DON'T ARGUE THE CAPTAIN
'MUSIC IS A POOR SECOND EVERY TIME'
from MELODY MAKER
by steve lake
is late 05.74 interview
note: text reprinted in GERMAN translation in germany 010974 sounds as käpt'n auf dem kohledampfer?
captain beefheart, now in england with a new magic band, would very much like you to support his album and concerts. he needs the money to buy materials for his first love: painting.
okay, here's the gist of the story so far: don van vliet, a personable humorist but flushed with self-importance, has spent six years nourishing a rock and roll band. the group is called the magic band, and van vliet fronts them in his alter ego as captain beefheart (or capitaine coeur-de-boeuf, depending upon your point of origin). over the years the magic band builds up an impressive reputation, is hailed critically, but sells precious few records. leader van vliet digs what they do: hell, he taught them all they know - as he keeps on saying. but that commercial acceptance remains stubbornly distant.
van vliet really wants to make it, however, and is prepared to change his music if that helps. to this end he abandons his ornette coleman saxophone impersonations ('they were driving people out of my shows, man') and concentrates on mouth harp and vocals, but still no change of situation. there's still an estimated twenty or thirty thousand beefheart freaks scattered across the globe, but for one as convinced of the merit of his art as is beefheart, that ain't enough. by early 1973, beefheart reckons he has invested 400,000 dollars in the magic band, and reached an all time financial low. he can no longer afford to buy paint or canvasses - and fine art is his first love. 'music is a poor second every time.'
so, a change is required. beefheart signs with a new record company, england's virgin records, and prepares to embark on a trans-world tour, kicking off in the states. but the magic band can't face it, and they split. 'i trained those people from scratch, and they walked out on me five days before the tour. they really broke me out in a rash towards the end of our association: they had come to think of themselves as supreme beings.' drummer art tripp now teaches percussion. 'that's ridiculous,' says beefheart, 'teaching has nothing to do with music.' but you taught the old band magic band, didn't you, don? 'de-taught them, actually. but yeah, you're right: i did it. and i got the teacher's send off, too. that's why i'm glad that thése people can already play.'
these people being 54-year-old ex-charlie parker clarinet and-all-other-reeds-man del simmons, guitarist dean smith and fuzzy fuscaldo (the latter recently with curtis mayfield), keyboard player michael smotherman from the now defunct buckweat, bassist paul uhrig from bobbie gentry's group (!), and drummer ty grimes, fresh from rick nelson's stone canyon band. impeccable enough credentials for the average los angeles session, one imagines, but hardly the boys to get to grips with 'big eyed beans from venus' or 'ah feel like ahcid'.
but then, the captain plays a more immediate sort of boogie these days, anyhow, if the tasteful 'clear spot' and 'unconditionally guaranteed' albums are any indication. 'on this tour, i will be playing the rock and roll and 'cow' (henry cow, the support act - t.t.) will be playing the far out stuff.' mention of recent adverse criticism that recent live performances have received in the states sparks off a deep rooted and almost out-of-character bitterness in the captain. 'listen, they did the same thing to bob dylan, didn't they? i am changing all the time. they don't want me to have any money. they want me to be their little house poet....'
he fairly spits the words out. 'i tell you, you'll enjoy the new band. did you like the old band? did you comprehend what they were doing?' never understood exactly how tripp did what he did, but got off all the same. 'yeah. that's because i taught him every one of those notes and rhythms day after day after day. but the only people that ever liked that band, i think, were writers like yourself. it was a writers' band. the average person treated it as kind of a novelty, like an ashtray made out of diamonds. but i want a large audience. i want to hug the world. why not? why can't i be a blonde?'
so it's full circle: back to the conventional constructions of 'safe as milk', back to where beefheart came in. some might call that an artistic cop-out, but beefheart says that he wants to have some fun for a while. 'i don't think that anybody has ever done rock before, do you?' well, just a few hundred thousand. 'oh, i know lots of people have done it, but none of them has had the voice for it. i think the two that have got closest are mick jagger and rod stewart.'
one reason, other than the purely financial, for this move into rock is that, having done much experimenting with complex times, beefheart reckons that the heavy 4/4 beat is the only one that the mass audience can relate to. curiously, he says, he never discovered this most common of all time signatures until fairly late in his career. and anyhow, he likes rock now, being particularly fond of the stylistics, and david essex, strange as that may seem. (although strange equals normal in beefheart terms.) 'trout mask replica', he says, is the most normal album he has ever heard. how could anybody call that lovely, natural music bizarre? 'how could they, jan?' he looks across at his attractive long-haired wife who sits meekly opposite. she agrees with everything he says.
and it seems that once beefheart has massed his fortune, he proposes to return to 'normal', which in his instance is far-out. 'i'm not evacuating my old music, man. i've just got a few things to do and then i'll be right back. i have to do it. because there is no one else that could do it right. no way!' at this point a mildly perturbed andy di martino interrupts. it's apparently di martino, who - as van vliet's manager, producer, co-songwriter and, for recording purposes only, acoustic guitarist - is responsible at least in part for the new shift of emphasis.
'beefheart won't be back into the old music as a full time thing. he'll continue to do both. they will complement each other.... i would like to add, too, that where you might think he is deviating...: how many other people have combined in such a short space of time, rock with jazz and blues and avant-garde , and an old-timer playing 'sweet georgia brown' to a teenage audience?' i didn't like to mention 'kevin ayers and the whole world'. di martino continues: 'that takes imagination, and it takes guts....'
beefheart doesn't comment. he sits staring at jan. finally, he says: 'people need for music to have roots. people gotta have roots because trees don't walk around. write that down, jan. hell no, i'll write it down.... 'trout mask replica' didn't have roots at all. how could it, i was an only child. people talk about the blues and ornette coleman - bullshit: that all came out of my head. and (voice rises) it's too damn bad that people didn't buy it.'
would you say then that 'trout mask replica' was your finest hour? 'fuck no, man. my finest hour is: every second. i live an hour in every second. are you kidding?' not at all. from the way you leapt to the defence.... 'oh yeah. how can you defend an art statement like 'trout mask replica'? can you seriously see me wrapped in a shawl like whistler's mother (who's that? - teejo) defending my own breath? i'm teasing you man, but you don't know it. i'm not serious. i have never been serious, and i never will be serious. i think seriousness is a thing of the past, and anybody that's serious about music has got to be kidding.'
'this is one writer,' he continues in his mock tirade, pointing a finger at a portrait of himself stencilled on his tee shirt. 'this is one writer that they'll never bury in ink. because this writer is ink-singing ink.' nobody would deny it, don. any message for our readers? 'yeah: what are you reading for? you should be outside enjoying yourselves.'
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captain beefheart electricity
as felt by teejo