When I first read this set of articles, ooooooh, so many moons ago (has it really been 30 years?), I thought it was THE best piece ever written on Captain Beefheart and time hasn't in any way diminished that feeling. Lester Bangs ("Go Lester, go!") and Don Van Vliet - does it get any better? It says as much about Bangs as it does Beefheart. And I still have tucked away, the original, yellowed pages from the NME...
My incredibly grateful thanks to "teejo" at this site for (apparently) having typed this up, word for word from the original NME articles in 1978:
THE KOOK WHO FELL TO EARTH
growing up with captain beefheart
from NEW MUSICAL EXPRESS 01+080478 england
by lester bangs
note: edited version. with the ups and downs of a beefheart fan, too
part one: on the 7th day he invented a whole new universe
captain beefheart is back. where did he go in the first place, you might ask. which is not such an easy question to answer.
like many things to do with don van vliet - who has been around in one incarnation or another for over a decade now and is considered by many people to be one of the few authentically avant-garde artists in rock - it may devolve to a simple statement that there is the world, and then there is the captain, who even in his material and musical presence might just as well be broadcasting beast linguals through a foghorn on the dark side of the moon so far as the mainstream pop audience of ány era knows or cares.
if that's the way you feel, you might as well feel free to skip this article altogether. because after a brief period of commercial compromise in the name of 'accessibility' followed by a couple of years off the set entirely, he has returned to the music and the english language on his own terms - the terms he invented almost completely alone - and has been able to school a handful of other musicians over the years, offering his rare gifts to a world which has mostly found him difficult, eccentric at best, sometimes unnerving, perhaps insane, and generally incomprehensible.
there are just some things that are not for everybody and never will be, and the consensus with the captain is that you either take him whole and revel in what almost amounts to a parallel universe, or not at all.
beefheart and i go back a long way. way back to 1969, when i first managed to crack into print via the 'rolling stone' record review section and still was awe-struck that somebody would actually be willing to pay me the lordly sum of $12.50 just for putting down 500 or so words about a new album. beefheart's 'trout mask replica' was about the fourth or fifth album i got to review in public, and i guess i seized the time.
for years i had been listening to rock 'n' roll and jazz of all sorts, particularly avant-garde 'free' jazz. and, while eagerly following the rock experimentalism of the '60s, i had been just wáiting for somebody to combine the two in a truly effective way. i don't mean that type of stuff where the jazz and the rock were just sort of stapled together - 'blood, sweat & tears' lounge music or this bumblebee muzak they call 'jazz-rock' today, which is total garbage that compromises both its sources and remains in a dead heat for ultimate offensiveness with disco.
i mean a kind of crazed, rangy, smokestack lightning to an explosion of zagbop noise that churned and rumbled with rock 'n' roll gristomp while it found the swooping freedom of the new jazz and took that liberty not to be fettered by things like time and key: which shoot off musical skyrockets in all directions at once, gripping and holding you precisely by the alchemical way it worked this tension between earth and heavenly fire.
it seemed to me that if just one person could figure out how to link these seeming polar opposites in some natural, organic way, then we would surely have a quantum leap in our collective musical language, or at least that part of it about which i cared most passionately. i didn't know a damn thing about music technically then - as i still don't now - but early on i could hear the atonality and primeval shrieks of john coltrane and ornette coleman in the feedback exploding from all those electric guitars, especially when everybody wandered down the garden path to outer space with acid rock, freak-out jams, all thát stuff.
i dallied in the eclecticism of the beatles and mothers of invention, but as we all learn sooner or later eclecticism just basically sucks and is usually the cloak of 'geniuses' who fail to have any real ideas of their own. that's why frank zappa has remained a professionally contemptuous shit-head whose only really good song ever was: 'troubled every day'. i was much more interested in the velvet underground - who took rock distortion influenced by free jazz concepts just about as far as anybody would have thought it could go in things like 'sister ray' - and maybe it was exactly because they were basically a garage band and just didn't know any better that they were able to push the music to that kind of unprecedented extreme.
i had bought beefheart's first two album, liked them okay and even heard a little bit of that stuff i kept hoping for in there. but the first, 'safe as milk', was actually a pretty conventional record, and 'strictly personal' - while seeming to lean out of a delta blues gully into some interesting directions - was so wretchedly produced (or, in fact, re-produced via phasing etc. by blue thumb records president bob krasnow to make it more 'palatable' to the 'acid rock market') as to be offensive and nigh-unlistenable.
then, in about july 1969, came 'trout mask replica'. it hit like a bomb; in fact, the shellshock stayed with me long enough to seem as natural as breathing. i went to the record store one day, and there it was: this weird looking double album with a man with a fish's face and a most peculiar hat on the cover.
on the back this same guy, minus fish, was holding a table lamp out like a lethal weapon, encircled by his cohorts who had somehow managed to be even more bizarre looking than he was. one wore a dress. i could have sworn the guy next to him had lipstick on. one looked like a mad scientist who had let his hair grow for a year and then stuck his tongue in an electric socket. lurking under the bridge they stood on, was some insect man from a japanese monster movie.
still, not being overly smitten with the last two albums and bearing in mind that this guy was somehow associated with zappa - which meant that the whole thing might well be some kind of los angeles goof - i remained unconvinced, and probably walked home with something like 'illinois speed press' that day.
but those were the times when record buyers were as experimental as the musicians, and you found yourself walking home with totally unknown quantities half the time. so it wasn't long before i found myself cruising down to a local department store where it would be easier to switch price-tags; i figured that even if it turned out to be a bunch of bullshit i'd still be getting two records for the price of one. when i got it out of the car and slit open the shrink-wrap my perplexity was compounded: the four sides listed 28 songs, and almost all of them had titles like 'pachuco cadaver', 'bill's corpse' and 'neon meate dream of a octafish'.
