captain beefheart electricity

DON'T ARGUE THE CAPTAIN
the interviews


 

THIS IS YOUR CAPTAIN SPEAKING...
beefheart then, now and in-between

from TROUSER PRESS #36 010279 usa
by cole springer
is 27.11.78 interview

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i was listening to the radio. i thought: 'i can hear a place in there that í could be'. i had always thought that music was too formal, and i thought: 'well, i'll get into this and fix it'. silly sculptor, going into music. what i am is not a musician but a sculptor, which is why my music sounds different. i put it together a different way. - don van vliet in oui magazine, july 1973

beefheart was a major influence on devo as far as direction goes. 'trout mask replica' - there are so many people that were affected by that album that he probably doesn't even know about, a silent movement of people. - devo in 'search & destroy' #3, 1977

i have been a staunch admirer of captain beefheart since 1970. the singular nature of his music, and the joy, excitement and mystery that are an inextricable part of it, are so extraordinary and exhilirating that i find myself compelled to celebrate the man whenever i have the chance.

my first opportunity came late in 1970, while i was attending college. faced with the task of giving an oral report on a poet for a course entitled 'modern poetry', i decided to buck the system and chose don van vliet, unbeknownst to my teacher. after all, the 'accepted' modern poets we had been studying struck me as uninteresting and irrelevant, for the most part: i'd give them a réal modern, even if it meant flunking.

so, on the big day, i sat down in front of the class, gave a brief bio of the captain, read a few of his poems, and then played them three tracks from 'trout mask replica'. as the music played, the class seemed unsure how to react, although a couple of girls in the front row actually appeared to be fríghtened. the teacher's face had registered different shades of confusion and skepticism all through the presentation, yet i received an 'a' in the course.

slightly less than a year later, i found myself at another college sitting down to write my debut music column for the student paper. i wanted to make an impression straight off, so i did an essay on beefheart, the thrust of which was: if you haven't heard this guy yet, you just háven't líved. upon its publication, i began checking his bin in the campus record store to see if the pen was really mightier than the sword. after a few days and no sales, i gave up.

okay, so beefheart has always been one of your proverbial 'cult' artists. that's fine with me, i just happen to find it unfortunate that so many people listen to so much shit. i think he has accepted his 'cult' status, too. he tried to go commercial in 1974 and it just didn't work out; now he has a new band and he's playing what he wants to again. his new elpee, 'bat chain puller', is as great as anything he has ever done, and live at the 'bottom line' [new york, on 251178 - t.t.] he was nothing short of superb.

his spectacular four-octave voice lovingly shaped every note and then sent it booming throughout the room, while the new magic band was so ridiculously good i don't even want to talk about it. i mean. it's one thing for van vliet to compose that amazing music which defies all known logic, but on top of that he keeps finding people brilliant enough to play it.

two days after the bottom line shows i went to the new york offices of warner brothers records where i was scheduled to interview don van vliet. upon arrival, i was ushered into the large but empty conference room. since i was early and don was a little late, i had time to review his history one more time.

the most important thing to realize about van vliet is that his music is unique not because he tríes to make it so; rather, it is a natural, unforced expression of his remarkable personality. the man is a true genius, a total artist and visionary.

[note by teejo: then follows an overlook of the albums and lives of captain beefheart till then, which was the release of 'shiny beast (bat chain puller)' - although the interviewer hasn't noticed the change of the title of the record... however, the well-known story contains óne 'fact' never mentioned anywhere else (the fourth sentence):

from five to thirteen, he studied with a master sculptor from portugal, augustino rodriquez. when he was eleven, don had his own teevee show, originating from the griffith park zoo in los angeles. he would sculpt animals while rodriquez looked on and commented. at thirteen, don lectured on scilpture and animals at the barnzdale art institute at ucla (university of california, los angeles - t.t.). this led to his winning a scholarship to study art in europe, effective at age sixteen.]

all of which leads back to your correspondent waiting in the warners conference room for the imminent arrival of don van vliet. the prospect of actually meeting the man is a pretty damned exciting one, to say the least. it's funny, but i almost met him once before, back in january of 1971. it was at a magic band concert at the rochester institute of technology. after the show, i was amazed to see that beefheart didn't leave the stage, but rather was hanging out back by the drums. i was one of a handful of people who jumped up on stage and went over to talk with him. as i got there, one kid was asking him about his harmonicas. i stood there for a minute or two and thought: 'this guy is such a genius... what the hell can i say to him beyond: 'i really like your music'?' i decided that i was satisfied just to have stood next to him, and split without saying a word...

