A Study of Captain Beefheart
This interview was conducted by Patrick Carr and was taken from the 19th March 1972 edition of Crawdaddy
“New York is a slow turtle with diarrhea” says Captain Beefheart, alias the Spotlight Kid, alias Don Van Vliet.
The Anderson Theatre is in that area of New York now known as the Lower East Side. Once it was called The Last Village, when Flower Power sowed its stone fields with the waifs and strays and prophets of the New America. Even if it is no longer a cool ‘n groovy place to live, let alone hang out on a Saturday night, some Junior Entrepreneurs chose the Anderson for the scene of Captain Beefheart’s recent sell-out concert.
Perhaps a Winter evening of freaky follies amid the wizened ghosts of Last Village freakdom in such a classic (vintage) setting was not the optimum opportunity for trite appreciation of Captain Beefheart, Spirit Child of the earth: whatever, it could not have been more suited for the exposure of the Spotlight Kid.
The Spotlight Kid has emerged from the cocoon of Captain Beefheart’s inner world, simply, that means that the Good Captain has finally decided that he wants to be heard and seen by his fellow humans, some of whom may easily have been alienated by the much-publicised weirdo mystique which has grown up around the man. Beefheart has taken tentative steps towards those people with his new album.
“No, it’s not a compromise,” he says from the cushioned depths of a Warner Brothers armchair, “I got tired of scaring people with what I was doing. I mean, people were backing away. I realised that I had to give them something to hang their hat on, so I started working more of a beat into the music. It’s more human that way. You know I wrote 400 songs for this album?”
Be not misled, though. The Spotlight Kid, compositions from which were performed at the Anderson, is about as far away from humdrum old rock and roll as Eureka, California, is from East 50th Street on Manhattan Island, the scene of my last meeting with Captain Beefheart. Like anything the man turns his hand to, his latest album is, er… something else – the creative product of a truly unique artist and four of the most ‘advanced’ musicians currently occupied with the pursuit of musical communication. Beefheart’s music is Earth music, but not in the sense that term is most often used to apply to any gutsy basic form of rock and blues. Beefheart’s music includes the animals, the sky, the sea, the plants, and all else that conspired to form his extraordinary vision.
As the most commercial of his many albums, The Spotlight Kid may just get the word around. What is the word? Well, that may take some time to explain in little mechanical words drummed out from under several thousand tons of masonry here in Necropolis, 1972, Chinese Year of the Rat.
Almost exactly one year ago I walked into a Holiday Inn motel room and met the man whose reputation had prepared me for an interview of the strangest sort; the word was out that the Good Captain was endowed with Powers of which your average journalist has little experience. My ridiculous paranoia was allayed within minutes: Beefheart was kind, open for ideas and willing to reveal his own. Over the course of four meetings, he treated me as a friend and ally. In short; Beefheart is a good man.
Briefly, Don Van Vliet was born in 1941 in Glendale, California. From an early age, he rejected the moulds and false promises of American culture, preferring to learn the world in his own way by recreating the range of nature’s creatures in clay. Likewise, he refused to restrict his imagination to the conventional boundaries of the English language. His parents, fearing they had produced some kind of freak (and they had) took him away to the desert, away from the influence of “corrupt” artistic acquaintances (like the painter who introduced him and his art to TV audiences).
“I’ve seen man’s heart in a large filing cabinet,” the Captain remembers. ”I’ve seen the smile of the Buick Riviera. Modern man keeps wanting to graduate, but they graduate in the areas that seem to be so solitary instead of the kind areas, like dolphins graduating across the horizon into the sun. Man graduates with no sand and sun and water. I think more children should play with mudpies, but that’s out now.”
