Captain Beefheart interviewed in 1980 by Lester Bangs
Meanwhile, back in the Mojave Desert, Don Van Vliet is enjoying a highly urbane, slyly witty (anecdotes and repartee litter the lunar sands like sequins ‘n’ confetti on the floor of a Halloween disco), and endlessly absorbing conversation with a gila monster. “GRAAUUWWWKKK!” says the big slumbrous reptile, peering out its laser-green lidless bulging eyes and missing nothing. “Brickbats fly my fireplace,” answers Van Vliet. “Upside down I see them in the fire. They squeak and roast there. Wings leap across the floor.” “KRAAEEAUUWWWKKK!” advises heat-resistant gila. Van Vliet the Captain nods and ponders the efficacy of such a course. They’ve both just washed down the last of the scalding chilli fulla big eyed beans from Venus what glare atcha accusingly as ya poppem doomward inya mouf. The Captain, Van Vliet, call him which you choose, has chosen tolive out here, squatflat wampum on this blazened barren ground for many a year. Don’t see too much o’ the hoomin side o’ the varmint family out here, but that’s fine with Cap Vliet, “Doc” as he’s called by the crusty prospectors hung on lak chiggers from times before his emigration to this spot.
Have you ever had somebody you idolized or looked up to as an artist?
“Can’t think of anybody, other than the fact that I thought Van Gogh was excellent.”
“Never in music I never have. A hero in music. No, fortunately.”
So you didn’t listen to like Delta blues and free jazz and stuff before you started to-
“Not really. . . I met Eric Dolphy. He was a nice guy, but it was real limited to me, like bliddle-liddle-diddlenopdedit-bop, “I came a long way from St. Louie,” like Ornette, you know. It didn’t move me.”
Dolphy didn’t MOVE you?
“Well, he moved me, but he didn’t move me as much as a goose, say. Now that could be a hero, a gander goose could definitely be a hero, the way they blow their heart out for nothing like that.”
Is that because you think that people generally do it for purposes of ego?
“Um, yeah, which I think is good because it gets your shoes tied. You know what I mean, it doesn’t scare old ladies, you get dressed. So I think that’s nice.”
You don’t think it’s possible to create art that’s egoless, that just flows through you?
“That’s possible, I’m tryin’ to do that, on this last album definitely.”
Well, one thing I find is that the more I know the less I know.
“Me too. I don’t know anything about music.”
As reviews over the years have proved, it’s always difficult to write anything that really says something about Don Van Vliet. Perhaps (though he may hate this comparison) this is because, like Brian Eno, he approaches music with the instincts of a painter, in Beefheart’s case those of a sculptor as well. (When I was trying to pin him down about something on his new album over the phone the other day, he said: “Have you seen Franz Kline lately? You should go over to the Guggenheim and see his Number Seven, they have it in such a good place. He’s probably closer to my music than any of the painters, because it’s just totally speed and emotion that comes out of what he does.”) When he’s directing the musicians in his Magic Band he often draws the songs as diagrams and shapes. Before that he plays the compositions into a tape himself, “usually on a piano or a moog synthesizer. Then I can shape it to be exactly the way I want it, after I get it down there. It’s almost like sculpture; that’s actually what I’m doing, I think. ‘Cause I sure as hell can’t afford marble, as if there was any.”
Much of what results, by any “normal” laws of music, cannot be done. As for lyrics, again like Eno, he often works them up from a sort of childlike delight at the very nature of the sounds themselves, of certain words, so if, to pull an example out of the air; “anthrax,” or “love” for that matter appears in a line, it doesn’t necessarily mean what you’ll find in the dictionary if you look it up. Then again, it might. Contrary to Rolling Stone, “Ashtray Heart” on the new album has nothing to do with Beefheart’s reaction to punk rockers beyond one repeated aside that might as well be a red herring. (“Lut’s open up another case of the punks” is the line reflecting his rather dim view of the New Wavers who are proud to admit to being influenced by him. “I don’t ever listen to ‘em, you see, which is not very nice of me but… then again, why should I look through my own vomit? I think they’re overlooking the fact – they’re putting it back into rock and roll: bomp, bomp, bomp, that’s what I was tryin’ to get away from, that mama heartbeat stuff. I guess they have to make a living, though.”) He laughs about the misinterpretation, but since the song is pretty clearly about betrayal, I asked: “What was it about the person in the song that could make you care enough to be that hurt?”
