the MAGIC BAND reunion
THIS is BAND #2 - go to the main page
the SECOND VETERANS MEETING
KIND OF MAGIC
from GUITAR vol.14
#3 010703 england
by pete langman
is feature / ±07.04.03 interview gary lucas and denny walley
note: edited version
captain beefheart and the magic band: words that inspire terror in some, blissed-out rapture in others. and now, it seems, the legendary magic band is to reunite, headed by guitarists denny 'feeler's reedo' walley and gary lucas. the combo will be without don van vliet himself, of course, who lives out in the desert, paints highly regarded pictures and talks to practically nobody.
come to think of it, which magic band are we talking about? for this magic band was never really a band - indeed, walley and gary lucas had never played together before this project. walley recalls how the 'reunion' was under discussion for a couple of years before things really started to roll. 'john 'drumbo' french made a call to me, and i called gary. i had heard gary play a long time ago, and i had been really impressed. he's very familiar with the material, of course, because he had played in the band before.'
hang on: perhaps we'd better get our dates straight. let's see: walley played in magic band versions 32-36, having done the 'bongo fury' tour with frank zappa in '75. gary lucas was in versions 38-40. have the two ever played together before now? 'no,' they chorus in unison. lucas: 'well, not until i went down to denny's house for pre-production rehearsal.' walley: 'the minute we started to play together, our first song was 'steal softly through snow'.' 'it sounded great! it just clicked,' confirms his partner, as he grins at the memory. walley: 'he stayed at my place for four days, and we just played.'
the two had originally met in 1975 when lucas caught both walley and beefheart playing with zappa. they would meet again twenty years later, when lucas was performing his live score in the 1921 german expressionist film 'the golem' at a sci-fi festival. walley then mentioned the reunion. 'yeah,' confirms lucas. 'it was a wonderful thing. i love to play the music, but i had been away from it for a long time. it was hard to even deal with it, actually. after the band broke up, i kind of didn't even want to hear it.... it's beautiful music, but it brought up a lot of memories. don van vliet, i love the guy - but he was not always easy for musicians to work with. that's not to take anything away from him as a great genius.'
this really is the band's mantra. they love don van vliet, and they love the music. and that's why it's no contradiction that it's still a reunion: it's the concept and the music that count. walley calls the other two members of this incarnation, drummer john french and bassist mark 'rockette morton' boston, 'half of mount rushmore'.... yet even they encountered problems with beefheart. as lucas puts it succinctly: 'we served our time. we paid some dues with this guy, you know.'
the magic band chose the album tracks by voting. 'some of it came easy, and some of it was really tough,' opines lucas. 'i mean, the way some of these parts originally evolved was directly from don's own improvisations - especially the ones that started out as solo pieces. denny actually calls these parts 'needlepoints', and it's a good description.' 'it was a labor of love - and it still is,' walley agrees. 'we really had to get in there with the tweezers and pull the notes off because there are no reference points - there was nothing written down at all.'
make no mistake: captain beefheart could be one hard taskmaster. 'he would take sounds out of nature, like the sound of an ashtray bouncing against the wall,' recalls lucas. 'that would be the drum beat!,' exclaims walley. lucas: 'then he would tell me to play it backwards. then he would say: 'remember that sax solo i played? put that on the guitar and play it back'. to don, the guitar was nothing but a stand-up piano. a lot of it was a kind of collage. the whole new wave / punk thing...: don was the real inspiration for all that stuff.'
the tour and album are inspired by the music, and both lucas and walley genuinely want people to hear it. to walley, the impetus was to take the tunes to a different level and to play them as if they were having fun, not performing under the thumb of a schoolmaster. 'this band has a life of its own,' he offers. 'it's really a celebration of don's music... - but he certainly would nót see it as that.'
and that sums up the contradictions of this band. a reunion where the players have never functioned in this format before, playing music they love, written by a man they also love but couldn't get on with for any serious length of time. lucas says he likes the music more than ever now that he's not in 'that' band. for walley, it's a chance to silence all those beefheart fanatics who think that only a certain magic band member should be allowed to play a certain song. he left the band purely because of all the waiting. 'sometimes it would be seven hours without playing a note - and that's for one song,' he sighs. 'i had a life outside of that. i was thinking: 'i am not gonna take this shit. i'm here to play. i love the music, so let's hear some of it'.'
but they haven't forgotten the valuable, if painful lessons they learned under the rule of don van vliet, and they put some of them to good use when recording the new magic band album back to the front - even though it was recorded 'in some guy's garage in palmdale' direct onto hard disc. 'very few overdubs, mind - that's how we did it, and that's how we always used to do it,' lucas offers. 'once in a while don himself used to think up some new parts, but the actual band tracks were always recorded live. we just had to keep on doing it.... sometimes we would do twenty takes.' 'we ripped the shit right up,' walley concurs. 'we did it in two takes, tops.' lucas: 'tops! one take, one take! i tell you: 'i'm gonna booglarize you baby' was one take!'