Beefheart had committed himself to graduation in the kind areas already, though, so his parents’ ploy was not successful. In Lancaster, California, he began to listen to and play with music, developing a taste for Delta blues and the jazz of Coltrane, Ornette Coleman, and other ‘kind’ beings. He met and befriended Frank Zappa in Lancaster, and after a brief stint at art college and various unsatisfactory forms of paid employment, he moved to Cucamonga to begin a professional association with Zappa which at that time produced no tangible results. When Zappa formed the Mothers, Beefheart assembled his first Magic Band, and proceeded to wow the natives as very few performers had ever done; in 1964, the Magic Band was, to say the least, unusual. Playing a revolutionary blend of Delta, rock, and jazz, all worked into Beefheart’s incredible 5 and a half octive vocal range and performed in all-black leather outfits to the accompaniment of the Captain’s humorous worldly / other-worldly wisdom, they soon attracted the attentions of record company talent scouts. And thus did Beefheart’s career in the Music Biz begin. This saga reads like the story of a Good Martian trying to make it in the garment district; never quite sure of how he got there or why he stayed. Alice in Blunderland.
“I could have made it many times” says Beefheart, “but I had to make my creative contribution, you know?”
They wanted him to play the blues and wipe the floor with all the competition – not an unrealistic hope if it weren’t for Beefheart’s refusal to pander to popular taste in the creation of his own magic. His progress was unsteady, halted by periods of complete withdrawal from the public world, vastly complex matters of business entailing contracts, tampering with his recorded material, personal disputes with manager / friends – all culminating in a string of broken trusts, and bad feelings which thoroughly alienated him from all dealings with beings who were “too far out,” too far removed from the natural functions of man.
The story of those confusing alliances (some of them doubtless not exactly helped by Beefheart’s acute sensitivity) has been told before where it reached a large audience; hence my inclination to avoid the subject even at the expense of the reader’s natural curiosity. Such stories are by no means uncommon in the world of music and its communication, as anyone who has ever talked to a musician will know. Only the names and places change, and it’s a sordid, painful subject. When I first talked to Beefheart, he was happy with his personal manager, one Grant Gibbs. Since then things have changed. “That man was just too hip,” Beefheart says, and leaves it at that. Now he has a new manager with whom he seems well pleased; a general impression of satisfaction with that end of his life is conveyed. Up in the Warner Brothers relaxation suite, a mood of easygoing friendship prevailed between the artist and his commercial associates.
At last he has complete artistic control over the whole process, from frantic bursts of initial inspiration to vinyl in the store window. Characteristically, he maintains that should that arrangement ever change, Warner Brothers will have to follow his dust. About the relationship between record company and artist, he is cautiously optimistic.
”I think they should make their corners a little more rounded and softer on the machine. If they could just make it a little easier – pay the artists and not make the artist feel like he’s someone pushing a broom that’s connected to an IBM that sends him out to the people through ratholes or something like that – I think then it would be a lot nicer. I think Warner Brothers are beginning to do that. So far everything has been real nice.”
And now Captain Beefheart has joined the ranks of performing musicians. The Spotlight Kid is loose.
“At this time I’m around people that I can look straight across at,” the Captain smiles. “Before I had to walk up into tall buildings to say hello to these people, and I had to walk down into the subterranean areas to look at these people, talk to them. Now it’s a little different.”
Also Beefheart the Freak-from-nobody-knows-where-or-when, he says that it is all a hoax perpetrated by Zappa and others for publicity purposes; such humility is touching, but despite the fact that my personal impressions of him were distinctly wordly, I would hesitate to hang a name like Normal Don on him. He is, above all, the embodiment of a creative force which simply discards all non-essential non-living ‘functional’ impediments to the flow of creative energy locked into this world. And that’s what I mean by ‘wordly.’
”It upsets me that they’re using me as a grandaddy clock or something, that they can walk by and go, ‘well, I’m all right as long as I’m weird.’ I would say that they’re pretty far out. I would say that they’re tacking things onto themselves, using themselves as a walking bulletin board of distortion. Maybe they should try not looking in a mirror for a month or so.
”I’m sure it will soon fade. Just like the breath on a mirror, I’m sure that the past will fade and leave a nice rainbow or something.”
Yes, the Spotlight kid does know when another human is trying to contact him. Yes, by telephone too.
Yes, the Spotlight Kid did engage a tree doctor to examine his trees after exposure to the din of recording in his house.
Yes, the Spotlight Kid did shatter a $1,200 recording microphone with his astounding voice, and that was just one instance of Beefheart transcending the machines. “The condition of the art is, er, really poor” he concludes.