when i got home the bomb dropped. 'trout mask replica' shattered my skull, realigned my synapses, made me nervous, made me laugh, made me jump and jag with joy. it wasn't just the fusion i'd been waiting for: it was a whole new universe, a completely realised and previously unimaginable landscape of guitars splintering and springing and slinging and even actually swínging off in every direction, as far as the mind could see. it was like a mad herd of pecos bills hooting at the moon and hand-standing on jimson weed, while this beast voice straight out of one of michael mcclure's 'ghost tantras' [sound poems - t.t.] growled out a catarrh spew of images at once careeningly abstract and as basic and bawdy as the last 200 years of american folklore.
the whole thing thrashed in a brambly dissonant tangle which nevertheless maintained an unique internal structure and logic of its own, the guitars occasionally rounding a particularly precipitous bend to find themselves eyeball to eyeball with a madly squawking sax which hooted and jeered right back at them. cacophony or kingdom come, i stayed under the headphones and played 'trout mask replica' straight through five times in a row that night....
the next step of course was to turn the rest of the world on to this amazing thing i'd found, which perhaps came closer to being a living, pulsating, slithering órganism than any other record i'd ever heard. next day i carted it around just as i'd done with the velvet underground, and feverishly inflicted it upon all my friends, most of whom were even less impressed with this than my last find, whom they'd considered a bunch of new york fags who couldn't play their instruments.
they couldn't come up with much of anything to say about this one, except that it was a bunch of crazy shit and get it the hell out of here. i played it for my girlfriend, a barbara streisand fan who'd come across for the rolling stones and found the velvets titillatingly 'perverted' - she pronounced this 'disconcerning'. christ, here i was carrying around a box which only contained an entire new language in it, and receiving a general consensus that jabberwocky might be too kind a word.
finally i sat down and wrote all the reasons why i thought this was the most amazing record i had ever heard, mailed it off to 'rolling stone' and damn if they didn't print it. my editor told me later that some people there liked the elpee, but nobody really knew what to do with it, much less what there might be to say about it. as near as i can recall my own review consisted mostly of hyperkinetic babblings, but it was as unqualified a rave as was ever written. so straight records picked it up and reprinted every word in a full-page ad in all the music papers, which made me very proud of course, but didn't help the record sell any more copies.
i don't think any of the early straight albums sold any copies. alice cooper's first album came out about the same time, and alice was still pretty much of an oddball in those days himself, although his music was more your standard homebake psychedelic fruitnutcake. of course beefheart got lumped in with stuff like that and the g.t.o.s and wildman fisher, and a certain magazine even tossed in the mc5 and called the article something like 'rock's lunatic fringe'.
as far as i knew, about the only people besides me who thought much of 'trout mask replica' at all, were a few other rock critics. and even them i was suspicious of: i knew when left to their own devices they'd really rather listen to 'mother earth' or 'creedence clearwater revival'. for some reason they just didn't seem too interested in going berserk.
one day the phone rang. it was beefheart, calling to thank me for the review. i was somewhat agog, but not so much that i failed to notice immediate differences between communicating with this man and just about any other human being i had known. he'd be talking along about the record and i'd be enthusiastically nodding over the phone, when suddenly - just like one of those hairpin curves in his music - he'd say something like: 'all roads lead to coca-cola' (the only one i can remember from that first conversation). and then he'd say: 'do you know what i mean?'. 'sure', i would say. i've always been an enthusiastic liar.
a year or two later i finally got to meet my idol in person. i was in los angeles, crashing with friends and eating and staying drunk at record industry press parties, when somebody told me beefheart was going to be doing some sessions for his third album in the cycle begun by 'trout mask replica'. this was 'the spotlight kid', starting at about 3 a.m. at the 'recent' plant.
i was so excited i could hardly wait. but the evening - as evenings in los angeles had a way of doing in those days - progressed through a tequila drinking contest at a press party at the troubadour theatre, where they told me i ended up turning over a table, after which three of us piled into a car and headed down to meet god. i don't remember any of this. what i do remember is sitting at a table in the bar pouring salt all over my hand and everything else, then waking from a black abyss in some unknown hallway on a waterbed. they told me later that beefheart walked in, looked at me and said: 'who's that?' 'lester bangs.' i was dead comatose drunk with record company promotional tee-shirts spread out all over me like a blanket of rags. 'oh,' he said, 'i always wanted to meet him.'
when i came to, i had no idea where i was. i stood up, saw a door at the end of the corridor, pushed through it and found myself in the record plant parking lot, locked out. i vomited in a fishpond, and then began banging feebly on the door with my fists, hollering to be let back in. naturally nobody heard me, so after a while i started walking around the building, where it seemed somehow miraculous to find an open door on the other side. i passed through it, to stumble right into the middle of zoot horn rollo laying down a particularly abrasive and intricate guitar line.
beefheart looked up, asked how i was feeling. i asked for a beer and he said: 'why do you do these things to yourself?'. of course i didn't have an answer; in fact it didn't seem at all incongruous to me that he should be so concerned about my health while steadily swigging from a strange green bottle which turned out to be a fifth of chartreuse. i was so stupid screwed up at the time that i thought it was some kind of health food mixture.
i also met his wife, jan, who was beautiful in every way - she had a pair of the kindest eyes i'd ever seen, and was one of those people who seem to walk around with a ray of sunlight beaming out of themselves, a kind of translucent blessedness. she never stopped smiling, then and every time i have seen her since.