He says: “Humanity. The fact that people don’t hear it the way you really mean it. Probably for a similar reason that Van Gogh gave that girl a piece of his flesh, because she was too stupid to comprehend what he was doing. I always thought that he gave her that as a physical thing to hold onto because she didn’t accept the aesthetic value of what he was saying.”
‘We don’t have to suffer, we’re the best batch yet.’ Would you care to comment on what that might mean?
“Yeah, what I was doing there was having these cardboard ball sculptures, fake pearls, real cheap cardboard constructed circles, you know what I mean, floating through that music. Actually, I was afraid to sing on that track, I liked the music so much, it was perfect without me on it. And so I put those words on there, you know they’re just cheap cardboard constructions of balls of simulated pearls floating through, and it’s an overwhelming technique that makes them look like pearls. “We don’t have to suffer, we’re the best batch yet” were these pearls talking to themselves.”
As opposed to the other ones. What does mean when you say, “White flesh waves to black”?
“God, I don’t know what that means. It means, it’s just a, uh, it’s merely just a painting, you see, that’s poetic license.”
I thought you were talking about racism.
“Oh, no. I don’t know what to do about racial or political things. It was just a poem to me. A poem for poem’s sake.”
I was also thinking of when you walk around looking at people who have turned themselves into commodities.
“Yeah, we’re the best batch yet! We’re the newest best that has been put out. Well that has to do with that, too. You know I’m, uh, ahm, whaddaya call it, it isn’t schizophrenic but it is, oh. what people in the West think of people in the East, you see, meaning that in some instances they think that people are crazy who think multifaceted, that there’s many ways of interpreting something. I mean ‘em all. I can’t say I don’t know what my lyrics mean, but I can say that, oh, yeah I know what they mean, but if you call it you stop the flow.”
Van Morrison has said that he doesn’t know what a lot of his own lyrics, mean and even if Beefheart does, or they mean something different for each of us, I think as with Morrison, occasionally you feel that the voice of some Other just might be speaking through this singer at this particular time, as if he were an instrument picking up messages from…? Doc at the Radar Station. (About the various voices he switches between, often in the same song: “I’ll tell you the truth, some of those guys really scare me, that come out at me when I do some things, like ‘Sheriff Of Hong Kong,’ I never met him before. Or she, I dunno. . . it’s like different, uh uh… you see, I don’t think I do music, think I do spells.”)
Wherever Don Van Vliet gets his rules and messages from, it’s rarely the external, socalled rational, I think psychotic “civilized” society we’ve known and lived in. He chooses to live out of it, mentally and physically, and began trying to escape from it at a very early age: “I never went to school. I wet my pants and my mother came and got me as I was running and I told her that I couldn’t go to school because I was sculpting at that time a hell of a lot. That was kindergarten, I think. Itried to jump into the La Brea Tar Pits when I was three, whatever that means. They caught me just in time. I was sc intrigued by those bubbles going bmp bmp. I thought I would find a dinosaur down there. I told my mother when I was three years old – she showed it to me not too long ago, in this baby book in that horrible Palmer Penmanship method of writing that she used, you know that fantastic curlicues type stuff that had everything to do with everything other than what it said, on this old yellow piece of paper it’s written out, that if she would stay on one side of the room and I would stay on the other, that we would be friends the rest of our life. I used to lock myself in a room and sculpt when I was like three, five, six.”
What sorts of things did you sculpt?
“Oh God, things that I would try to have moved kinetically, try to move these things around. These were my friends, these little animals that I would make, like dinosaurs and. . .I wasn’t very much in reality, actually.”
Do you feel bad about that?
“No, ! feel good. I was right. The way people treat animals, I don’t like it. One of my horrible memories is the great Auk, the fact that it was extinct before I was born. What a beautiful bird.”
What were your parents like?
