DON'T ARGUE WITH THE CAPTAIN
THE TENDERIZED BEEFHEART
OF 'CLEAR SPOT'
the making of 'clear spot'
CIRCULAR vol. 4 #46 201172 usa
by leonard brown
is fall 1972 interview
note: the main part was reproduced in the fanzine 'steal softly thru snow #7'
some scenes are purely beyond imagining - for example: me squatting on the floor of a large broom closet at amigo studios in north hollywood, interviewing captain beefheart interviewing leonard brown interviewing don van vliet.
'let me,' i had said for openers, 'turn you on to eucalyptus buttons', handing him three or four from my pocket. it was my trip - for maybe five seconds. don van vliet knew personally, had cared for and nurtured a giant eucalyptus in the western san fernando valley. he wrote the address down carefully, so that i could visit and admire his big friend.
we went on to talk about dolphins: 'when i see a dolphin, i know it's just as smart as i am. sometimes i would rather be thought of as a dolphin than as a human being.'
automobiles: 'i've been wanting a datsun 240z....' (a sports car. he subsequently bought a new corvette and having thitherto eschewed credit buying, found himself deep in the arcane easy-payment maze, where imperfect strangers may challenge the integrity of even poets and painters. certainly a watershed experience for the automobile financing profession.)
gravity: 'it is the worst whip in the world....' (how we turned that up, is because i ventured a question about the spiritual beatings a creative child experiences. i am still mulling his answer, gravity having always seemed to me to be marvelously efficient, except perhaps when your kite string breaks or you slip on the stairs.)
feces: 'i'm not the type to look in the toilet. english toilets have a place where you can look before it goes on down....' (í am to blame for this one, having offered a vividly literal interpretation of catharsis in comparing attitudes toward the product of one's art. one flushed and went on to the next project.)
don added: 'looking back, you can run on into someone in front of you, and that's not fair.' (true and decent enough i suppose, were there likely to be someone ahead of don van vliet.)
deer: 'they are beautiful: they fly on the ground.'
school: 'i didn't go to school because it would have put an impediment in my palate.' (his painter's palette, i think. yes, that would be his meaning.)
identity: 'you know what? i don't think of myself as being an artist or a poet. but i am constantly apprehended for things i say that seem to be elliptical and things like that....'
of course there is a question of context, but to each subject as it appeared before us the captain addressed himself with an intent and epigrammatic courtesy, reminding me of the ardor and concentration of a self-taught tennis player of innate talent and conspicuous eccentricity.
there were several contexts, the primary one being the beginning of a new and stimulating friendship - for i felt this happening at once - if such human relationships may be said to have begun at a finite signal. the practical context, the reason for my being there and his excuse to break away from his recording session to talk with me, was my assignment to see what was happening with his new album 'clear spot'.
the subtler context, that of the ideas which flowed in our conversation, had as its principal motifs don's almost religious respect for nature, his indignation at human presumptuousness, and his refusal to be indifferent to the plight of other living creatures. and while most people see and evaluate as two separate, sequential processes, don perceives directly in an act of moral scrutiny - somewhat as young children are apt to do before experience erodes the circuit between sight and conscience - in don van vliet, experience appears to fortify that circuit.
he spoke of forms of intelligence other than human. 'i live up in eureka, among the big trees, and i tell you, those things are really saying something. you gotta work to hear what they're saying. they are great! but the eucalyptus is so far my favorite. they brought them over from australia for lumber, but when they grew here they curved and there was no way they could be used for lumber. i think maybe they threw a curve on the lumber companies. and i think that's heavy.'
presently i realized that we had talked of nearly everything but the captain's work in progress, and i had to take a firmer tack if only to justify my presence. i had already heard a scrap of a gentle, pretty song called 'too much time' and a couple of titles: 'my heart [whát? - t.t.] is my only house unless it rains' and 'nowadays a woman's gotta hit a man'. considerable excitement and an unmistakable disharmonic of anxiety centered on the sessions, from which a new captain beefheart was expected to emerge.
and what does it mean, a 'new' captain beefheart? not until much later did i hear the whole album, so that i could begin to understand the declensions of beefheart's 'old and new, then and now'. the present differences are imposing, and may cause 'old' beefheart fanatics to suffer brief flashes of vertigo: lady back-up singers, orchestral arrangements filling interstices around the magic band, all the artifices of the 'produced' album.
the missing beefheart saxophones and bass clarinet: 'i left my horn home. i'm like an alcoholic without my horn. if i had it here i would be playing it, and we would be making another of those albums people don't buy.'
but the beefheart voice is ubiquitous, singing, growling and uttering mystifying incantations (the album concludes with a enigmatic vale: 'webcor, webcor...'). 'i have a very unusual voice. i have seven octaves. i have a way of going from a high note completely down to the bottom. i can just completely relax, and i'll almost go to sleep to get that low note, but not so asleep that i don't have the blood there.'
