DON'T ARGUE THE CAPTAIN
front page RAP'N WITH THE CAP'N at home with beefheart in the desert
inside TALES OF TRANSMUTATION from the mojave magic man
from NEW MUSICAL
EXPRESS 011180 england
by paul rambali
is first half 10.80 usa interview
* text reprinted as captain beefheart: navigations from the mojave in usa 011280 unicorn times and
as if you had too much to think last night, see doc at the radar station in australia 060281 ram #152 and
as 'i sold aldous huxley a vacuum cleaner...' in england 011016 (the history of) rock #16
* all pictures by anton corbijn
'i have a lotta fun doing what i do because i get to meet artistic people: people that care about raising the art culture, which naturally i care about because i'm an artist. i always say an artist is one who kids himself the most gracefully. but i really am. i've tried other things and they don't work.
i've been an uplock installator for an aviation company. the uplock is the landing gears. hydraulic technician is what i was, they said - but i'm an impostor. i went in there and i didn't know anything. i did it with a lot of care, though, and it gave me extremely bad headaches. then i've sold shoes... i think that's a very important thing, a shoe. what else? i've sold vacuum cleaners. i sold aldous huxley a vacuum cleaner in lano-lano, california. he used to do all the cleaning and have his wife sit down and watch. isn't that nice?'
it's not easy to hold don van vliet's attention on prosaic details. i had just asked him about the fabled 'bat chain puller' tape, a set of demos featuring the genesis of the new magic band and versions of several songs that appear on 'doc at the radar station' and '78's 'shiny beast', a return to virtue after a long spell of little or misguided activity.
'that's a beautiful album, isn't it? they don't even know that in england... they do? well, they didn't buy it. they couldn't afford to, could they? i wish i had a lot of money: i'd give everybody one!'
it wasn't deliberate, but virgin records allowed what would eventually become 'shiny beast (bat chain puller)' to circulate in its demo state - a bad move about which the captain is angry but forgiving. 'friends don't mind just how you grow,' he says, quoting himself. 'i've got a lot of them, i've got a lot of albums in me. i've just started. i mean, i have the ríght ingredients now.'
meaning the new magic band: robert williams on drums, eric feldman on bass and keyboards, jeff tepper on slide guitar, and new recruit richard snyder also on slide guitar. richard redus, who played on 'shiny beast (bat chain puller)', has since departed, and drumbo (john french) - who has played with beefheart since 'safe as milk' in 1967 and who played almost unrepeatable drums and guitar on parts of 'doc at the radar station' - doesn't want to play live.
the new magic band gives the impression of having grown up alongside zoot horn rollo, rockette morton, art tripp and winged eel fingerling, so adept are they at making the fluid polyrhythmic moves of the music. it's as if they already knew it by heart....
'no. i wish it was. you can say that if you want, but i know you don't have a very good time with lies - i can tell by your eyes. but there is one guy that came to me like that, the winnebego sioux, german and scottish fellow, whom i call brave midnight hat-size snyder. he likes it, and he told me i've got a brave midnight hat-size snyder for life. 'i won't ever leave this band,' he said.
i had just a few days to find a guitarist and he called me on the phone and said: 'let's do it'. (don must be wrong - teejo.) i said: 'you gotta learn twenty-nine songs in three weeks' - and he did it! i can't belive it. he's the best there is with jeff tepper. incredible! i've got it now. i've been looking for fifteen years for this. it's that good...'
later, in the plastic motel bar at the edge of the desert, he finally opens the sketch book he has been carrying around with him all day long... 'fifty years from now, you'll wish you'd gone 'wów!'...' whether he was right or not, the odd thing was, he didn't sound the least bit bitter about it.
the magic band rehearses in a low rent los angeles studio behind a bike shop, accessible via a yard scattered with dead iron ponies. the group has been there for three weeks, rehearsing the material - old and new - that beefheart wants to perform on his current european tour. they rehearse mostly from records, and he comes in only to fine-tune them. on this particular day they're working on 'sugar and spikes', grinding it to perfection, swapping searing time signatures as though it were second nature, burning a hole in the original version.
beefheart sits on the sofa, his eyes glistening with excitement. he declines to sing, saying: 'wait until we get on stage', and instead he cajoles, encourages, teases, tries to throw them off, fails, and just laughs at how good they are. 'i've got my play cut out for me. did you héar that? i used to wórk with those other guys, but with these fellows i pláy!'
i ask robert williams what it's like playing with captain beefheart. 'a hell of a lot easier than working with hugh cornwell (former member of 'the stranglers', with whom he recorded the album 'nosferatu' in 1979 - t.t.)...' innocently enough, the conversation turns to the subject of whether women like beefheart's music. he claims they do. the magic band disagrees. 'some do,' says jeff tepper, 'but not as many as he thinks!'