*

finally, my warners contact came into the room with a pretty lady who was introduced as jan van vliet, the captain's wife. moments later, beefheart comes through the door, his hand outstretched, and wearing a surprised smile like he knows me and didn't expect to see me here. as we're shaking hands, he's booming out:

man. i haven't seen you in years! how have you been? great to see you again!

talk about instant disorientation! here's captain beefheart treating me like a long lost friend, and all i can think is that i've never met him before in my life. i start to tell him so when i suddenly flash on the r.i.t. incident. i know he is reported to have an extraordinary memory, as well as powers of esp {extra sensorial perception - t.t.], but surely he doesn't remember me from two minutes in 1971, when i didn't even tálk to him?! but as if it's the most normal thing in the world - after i stutter a few semi-coherent syllabes about the rochester thing. - he says:

sure i remember you. i said hello to you then, don't you remember?

now that i think of it, i guess he did.

you don't really believe i remember you, do you?, he asks a few minutes later.

well, you're the only person in the world that i would believe cóuld remember someone like that!

we walk over to the table, sit down, and i set up my tape recorder. before i can even turn it on, don is talking slowly and evenly, but virtually non-stop, about new york, its inhabitants, and about the art exhibition he has just seen. within minutes i was cómpletely relaxed, a feeling i've never had in any other interview situation. we talked for well over an hour and the time just floated by. don's conversation twists and turns, and at times goes off on fantastic tangents, not unlike some of his music. the best i can hope to do here is to try and capture - through the use of lengthy, unedited quotes - some of the essence of this incredible man.

after raving about the paintings of franz kline, which he has just seen - the best, i think, other than van gogh - don pulls out his sketchbook and shows me some of his recent drawings, which are even more intricate and bizarre than those on his albums. i mention this to him and he says: i know. i wonder what that is? i venture that it is due to new york's influence, and he agrees, saying that they were done in new york.

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additional picture from 1977 or '78 concert
captain beefheart / don van vliet - live usa 1978
from  new york rocker #33 011180 usa

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he mentions that he showed some of these drawings to his last bottom line audience, and adds that he likes to play here. even though you had some trouble with the monitors?at the time he seemed pretty exasperated with the technical staff, stopping the show at one point until they fixed the faulty monitors.

i just want to give everything i can, because i really appreciate people that care ánything about somebody that does art. i want to present a clear picture.

on to the subject of stage lighting:

lights are so demanding. when i go on the stage, i could be up there for a year if it wasn't for the lights. i like to look at the audience. i like to look at their expressions and gauge if i'm connecting, if they understand what i'm talking about or what's happening. and sometimes those lights - right when i'm looking - a light will blare up and all of a sudden the person's gone, i lose contact.

talking about the concerts gets don onto his latest lp, bat chain puller.

i'm more proud of that album than any album i've ever done. really, i think the sound is so great. glen kolotkin, who engineered it, is so good. so advanced. i mean, he did stravinsky's last album. he told me: 'i did electric ladyland' [jimi hendrix - t.t.], and i said; 'yeah', and he says: 'oh yes, you might be interested in this: i did stravinsky's last album'. right then i said: ' oh my god, are you kidding?' and then i just went right after him. i love stravinsky. i hate to hear anybody use anything that he has done. immediately i can spot it. i would never do that to him, or any other artist.

i ask him about reports that 'bat chain puller' had been in the can for over a year. don laughs:

they love to say things are in the can. i laid down a few things just to see if they would hold up as it went along till i signed to put the album out.

i love this group. they're nice. when they play, they smile and everything, they don't put on any silly airs - you know what i mean? i can't stand that. i think the only thing that holds up is somebody who is honestly playing and caring about what they're doing. then it's timeless - like van gogh. have you seen any of his things? he's brilliant! where is he hére? i would like to go to a museum and see some of his work. his paintings look like they were 'just done', and he is out somewhere going to the bathroom. i can't believe it, after a hundred years? how brilliant.

i begin to ask don about some of his influences, but as soon as i utter the words, he says very matter-of-factly:

i don't háve any. i don't. i would never put any influences into myself because it would distort what i do. and i'm a real funny person: if i were to take in influences...- oh, i make exceptions: animals, noises. i will take those influences in. but human influences, to me, i can áppreciate something somebody does, totally, because i don't get influences by it. i don't have that much ego, you know why? because i just don't want to páy for it. you know what ego does to you? i mean, it just puts you right out of the - i've hád ego before, a lot of it, but i stayed up for a year-and-a-half. did you ever read that? oh yeah, from the time i was 25 till i was 26½.

no sleep at all for a year-and-a-half?

no, not at all, and i've been thinking about it recently: i might stay up again. it's good, it's a mental fast - i mean, you get all of the things that have gone in, out. there you're ready right then to - if i take a paint brush, there's nothing between me and the brush hitting the canvas, very little, other than gravity. i mean, gravity is the master, period. of your feet get tired, it's because of gravity. other than that i don't think you'd even get tired.

what did you do during that year-and-a-half?

oh, i wrote about my entire life, as much as i could get down. i used to write 180 pages a day, just moving - like if a child is out playing and the mother calls the child: 'hey, come in here', the child doesn't even pay attention. and then they just go to sleep, after they just get bored with themselves. it is ímpossible to get bored. that's an égo thing. although: what is ego? that's something man invented...