later we all got in another car and rode down sunset strip with them in the muzzy 9 a.m. hangover light. i felt like the smog had been pumped into my lymph glands. beefheart talked non-stop, and this time almost everything he said was one of those curious, surrealistic, askew-aphoristic non-sequiturs. and every single time he dropped one he would ask again: 'do you know what i mean?'. and i just kept on wearily lying and lying. i think when they dropped me off, i was actually glad to be left to my misery alone - out of his universe.
because this was something i was only beginning to understand: that because it is hís universe, don van vliet quite naturally takes command of most of the people who wander into it. there is usually little or no contest, which of course is not at all necessarily his fault. it is apparently an elemental truth - which we will forever refuse to face - that most people do not really want to think for themselves. in fact, in a sort of active passivity they will seek some sort of surrogate parental/authority figure or institution to structure their perception of reality and ultimately take responsibility for their actions.
beefheart tends to think in terms of mobilising people around him whom he considers talented in the interests of his various projects - once he told another writer that he wanted me to collaborate with him on a book, which was news to me - and being the kind of small but fanatical cult that we were and indeed remain, it was only natural that all of us with media access should more or less become publicists for the captain. it didn't even seem to matter to me personally when i perceived the irony that i had been rave-reviewing every album subsequent to 'trout mask replica' and then, often as not, filing said albums away. what mattered was the fact that something like 'trout mask replica' - which i still listened to and was the basis of all those reviews - existed at all. what mattered was spreading the word.
if all this sounds a bit evangelical, it's because beefheart - like many brilliant people gifted with powerful personalities - is more than a bit of a guru. now, i don't know about you, but i personally don't have a hell of a lot of use for gurus; in general, i would equate the term with 'megalomaniacs'. of course, you wouldn't expect someone like this to be anything less thán a megalomaniac. the simple fact of almost constantly saying things which seemingly make no sense at all, and getting everybody around you to agree with them, constitutes colossal megalomania on the most basic level: the level of seductively (as opposed to forcibly) restructuring the reality of anybody who comes within the parameters of your... - can i get away with saying: 'energy field'?
a mutual friend who knows beefheart far more intimately than i finally told me that the thing to do with all those 'do you know what i mean-s?' was to respond: 'no. what the fuck are you talking about, anyway?'. then, he said, beefheart would laugh, as if caught in his joke, open up and be straight with you.
because it must be understood that this man has never been some demi-mansonoid svengali preying on psychic jellyfish. he always wanted opposition to his flights; it was merely that so few of us had the wit or nerves to backhand it through that straw aura into his court. when a person is so possessed by an idea that all people around him forfeit their own capacities for reasonable argument in the glare of the idea's charisma, it only makes sense that they will not only treat him ás that idea instead of a person, but he will in fact become that idea. at which point - unless he's very lucky - he begins to die. meanwhile, of course, the drones may go on living off his cancerous host.
thus it was with beefheart and the magic band, whom he taught to play their instruments almost literally from square one. and who, according to insiders closer to the centre than i, were the type of people who in many ways lacked the mature sense of self, and would ultimately forsake the giant who had musically and in large part psychically sired them. it was nobody's fault -really - and everybody's. as i said to the captain the last time i saw him: 'man, back in those days sometimes i thought you were só pretentious...'. 'i probably was. christ, why didn't you tell me so?' i really had no answer.
PART TWO: on the 8th day he bombed out
my second encounter with beefheart took place in late 1972 - he played detroit, opening for 'the kinks' [from england - t.t.]. it was an odd bill in the first place, and things weren't helped any when ray davies spiced up his campy patter by dedicating a song 'to captain beefheart - one of the best platers in the business'. 'what the hell does that mean?', growled beefheart when i told him backstage. 'it's british slang,' i explained, 'it means you give blowjobs.'
for the rest of the night i had to listen to him intermittently rant about how he was going to murder davies. it had been a warm re-union when i first entered the dressing room, although the concert itself was peculiar even by the captain's standards, not so much for the content of his act as for the atmosphere in the room at the time. the crowd - probably 80 to 90% kinks fans and / or aspiring glitterites - simply didn't know what to make of this strange wolfman jack type character shrouded in a cape which i thought really corny ('yeah, i wore it to hide the fact that i had gotten fat,' he admitted to me recently). he was snarling and growling into the microphone while a bunch of guys dressed and made up like utter geeks played this incomprehensible, backwards, chinese music.
it was just a pure and simple stand-off: the crowd too perplexed to boo or laugh, the band so alienated from their environment that they did what one would consider the unthinkable for them: they played a cómpetent set! few jagged highs or lows, everything in its disconcerting, disorderly place, yet somehow lacking the real edge of the records.
after the show beefheart asked me up to the hotel, so we hopped a cab to a holiday inn in the centre of detroit. i sat and had a drink with a couple of the magic band in the bar, while beefheart disappeared somewhere. it was the first time i'd ever really talked to any of them, and i found them totally down to earth. they were not at all the zonkos the record jackets suggested, just hardworking musicians on the road talking about the usual stuff like what went right or wrong at the gig tonight, where they were gonna be tomorrow, and the legs on that waitress.
we'd been sitting there about 15 minutes when suddenly we became aware of a commotion in the lobby. i walked out to find beefheart remonstrating with his long-suffering road manager. 'look at that,' he said grimly, his eyes burning as he pointed up at a plastic plant set in the wall. 'i can't be expected to stay in a place where they actually have things like that!' he was totally serious: we had to leave.
