SUGAR AND SPIKES
odds and ends
BEEFHEART AND HIS MAGIC BAND.....
(and some more news on the adventures of the great gnome of rock 'n' roll)
aka THE GREAT GNOME BIOGRAPHY
kit LEONARD GRANT & ASSOCIATES mid june
by derek taylor
is 06.66 interview / feature
* alex' nickname 'st. clair' later changed to 'st. claire'
* reprinted in fanzine 'steal softly thru snow #2'
'here's the list,' said the great gnome of rock 'n' roll, 'take your pick.' the great gnome passed the list of names to the disbelieving group of young men and then vanished in a spiral of white smoke, threading across the high desert of southern california, far over the horizon into regions far beyond the reaches of the mind. he rarely stayed long, the great gnome. he had such work to do in every hamlet, village, town and city across the world. for didn't all rock 'n' roll inspiration start and finish with his influence? he was there in the pen of buddy holly and at the cross-roads when parker met presley. he was there when john, george and paul sent for ringo and he was close at hand when harry hog met myrtle lump. that was some good day.
alex st. clair and don van vliet watched the hunchbacked gnome pass beyond their comprehension and looked down at the greasy parchment he had left with them. it was like something from a mediaeval food-to-go bag. it had seen much service. 'he might have left us something cleaner,' muttered the massive van vliet clenching his head, for that was one of van vliet's habits when he was angry. 'never mind,' grunted the mild alex. 'let's see what's left.' their eyes scanned the names. most of them were crossed out, 'animals' had gone, 'archers' too. 'beatles' of course had a thick ink line through it. it was the same all the way down. 'all the best names have gone,' growled van vliet, as he removed an enormous stone from his boot. sure enough, they had. the great gnome had warned them. 'it's late in the day for names,' he had whined in that unattractive way he had, scratching his hump.
alex ran his thumb down the list. there were no more than 35 names left. peter and the groovy gates, jack louse and the unpleasantness, harry quirk and the manxmen. 'lousy,' said van vliet scratching his ear with a razor. 'there's only one i like.' 'what is it?' asked alex inquiringly, as was his wont when he was curious. 'captain beefheart and his warts,' said van vliet through compressed lips, for his breath was short from climbing the stairs to the plateau of dirty blues which the great gnome had insisted on as a meeting place. 'here's another,' said alex st. clair, pointing a bandaged finger at a space between all the smudged erasures. van vliet read slowly, for the sun was going down and it was growing very dark: 'ethel higginbottom and her magic band,' he read. 'leave that for a girl group,' he said. 'you never know. the supremes may want a name-change when motown goes out of style.' 'why not combine the two names,' said jerry handley who just happened to be passing by on the way to the bookmakers.
and lo and behold, it came to pass that 'captain beefheart and his magic band' was formed out of a rescue operation grafting the best phrases out of each name. it was 9:27 p.m., very approximately, on february 30, 1965; and thus did a very good group come into the very rough and extremely tumble arena of popular music with a determination to play great blues and to make captain beefheart and his magic band a household name, more or less, as the case may be. as it were, taking into account this and that, all eventualities, and making allowances for the weather, the time of day and the direction of the wind. plus unforeseen mishaps, snags, draft problems and, well, you know how it is.
captain beefheart and his magic band. the group said it aloud. captain beefheart and his magic band. they said it again and it sounded good. they said it again and again and it sounded first better, then best and then it became the greatest name they'd ever heard. now, when the group is asked how they came by their name, they snigger lewdly and say the story is too rude for polite ears but they are merely complying with the great gnome's wishes. anonymity, he claimed, was essential in his line of business. but i am determined to unmask this goblin of music as a wicked monopolist in a free capitalist society, which is why i have taken so long to tell you this story. if you want it simple and straight, then start here.