during the beginning of our conversation, the captain had attempted to shut the windows behind us to keep out the noise of new york, since he has very sensitive hearing. now he jumps out of his chair and grabs the life-size cardboard cut-out of shaun cassidy that has been standing behind him.

i just can't take this anymore! i keep seeing it out of the corner of my eye. (he turns it around so that shaun is now facing the wall.) that's better... it looks more interesting now, more artistic.

as don sits down again, i ask if he can describe the methods he uses to compose his music.

i get a flash. i know exactly what i want - like a painting - and then play it on a piano, play it on a pencil, i mean the percussion, on a table, you know, anything. and then have it on tape. tape is really important. it's as important as ink is with paper because - you see - i have so many things in my head - god, i mean: not ín my head, they just cóme into my head. i don't keep thoughts, but they come in whenever i need them. i've never had it fail me yet.

then i would take the tape of what i had done, say the piano, then as i would play the tape and the musician would hear it, i would say: 'well, this is how i want that shaped: (he begins drawing)'. say i wanted that shape, i could draw it and still have it on the tape where they could hear it. then visually ánd hearing it they can see what i'm talking about, the shapes, movements. it really works, i get very close to éxactly what i want. that's very important to me, to have it be éxactly what i wanted.

it must have been hard for all of the musicians you've worked with to master the complex structures of your music.

it is hard, it really is. it's very difficult - and for not too much money either, because - uh - the thing that's really bad about creating with a lot of people like that is the gúilt of the fact that they don't make the móney that they shóuld for playing it. because not that many people like it.

still i'm sure your musicians would rather play with you than play crap just to make money.

well, i hope so. and then the words are informative. i mean, it might make people think about the way it is, and maybe try to change it. like [cites 'space ape couple' off 'lick my decals off, baby':] 'space age couple / why don't you flex your magic muscle? / why don't you cultivate the grounds / they're the only ones around'. that's ít. 'hold a drinking glass up to your eye / after you've scooped up a little of the sky / and it ain't blue no more / what's on the leaves / ain't dew no more'.

people have gotta wake up. they could dó something about it. it's awfully bad right now, but they could do something about it if they used their technology to do something about cleansing this place. it would take a long time for it to go back the way it really was, but it would start.

on the back of the new album is a legend which reads: 'dedicated to all conservation and wildlife preservation organizations everywhere'...

i hope that it does some good. if nothing else, if nobody likes it or anything, the thing is that maybe somebody will see that and think about it. that's very important to me. animals are wonderful, so wonderful.

all the new magic band members share these concerns, don tells me, as he begins to talk about the considerable talents of each musician. when he was speaking about guitarist richard redus, his rap took an astonishing hairpin curve which happened so fast that i didn't discover it until i was transcribing my tape...

richard, he's brilliant. he's a brilliant man. he wears no shoes, even in the winter. never. never wears shoes. isn't that something? think about that, think about walking down fifth avenue without shoes - in the winter!

and you know what else he does? have you ever heard of adrian desmond, he wrote 'the hot-blooded dinosaurs'? you gotta read that one - i mean: you don't gótta do anything, i'm not saying you gotta, you know, i mean (goes into old-timer's voice:) 'hey, you gotta read that!'. (normal voice:) an american saying - you know what i mean? i'm definitely an american, but i love it with america's - uh, you know, i ám an american. i mean, i'm from america and i enjoyed the constitution. i mean, all of those hip people like benjamin franklin.

do you know how smárt he was? wow! when i go to philadelphia i stay very near his grave. there's a holiday inn there - eeeyuhh, heh, heh - but there ís, and it's right there, and his grave, where he's buried is right just... i usually stay in the same window, and i swear that the energy, i mean, my háir curls - and i have straight hair! and not out of fear, certainly. maybe admiration. but then again i wonder, do you know what i mean? the idea that he had been there... (chuckles.) and not only that brilliant, but lóoked that good. i mean, don't you love the way he looked? like a dolphin. there's been some smart people, all of those smart people, together at that one time, with those great thoughts. i wish that people had gone along with them.

when we get back to the music, i remark that one of the reasons i love it so much is that it's not all laid out for the listener, that it forces the listener into doing some of the work.

that's the way it shóuld be, because if somebody just sits and fixates, it's no good. like this disco stuff, that beat: (strikes his chest) boom, boom, boom, boom. that's too bad. i mean, i've tried to change that for 13 years...

i remind him that he has influenced a lot of the new rock people and mention three who have said so in print: devo, pere ubu and johnny rotten (sex pistols - t.t.):

johnny? i saw him at every concert i did in england. i remember seeing him. i had never met him but he called me in england and he seems to be quite an intelligent person. i enjoyed talking with him.

much more was said in the course of our conversation, but not all of it seemed relevant to the printed page. this has been an attempt at an impressionistic verbal portrait of captain beefheart, a man who - by his very nature - resists definition and categorization. if you wish to know more, you'll just have to listen to his music and flex your magic muscle.

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captain beefheart electricity
as felt by teejo

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