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 - part 2 - THIS is PART 3
under normal conditions an artist will schedule a concert or tour through a booking agency. in this case the agency had nothing to do with it. beefheart's nominal representative, chartwell artists ltd., was busy handling the hype for the ali vs. frazier heavyweight championship fight and had no time to waste hustling gigs for a relatively obscure artist. although beefheart certainly had a following large enough to warrant a national tour, the jobs were just not coming in.
one day last fall, beefheart visited warner records and spoke to merchandising director hal halverstadt. 'i want to start playing for the people,' he announced. 'why don't you put me on tour?'
by the traditional rules of the game, halverstadt should have nothing to do with organizing tours. his work primarily involves the packaging of warners/reprise 'products' for quick market sale - album design, promo literature, advertising, and so on. but in this instance halverstadt thought to himself: 'hell, why not?', and approached warner executives stan cornyn and mo ostin with the idea.
shortly thereafter the company hired carl scott, former manager of the beau brummels and harpers bizarre, to begin booking a captain beefheart tour. scott had long believed record companies should get into the booking business to introduce new artists to the public. he started phoning concert promoters around the country. the deal he offered was a good one. warner brothers would absorb most of the risk in the beefheart venture. it would ask a reasonable sum for the beefheart/cooder package and waive the minimum guarantee if necessary. it would also spend large amounts of money on local promotion, namely radio spots for each concert.
the response to scott's inquiry was good. if warners was willing to take some of the responsibility, local promoters were more than willing to do their part. in the present business ethos of rock and roll, it is common practice for groups to ask such exorbitant amounts for concerts that promoters are driven out of business. the warners package was one way of escaping this financial bind.
from the artists' standpoint the deal also was a fortuitous one. their expenses were guaranteed, plus a standard per concert salary. for beefheart and the magic band this amounted to $1,000 for every gig. the most important part of the bargain, however, was the exposure they would gain from playing in twenty or so major cities in the united states. it was hoped that in subsequent months, both beefheart and cooder could return to places they had played and ask for larger halls and a better price.
from a purely selfish point of view the company's logic was simple. public appearances create a new kind of appeal for any performer - exactly the kind of appeal that makes people buy records. for this reason, warner brothers was actually willing to take a loss - possibly as much as $20,000 - in order to give beefheart and cooder some first rate promotion. as the tour progressed across the continent, receiving rave reviews everywhere, cornyn, halverstadt and ostin waited for the real reviews to come in. would the record stores and distributors begin ordering more 'product'?
and there were others waiting, those who really made it all possible, the men behind the growing financial empire of kinney national service, inc. - the vast conglomerate holding company which among others ventures owns warners/reprise. (kinney - half a billion dollar enterprise with a $33.9 million profit last year - a media gigant, produced 'woodstock', also owns 'atlantic' and 'elektra' records thus led zeppelin, crosby stills nash & young, eric clapton, the doors, iron butterfly, the grateful dead, etc. - summary by t.t.) there are perfectly good reasons why a large corporate organization involved in the entertainment business might want to usurp the functions formerly held by agencies, managers and promoters. [.........]
meanwhile, back in the swamps of florida, the bus pulled off the highway and stopped at an orange stand. everyone disembarked and began looking at the various items for sale. ry purchased some pineapple wine that everyone agreed tasted like liniment. drumbo found a mechanical alligator and a pair of plastic noisemaker hammers which he decided to add to his act. beefheart spent $60 on an alligator handbag for jan. when someone mentioned to him that it is now illegal to sell alligator skins he said: 'i think it's better for me to have one of these than one of those other people, don't you?'
the stop along the road in florida was one of the few times the people on the tour actually got to see the countryside. in most places the weather was too cold or the time too limited for any sightseeing. instead, everyone had the opportunity to familiarize himself with the monotonous architectural lines of three dozens of holiday inns. in those parts of the american landscape that beefheart did manage to see, however, there was one predominant and disturbing theme: everything seemed to be closing down.