Yes, the Spotlight Kid maintains to this day that he has never read a book. “I get people to read things to me sometimes. I have enough trouble getting out what’s in me already without having to consider what other people are saying. Besides, I can’t concentrate on print, I need one of those kid’s books with huge letters.”
Yes, he does have literally thousands of unpublished poems in storage, and to date he has written five unpublished novels, ”if you want to call them by that name”.
No, he is not a reincarnation of one of Rembrandt’s ace pupils, though that would hardly be surprising, given his skill with a brush, etc. He is, by his own admission one month ago in New York City, a descendant of one of Rembrandt’s pupils, ace or not. “He was the one who was a fuck-off, like me,” admits the artist with touching modesty, drawing on a Balkanr Sobranie cigarette, the only kind he really likes these days. “Americans can’t make good cigarettes” he declares.
So much for the legend. There remains the man and his thought and his art.
Beefheart is a large man, 30 years old and round all over, topped by a hat over the brain and bottomed by a pair of big feet on the round earth.
“They can catch a straight line,” he says, referring to microphones, deadheads, and the like, “but they can’t catch a circle. I don’t work in straight lines.”
He talks slowly, deeply resonating words that are almost music in themselves, poetry in their co-operation with each other; sometimes the rumble booms down below the limits of a plastic tape made somewhere in Japan, and I lose them to the machine. I never once heard him raise his voice or talk anything like fast, and he doesn’t need to because his charisma wins attention; it doesn’t demand it. He has a Dutch face like you can see staring open and solid into the painter’s brush. Peter Van Vliet would acknowledge his family ties with no second thought.
He has lost weight recently, never having attained truly heroic proportions. He’d love to be a balloon, but that’s life. He likes Joe Namath because he really can do what he claims; he has no particular admiration for the Grateful Dead because what they are doing is “so old,” and he doesn’t like “their calling card.” He considers Ornette Coleman to be the fountainhead of prime creativity in American music; the mention of his name and that of Van Gogh begins a revealing monologue.
“I think Van Gogh almost improved the natural sunshine. He got into alchemy, he got into feeling his feet on the ground and feeling the colours up from the ground and the metals and the salts and everything to such a degree that he was able to exude the ground he walked on into canvas, into paint – which I think is what an artist can do and should do. That’s what I’m trying to do, y’know. I’m trying to do in this day and age the same thing that he did; not the same thing, though.
“There’s one waterhole. There’s one drop of water which makes up the ocean. And I’m just one of those drops of water, I would like to colour that drop of water out and just let it break into the sunset.
“I know that Ornette Coleman feels the same way about that; I’m not trying to put my name beside Ornette Coleman, because you can’t put your name beside Ornette Coleman. I think he is one person who has done that. I just wish that people could drink water with him. I think he’s one of the greatest artists today.”
“I wish that they’d let him out of that trap that they’ve made for him. He never wanted that; he was ahead way long ago – he wasn’t ahead, he was right with himself, you know? People try to make you go ahead and try to make you go back, and whenever you play, whenever I play the horn, I hope that people don’t try to tell me how to play that horn. Because the minute they try to make me go back or go forward on that horn, I’ll stick that horn into a mushroom and let it grow in a mushroom, and I’ll be out painting with a brush.
“I’ve watched what they’ve tried to do to him, and I tell ya, I don’t like it. I don’t think they’re trying to do the same thing to me because I’m a white boy, you see – which is ridiculous because everybody’s coloured or you wouldn’t be able to see them. I mean, really, I don’t feel that I’m any colour, and he doesn’t either. He just wants to play.
“I wish my audience would listen to him, and just go on to become greater and greater.
“There’s thousands of people blowing rainbows out of their horns and rainbows off their finger, and seeking to bring the light to those who need to hide their shadow. There’s thousands who never get heard because they just don’t have the energy to fight off that machine. I think that everybody has to do all they can do to improve themselves, not to deteriorate themselves with speed and things to emulate the fast society. The society should slow down, it’s so fast and bulbous. There can’t be a continuous tumescence like that.”
He pauses to send Zoot Horn Rollo (glass finger and appendage steel guitarist of the Magic Band) out into the metal winds to look for artists’ materials. Zoot does not return. More of him and his colleagues anon.