the road manager went through all the checkout hassles, and soon we were in a cab headed for another hotel closer to the centre of town: the sheraton-cadillac - which until quite recently was generally thought of as one of the swankier lodgings in the city, site of countless conventions and civic gatherings. our whole party schlepped up into the lobby, beefheart swooping along imperiously, doodling non-stop on a little pad, oblivious of everything else, still wearing that stupid cape. the road manager spoke to the desk and the bell captain showed us up several flights to a room. i swear beefheart did nót look up from his sketchpad till we walked into the suite, and then he just took one curt glance, snapped his head no, and dived back into his doodles as he swooped out.
by this time i was getting both embarrassed and irritated. the bell captain kept asking what had been the matter with the room, and the poor road manager of course had no answer. beefheart remained oblivious, imperious - a real 'king of the duchy grand fenwick' act. i had to admit that the room díd look kinda halfway hideous, but so what? it was only one night. staying in hotels is a drag in the first place - and if we were really gonna have this big intense discussion beefheart had kept talking about, then who had time to notice or give a shit about how ugly the wallpaper was?
i told him i was getting tired and thought i'd go home. i thought he was gonna strong-arm me. 'no! we've gót to talk! góddamn it, there must be a decent hotel in this fucking town sómewhere!...' i should actually correct myself: when i said strong-arm, i didn't mean to indicate any kind of actual physical force. it wasn't necessary.
so there we were again: back in another cab, riding around and around the streets of detroit in the middle of the night. we finally found a hotel to beefheart's satisfaction 20 or 30 miles out of town, all the way out by an airport which is in the middle of farmlands. it just looked like a regular old hotel to me. but at least we were out of the cab.
once he and jan (mostly jan, that is) had settled all their things in their room, the captain and i sat down to talk. that is: i sat down, while he talked and drank almost the entire contents of a fifth of chartreuse. for once i got to play the babysitter for another drunk. he kept insisting that the chartreuse was for his voice - as he had said previously at the record plant - although it was hard to see why he'd need to keep oiling his vocal chords áfter the gig.
he talked for about five hours. for the first hour, i thought it was the most brilliant discourse i had ever heard. during the second hour it seemed to get a little less brilliant, or maybe i was just beginning to get tired. he also seemed to be getting more and more testy, constantly jumping back to ray davies and other pet rages, which he mauled and masticated with identical venom - if not identical words - each time. by the third hour he was getting genuinely worked up, you might even go so far as to call it ranting and raving. the fourth hour was chaos with overtones of tantrum. the fifth hour he could have been any other drunk on a barstool.
periodically i'd say that i had to go, and again he'd get all worked up over the absolute necessity of my staying. i was getting as docile as jan seemed - through all of this, she just sat off to one side, smiling, occasionally interjecting a word or two. maybe she was reading a book; i don't know. all that counted was that it was a one-man show. finally, at some point after dawn when i was almost stuporous with exhaustion and he had at last wound down his harangue, he let me go. i said a warm goodbye to jan, and he followed me all the way out to the cab, which he paid about $20 to ship me back to my car at the original holiday inn hotel.
it was as if he did not want to let me go, as if i was somehow vitally necessary to something i couldn't begin to comprehend except that it had to do with him or his plans or both. i had to wonder what he could want out of me, when it was he who had done all the talking? but at least the 'do you know what i mean-s' seemed to have de-escalated.
i am probably making this incident look worse and more important than it really was. god knows i've been a boring raving drunk enough times in my life, and there had been real warmth between us - both he and jan had inquired about my general health and state of mind, how i was doing with my girlfriend, etc., and seemed genuinely concerned when i confessed to romantic unhappiness. i mean, we were like old friends but i still remained weirded out by things like his reaction to the plastic plant and the whole scene in the sheraton. i just don't dig this imperious genius stuff.
a guy like beefheart intimidates or awes almost everyone so much that almost nobody is ever gonna figuratively kick his ass, which is too bad. it's exactly how so many brilliant men who might have started out bordering on the 'idiot savant' can end up as big babies whose brilliance is finally just not worth the trouble.
i've seen the same thing with people like lou reed [from the velvet underground - t.t.], and i'm sure a todd rundgren fills the bill too. lou likes to humiliate waiters and throw food around in restaurants on occasion, while a friend who stayed at rundgren's house told me that bebe buell looked after him in every possible way though he almost never spoke to her at all. most of these guys end up turning thoroughly decent - or even remarkably - women into mommies. which is just as ancient a part of the artist's mistress syndrome as the tacit assumption that his creations and the maintenance of an environment conducive to them must come before everything else in the entire world, including anything creative the woman might want to do on her own.
i suppose that, when they read this, don and jan may end up hating me, thinking: 'some friend he turned out to be!', but it's true all the same. and what's at least as sad as the rest of it, is that this constant catering by all concerned to the whims of these professional geniuses only ends up shielding them from that very reality which art is supposed to reflect and illuminate.
eventually, i do believe, in almost every case this type of artist tends to disintegrate creatively, personally, mentally and physically. it brings childish petulance, tantrums, strident demands for constant instantaneous gratification - and frustration since that's impossible for any human being, self indulgence / pacification which leads to self abuse and dissolution from alcohol and / or drugs: the cycle is so well-known as to be a cliché. but it's especially rampant in the music business which is one of the few industries where absolutely anyone - no matter how much of an imbecile or asshole - can and automatically will be referred to as an 'artist'.
once when i interviewed ian anderson - who had probably the single most offensive megalomaniacal monologue i've ever encountered - his publicist and i ended up down in the lobby just mutually shaking our heads and agreeing that it was a pathetic shame that a grown man should reach such a state, and an even greater irony that it was we, the very people who were supposed to be helping or at least monitoring him, who were perpetuating it every step of the way.