....... somewhere in the late winter of 1964/65 alex st. clair, a very talented guitar-player, was working as a key-man in a casino in lake tahoe. this was, as you can imagine, a delightful job for a sensitive man - just wandering around with a bunch of keys to the slot machines, watching the human race indulging themselves in most of the seven deadly sins, with particular emphasis on greed and envy. the claw-like hands grasped the handles and the wheels whirred and spun and shuddered to a stop and either the claws won or the claws lost. either way, the claws were there day and night. and so was alex st. clair, just watching and generally undigging the unmusical scene. 'mainly i was there rattling my keys to see that everything worked smoothly,' he says. 'i was ambassador to slot machines. anyway, i didn't think it was something i wanted to do until i was sixty, so i came back to lancaster in the high desert, where, i supposed, life would be better.'
lancaster, his hometown, offered him refuge from nostalgia for a day or so. but being familiar, it also bored him and for a month or so he did nothing. 'i had played in bands for quite some time but there was just nothing happening in lancaster when i came home. so i decided to make something happen and i phoned don van vliet who was just plain don vliet then, just as i was alex snouffer. we changed our names because the police were after us for smuggling sponges into nevada.' when alex phoned don, he said, simply: 'they tell me you can sing.'
'they're right,' said don with a momentary pause as a token gesture to modesty - an unnecessary pause since his self-belief glowed like a beacon of hope to frustrated alex. 'then let's make music,' said alex, more or less and within a couple of days there was a group which is now known as captain beefheart and his magic band. and about time too, said the great gnome a few days later when he returned to recover his parchment from beneath the stone of harps on the plateau of dirty blues. the gnome incanted a brief blessing on the group and they haven't seen him since. but his job was well done, for it was no time at all before the quaintly named group was doing very well in their own area. alex st. clair was generally, and tacitly, acknowledged as leader though it was clear that don van vliet, as lead singer and therefore frontman, would be captain beefheart. and who would have it otherwise?
their first appearance as captain beefheart and his magic band was, so far as they can recall, a 'battle of the bands at claremont and pomona colleges'. alex remembers: 'i don't think we really knew how to play together, but we knew that we had sufficient music in us to beat the other group (who will be nameless) in the contest. our motivation for the battle of the bands was determination to destroy the opposition. we had wanted to put them down for some time, and motivation like that can't be bad. we won.' of course.
in the lancaster area the band swiftly picked up a following eager to support something which was not only local, but also good. beefheart and his men played at neighborhood dances, on club dates and, from time to time, they descended from the high desert to the plains and valleys of the other california. in april last year, while still semi-amateur, the group had the good fortune to meet their present management company, leonard grant & associates. the meeting - like most of the more fruitful confrontations in life - was an accident. don van vliet and doug moon, rhythm guitarist, were taking part in a televised discussion on teenage music and dorothy heard, an executive with leonard grant & associates, happened to be there. a conversation was struck up which developed into an earnest disagreement on the fundamentals of rhythm and blues - an interminable battleground of opinion all over the world; may it never be resolved - and this discussion led into talk about the aims of the magic band.
(slightly edited version of picture
available at michael ochs archives)
it became obvious that the boys were vulnerable innocents in the cruel opportunist world of pop, and being a kindly soul, dorothy heard gave them fortuitous advice on the importance of copyrighting, contract protection and so on. in return, big-hearted beefheart asked dorothy to look them over at the upcoming teenage fair in hollywood. they had a slender, impermanent arrangement for bookings and to cut a long story to its bare bone, leonard grant & associates signed captain beefheart and his magic band to a full management and publishing contract. this decision was the result of two elements: one, the blunt, bluff, honesty and off-stage charm of st. clair, van vliet, moon, handley and their drummer. and the second element is the potent musical content of the group. (their then drummer has now left; his replacement is p.g. blakely, an amiable, lanky, black-haired lad who had, in fact, been with the group in the very early days.)
van vliet recalls the teenage fair: 'at that time we were playing rhythm & blues stuff, very raw, bluesy material, plus some rolling stones hits. we were only playing other people's contemporary hits because we had no time to learn new songs. our career had taken off at a pretty rapid pace and i don't think we were completely prepared.' then, as now, captain beefheart and his magic band had only one basic aim: to play good blues. anything else - like money, fame, clothes, cars, fans - should, they reasoned, follow in the fullness of time. just so long as they made good blues music.
under their new management, captain beefheart and his magic band plunged into sporadic travelling - they worked in bakersfield, in honolulu, at the 'whisky a go go' in denver, and at 'the family dog show', san francisco. wisely, their management kept the band away from major engagements until they had produced a record. they were not allowed to work in the los angeles area, because the time was, until recently, not right. and timing, in entertainment as in everything else in life, is all. is it not?
