SUGAR AND SPIKES
odds and ends
HAPPENED TO THE MAGIC BAND?
being a very personal little story about captain beefheart
from ZIGZAG #44
by connor mcknight
note: essential reading about the background of the split of captain beefheart & the magic band in early 1974
when beefheart was in london in spring last year, i went to have a drink with him at the holiday inn near marble arch. i had spent a fair amount of time with him in the interim, so i was, if not a friend, then some sort of journalistic acquaintance - and, more to the point, an unashamed worshipper of his music. anyway, we enjoyed an evening together in the bar and although it wasn't exactly an interview, the conversation naturally focused on the band: how they had been working in the states, what his feelings were about 'clear spot' etc etc. now one of the most alarming aspects of the meeting grew out of a misapprehension under which i laboured, concerning the band's personnel: i had read a cocked-up press release in melody maker, listing the band, which omitted to mention either zoot horn rollo (bill harkleroad - t.t.) or rockette morton (mark boston).
that really surprised me because they had been - together with art tripp (ed marimba) - the corner stone of the magic band. when i asked why they had left the band beefheart flew into a rage, swore vengeance on whoever was responsible and in a tone of voice that left no room for any doubts about his earnest said: 'they haven't left! shit man: if they left me, i would follow them'.
as everyone now knows, they did leave him and beefheart didn't follow them. if anyone deserves to know why - if it could ever be established, it's zigzag readers. the circumstances surrounding the split are also worth looking at because of the adverse effect it has had on beefheart's music, and zigzag readers probably appreciate that fact more than anyone else.
the split wasn't altogether unexpected mind, and i kept getting strange intimations that all was not well. for example:
- when the band were here in 1973, there was definitely something unsettling about the record company taking beefheart out to dinner after a gig, while the rest of the band was herded back to the hotel. i don't know whether that is normal with american bands over here, but most musicians i know would get pissed off with it.
- ted templeman, while he was over here recording the van morrison live album, replied to my compliments on the production of 'clear spot' in a very curious manner. when i asked him what he felt about producing the next album, he said: 'i am not sure that i'm the right man for don. he is at a very critical stage of his career, and maybe someone else would be better'. perhaps i am being unfair, but that sort of remark, coming from a staff producer - i.e. someone who has his finger on the thinking at corporate headquarter and is very probably involved in the decisions - really means: 'the company is seriously thinking of giving him the chop - and i'm not going to run the risk of becoming too involved with him because of office political reasons'.
- a friend in the business came back from the states and told me that roy estrada (oréjon / audi hon) was working in a hamburger joint washing the floor: he had been kicked out of the band. which meant that artie tripp, who was an old mate of his from old 'mothers of invention' days, would have been pretty upset. apart from the effect on the band's composure, he was a good bass player, and made room for rockette morton to play third guitar, and turn his bass into a stunning lead instrument.
- then there were the reports in the papers of catastrophic gigs in the states - perhaps attributable to lack of rehearsal time, but still alarming.
all in all, the events leading up to his arrival had me very worried, because when it comes down to it, there is only a handful of musicians that really matter, and we need all of them working at the limit of their capabilities.
BEEFHEART AT DRURY LANE 
i went to drury lane on the sunday and saw both shows. i came home in a really depressed frame of mind, and wrote this review. i was really writing it to get it off my chest and was relieved in a way when it was nót printed - because it is a bit too redolent of the new musical express for some jerk journalist to slag off a giant like beefheart. still it is an accurate measure of my disappointment - and, taken in conjunction with what he later told me, maybe makes some sense:
captain beefheart's concerts last weekend were dismal: a joyless, depressing occasion. the prevalent mood, at least among those that had previously rejoiced in his music, was one of grief. there had been stories from america that presaged the dreadful music he played at the royal theatre: a picket at the whiskey-a-go-go [? - the roxy, where they played for a week, is more likely - t.t.] in los angeles who warned customers not to go in, and a hectoring lecture to the audience in new york after a less than sensational gig there. but nothing could have prepared his followers from the stifling ordinariness of those shows; much less induce them to accept it.
