DON'T ARGUE THE CAPTAIN
from MELODY MAKER
by dali de clair [not his real name]
is 07.80 usa interview
this is the shortest version of an interview which also was published in FRENCH translation in 011280 ROCK & FOLK as rock 'n' roll confidences: 8. captain beefheart (extended version), and in ITALIAN translation in 010181 ROCKSTAR as il corvo e la volpe and in FINNISH translation in 010281 SOUNDI as captain beefheart, maalari, kirjailija, muusikko, nero (both full size)
don van vliet (aka captain beefheart) and his wife, janet, arrive at new york's jfk airport. gary lucas, staff writer at cbs and guitarist, and his wife ling ling (van vliet's manager) are waiting to drive them to their motel in long island. van vliet is in new york to finish off his 11th album, 'doc at the radar station', on the new cbs discomputer cutting lathe. lucas plays guitar on 'flavor bud living', one of the two instrumentals on the album.
somewhere in greenwich village gary gets out of a car, followed by janet. ten yards later, don follows. van vliet is a large tree... he's wearing a black jacket, black trousers and sunglasses as thick as his voice. "i love your shoes," he says as we enter the building where gary and ling ling live. beefheart's shoes are big and grey-green - a dancer gave them to him.
we finally enter the apartment, modern and sensitive like its owners. the walls are decorated with bookshelves, record shelves and some paintings by wyndham lewis and don van vliet. captain beefheart sits at a round table and we start talking. his voice is raucous and deep. he sounds like tom waits. don speaks slowly, like a man used to solitary silences.
don takes off his sunglasses and i discover clear and merry eyes. he takes his sketchpad:
you see, the way i want to be able to paint - i can almost do it now - is to just have my paintbrush in my hand, like it was connected to a jackass's tail... you know, the way they just move their tail without any thought. they just swish the tail at different times... if i can get that on a canvas, without any thought, that's what i want to do. if i manage that, i'll be satisfied... some day... i'm sure.
we decide to listen to 'doc at the radar station'. listening to the record with its creator is a fantastic experience. i hazily remember dreaming about that record in my cradle! the sound is unmatched and forceful. he creates and presents juxtapositions of instruments, incredible sound textures and moving melodies which scintillate at each turn of phrase. he uses the mellotron in a surprising way on two or three of the pieces.
(smiling:) yes. i believe you have to use the mellotron parsimoniously, at the right moment. most of the musicians use it like a small, ridiculous thing in the background. in my opinion, mellotron is a main instrument, of which very little is sufficient. you can't use too many grains of sugar. (in a texan accent:) like those texans with their flapjacks...
it's not good for the brain either...
true. too much of this music for mellotrons isn't good either. it's what you hear daily on the radio, isn't it?...
people call you a genius. why isn't your music better known?
ignorance... all my life i've heard people say i am a genius. they taught the public wrongly that my music is too difficult to listen to. but people hear it.
what kind of control have you had over your visual presentation over the years? in the photo on the back cover of 'doc at the radar station' you all wear colourless jackets and suits.
i told the musicians what to wear for that black and white photo. i've always told them what to wear. i thought it would look good... that image is not conscious, you know. i like black and white. they're all the colours at the same time. black is the absence of colour and in fact all the colours. there's a controversy in me about that.... i hate the distortion of the colours of the prism.
why did you call the album 'doc at the radar station'?
it's another creation. i like that sentence, that's all. it's not the title of a painting either. it's the record.... i don't think i'll enclose lyrics with the album. it would bring down the level of listening. we've been thinking about bringing out a double album, but i don't think people can afford a double album.
you still write a lot of poems?
oh yes. i have to. i do all sorts of things: i write poems, i paint, i sculpt, i compose..., it's a whole. all these art forms help each other out and reinforce each other.
your compositions seem like short movies. do you intend to make a movie one day?
i will again, yes. i did a one-minute movie, a television commercial for the cover of 'lick my decals off, baby' in '71... the businessmen in los angeles thought the title of the record was too obscene. i was singing about children licking decals.
zappa and you were born (should be: living - t.t.) in the same town: lancaster, california. do you still live there?
i live in a trailer in the high desert of mojave, in lancaster. i live there all my life. mojave in indian means 'big winds'. there's a lot of wind there. i hear it....
when you paint, when you compose, do your surroundings lose their importance?
the surroundings are very important. i'm nocturnal. the sun is good: it makes things grow - without the sun, there wouldn't be anything. but i prefer the moon: it's more intense.
although you live in a quiet region, your music sounds like urban music, even aggressive.
maybe, only maybe, my music could be very gentle... people have been educated to listen in a certain way - they believe a certain music is aggressive. i don't think my music is aggressive.
gary lucas: the listening habits of people have evolved. people today will be more open, more able to listen to captain beefheart because they've heard adulterated versions of his music: devo, television, talking heads, xtc.
what would you like to do in the future?
i'd like to immediately record a new album. i'd like to have some exhibitions of my paintings and sculptures organized. i'm also working on a book titled 'old fart at play'. (laughs.) it's true! it's a collection of poems, short stories, portraits and various drawings.
i ask don to choose at random three numbers which correspond to a list of questions i have.
okay. (he takes a paper bag and looks for something in it, mumbling to himself:) it's a joke... the joke is life... that's the joke. you've got it, i've got it, we've all got it.
do you always walk around with that kind of bag?
i love that. yes. it's practical.
did you ever paint any?
oh yes. the painting on the back of 'shiny beast (bat chain puller)' was done on a paper bag. i always have paper bags with me on tour. they're cute. i also always have my dice - it's a chinese invention, you know, like chess, explosive powder and spaghetti.
gary finds his set of big, red dice and don uses them, throwing an eight, a seven and a ten.
card eight: are you a gambler?
i like games, yes. if being is a game in the first place - i think it is - the answer is: 'win!'.... music is a kind of game. it's a bet, a risk: a string may break suddenly and distort the whole prism of colours and sounds. i love the number eight: it's infinity. (he draws a horizontal eight.)
card seven: what have you invented?
gary lucas: don invented punk.
beefheart: punk, new wave...: sháme on them! they could have gone far. i talk about it on the album, on 'ashtray heart': 'you use me for an ashtray heart'. and on 'sue egypt': 'bad vugum' (an insult don invented).... i think of all the people who ride my bones...'
card ten: do you feel american?
i don't feel any demarcation line. for me, the fact that i cross water doesn't put me in another place. i only feel a different feeling. i believe the world is an entity. if you try to divide it, you break the yolk. it's like the highways...: 'it breaks my heart to see the highways cross the hill', i sing on 'trout mask replica'... sháme.
someone puts an old beefheart record on. the combined effect of don's recorded voice and his echoing live voice is overwhelming. i flee the apartment, brain on overload. the record spins; the conversation fades. all that's left is the magic of beefheart's magic and personality.
along this interview a picture from 1978 was placed
showing the captain showing a drawing
he had made of a couple of old folks
click clack to the power station, the news or the other INTERVIEWS
captain beefheart electricity
as felt by teejo