meanwhile, beefheart kept releasing records and people kept not buying them. 'the spotlight kid' was a good deal less radical than 'trout mask replica' or the even more extreme 'lick my decals off, baby', which strained even my capacities for sonic hurricane although i considered it brilliant. there were parts of 'the spotlight kid' which sounded almost conventional, approaching the heavy metal genre. alongside this development, beefheart's apocalyptic dada image-swarms and aphorisms, which had always carried a strong moral undercurrent, began to take on a sort of self consciously 'oracular' quality.
the social comments in 'dachau blues' and 'veteran's day poppy' on 'trout mask replica' were never pompous, and his ecological concerns seemed to emerge naturally from his total mammalian identification with the physical, natural world in all states having nothing to do with human attempts at synthetic manipulation. there was always something primeval about beefheart's sensibility, so that on one level he almost belonged in a museum of natural history, which is a comment not on any failing in him but rather the utter degradation of the world as we have it in this century.
like michael mcclure's poetry, beefheart's work has always been obsessed with his sense of man as pure meat animal, and of his place in what kerouac called 'the wheel of the quivering meat conception', all those cycles of birth and death and food chains.
this, of course, accounts for the almost overwhelming juiciness, the peristaltic áliveness and (in rock 'n' roll especially) remarkable healthiness of his songs about sex, which are so teemingly ripe, overloaded and bursting with outrageously lubricious imagery that they'd probably come off obscene or deranged from anybody else. beefheart sings about fucking with pure joy, groins imperatives manifest on the most primal level imaginable, a lust that's obsessive, delirious, yet always totally wholesome, delighting in its delirium as perhaps only animals or humans without two thousand years of christian crap shoved down their sensibilities can be.
in 'trout mask replica' all of this came wriggling out with shouts of joy, trailing placenta, sperm, drool, and a tenderness which seemed to encompass all creation. by 'lick my decals off, baby' though, the sex remained a holy whoop but in certain other respects the captain seemed to be getting a bit cranky, if not downright pretentious. i found it there as close to the surface as beefheart's new name for his publishing company. i mean: do we really need to be told that the earth is 'god's golf ball'? the ecology songs were more explicit, bordering on sermonising. you almost began to get the feeling he was telling us all to shape up - which, naturally, meant: be like me!
1972's 'clear spot' was a step away from both this moralising tendency and the seeming musical concessions of 'the spotlight kid'. except for a bit of soul ['too much time' - t.t.], the songs both musically and lyrically were as complex - if not quite so abrasive - as ever, and what even many of the captain's most fervent fans have overlooked about that one is that it is a dánce record. still sounds like a berserk barnyard, but all the beasts are doing the bop. it seemed like it should have sold some copies. it didn't.
i guess that rejection was the last straw for him. apparently it wás for warner / reprise records, traditional supposed haven of uncommercial and eccentric talents. i don't know whether beefheart was dropped from their roster or left of his own accord, but 'clear spot' has been deleted long enough to be a fairly valuable album today. you really can't blame anybody who had done something as magnificent with as little compromise and minimal acceptance for as long as beefheart did, for getting fed up - even maybe for deciding at last to sell out.
in any case: he disappeared for a while, turning up early in 1974 on mercury records with 'unconditionally guaranteed' - an album in which he not only conked his music just short of total death, but made a point of declaring sell-out upfront by posing on the cover leering with fistfuls of dollar bills. it may or may not be unfortunate that that ploy didn't work either, but the worst was yet to come: a follow-up called 'bluejeans and moonbeams', the captain's last available recorded work. he apparently not only deodorised and generally blanded-out his music but actually seemed to have stooped to collaborating with some idiot who had about as much to do with what he was really about as bobby vinton.
i saw him again somewhere in this period, and it was not overly pleasant. there were the expected strange little touches, though: when i walked into the backstage area of the concert hall and actually got up close enough to see him and his new non-magic band, the first word i heard him say, very clearly and distinctly, was: 'lester'. then he paused briefly, and launched into a song. the only thing odd about it was that his back had been turned to me the whole time. there was no way he could have seen me enter. he just knew i was there.
his new band was pathetic, except for a smoking reed player straight out of the 1940's who played clarinet in a manner that can only be described as leeringly sexual - and it was all in his sound, no gimmicks or hipswivels. the captain's performance seemed at once half-hearted and petulant, the music was boring mainstream blah rock, and to top it all off he had equipment trouble.
he broke a mike and came off the stage in a livid, almost frightening rage. suddenly it seemed evident that this man might be quite capable of violence, irrational aggression. for the first time ever i sensed something in him dangerous on a level consonant with physical fear. his tantrum about the equipment was at once ridiculous and scary. up in the dressing room he made the clarinet player tear off an extended solo in our honour, after which he talked, and talked, and talked. almost all of it was bitterness, rage spitting impotent frustration, seething endlessly, self-consumingly.
of course we had to go back to the hotel and sit up half the night 'conversing'. i didn't mind, really. i had nothing better to do and there was plenty of beer. but whatever enthusiasm i felt for the encounter was almost totally based on my memories of what brilliance he had been capable of. he just ranted and rambled, and i had already become convinced that he was sicker than i had ever really imagined, perhaps even bordering on the psychopathic. his rages were stupid, pointless, and disgusting.
i don't remember much of it except one moment, which stands out most vividly: he had been pacing up and down the room, going on and on about whatever came into his head, while my girlfriend and i sat at one end and jan at the other - all three of us looking up attentively, submissively, more than a little sadly but not about to pick up any of the gauntlets he was tossing all over the floor like so many broken toys. none of it was really directed at us, anyway - until suddenly he turned on jan without warning or provocation, and roared in unbridled rage: 'get óut of that cháir!!!'.
