DON'T ARGUE THE CAPTAIN
the interviews - band members
BACK IN THE SPOTLIGHT, KID
making magic with captain beefheart
from STOMP AND STAMMER
vol.4 #12 011099 usa
by heywood jablomi
is ±08.99 telephone interview BILL HARKLEROAD and GARY LUCAS
THIS is PART 1 - part 2
one man's hellworld is another man's heaven-sent dream gig. talented guitarists bill harkleroad and gary lucas both logged serious time in the magic bands of captain beefheart - the once and future don van vliet, hoodoo daddy dada poet of fractured blues emanations and erumpent abstractions. as the recent release the dust blows forward, a two-cd career summary, and grow fins, a five-cd batch with rarities, brings the captain back into the spotlight, kids, we thought it a timely opportunity to chat with musicians who knew him well - perhaps all too well.
harkleroad, who performed as zoot horn rollo, is a survivor of 'trout mask replica', the legendary tripped-out double album that stands in the beefheart canon as does the mysterious obelisk that got those apes riled up in '2001: a space odyssey' (a movie - t.t.). his long, embattled association with beefheart is extensively chronicled in his own book lunar notes, and is part of an oral history that unspools in the booklet that accompanies 'grow fins'. now fifty, harkleroad comes off bitter and bemused in reliving the late '60s / early '70s period that yielded 'trout mask replica' and 'lick my decals off, baby' - two masterpieces - and the mediocre efforts that marked the captain's decline ('unconditionally guaranteed' from 1974 - t.t).
by the late '70s, however, beefheart was revived. gary lucas, a long-time fan who became his manager, worked behind the scenes as beefheart, now a more fragile yet wizardly character than the blues-belting behemoth of yore, came hard again. 'doc at the radar station' (1980) and 'ice cream for crow' (1982) were comeback and farewell, as van vliet engaged a post-punk generation he had helped influence only to abandon music for more profitable endeavors as a painter.
lucas viewed beefheart as a kind of idol, an all-too-human culture hero who was one of the great american composers - a mellower guy than the mind-control expert harkleroad fell prey to. lucas is one of the more interesting and formidable guitarists of his generation, leading bands ('gods and monsters'), collaborating (as with the late jeff buckley) and composing a score to be performed live with a silent film ('the golem'). here's some of what they had to say about their travels with the captain.
i gathered from reading the notes to the cdset that it was just terrifyingly intense, and grueling, and almost nuts. what was it like to be in the middle of that?
(bill:) early on, he was my hero, before i joined the band. and deservedly so. very strong presence. the band was changing, as one by one he was getting the younger guys. on 'trout mask replica' the four of us were all contemporaries and playing in various bands together before we joined the band, dispelling his issue that he taught us everything. by the time i got in the band, we were still between the 'strictly personal' sound, we were refining that. so it still had blues and african roots. 'coltrane-delta blues', ok?
'trout mask replica' happened as it evolved and he had more control - he had gotten rid of the original members and had that nice eight to ten year difference in age, i.e. a control thing going. and that evolution happened pretty quick. definitely a defining time, what was going on there, and him using a piano to create parts which john french (aka drumbo) arranged and put together, and we all worked out how to play them, and he was very much nót a part of that process.
he created the sounds, i'm not saying that we wrote it - but in that process, he didn't go to rehearsals, let's say. he threw out clumps, we worked out the clumps, and he would re-sculpt it at the end. so, in all of that, he was in his controlling thing, going to the library, reading books on how to control people. i'm serious! oh yeah, we were brainwashed. and because he was our hero, it was easy, and my choice was: there or vietnam. and it was a pretty easy choice. but listening to someone talk for thirty-hours straight was excruciating.
he was really running it like a cult, i guess?
(bill:) absolutely. controlling us, and keeping us away from other things. it was like: 'those other assholes play music. what this is, is the only real art on the planet'. he had a really high view of himself at that point, but i never believed that he was quite paranoid, and that was his mask, to become an image for people. through the changes for me, i guess 'lick my decals off, baby' was the one that i liked a little more, only because i had a lot more control, musically, so i knew what was going on, and it was the second time around.
and 'the spotlight kid' was the worst period of my life, as far as all that goes. because we were all beat, and don wanted some control, he realized that because he never rehearsed with us, he didn't know what he was doing on his parts and things. he wanted to become more commercial, go back to blues roots. all fine things, but for me and the rest of the band, i think he played very poorly on that album. good material, bad performance.
and from there, into 'clear spot', which i liked again, was the beginning of us finally being of the age where we start saying: 'fuck you'.
playing beefheart's music must be incredibly difficult. just the way that he places the notes.... he was always trying to get people to do impossible stuff.
(gary:) oh yeah. that was the magic of the magic band. we were doing the impossible. to play that music was not easy. and you couldn't deviate either, you know, no improvisation was allowed, really, once the parts were set. and you know, you would have to follow him around, he used to write in definitely funny ways. he would send stuff on piano, but then sometimes he would call you up in the middle of the night and say: 'listen to this', and you'd get your tape recorder out, and then he would whistle more or less tuneless stuff and say: 'ok, learn that on guitar'....
and you would sit and struggle with these tapes, or he would sing or scat-sing parts, and to listen to some of them, it sounds like the ravings of a demented lunatic. 'play like you died' - that's what he told me before i did 'flavor bud living'. actually, he wrote it on a piece of paper, which i framed. 'play like you're balancing a bowl of red jello in your left hand', and 'hit it to hell in the bread basket, and finger fuck the devil'. great exhortations.
(bill:) it could be anything from 'you're in a blue room, and a ghost appears' to 'more barbed wire' to exactly whistling what he wanted he was a virtuoso whistler.
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captain beefheart electricity
as felt by teejo