“Pretty banal. They moved me to Mojave, that’s where they kept the Japanese-Americans during World War II. They moved me up there to keep me out of a scholarship to Europe for sculpture. They wanted to get me away from all the ‘queer’ artists. Isn’t that awful? Periscopes in the tub, right?”
In this sense, he’s still not very much in “reality.” His problems with record companies over the years are legendary. Yet he has, somehow, kept on making those amazing albums; just when you’ve almost given up hope, somebody else comes along and offers him a contract, and he does another one, and it doesn’t sell. Jon Landau told me in 1970, when he was my record reviews editor at Rolling Stone: “Grand Funk will be more important to the history of rock and roll than Captain Beefheart. And you can quote me on that.” But there are other occasions, like the time I met a young woman in a bar who was not a scenemaker or into avant-rock, and when I asked her what kind of music she liked she said: “This guy I heard named Captain Beefheart. There was just something kind of real sensual and musky about it, I dunno. . .it was different, but I loved it.”
Beefheart himself thinks women tend to understand his music better than men, so especially since he can be so elliptically, obscurantistly difficult to pin down in interview and describing his music in prose is kind of like trying to catch the prism of a dragonfly wing and hold it intact in the palm of your hand, I’ll talk about his wife. Jan is a young woman of such radiance and wholehearted sincerity that it can be a little stunning at first meeting. Phrases like “earth mother” are too quaint, dreary, way off the mark. She is as active an artist as he and the complexities of her mind are fully up to his moodswings, which can give you jetlag. Which doesn’t mean she’s the archetypal Great Artist’s Nursemaid either – she won’t take his shit, and he can be a tyrannical baby at times. Like a lot of us.
Jan helps mightily at broaching some kind of rapprochement communications-wise between this man and the world at large. In other words, she translates. In both directions. You’d see the same thing at the U.N. And if Don is not exactly intoning “Klaatu baraada niktu,” he does at times seem almost like a visitor from another planet, or more precisely someone still stunned by his first sight of this one, as I suspect he always will be. Perhaps he just doesn’t have those filtering mechanisms which enable most of us to cope with “reality” by blocking out at least 80 percent of it.
According to his set of filters, in-animate objects are alive, and plants and animals share with them the capacity to think as well as feel. Don sees perspicacity in a mesquite, an old broom-handle even. If his lyrics are about anything absolutely, they are about ecology.
You’re a painter. In “Run Paint Run Run” are you saying that the paint itself is a conscious entity with a will of its own?
“Yeah! Definitely! Hey, you got it. Yes, it does have a will of its own.”
So it’s alive.
“I think so. I definitely feel that it is.”
Do you generally feel that about the things around you, inanimate objects?
“Um hm. Yeah, I really do. I think they’re all alive. Don’t you?”
I don’t know.
“Come on, you do too.”
So how do you and the paint get along?
“Pretty damn good, I’ll tell ya. I’m just looking forward to getting enough money to be able to really paint big. I don’t wanna paint any littler than five by five. But I’d like to paint twenty by twenty.”
Do you and the paint ever have fights?
Do you feel the same way about the electric guitar, that when you plug it into the call it’s this battle of wills sort of?
“I think so. It’ll spit out atcha anything that’s out there.”
Was that what you were talking about in ‘Electricity”?
“Yeah, that had a hell of a lot to do with it. It always seems to come out the way it wants to, y’know.”
I think that partially Don anthropomorphises animals and objects as a defence against a human crew who empirical observation has told him are by and large incomprehensible to themselves as well as him, that’s when they’re not also out to getcha. He’s like an Androcles that would chat a spell with Leo but see fangs and claws on a delivery boy. Lacking aforesaid filters, he has devised an elaborate system of checkpoint charlies to keep most of humankind’s snoots at bay. This can sometimes be frustrating. His favourite device in the past was to always say some bigtime gonzo Dada non-sequitur (“All roads lead to Coca-Cola” was the first one I ever heard), then look you straight in the eye and insistently enquire: “Do you know what I mean?”