'the album was really nothing more than a rehearsal tape,' claims walley. 'we weren't going to try to polish anything or do anything, you know - we just wanted to keep the spirit.' 'if it isn't happening in the second take, then we move on,' agrees lucas, before adding: 'i'm a big believer of spontaneity in the studio. when you manicure stuff to death, you take away all the joy and the magic.'
the feature closed off with LUNAR (= technical) NOTES about the equipment they used -
but which topic belongs to a different chapter: the guitar bones! (in preparation)
although experts immediately recognize all details when they see this (reduced) picture from gary's website:
denny and gary during their four days on end rehearsal...
from THE INDEPENDENT
by nick hasted
is feature / ±07.04.03 interview mark boston and john french
note: edited version
the traumatic experience of recording with captain beefheart left some of the magic band musicians scarred for life. so why have they released a tribute album to their tyrannical leader?
the captain lives in the desert now as don van vliet, a reclusive but successful 62-year-old painter who has been a minor star in the american art world for two decades. many more still call him captain beefheart, and revere him for the matchless innovations he and his magic band offered rock with 1969's 'trout mask replica' and the albums that followed till his sudden retirement from music in 1983.
even as the captain remains a tantalizing black hole, his magic band is back among us with a line-up spanning its tumultuous career: john french (enter: 1966 - t.t.) and mark boston (1968) from nearly the start, denny walley the middle (1975), and robert williams (1977) and gary lucas (1980) the end. a new cd of them rehearsing old favourites (without robert, who would join for the 2003 uk live performances - teejo) , 'back to the front', reanimates old quirks, with french bravely impersonating beefheart's growl. 'john wanted to do it as a tribute to don,' boston explains, 'to bring this music back to life.'
once you know their terrifying history, a beefheartless magic band doesn't seem wrong. its members contributed more than beefheart ever dared admit, and suffered more fear and violence from him than playing music deserves. when i meet them in a london rehearsal room, they are swapping stories like this is a platoon reunion, discussing traumatic events only fellow veterans will ever understand.
for french (aka drumbo) and boston (rockette morton), the battleground was the decrepit bungalow in california's woodland hills where beefheart trapped them in 1969 to create 'trout mask replica' from a brew of induced paranoia and desperate creative leaps: the greatest unfilmed horror movie, lab experiment, and avant-garde achievement in rock history. the magic band's true beginning, though, was in the isolated mojave desert town of lancaster in the 1950s. 'the freeway hadn't reached us, and that affected the music,' remembers french. 'because don had no cultural input, no way of categorizing or restricting things.'
at one point, boston recalls, [when beefheart drilled 'trout mask replica' into the magic band], they 'broke down' and painted each room in different lurid colours. when french returned to the house after beefheart 'sacked' him by hurling him down the stairs, he found the captain had covered every surface in pictures (more likely: drawings - teejo) and poetry.
[to that,] beefheart was a sleeping ogre. he would rise in the late afternoon to reveal sketchy riffs and lyrics, which he would whistle or murmur to french. musically unskilled, he relied on john to translate these intimations into something the band could play. but he showed no gratitude. waking in unpredictable moods, he would scapegoat individuals for imagined errors, turning one against the other, ruling by fear.
'my personality had been encroached upon and nibbled away until there was a little bit of me left cowering in a corner,' john french remembers. 'i couldn't express an opinion. i was afraid to. i concentrated on music instead. when the others were playing by themselves, all at once, i could hear each wrong note. i was consumed. it's an awful feeling.'
'i think he was intimidated by the fact that we could play complicated things more than once. he always used to put down schooling. but i employed techniques i learnt in school. we all had to. we had to be experienced players to finish don's fragments.' the others chip in with tales of mutiny, vague musical instructions, and the paranoia the captain created so they wouldn't bond. lucas: 'he once said to me: 'on the way over here i think, whose turn is it in the barrel?.'
french: 'you read about how wagner was (a classical composer - t.t.)... i mentioned this to don, and he said: 'yeah, well, you can handle reading about those guys in literature and history - but you can't handle the real thing, man, i'm just like those guys!'. it makes me shake,' he says, almost to himself: 'it still makes me shake when i start thinking about it, it makes me... tense.' 'i left once,' boston adds. 'hid myself in the bushes and ran. but - they found me. drug me back.'
the question is how much beefheart's cruel undercutting of individuals protected his own position - and how much it was the key to the new cacophony they made.
'we're proving by getting back together that we play better without that tension,' says french. 'we achieved one per cent of what we could have done if he had let us express ourselves. the only good thing was that it allowed don to impose his musical will upon us. and there had to be walls in order to play things that weren't considered to fit together.'
'he used to say: 'everything goes with everything...: you listen, and there's a cat crossing the street, there's a car going by, and nobody can really control it, it's all happening at once, it is dissonant, it's an imperfect world.' and that's what he was trying to do with the music.'
beefheart bullied all his magic bands till their fanfare, 1982's 'ice cream for crow'. still, a mystery remains. they are still here. french, who boston says beefheart 'scarred', came back for more, almost till the end. this reunion was his idea. 'oh, i think a lot of don, i always did,' boston admits. 'because i knew, even back then, that he was going to be one of the artists of the century. i knew it in my heart.'
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captain beefheart electricity
as felt by teejo