”Why don’t they realise and start doing nice things? Where are the animals, man? Why are there no animals in this programme? Do the children get to see the animals? Do they allow people to look into the eyes of another animal that can’t reason, but is on the natch and doing real nice – even with all these horrible, horrible onslaughts?”
Beefheart sees the mountains being covered over with mayonnaise. He sees the gigantic buildings blocking out the sun throbbing with pointless life (death). “I don’t believe in insanity,” he says, “I believe in varying degrees of disconnection.
“The bee takes the honey and he sets the flower free. Man takes the honey and he gets stuck in it. Men get so intelligent that they’re stupid. Man is a child that can’t accept his natural functions.”
Beefheart is an artist – a painter, a musician, a poet. See his paintings on his album covers, hear his music and his poetry when he makes it in a recording booth or on a stage – preferably the latter, if like me you have trouble hearing his magic on vinyl. Alive in person, he and the Magic Band are light-years closer to you. Beefheart is conscious of the problem (not quite so apparent on The Spotlight Kid as it was on Safe As Milk, Strictly Personal, Lick My Decals Off, Baby or Trout Mask Replica), but thereÔø?s little he can do about it.
His current Magic Band has been together now for almost two years, and he is more than pleased with them. Beefheart’s music cannot be played by any old musician; it takes a breaking down of conventional musical theory and practise, a smashing of structures and a willingness to PLAY.
Hence, he renamed the people he found for his band when they came to him – he found Zoot Horn Rollo at a ballroom in California. “I looked down and saw this wide young face staring into my eyes. They’re not interested in having their surnames, see, because of the fact that they’re attached to all those nests their folks tried to keep them in. We have to get away from the nest.”
Beefheart writes all their material, letting it flow out through his voice onto the piano and onto the tape, to be taught to the band. They help too, of course, more now than a year ago; between them and himself there exists a total relationship which seems to be almost wordless. “I’ve watched their walk, I’ve watched their talk – and not just watching. It’s more like I’ve been a sponge and soaked up all their water. They were pretty contaminated when I first found them; they’d been listening to radio…”
Ed Marimba plays drums, marimba, piano and harpsicord. Winged Eel Fingerling plays guitar. Rockette Morton plays Bassus Ophelius. Zoot Horn Rollo plays glass finger and steel appendage guitar. Beefheart himself plays tenor and soprano sax, bass clarinet, and anything else that comes to mind. Onstage, they are a visual delight: Rockette Morton, looking like a reincarnation of Beaudelaire, Toulouse-Lautrec and Gene Vincent all rolled into one, jerks the most astounding dance to the thrashing of his bass that you are ever likely to see. His playing is certainly the best of any bass-player I have ever seen, and Charlie Mingus is likewise impressed. Zoot Horn Rollo and Winged Feel Fingerling sway in unison, and blend two beautiful flowing fluid guitars. Ed Marimba, monacle and yachting cap secure from the rhythms of his drums, blows out the patterns of the skins. Beefheart stands and paces, watching like a benevolent giant until he moves up to the microphone to howl and screech and moan and rasp any one of a thousand voices from the Mississippi delta to the farther reaches of the Cosmos, or play chaotic rainbows from his horns.
I cannot describe their music, just as I cannot tell you how Beefheart plays with the words in his head (except by saying that he does play with words, turning the boundaries of semantics into starting-points for the surreal expansion of meaning). Beefheart tries to paint the clouds in music; he comes in colours.
Beefheart seems to have found some peace with his surroundings. He lives with his gentle wife, Jan, in a house which offers a panorama of ocean and redwoods outside of Eureka, northern California, up by the Oregon, border. The local fishermen bring fish up to the house for his family table, and when he dons a suit, just for, the hell of it, they take that as a sign of strangeness. With such a solid basis for his art and a happy gaining of self-confidence, Beefheart may be ripe to overcome the obstacles to popularity which have previously hampered his acceptance by the people he wants to play with.
The magic is in you
The magic is around you
Play with it
Play with yourself
Love the earth
Find the way away from the heartbeat
Remember that mirrors are black magic
And listen to Captain Beefheart
“I’m not riding in a stagecoach and reaching out to shake hands with the Indians. Maybe I’ve lost the ability to wear an Indian hat.”
Patrick Carr, 1972