in january this year, the time was right and the sound was right and - so they reasoned - the material was right for them to make their first record in the sunset sound studios in hollywood. the song chosen was 'diddy wah diddy'. the management company made their own master tape and then listed companies they considered most suitable. 'there were three in particular,' said alex. 'but a&m was really the one we were after and they gave us the best deal. a firm offer came out of the first meeting and everyone was very happy.' not surprisingly, for in a dramatically short period of time, herb alpert's hollywood-based label has established a threefold reputation for (1) million-dollar product; (2) energetic integrity and (3) just being great people.
the record was due to be released on march 1, but contractual delays resulted in a postponement of one month. the delay turned out to be traumatic, for by one of those coincidences which gives artists and executives nightmares and drives fans demented with indecision, another group released the same song. as it turned out, the damage to beefheart was minimal for within two weeks of release, khj radio station in los angeles was playing the magic band's record, and playing it hard. krla followed seven days later and kbla a week after that. one month after release, kfwb latched on to 'diddy wah diddy' to give captain beefheart and his magic band 100% air-play in the nation's #2 market. and it was not only in los angeles - fast becoming beefheart's adopted home base - that 'diddy wah diddy' secured swift air-play. san diego, seattle, bakersfield, houston, buffalo, philadelphia and dallas picked up on the blood and guts of the magic band, and by may the record was hailed as a strong up-and-comer and a certainty for the national charts.
what does the group consider they can bring to pop which is valid and necessary? says van vliet: 'we don't 'hokey' up the songs. we try to keep them original, yet with a little extra something. we don't use gimmicks but we add something. it's difficult to explain. i think what we're trying to say is, we're 'sincere' though the word's a bit over-used.' complementing don's judgment of the group's value to the contemporary charts, alex said: 'we've brought a hard beat to the original music. and, of course, modern recording techniques are building up the latent strength in the music.'
in fact, captain beefheart and his magic band have the endorsement of several old-time blues people. and their young following is substantial. blues, though rooted further back than beefheart can remember, is most certainly a young people's music and in europe - due, largely, to emasculated light-weight rock 'n' roll of the past year or so - blues is becoming more and more powerful. beefheart's immediate aim is to supplement the revered music of howlin' wolf, lighting hopkins, sonny boy williamson and the other high priests of blues, with their own material. their first album - due out soon - will have several group-written songs.
don, an artist who worries enormously about the quality of their personal-appearance sound, says that performing blues is better than eating warthogs or wild rice, and i don't see any reason to quarrel with that evaluation. alex describes don as 'crazy', don describes doug as 'outrageous', p.g. describes jerry as 'a beautiful human being', and doug describes p.g. as 'funny'. all of these fragile adjectives fail to do justice to the very solid and complex quality of these men from the desert. they're small town boys who have grown up very quickly, not in that sly, too aware, cool-bleak way of the city hippy, but in the traditional manner of the honest peasant. their attitude to the pure, basic business of entertainment is probably best summed up by p.g. who says: 'i enjoy seeing little people smile and i enjoy it much more knowing i'm the one making them smile.'
well, there it is at this stage in the development of captain beefheart and his magic band. except to add the endorsement of the critic of the los angeles times who sat in a thin funneled draft at the 'whisky a go go' on sunset strip when the band first exploded on a scene which, one might have expected, had become jaded with too many groups. wrote critic peter johnson: 'if all the great blues singers of chicago were annihilated, we could still take comfort in knowing that captain beefheart and his magic band would come to the rescue.' '...don van vliet has a magnificent voice for blues material, a voice which alternates from a guttural throaty shout to a tortured pinched-trachea sound.' '...the magic band behind van vliet did an excellent job of backstopping his powerful voice.'
note: june 1966 beefheart's management spread an eleven page information set with the text and picture above. it was reprinted in the english 'apocalypso' fanzine 'steal softly thru snow', the pioneering work of the late gerry pratt. eventually he used this old publicity kit, which is a strange mixture of truth and fantasy, as the basis for a deep research on the first two years of you-know-them - but unfortunately, for the moment there's not enough space here to reproduce that too....
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