captain beefheart electricity

DON'T ARGUE THE CAPTAIN
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WHERE'S THE BEEF ?
captain beefheart at 50

 from SPIN vol.6 #11 010291 usa
by jim greer
is second half 01.91 interview

note: text with additional intro reprinted in ITALIAN as captain beefheart ha 50 anni in 010391 rockstar #126

*

groping back to bed after a piss
i part thick curtains, and am startled by
the rapid clouds, the moon's cleanliness.

four o'clock: wedge-shadowed gardens lie
under a cavernous, a wind-picked sky.
there's something laughable about this...

                        - from 'sad steps' by phillip larkin

one of rock's few true musical geniuses, captain beefheart gave up music for painting nearly a decade ago. at the tender age of 50, he imperts a few palls of wisdom.

captain beefheart, whose mom calls him don van vliet, wants to talk about dead poet phillip larkin. when beefheart wants to talk about something it's difficult to change the subject. sometimes it's difficult to follow the subject, too.

oooh yeah. oooh yeah. larkin. the best! who's better?

i don't know - if you allow.

(offers:) shakespeare? oh man. shakespeare. hamlet! oooh yeah. whooooah! what about that election?

which one?

the one they just had. aargh.

(taking a stab in the dark:) you mean jesse helms winning in north carolina?

aaargh! yes! i can't believe this. he's so banal. i was appalled. mind if i light a cigar?

why would i mind? we're on the phone.

*

on january 15, 1991 van vliet turned 50 years old.

i just lop off the zero, and i'll be five again. no problem.

he hasn't recorded an album since 1982's 'ice cream for crow', preferring to concentrate on painting. he paints all day, every day, and as a result has accumulated 'about a million' canvases in his northern california home.

i prefer painting to music because i can spend a whole day on a single canvas and then paint it out. paint right over it. that's a satisfying feeling.

*

captain beefheart, the musician, was/is a true musical genius. he has a five-octave vocal range and is a fluent, innovative saxophone and harmonica player. his records [...], while not commercial blockbusters (an understatement), have enormously influenced the succeeding musical generation. in 1988, britain's imaginary records released a tribute album called 'fast 'n' bulbous' - which beefheart claims not to have heard - of various groups (xtc, sonic youth, etc.) doing beefheart covers, formalizing the debt modern music owes the captain.

beefheart's records lie at the nexus of what is commonly understood as 'blues' and 'rock', but throw additional tendrils in the directions of free jazz and pure harmonic dissonance. any discussion of his music and/or lyrics takes place in a slightly different reality from the one you and i usually flounder around in. listening to beefheart requires (and, if you're doing it right, produces) a cubtle shift in the ground of perception to which you're accustomed - to a nonlinear world where nonsense suddenly resolves itself into a higher kind of sense.

the sad thing is, beefheart has never received his due dollop of respect. sure, he's more or less worshipped by a small cadre of largely underground musicians, but he's not much more than a footnote in most rock histories, and that's not right. one of the reasons he switched to painting was it was a more commercially viable medium, and for a man of his musical accomplishments, that's obscene. he would be surprised, i tell him, how many people wished he still made records.

you're right. i would be surprised. i'm surprised anyone still remembers me.

there's an undercurrent of resentment in everything beefheart says about his musical past - a defensiveness apparent in his statements about the way he worked, his musical methodology.

do what you do - that's all you can do. to turn on yourself, become something else... that's too much thought.

on the other hand, you can't take anything he says entirely seriously. he has a ruthlessly inventive mind, and is famous for bending words and deeds to his own purposes. talking to him is sometimes very much like talking to an extremely bright child, and in the course of our talk he referred to himself several times as a 'baby'. for beefheart, that's a term of respect.

today, van vliet himself has trouble remembering the names of his old albums.

(calls to his wife jan:) what were the names of those two records on mercury i was unhappy with?... oh yeah. 'unconditionally guaranteed' and 'bluejeans and moonbeams'. they added stuff to the tapes after i turned them in. ooooh, i didn't like that.

but he still plays music, for himself.

all the time - i especially like playing bass clarinet. but after hearing eric dolphy, what's the use?

he still listens to a lot of music. (he loves the ceedee reissues of the old beefheart stuff that have been periodically appearing - 'they sound incredible, don't they?'.) at one point in our conversation, he asks me to call him back in five minutes so he can fish around for a tape of something that will 'blow your mind'. when i do, he plays me a song by one string sam, a bluesman who plays on a (óne) broom wire [sentence corrected - t.t.]. he makes me listen to it three times, to ensure that my mind is sufficiently blown.

what's the biggest difference between painting and music? isn't music a more collaborative process?

not the way i do it.

you never relied on the input of your musicians?

not unless they could play every note the way i wanted it.

how often did you achieve that?

quite often. if i didn't, i wouldn't. hee-hee! if i didn't, i wouldn't.