in virtually every city he visited, beefheart discovered that the local rock club had just gone broke. in cincinnati (corrected - t.t.), for example, beefheart and cooder played the last concert ever at ludlow's garage. warner brothers agreed to pay some of ludlow's overdue bills if the hall would stay open long enough to give the tour a place to perform. it was very sad.
but in no city was economic recession more evident than in cocoa beach, florida. here the tour discovered a whole town gone broke and now up for sale. the local promoter of the beefheart concert told van vliet the town's story after the gig. a few years back cocoa beach was a veritable space age boom town. it was the bustling center of the u.s. apollo space program in florida - the town that housed the astronauts, scientists, and technicians for the cape kennedy moon-shots. thousands of homes, office buildings, factories and stores were built on the florida sands to support the multi-billion dollar project. money flowed like iced 'kool aid' into the coffers of local businessmen and the future seemed to hold the promise of many years of continued prosperity.
then the bottom dropped out. with the moon's surface successfully violated by armstrong and his fellow astro-groupies, the n.a.s.a. payroll suddenly evaporated. thousands of men on 'the aerospace team' were thrown out of work and headed north. the boeing plant closed, litton industries locked its building and left town. motels folded. forty-thousand-dollar beachfront homes were left to sell for $100 down and easy monthly payments. cocoa beach was left as a kind of upper middle class ghost town, a victim of 'future shock' if there ever was one.
in recent months two kinds of hermit crabs have appeared on the beach to battle for the shell the apollo program left behind. a large contingent of young people has begun a migration to the town, taking advantage of the low rents on beautiful beach property. a new health food restaurant has opened. the length of hair seen on the streets has gotten progressively longer.
at the same time, the notorious right-wing fundamentalist preacher reverend carl mcintire has moved into the area, vowing to clean things up and set the town to god's work. mcintire was the gentleman who sponsored the pro-vietnam war rally (featuring vice president ky of south vietnam) in washington dc last year. the college he runs, shelton college, was recently kicked out of new jersey for being academically disreputable. mcintire now plans to move all of his operations, including the college and a retirement village, to cocoa beach. spending millions of dollars, he's buying up every vacant building in sight.
the two new communities - hip and fundamentalist - are clearly on a collision course. for instance, the beefheart/cooder concert was originally scheduled to play the ballroom of the cape kennedy hilton hotel. but mcintire had just purchased the building for his crusade. the reverend's staff canceled the concert for fear there would actually be 'dancing' in their ballroom. at present mcintire is trying to put a clamp on the cocoa beach bars in order to stop the town's already dwindling traffic in booze and broads. as the concert promoter told van vliet: 'you know, it's getting harder and harder to do honest vice in this neck of the woods.'
the journey was winding up now. there was a swing through texas and arizona to come, but for beefheart the big attraction was washington, for it was here that he had an opportunity to realize a lifelong dream - a visit to the smithsonian institute. as the bus drove into the nation's capital i pointed up pennsylvania avenue past the dime stores and smut shops to the building at the end of the street. 'that's the 'white house',' i said. 'who lives there?,' beefheart inquired. 'president nixon,' i replied.
'god, i didn't know we were going to play the town where nixon lives. do you think he knows we're coming?' beefheart leaned forward and poked the sleeping grant gibbs. 'grant, the president lives here. do you think they'll shut us down because we're revolutionaries or something like that? do you suppose the cops will come out to the concert? maybe we shouldn't play here.' gibbs assured him the band had no reputation as bomb-throwing terrorists.