“Yeah, sure, Don, sure!” everybody (except Jan) would always huffnpuff. He is a very charismatic person; a guru, of sorts. He knows how to charm, and has a way of flattering you by asking you all. kinds of questions suggesting real concern. He really means it too, his basic philosophy has always been summed up in the open invitation to share his suddenly brighter sunshine in Trout Mask Replica’s “Frownland”. But see, that’s just it: it was always his sunshine, on another level all these things were and are distancing devices (though he’s not nearly as egocentrically defensive as he used to be) and it can be extremely frustrating because no matter how intimate you get with somebody if all they ever say practically is stuff that sounds like it came out of their lingo-tango lyrics (another technique is to ask you to elaborate when you ask a question and then just agree with you) you go home with a tape recorder full of words that mean nothing in particular and the sad hunch that there was something a bit impersonal about this whole affair. I’ve been told that with Don the best countertactic is to try and pin him down: “Just exactly what do you mean?” But somehow I’ve never been able to draw that hard a line. The man is too magical. Literally. Once in Detroit I walked into a theatre through the back door while he was onstage performing. At the precise moment I stepped to the edge of the curtains on stage right where I could see him out there haranguing the audience, he said, very clearly, “Lester!” His back was to me at the time. Later he asked me if I had noticed it. I was a little shaken.
The years of what career-oriented folks would file as “failure” have ripened and mellowed Don; like most of us, he’s grown up some, albeit perhaps against his will. Once I listened to him rant drunk and bitter all night; now I ask him: “Do you think the music business will ever find you ‘commercial,’ and do you care?”
“I don’t think they ever will,” he laughs, “and I don’t care. I’m just thankful that an audience is listening to me.”
He just lets it turn with the earth, though he was particularly angry in the past when a band he literally taught to play cut some sides on Mercury under his name without even telling him. There are also many of us who think Frank Zappa, with whom he grew up, wouldn’t be hock in a spittoon, much less a “composer” (anybody says that certifies themselves a moron), if there had never been a Don Van Vliet on this earth. When Zappa established his Straight Records in 1968, he invited Don to join a carny sideshow which also included the GTO’s, Alice Cooper and Wild Man Fischer, producing, or so he was credited, Trout Mask Replica. Hell, it’s such a sleeper you can still order it from Warner Comm. That record was four sides, 28 songs cut in two days of the most unparalleled ruckus in the annals of recorded sound. In it, after relatively unfocused albums for Buddah (with whom he even scored a minor hit in ’66, “Diddy Wah Diddy”) and Blue Thumb, Beefheart and his unearthly looking cabal of spazmo henchmen seemed effortlessly to cook up the sofar still definitive statement on the possibilities for some common ground (“fusion,” I believe they called some bath-water quickbuckaroos bearing scant relation a few years later) on which raunch rock, slide-slinging Delta blues and post Coltrane/Shepp/Ayler free jazz might consecrate a shakedown together.
Like almost all of Beefheart’s recorded work, it was not even “ahead” of its time in 1969. Then and now, it stands outside time, trends, fads, hypes, the rise and fall of whole genres eclectic as walking Christmas trees, constituting a genre unto itself: truly, a musical Monolith if ever there was one. On it, Beefheart, behind a truly scarifying gallery of separate voices, becomes at various times a sagebrush prospector, Jews screaming in the ovens at Auschwitz, greased-back East L.A. pachuco, a breakable pig, automobile, “Ant Man Bee” (title of one song), a little girl and her brinechawed seafarin’ aged father (in the same song), a Pa Kettle-mischievous “Old Fart at Play,” and several species of floral piscatorial and amphibious life. The band under his tutelage, thereon reinvent from the ground up rhythm, melody, harmonies, perhaps what our common narrow parameters have defined as “music” itself.
Since then he has released seven albums of varying quality. The immediate followup, Lick My Decals Off Baby, was brilliant though a little abrasive even for my ears at the time it was released. 1971′s The Spotlight Kid was more commercial though hardly compromised, and many people regard 1972′s Clear Spot, a minor masterpiece of sorts, as a dance album in disguise. Two later records on Mercury Unconditionally Guaranteed and BlueJeans and Moon Beams were baldface attempts at sellout. Shiny Beast, a charming but relatively minor work, was re leased by Warner Brothers in 1978. None of these albums has sold more than 50 or 60 thousand, and that’s over a long period of time; only Trout Mask and Shiny Beast, in fact, remain in the catalogues.