'women like my music,' says beefheart. 'sure they do. i do it mainly for women. obviously. what other reason is there? i'm going to be doing 'nowadays a woman's gotta hit a man' on this tour. i've done a lot of things about women. i care about them. i like them. they have never scared me, never. i think they're superior, actually. and i've never had a thought of any fear or animosity about them!'
a lot of men see women as predators.... 'you mean like black widow spiders, right? they're gorgeous too. they're not black though, they're kind of a maroon colour...'
(on the subject of men and women and captain beefheart, i want to tell a story about a couple i know that goes a lot further than any weighty metaphysical analysis towards explaining the effects of his music. it goes like this:
he was going through one of those bleak, morose spells that everybody goes through now and again. she wasn't exactly having the time of her life either. 'shiny beast (bat chain puller)' had just been released. he stayed up long into the night playing one track over and over and over again: 'bat chain puller / bat chain puller / bát chaaaiin puller..., puller..., puller...' - beefheart's unearthly low moan seeped through the house and out the chimney.
the next morning there was a note on the table...: 'sod you, mate. and sod your bat chain puller, puller, puller! your dinner's in the garden!')
captain beefheart's mind alights where it will. he's a hard man to stay on the track of. he flits from one subject to another like a bee in a garden. but if he is occasionally vague, he's never distant. frankly, he's one of the sharpest people i've ever met. he reads people very closely, too closely to get along with them in any conventional manner.
'i always feel as if i'm baby-sitting,' he says of his relationship to the human race. 'i think there's forty people in the world and five of them are hamburgers. you must have read that. there are a few people that i like, but most of them are dead. isn't that awful? van gogh, shakespeare, most of the people that i réally like...'
beefheart used to own a late '50s jaguar. one day he was driving along when he saw a billboard advertising a brand of house paint with the extravagant and highly debatable claim that vincent van gogh would have used this brand were he still in a position to paint his house. the captain was so incensed that he drove straight off the highway.
(note: straight lines in image are printing imperfections)
'i'll tell you who i miss right now very much - his wife came to see me recently - : roland kirk, rahsaan roland kirk. he was a very good friend of mine. he was one of the best people i ever met; he was brilliant, a brílliant man. very under-estimated. he was one of the best horn players that ever lived. some people know that, but not many.
i remember that last thing i said to him. it was at a club called 'the lighthouse', a famous jazz club. he had just finished playing and he came over and said to me: 'how am i going to get something to eat, don?' i said: 'roland, the only place you can find ribs at this time of night in los angeles is in the bible!' he láughed; boy, he laughed. i was so happy that i had said something that pleased him. that was the last time i saw him alive. man, that guy played so beautifully. have you ever heard 'you did it' by him? phéw!
i also like thelonious monk very much. i once saw him at a place in the valley, some new theatre that had come up with some sort of extravaganza. he got there half an hour late and there was tribute waiting for him: a glass bowl full of red roses. you know what he did? there was a grand piano, a beautiful steinway. he still had on his overcoat; he picked up the bowl of roses, dumped the whole thing into the piano, slammed the top closed, sat down, hit one note and split! hey, i clapped for half an hour! i mean, what else? that was beautiful, and it sounded beautiful too. he hit the ríght note.
mind you, some people thought he didn't play for long enough... some people have had too much to think. 'open up another case of the punks'. i'm not talking about the punk people, that's not what i meant. i have no animosity. too smart for that. but i have to say that punk all sounds to me like a rehashing of old rock 'n' roll. i don't like that. didn't like old rock 'n' roll in the first place. i was a sculptor, i didn't pay any attention to that. you want me to tell you the truth? i don't care that much for music....'
captain beefheart doesn't care that much for music... of course he doesn't! he's a visionary. a witch doctor! in another age he would have been just a poet. he has too much dignity to become a guru in this. so he does music. why?
'as an irritant. what would somebody this smart be doing it for other than that? i like poetry, and i put music with poetry and things like that. maybe i'm a cook. or an alchemist, maybe. who knows? i'm just getting started with the spells i do. but i have a beef in my heart about the things they've done in this world. since i was born i've been aghast, stunned... why didn't they put band-aids on the flaw? why didn't human beings study and fix these things? i don't know...
i'm trying to do all i can and i have been all of my life. and i thought there would have been more happening by now. i thought that 'trout mask replica' might do something to break up that catatonic state. that's why i did it: to take the labels off..., get rid of the labels and let's see what's going on. but they do more bóm... bóm... bóm. i'm so sick of that mama heartbeat! hey, listen: i don't want my heart to attack me! i would never treat my heart that way. never.'
the score at this point is about even. the world hasn't woken up and don van vliet hasn't gone to sleep. come to think of it, that puts him ahead. and if you have ears, you have to listen to him. he can make you want to rattle your cage, and rattle everybody else's cage too; sellotape their eyes open and remove all the labels, grab them by the neck and rub their faces in the heat of existence.
captain beefheart is a primal current, almost a folk artist. he trusts his instincts... 'all the time.' do they ever let you down? 'many times.' but you still trust them? 'sure i do. friends don't mind just how you grow. i made friends with me a long time ago.'
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captain beefheart electricity
as felt by teejo