she leaped what looked like a foot in the air and scurried to another seat. then he just resumed pacing and ranting as if nothing had happened. never sat in the chair. just decided - for whatever obscure reason - that he didn't want her in it. or perhaps just snapped and she was the handiest target. it was gut-curdlingly ugly. i wanted to leave right then but we didn't. later, after we had left, i decided that he was a madman, potentially dangerous, that he probably had no artistic future, and that i did not want to see him again.
i forgot about him shortly thereafter. my musical tastes seemed to be changing: i was deep into things like 'roxy music' - i hardly ever played free jazz or rough-hewn music except the stooges. almost all of the great avant-garde of the sixties and the early seventies, like so much else promised by that decade, seemed to have merely petered out of their own accord. what had begun when 'trout mask replica' first exploded on my turntable just looked like an experiment that had ultimately failed.
the captain did semi-surface once during this period, and in what looked like the most pathetic possible way. zappa picked him up and put him in his road show, and they made one album together. i didn't see them, but you got the impression he was being used as a sort of mascot or village idiot: 'king frank's leashed fool'. all the stories had him drooling drunk, the perfect stooge. i didn't bother listening to the album 'bongo fury'. i figured he was finished.
we are not very kind to our gods; sometimes it seems we just consume them like any other piece of crap on the market, take and take voraciously as long as they stay at the pinnacle, then toss them away with vicious unconcern the moment they begin to slide....
captain beefheart electricity
part three: on the 9th day he was resurrected
it has been two years now since the zappa thing, and i had just about forgotten the captain ever existed. but one day a friend mentioned: 'captain beefheart is coming to town'. 'oh yeah?', i said, only half paying attention. 'think he'll be any good?' 'jeez, i dunno - i'm almost kinda scared to go: it could be réally pathetic. but i promised somebody a story.' he had an extra ticket, so i went along - more or less for the ride, though i was mildly curious to see what the old guy might be up to.
he walked onstage calmly, with the sober, knowing, probably more than a little resigned air of a man who has been there and back, seen the whole cycle and ended up just about where he started out. you see lots of ageing musicians with that look: it's tired and very, very set. but it's not as cynical as it seems or probably should be: it even carries a certain taint of majesty, the kind of authority or even wisdom built up by hard dues paid steadily, boringly, soul-crushingly. on the road, in bars, waking up in strange rooms in the middle of the night and not even knowing what country you're in; never having enough money and having to do gigs you loathe just to get enough to try to catch up for once; countless nights lying awake, knowing that - though you've put out a dozen brilliant records and have fanatical fans around the world - it doesn't make a damn bit of difference...: because there's no new record coming out and they've been deleting all the old ones steadily.
at least, i thought, he doesn't look pathetic. he looked very good - in fact: very strong - in a dark brown suede hat from a bandito movie. the lines in his face and his air of solemn assurance were saying that unlike most rock 'n' rollers he wears his age very well. but then: he was never exactly a rock 'n' roller, was he? perhaps part of the trouble with public acceptance of the man's music was that he always resisted easy pigeonholing.... his band set up, plugged in - all new young kids, not an original magic bandman in the lot. they're dressed kind of funny: one wears a sort of priest's robe - like in the old days, though not so freakish.
they began to play: it started with one guitar player, whanging out a jangling, angular solo. a kind of wave seemed to roll across the room - everyone at my table felt it, at any rate - a tidal blast of recognition in dank centres in the mind and heart long since shut down, stirring as of some love supreme rekindled. then the whole band began to play, railing at and ricocheting off each other in that familiar beloved paradox of how such caterwauling cacophony can be so tight. packed with swing and rock solid as oak, broad enough to span decades on end, slithering up to recoil off the banshee blares and hottentot honks of the captain's soprano sax from which he hurls the most monstrous growly reptiles.
and just when you think it can't get any more intense, he begins to sing - no: bellow like a bull in heat, caw like a crow, laugh like a wolf one half second from tearing his prey to shreds, growl like a bear, then grunt and snort like a hog. as we whooped and cheered and beat our beer bottles on the table - when we weren't agape in astonishment - we might have wondered how long it had been in these poisonously sterile times since we had seen a stage full of humans who played like beasts? who threw themselves with such animal gusto into what they were doing that they fell out of themselves entirely and into a collective riptide with a momentum of its own?
here take this, new york, and all you cats that sit around practising at raising one weary unflappable eyebrow because you think nothing can ever knock you off your cool highchair again. because this was it: the real raw-faced unalloyed hoodoo devil jive-drive - which felt even better because for some stupid reason we hadn't been expecting it at all. yet here it was, naked and looking for nothing but trouble.
the totality of the feeling is what stays in the mind, what that music made happen in that room, the atmosphere so dense with heat and energy. we rocked. all of us, maddened with the love of it; and it felt so strangely thrilling that we were almost embarrassed. as if reminded of all the goddamn stupid boring tepid contemptuous uninspired superstar competent professional drudged-out concerts we'd sat still and even sometimes made excuses for... i don't even know exactly which songs they did - although i know there were a lot of whoops of delight when they launched into 'abba zaba', the show spanned all his eras except the mercury bilge, and that i kept screaming for 'pachuco cadaver', which he finally did play in the second set.
there was a whole lot of new stuff too - strong as the old - from the finished album bat chain puller that still has to find a record company. which is almost laughable when you consider how alive this music is and simultaneously how it runs against the entire grain of the music industry ca. 1977. how much stronger then is its self-belief and more important its fuck you to the dispensaries of tissue music for total regressive.