Perhaps it is the ”success” (“triumph?”) of New Wave that has emboldened Warner Brothers. In any case Doc at the Radar Station is one of the most brilliant achievements by any artist in any year. And in 1980 it seems like a miracle. It certainly is not compromised, and I doubt that it will get any radio play in this country at least, but then I said the Clash didn’t have a prayer. While some of his self-acknowledged acolytes have gone on to stardom, megabucks, popout lunch boxes, etc., the progenitor remains in his Mojave trailer, where he barely has room for an indoor easel. (So if any neo-Florentine patron is reading this, I will make a plea that Don would never make or ask anyone else to for him: support a real artist.) I’m not sawing violins in half – Don certainly doesn’t feel sorry for himself, and in late 1977 when he reappeared at the Bottom Line with a new band and Shiny Beast in the wings, he had the distinct air of a, well, I don’t even feel “survivor” is the word. A patriarch, perhaps, a high priest, born again from Ancient Egypt smiling like the spuming headwaters of the Nile, long weathered body holding just that many mysteries, arcane secrets from half-apocryphal texts of hoodoo mojo Coptic canebreak healings of the kind Ishmael Reed likes to dream up.
Next to him, Dr. John looked like Gary Glitter [apologies to Dr John, I’m sure he doesn’t mean it - Graham]: all soot, no zoot. He could go 15 rounds brainwave-to-brainwave with Screamin’ Jay Hawkins and judges who know nothin’ anyway call it a draw. Might be the white Leadbelly. Too much in love with living to be Robert Johnson. In the late ’60s, some hotshit young hitpicker got famous by proclaiming that Don Van Vliet, if he wanted to, could be the greatest white blues singer in the world.” That would have been dumb as settling for a moosehead over the fireplace when you’ve lassoed the Loch Ness Monster and taken it to dinner, highballs and dancing. Like Van Gogh doing pasteup for Bloomingdale’s. Make no mistake, Captain Beefheart is an absolutely authentic hunk of taproot Americana on a Mark Twain level with Paul Bunyan stature.
But today an artist is expected to market him or herself as a commodity to be generally recognised. So in that sense it’s no wonder Don retreated to the Mojave outback. On the other hand, the old irret routine doesn’t exactly work anymore either. And Don has pretty much been through his phase of living out the artist as Genius/Idiot Savant cliche. On the phone the other day I mentioned Andy Warhol, and Don said, “He soups things up. But isn’t it nice, being able to say that we’re not like him?” At the time I thought his was a shopworn verbal popper combined with an absolutely childlike attitude: “Isn’t it nice, being able to say that we’re not like him?” Well, yes, it is, and Mr. Rogers will be here at 3:30. This plus the fact that artists know how much they can get away with, how much we in fact expect of them, can lead to truly sick situations, disastrous for all concerned: “Isn’t it nice, being somebody’s pet?” I feel like even the word “genius” should be put in quotation marks because the very concept has a way of getting out of hand, like an unruly child. Artists often end up conspiring with their adoring audiences to ensure their own isolation. Once, a very long time ago, I saw Don go sweeping imperiously in and out of hotels until he found one that met his aesthetic specifications, entourage (including me) trailing embarrassedly behind while he wore a cape and doodled on a pad the whole time.
Still, there is something ingenuously natural about him. I don’t think, for instance, that he necessarily “tries” to “create” these things, they just sort of happen to (through?) him. In the course of this process, he has managed to practically reinvent both music and the English language. And if you think that’s a thorny thicket of defenses to try and hack through so as to get at the actual person back there, you’re right. He embarrasses you with his effusiveness; he feels misunderstood and craves desperately to talk with anyone who, he’s satisfied, understands what he’s trying to do. I don’t know why he thinks I understand it. I only understand a little part of it. A lot of it is Sanskrit to me too. But you’ll never miss the feeling however obtuse the structure, because this man is almost 100 per cent feeling, can be feverish with it, leads with every open nerveend till sometimes you wonder if he has a mind at all, or just threw the one he had away one day because every pore in the body is a knowing little eye fiercely darting at experience.