his voice still remains the most potent of instruments, and his material, when he bothered to do it justice, still exhibited a rare brilliance. but where beefheart had once painstakingly surrounded himself with musicians whose imaginations were in sympathy with his own, there is now the most dire collection of musical mushheads ever assembled outside of a passenger liner. men who just cannot grasp the idea that rhythm is a function of subtlety and not of the time that it takes to clout a tom-tom, that ensemble accompaniments for a singer like beefheart actually benefit if they don't all play at once. and that solos can enhance a song's coherence rather than being the chance to obliterate it.
beefheart claims that his old band 'marched out on me five days before the tour', leaving him little time for rehearsal. but last year he had also said: 'if they ever left me, i would follow them'. well, it ultimately came to that and he didn't follow them. the old band left him for two reasons. they felt they were getting a raw deal - bad pay ($400 for the last album, from which their expenses were deducted, for example), no credits for joint compositions, and no say in the running of the band. yet, in the past, they had literally starved to play that music; no, their principal reason for leaving (months before the tour, incidentally) was that the music was becoming shallow and weak - and for no apparent reason, since his growing popularity meant there was no financial pressure to compromise. and after eating dogmeat to live, in order to play the music, it was impossible for them to accede to a fiat implying that the sacrifices were all a case of misplaced enthusiasm.
still, most of the audiences at drury lane loved it. there was even one pitiful creature sitting behind me who exclaimed 'far out' during one interminably tedious riff. if that unfeeling, mindless adulation is what he seeks, then he can be well pleased. but some of us can only see the betrayal of those standards of excellence which beefheart did so much to affirm, and are immensely saddened by it.
he greeted those doubters in the audience who gave voice to their dismay, with a muttered: 'i'm not even allowed to change now', and it was easy to sympathise with him - for deciding to change is his prerogative, but deciding whether it is for good or ill, well, that's ours.
note: an official recording of this concert eventually was released as london 1974 (boo...) - t.t.
for reasons that are obvious in what i wrote i didn't go to any more of his gigs, although reports from friends were to the effect that they were mostly better than drury lane. the night before he left for the states, however, i had a long conversation with him, from which the main points to emerge were that beefheart still feels very hurt that they left, and seems puzzled as to why they actually did leave. he thinks that the band must have been deceiving him about their commitment to the music, if they could suddenly get up and leave. this feeling that they were harbouring bad feelings against him really makes him feel bewildered. it's hard to say whether there is any animosity in his attitude, since he dismissed mark (rockette morton) as a terrible womaniser and then later on talked with great affection about him as 'that little devil' - maybe even beefheart doesn't know what his feelings are.
eventually the moment arrived that i had been dreading, and he asked me what i felt about the band. i told him, in pretty much the same terms that i had used in the review. surprisingly enough, or maybe not so surprisingly, he agreed with a lot of what i said, but replied: 'the tour was almost completely finalised, and i couldn't cancel it'. so he puts the shortcoming down to lack of preparation, and considering the time that the old (or rather second) magic band had been together, it could well be true. it wasn't simply a matter of rehearsals, but the absence of that really magic spirit in their approach, and that must certainly take time to inculcate into musicians. he is determined to work on the band when they return and seemed hopeful of a satisfactory outcome.
to my way of thinking, it's nothing short of tragic that that band folded. although ry cooder's manager, who used to work for beefheart, tells me that they are all playing together in northern california, and have hopes of becoming a fully fledged band in their own right. and if the musicians who were with beefheart in this country ever put together a track like 'peon' (the guitarist actually had the nerve to do a piss-take of zoot horn rollo's long lunar note from 'big eyed beans from venus') i'll eat a golfball. as for the split: it is like watching two people bust up after seeming to have a really warm, giving relationship - deeply mysterious to the protagonists, let alone outsiders.
i would hesitate to go any further than that, except to say that beefheart has suffered setbacks to his career before, and overcome them; so the problems created by the split shouldn't prove insurmountable, but i for one will be praying.
click clack back to the history or the power station
captain beefheart electricity
as felt by teejo