloon in the other.' he stood up and with arms spread wide illustrated the kite and balloon concept. 'frankly, i don't think you need all of those sand bags to keep your river in place.'
the changes correspondent was anything but pleased with responses of this sort. 'on the one hand you say you don't believe in musical structure, but on the other hand...' - 'i have a manicure!,' interjected the captain. the room filled with laughter.
at this point the interviewer began to break down. 'i keep trying to get straight answers out of you,' he whined, 'but you won't give me any. i guess i'm just wasting your time. i don't know why you're being so hostile to me.' beefheart sat forward and stared at the young man in stunned amazement. he'd been having fun - not at the interviewer's expense, but at the expense of the english language. he believes, you see, that language is a kind of bank account from which anyone, on their own terms, can make unlimited withdrawals - 'as the duck says: 'bill me later'.'
'you keep asking me to hit you,' beefheart groaned, 'but i'm not going to do it.' 'don't worry, i'm not going to get upset,' the reporter replied. then, as if to ease the tension, beefheart suddenly took off one of his shoes and held it in the air. 'do you think you could take this bubble gum off my shoe?' 'i really don't want to. it might give me allergies.' 'that's a rash statement,' the captain mumbled. in a valiant last effort to get some straight answers for his straight questions, the changes reporter asked: 'what i want to know is this: if you don't read books and don't listen to records, where do you get your input from?' 'g.e. (electricity company - t.t.),' van vliet answered, lighting a cigarette. 'what i wonder is how you pull the plug.'
with that the young journalist started packing away his cassette recorder. 'you haven't given me a single thing i can use,' he said sadly. he simply could not comprehend that the man he'd been interviewing almost never gives his listeners anything they can 'use'. captain beefheart believes that human beings inevitably end up using everything that can be 'used' as weapons against themselves. whenever possible, the poor creatures will cling desperately to the structures those in authority hand them - structures of melody, rhythm, speech, thought and social behavior. they then use these structures ruthlessly to restrict everything they might possibly see, feel or do. 'the heartbeat, the clock - tick-tock, tick-tock, tick-tock - that steady, repetitive rock and roll beat, it's all the same. a crutch job. people ought to stop hanging onto those things and loosen up.'
it is for reasons of this sort that beefheart sets himself apart from other musicians. he holds that, unlike the music of the beatles and rolling stones, his work could never be used as a source for a new authority or ideology. when you go to his albums looking for 'the truth', all you find are some colorful pictures and fascinating riddles. beefheart is a clever trickster. at first the traditional structures appear to be firmly in place. but on closer inspection you discover that the captain has offered you a three-legged chair. either you stand on your own or you fall over.
how people and other 'things' are 'used' in the music business is a subject on which both captain beefheart and ry cooder are expert. both men have been taken advantage of so often by so many people they've lost count. there was a time, in fact, when cooder and van vliet played together in a group that ran aground on the reefs of commercial exploitation. during a long bus ride from cocoa beach, florida to fort lauerdale, i asked ry to discuss the unfortunate circumstances.
'beefheart has always told me,' i said, 'that you quit the magic band in 1967 and ruined his chance to play the monterey pop festival.' 'he's right on that point,' said ry, 'but you have to keep the full context in mind. bob krasnow was pushing the group to perform before it was ready. no one could play those incredible songs don had written for 'safe as milk'. at the mount tamalpais music festival we played three songs and, believe me, it wasn't going very well. in the middle of 'electricity' beefheart walked off the stage and fell flat on his face into the grass. i told krasnow: 'this is ridiculous,' and quit right then. he said: 'what's the matter, don't you want to be an underground hero?' krasnow thought the group would be worth millions and wanted to start making it right then and there.'
certainly a new feeling of freedom from misuse must have contributed to beefheart's exuberance on the trip. for after years of management and promotion by small-time con men, the captain was now the favorite child of large-scale corporate capitalism. before we continue with the tour itself, it might be interesting to detour briefly through the strange realm of financial and organizational power....
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captain beefheart electricity
as felt by teejo