'that nixon's a little 'chiclet' of determination,' beefheart continued. 'i'm surprised he took the job. i thought he was a lot smarter than that.'
it turned out that the authorities had known that beefheart was coming and had indeed raised a fuss. the concert was to have taken place at greenbelt armory in maryland; but after some gate-crashing trouble at a rock and roll program the week before, the 5th regiment, us army, sent out a memorandum banning captain beefheart and all similar outfits from setting foot on military property. at the last minute the concert was scheduled for a movie theater in alexandria, virginia. it went very well. (read a review of it.)
next afternoon van vliet, his wife and a few friends took a swanky black limousine to the smithsonian. the car drove past the pentagon. beefheart looked but said nothing. it continued over a bridge spanning the potomac. 'look at that,' he exclaimed. 'the poor river's so polluted that it can't even freeze in the winter. this morning i threw a dollar across the potomac and lost ninety cents.'
the limousine drove along the boulevards past the lincoln memorial, the state department, past the washington memorial, and long rows of government office buildings. 'boy, what a world they've built. it's disgusting. i've got a better one up here,' said the captain pointing to his head.
'singing the smithsonian institute blues / the new dinosaur is walking in the old one's shoes... / all you new dinosaurs, now it's up to you to choose / before your feet hit the tar, you better kick off them old shoes.' in van vliet's eyes the smithsonian is truly america's national shrine. here amid the collection of stuffed animals, dinosaur bones and plastic whales, one can find a vision of the land's lost purpose and a frightening prophecy for the future.
the first thing to catch beefheart's attention was the stuffed thirteen-foot-tall african elephant standing in the high-domed foyer. 'look at that beautiful thing,' he exclaimed to his wife. 'no sculptor will ever touch those lines. when i was a boy i tried to do things like that, but i gave up because nature has done it so well.' he went on to point out the various ways in which the taxidermists who'd worked on the elephant had 'blown it'. the beast's posture wasn't right and his feet were in the wrong place. van vliet seemed particularly upset by the fact that the elephant was dusty and had cobwebs hanging from its trunk. 'you see that? no one cares anymore.'
the next item to catch his eye was the exhibit of american birds. he paused for long periods in front of each eagle, thrasher, sparrow and grouse and praised their plumage to the skies. 'look at those colorful designs! man will never top that. never. it's absurd to even try.' he also was fascinated by the written descriptions of the various birds and became convinced that they had been written by some major, unknown poet. 'listen to this,' he said and began reciting in his 'little golden birdies' voice: 'mandarin duck, head laid back, crest ruffled almost touching the erect fan-shaped feathers rising from the head.' that makes it.'
at the next exhibit, 'extinct birds', van vliet began to get angry. dozens of feathered creatures were displayed in what had once been their native habitats. a sign next to each glass case told when the last specimen had been seen alive. 'i can't believe it,' sighed beefheart peering in at the stuffed carrier pigeons. 'look at that. it's paradise. man had paradise and he blew it.' he repeated this idea several times and was reminded of the main purpose of his visit. 'we might as well go see how we're going to end up,' he groaned and headed toward the dinosaur fossils.
as beefheart's recent recordings make clear, the captain believes that dinosaurs and human beings are the closest of relatives. this is not a matter of darwinian origins, but rather of ultimate ecological destination. man now operates his own artificial dinosaur-technological civilization - using the blood of the monsters of old, namely: petroleum. but in the end, homo sapiens will share the fate of the giant lizards. 'let the past demons rear up and belch fire in the air of now / the rug's wearing out that we walk on / soon it will fray and we'll drop dead into yesterday... / no flower shall grow where oil shall flow / no seed shall sow in salt water.... (from the song 'petrified forest' - teejo)'
as he walked into the chamber which held the dinosaur skeletons, beefheart grew noticeably uneasy. 'i'm not sure how much of this i can take.' with jan at his side, he ambled past the display of pterodactyls, tyrannosaurs and giant sloths and looked at each one as if he'd just run into an old friend. at the end of the exhibit he walked over to a sign which said: 'press the button to see the wonder animal that has survived vast environmental changes for thousands of years'. he pushed the button. a tiny trapdoor swung open to reveal a mirror.
beefheart was very impressed. later he told his friends: 'they've got a great exhibit at the smithsonian. you press a button and a little sign pops up that says: 'here's the animal that stayed up on the mountain and killed everything because the other animals didn't want to fight'.'
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captain beefheart electricity
as felt by teejo