yeah, nobody wants this weirdo shit.... i only went two straight nights and would have gone as many as they played and both nights there were only people hanging from the rafters with their tongues lolling out in ecstasy. so you can eat shit, you puny souls who would deny this music in favour of sure-sell treacle. and also: what was that i heard saying about a 'new wave' of something or other that was supposed to be such a challenge to the existing order, such a brave stand? yeah, right, tell me all about it when even the best of them aren't really gonna even barely catch sight of the captain's flying boot-heels for years in terms of sheer audacious originality of lyrics or music.
i don't know or care what's going to ultimately become of most of the music being slung out today or the people making it. but i do know this: that we all got something out of our systems that night, exorcised some clotted strain of death from our collective gorge, and felt a little more vibrancy in ourselves and hope in our musical culture. there's no escaping it: we became as beasts. and, especially in a time when most people seem to be aspiring to machinehood, it felt so good there really seemed no reason to go back.
after it was over a few of us went backstage to congratulate him. jan was there, of course, quietly carrying those same angelic beams as when i first saw her back in '71, and beefheart himself seemed delighted by our presence in a way that contrasted remarkably with memories of dressing room receptions past.
there was something ineffably calm, settled, resolved and resolute about him: you sensed no rage, no jangling neuroses, no obsessive clutching need for that all-consuming 'talk'. no getting around it: the beast had mellowed, had seemingly come to terms with at least some of his demons in spite of all the commercial rejections and artistic frustrations.
we went to a bar around the corner where he held court. i think it was probably the first time i was ever able to sit next to him and just relax while he talked to somebody else, just like you would with an old friend instead of someone who is almost more of an idea than a person. he hadn't stopped giving out with the occasional verbal pretzel. but it seemed more as if he was having fun with them: toying with the possibilities of language and others' possible responses to them - rather than setting up a complex and highly strained evasion system all around himself. he joked, he laughed, he could give and take, he was fun as well as the captain - a responsibility he seemed to take a good deal less seriously than ever in the past. if this is what failure does to the creative temperament, then let me never be a success.
the next day, two fellow writers and i went up to his hotel to interview him. i almost never bother interviewing people i do stories on anymore, schlepping the tape recorder up and all that crap. it usually is so boring and ultimately pointless for both of you, since most of them have nothing to say that would come out in a situation like that in the first place.
but this felt good. we knew that there was no reason to even bother thinking up a bunch of questions. we would just turn our recorders on and the captain would start to talk about whatever was on his mind, and it would be good and funny. he'd ramble all over hell and back and we would interrupt him every once in a while to ask some question which he might or might not answer. and even if he did, we might not know the meaning of the answer he gave - in fact, he might not even know what it meant himself. but in any case it would all work out fine.
somehow there was a palpable feeling that in being all a little older, we had not only sort of aged together but miraculously all of us seemed to have aged for the better - won some kind of battle that could not be verbalised but nevertheless constituted a real victory over what forces had driven us to demolish and diminish ourselves in the past. i don't know if there are very many feelings finer than that. so, in the transcription which follows, i've left out the 'old home week' stuff, but i hope you will forgive me if information and free association may seem to flow out of this subject in the manner of oil and water.
one of my friends mentioned beefheart's new york appearance on his ill-fated mercury records era tour with the hurriedly assembled post-magic band pickup group. beefheart said:
i put on a pair of size 32 underwear, and i like to wear a 40. and that group played as good as they could, but they didn't have my stuff down. i think those guys had more guts than the magic band ever had. thát group kept me in fucking slavery under my cape; if i'd leave for one minute they'd fall apart."
when you did 'unconditionally guaranteed', was it just that you'd gotten fed up and decided: 'fuck it, i'll give them what they want'?
no, i did that for the group. because of lending me their fingers - that sounds real corny but it's the best i can say it - for 'trout mask replica' and 'lick my decals off, baby'. i just wanted to make some money for those guys - and for myself, because i had to survive, and i can't take welfare. but to just stand there all the time and play for money, i can't do that either. i'd rather be a salesman. i'd make a great one, too. never have been able to sell myself, but....
that album 'bluejeans and moonbeams' was out-takes. those assholes figured they'd put them out because that would be stupider [hence more commercial - l.b.] and they got $280,000 for that. i called mercury and they wouldn't even talk to me. i said: 'i don't want that out!'. my cousin, victor hayden - the mascara snake - did that painting on the cover, and it ain't that bad a painting. he went down there and... - gód dámn! that's too loud, i can't take it! he has abruptly leaped out of the chair across from me and stalked across the room.
some kind of a way-out clock, he growls, picking a weirdly futuristic sort of little digital clock off the mantle-piece and shoving it in a drawer which he slams shut. i'm of a mind to flush it down the toilet, only i don't wanna bother the alligators.
now he is up and pacing around the room, free associating full-tilt but with a perhaps slightly self-mocking good humour, from country music - i like hank williams sénior and slim pickens is my cousin by marriage, but screen doors don't make it - to andy warhol:
he did soup things up. i like warhol, but what about elizabeth taylor telling him that she'd let him have the poodle in her trailer on location, but not to let him 'pee-pee'?... she also said that success is the best deodorant.... a psychiatrist is somebody that wants to die in your other life.... did you see liz in 'virginia wolf'? she was great in that. but you can't be bad on a tin roof: a cat, a mouse, a human being - the percussion alone is enough.