and the magic band is appropriately magical: no heavy hand descended to oppress, no cautious finger waved to admonish. the beefheart feel and substance are merely made translucent, without dilution of the statement. 'clear spot' is lyrical beefheart, possibly tenderized beefheart. inviting and, to stretch the point, digestible.
so it is still captain beefheart, still the magic band, still the mystic minstrelsy of self-styled amateurs, in the best meaning of the word: 'one who cultivates any study or art or other activity for personal pleasure...'. this accurately describes the members of the magic band. don says of his henchmen: 'zoot horn rollo started playing guitar on 'trout mask replica', and rockette morton first played bass on the same album.' together, in his words, 'they are the baddest trio in the world.'
to elucidate a little: lead guitarist bill harkleroad aka zoot horn rollo, guitarist mark boston aka rockette morton (who also plays bass guitar, though not on 'clear spot') and drummer artie tripp aka ed marimba have, in the course of roughly three years, managed to attain musical standards which don van vliet aka captain beefheart, will discuss only in superlatives. to this 'baddest' of trios a new member, roy estrada aka oréjon, had been added as bassist.
one more bit of background, before we return to other contexts. don envisioned 'clear spot' as a gleaming disc of clear vinyl, very possibly to symbolize the clarity which he and [producer] ted templeman had labored to achieve in the captain's latest work.
however, tests on clear sample platters revealed insurmountable obstacles - a nasty tendency to pick up other colors in smudges and flecks, which spoiled the brilliance of the crystal plastic; an even nastier tendency to go gooey and stick to its sleeve at temperatures which might be reasonably be anticipated during shipment.
an extravagant series of experimentations compromised with the captain's original concept and the customary black record will be visible through a clear vinyl liner - strikingly unique, even for a one-of-a-kind artist. (i suspect that disc-jockeys will be grateful: how easy for a clear disc to vanish in a cluttered control room, how difficult to squint for the cut to be aired.)
now about those dangling contexts. the matrix of all that don van vliet says expresses aspects of identity, oblique or head-on, statements of who he is, with or without cross-referencing. since he ís a poet and a painter among these identities, i asked him about his painting. for instance, what are his views on form in painting?
'i've been told to think about it that way. and i have tried, but it always slips out... i think i'd rather send you one, because i sure don't know how to talk about it. to be really truthful, i can expound about poetry, but the thing is that there's no way - you know that as well as i do, man....'
he added: 'i have painted with my wife, who is a painter, both of us painting on the same picture, and i enjoy that. it's great, because you can't do it all, anyway.'
what about color? 'i love black and white. i really do, but then that gives people a chance to put their own color into it, lets them use their own imagination.'
there's a strong, however shifting certainty to these identifications. in the hour or so we spent together i don't think he ever departed from this positive mode of expression. for every 'no' he would find an encouraging 'yes'.
'i was born in glendale,' he told me. 'they cáll it glendale, but there wasn't much of a dale or a glen left when i was born there.' and he went on to speak glowingly of his present northern california home country.
trying to steer our discussion back to his music and the new album, i went out on a limb - and of course he followed. i asked: 'they have described what you do as dada rock. well?'
'that's ridiculous, man. i mean, i never cut my hair off on one side, or anything like that. i'm not really interested in either disevening things up or in evening things up.' he grinned. 'that was a quick one, wasn't it?'
it was. so i asked him straight out: 'what about your new album?'
'i would like to take about six weeks off and lay down and drink the water a little bit slower. i have looked for these people (ted templeman, his producer, and don landee, his engineer - l.b.) for seven years. that's how long i've been in the music business. and i've looked for someone like ted for seven years. and the engineer is fantastic as well - i mean: i can't believe it! i think that this fellow is equally underrated as i have been, not that i was looking for any rating or anything like that, but the thing is that i did have something to say and i felt that people should hear it. very few did. they are hearing it more since i have been with warner bros. they're helping out.'
there is no beginning and no end to a conversation of this nature. one last sample:
'first you have to love animals before you love people.'
i can't make that differentiation because people are animals. don't you think?
'of course they are. the idea of them thinking they aren't, even the idea of that being something to think about is even more preposterous....'
presently there was an end to talk. don wanted his 'baddest' trio to jam for me, and ted templeman gave his assent. it was like family fun, the way they played and enjoyed each other. captain beefheart, on the sidelines, had a lingering impulse to break something just to contribute a token of his excitement, but the notion itself was enough to sustain him. and he beamed with pride on his magic band.
this issue of the record
company's weekly magazine for music business insiders, also contained an
interview and news dealing with the actual release of the 'clear spot'
captain beefheart meets the wolfman
click clack back to the history or the power station
captain beefheart electricity
as felt by teejo