*

don van vliet, the painter, is probably also a genius, though not knowing a lot about art i couldn't tell you for sure. people who do know seem to think so, though. julian schnabel collects him, italian art magazines interview him, and in summer this year the michael werner gallery in new york will hold an exhibition of his paintings. his art is, generallly speaking, autobiographical, in a spastic sort of way (which, come to think of it, applies to his music as well). it's somewhat abstract, and very expressionistic, which maybe makes it abstract expressionism - but what the hell do i know?

do you think you've improved as a painter since you quit making records?

i've gotten worse. that's an improvement, if you ask me.

what do you try to do in your paintings?

i turn myself inside out on canvas - hopefully. and if i don't, i throw it away. that's fun. it's fun to throw away art.

don van vliet / captain beefheart - 910201 spin - anton corbijn
picture by anton corbijn
what if it's great art you're throwing away?

what's greatness? it's a hole in the floor you stuff things into.

so it doesn't mean anything more than anything else?

maybe it does, maybe it doesn't. i don't know. i never went to school. i went to a half-day of kindergarten and then i called my mom and said: 'take me home'... hold on, hold on - shit, the television's on. oh god, i can't stand it, it's that damn bush. i didn't even know it was on. hold on, i have to go turn this off. shut up! shut up! shut up! (moments later:) what a wonderful thing, to turn it off. if only you could do that to everyone...

*

beefheart at 50 seems to be a relatively happy man. his home is situated on a cliff overlooking the ocean.

it's right by the sea, like a great blue wash-rag...

he rarely goes out. he's been married to jan for twenty years. she used to be a painter, too.

but she quit. now she reads.

of his marriage, van vliet comments:

it's bliss consciousness. i warned her not to marry me. i said: 'don't marry this baby'. but how could i not still be married? otherwise, it's like saying i was stupid, that i made a mistake. and it's not true. i didn't make a mistake... aaargh!

(having become somewhat used to his seal-like eruptions in the course of our three-hour chat:) what now?

that man! i was thinking about that man you were talking about.

what man? helms?

yes! aaargh! it's so awful!

do you think jesse helms would find your paintings offensive?

yes. everything. everything.

but would he know that it was offensive?

no. i think it would go right over his head.

*

trying to find out if he keeps up at all with developments in the rock world, i ask if he has ever heard of sonic youth?.

phonic youth? what was that?

no, sonic youth. sonic.

i briefly explain what they're about, list a few album titles.

'daydream nation' - that's an interesting idea. i hadn't thought of that before. that's what i was trying to do with 'trout mask replica' - wake up the daydream nation. you know, i'm really big in russia. they know my music over there. have you ever heard of zvuki mu?

sure.

when they came here they called me up. they wanted to meet me. i was very flattered. changing the subject, what do you think of 'twin peaks'? isn't david lynch wonderful? what about 'eraserhead'?

*

like all geniuses, beefheart has a hard time going shopping. he claims only to have gone once in the last nine years - and that recent trip proved nearly disastrous.

i was reaching for an eggplant and someone was in my way so i drew back. and then someone else said to me: 'go for it'. go for it? is that what they say nowadays? that's so horrible. i was so shaken up i had to leave. and then as i was leaving i saw these kids standing around a michael jackson gumball machine stuffing sugar in their faces. it was just so macabre. i had to pull the car over on the way home and sit for forty-five minutes to recover.

i take it you're not a big sugar fan. what do you eat?

only what i can hold in my hand.

*

the beefheartian temperament reflects the willful immaturity of a true artist - a kind of impulse towards irony, in which there's no mediation between his genuineness and the genuineness of the world. this is often misconstrued as sensitivity, and has been adapted by many successful art types, from david byrne [from 'talking heads' - t.t.] and david lynch, to their own ends.

but with beefheart it's not a mask. that's the difference between talent and genius. that's the difference between the music of captain beefheart and that of a large percentage of the dross currently clogging the bins in used record stores. there's no pose; there's no hidden motive. there's only the shock of the real.

ultimately, it's as important that people like beefheart simply exist, underappreciated as they may be; as it is that they make music or paintings or, i don't know, invent things. i tell him so, and add that it's heartening to see him doing so well at 50. i've been worried myself about my impending thirtieth birthday.

oh, but that's easy. you just take the three, straighten it out, and stick it through the zero. nothing to it.

nothing to it.


*

note:
the italian version doesn't contain any contemporary pictures. however, one of them is such a beautiful colour shot of don in his studio i used it to replace the slightly different original b&w photo which illustrated the short feature from the usa 010486 interview magazine

*
 

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captain beefheart electricity
as felt by teejo

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