so, interjects my co-interviewer john morthland, what made you decide to jump back in? he's referring to beefheart's current band, but the captain takes it to mean the mercury records phase:
well, i was writing and everything, and these people got hold of somebody that was feeling sorry for himself, and goddamn, you gotta have a right to yawn, but the thing is when you're yawning in public.... those songs were good, though, man, before they did what they did to them. they took winged eel fingerling [elliot ingber] off. he did a bád thing on that cut 'party of special things to do', and they took it off after i went up to the redwoods to finish this novel i'd been working on for a long time.
i was working my ass off on my vacation, just like i always do, but the mercury corporate structure... - i didn't even know that goddamn 'bluejeans and moonbeams' album was out! elliot ingber still hasn't got any money and he wrote some of those songs with me. andy di martino did that co-writing thing as mánager under the auspices that zappa's lawyer herbie cohen had something on me. boy, i'm talking about the jamaican switch, the flimflam.
what were you doing after the two mercury albums?
after i got over my poor lonely child hurt because of the magic band pulling out... - i dug those guys. i slept on the floor with my wife, six years, but those guys had houses with full accommodation. all the money i made went right into that group, and to have those guys go - he makes a fist-up fuckyou sign - that's juvenile delinquency.
i kinda had a sneaking suspicion, because they lied so cleverly. every day i would ask them: 'are you doing what you réally wanna do?' i mean - don't let me scuff your head - i mean every day before we'd play, and they successfully put me on all that time. i'm an only child and i'm not copping out, but goddammit, man: i never had a brother and they really flipped me.... whúh!
yeah, i was stupid. god knows the world didn't need the kind of shit that was on those last two albums, but i got bagged by 'i' consciousness - 'i see that, i do this'. it's easy for a painter, and in order to paint you have to do that: put on that ego cloak.
so when did you put this new band together? as i finish the question the traffic noises from central park umpteen stories below reaches a crescendo of blatting taxi horns, and beefheart seems caught between what's drifting up through the window and our questions.
between the horns.... i wonder if that's where they got 'between the buttons'... it's easy to write classical music or at least what they call avant-garde, but i put that thing together right after the ('bongo fury') tour with frank.
you hated me then.... i just wanted a goddamn cup of coffee with somebody i could talk to, but you were obstinate with me too, you wouldn't come to see me. zappa is like john phillip sousa - neither of them would let women come on the road; kept a real tight ship. so jan couldn't come with me. he just doesn't want to pay for the hotel rooms.
after i got back i bought a corvette and headed for eureka, california. after about three months, jeff (moris tepper - t.t.), the new guitar player you saw last night - with the long coat - he came up there and i went: 'uh-ah-oh, they found me!'. he was up there studying marine biology and art, and says: 'i'm up here looking for a house'. i said: 'i know who you are, i saw you at the bitter end in '70...'. 'look,' i said, 'why don't we do a group someday, i'll get you a fucking hóuse...'.
i had a house that was incredible, seals barking out there, deer, a doe came and brought her baby right into our yard, and that really flattered me. and then i went... -
we hear a siren outside, nothing unusual in new york city, but it sends beefheart click clack to a whole other track. several of them, in fact:
who is that guy? oh, did you ever see that painting 'broadway boogie woogie' by mondrian? boy, he got this thing right here, forever. elizabeth taylor's got them all now...
remember 'the man from utopia'?: 'there is a man who lives in utopia / he's a funny little fellow with feet just like i showed you...' you know that? oh, i gotta - i'll find it, and tape it and send it to you...
thank god there's still mén! you're one, pointing to me, you're one, morthland, you're one, fellow rock-crit billy altman, i'm one - we look queer. i'll tell you about the dictionary meaning of queer, not what that orange juice chick squeezes that acid on those poor cats. that's different: that's názísm! he slams his fist on the dresser. there aren't very many men and there aren't very many women, and i tell you, i hate to see that - it's the fish food.
this seemed as good a time as any to ask him of he liked reggae.
no. 'cause i'm tired of seeing those people's smiles wiped off their faces by american people. i've talked to some of them, and they're not in any bubble either, man; i mean, who is to say we're not in the bubble, with turrets? i mean those steel drums, man, the minute that little capricorn that went down there - what's his name? van dyke parks - the minute i met that cat i said: 'yeah, you're a capricorn; you've got too much corn in your cap'.
somehow this took a commodious vicus of geographic re-circulation to detroit.
detroit audiences don't intimidate me. shit, how could they - all they could do is ride over me with a whale.
they're pinheads in detroit.
i heard everything you said up to the word 'pinheads' and then i started thinking about that picture tod browning did - i tell you, those pinheads in there excited me. they were good looking women, man. that picture moved me in a way i haven't been moved before, other than a sea cucumber or something: the dresses were níce - dámn, that was nice.
and so on into the night. later we went across the street for a drink, and while waiting for the light to change beefheart said 'hi!' to a total stranger woman standing next to us. except the way he said it, it came out like a speeded up martian voice - or pinhead.
when we had finally packed up our tape recorders and caught the fast train home, i remarked to morthland on how easily maturity seemed to rest upon beefheart's brow. 'that's funny', he said, 'i was just thinking of how amazing it is that he has managed to remain so childlike'.
and the unity of that contradiction just about sums it up.
.................with apologies to Alistair Cook
Friday, 8 August 2008
When I first read this set of articles, ooooooh, so many moons ago (has it really been 30 years?), I thought it was THE best piece ever written on Captain Beefheart and time hasn't in any way diminished that feeling. Lester Bangs ("Go Lester, go!") and Don Van Vliet - does it get any better? It says as much about Bangs as it does Beefheart. And I still have tucked away, the original, yellowed pages from the NME...