Now, there is no reason on earth why such a creature should be articulate. Except that he is. But on his terms, most of the time. And this is what has always bothered me. What good is being an artist, creating all these beautiful things, if you can’t just throw down your defenses sometimes and share things on the common level of other people? Without that, it’s barren and ultimately pathetic. Ultimately, without some measure of that, it can never matter as art. ‘Cause art’s of the heart. And I’m talking about the heart that flies between two or more humans, not to the ghost of the great Auk, or a glob of paint, or any of his other little friends. All this week, one song off Trout Mask Replica kept playing in my head: “Orange Claw Hammer,” an unaccompanied field holler-like poem about a man who’s been away at sea for years and catches first sight of his daughter since she was in swaddling. He grasps her hand and offers to “Take you down to the foamin’ brine ‘n water, and show you the wooden tits on the goddess with the pole out full-sail that tempted away your pegleg father. I was shanghaied by a highhat beaver-moustache man and his pirate friend. I woke up in vomit and beer in a banana bin, and a soft lass with brown skin bore me seven babies with snappin’ black eyes and beautiful ebony skin, and here it is I’m with you my daughter. Thirty years away can make a seaman’s eyes, a round-house man’s eyes flow out with water, salt water.”
Now if that isn’t pure true American folklore then you can throw everything from Washington Irving to Carl Sandburg and beyond in the garbage. I’m saying Don Van Vliet, “Captain Beefheart,” is on that level. But what I realised this morning, the reason why it was this song stuck out from 26 others: because it’s not about the “Neon Meate Dream of a Octafish,” but something that happened between people.
Why do you almost always talk elliptically?
“Due to the fact that probably it’s very difficult for me to explain myself except in music or paint.”
But don’t you think talking that way all the time is kind of impersonal, a distancing effect?
“It probably comes out very personal in the music. That’s where I’m truthful and honest. I don’t know how it happens exactly, but my mind becomes the piano or guitar.”
What about when you’re alone with Jan?
“We don’t talk too much. Because we trust each other, and we don’t have that much faith in the spoken word. I guess it’s true that I do talk selfishly, as a conversationalist.”
Well, don’t you think you’re missing something you might get from other people by being that way?
“Sure, but they usually won’t accept me anyway. I’m comfortable talking to you. Not many people seem to have things in common with me. I guess what intrigues me the most is something like seeing somebody wash my windows – that’s like a symphony.”
But if you and I are friends, and you trust me, we should be able to have a reciprocal conversation.
“We’re talking without talking. I mean that in a good sense. We’re saying things that can’t be put into the tongue. It’s like good music.
In the end I’m not sure which of us is right. I am probably unfair in wanting everything so explicitly defined from everybody, demanding the rest of the human race (perhaps especially ironic in the case of artists and musicians) be as verbal or verbose as I am. I can’t say that he’s wrong in choosing to live out of society, because this society itself doesn’t seem to have much of a future, and doesn’t seem to care either. A goat and a corporation exec, or most rising young affluent career people around this town for that matter, come up about even conversation-wise, and the goat smells better and is fun to pet so there you are. As for art that deals with human situations, almost none of the art being produced from within the society these days does that, so why pick on Beefheart because he’d rather commune with paints and bats in the fireplace? Certainly he illuminates more about the human heart, and the human groin for that matter, than all these dry dead literati and “minimalist” artists and juiceless composers. As for Don Van Vliet the man, each passing year seems to bring him farther out of defensive obscurantism, measurably more open and trusting, which is really wild in itself because the world around is careening in exactly the opposite direction.
Besides which on another level it’s none of my business anyway, except insofar as he chose to make it so. If he is somewhat in retreat, it can be justified on all the levels above and several more I’m sure, besides which who isn’t in retreat these days? His kind takes a lot more courage than most, and as. an artist he is so far removed from any kind of burnout that he can’t even be called, like I said earlier and like all the Neil Youngs and Lou Reeds who made it from the late ’60s to this point relatively intact, a survivor. More like a natural resource. The difference, finally, is that, to use an example by one of his favourite writers, he’ll never give us his version of Macbeth. He would rather be the Grand Canyon.
Russell Cuts the Corn From The Brewers Whiskers.