A Friendly Dickensian Uncle: A Classic Interview With Captain Beefheart

In honour of Captain Beefheart, we've republished an interview with the great man from _ZigZag_ magazine from 1969 by Miles. Thanks, as always to Rock's Backpages


Gail Zappa picked up Frank (her husband) and me at TT&G Studios at Sunset and Highland. As the Buick Riviera sped silently up the twisting cambers of Laurel Canyon Boulevard, headlights illuminating palms and semi-tropical vegetation, Gail said, "Don freaked out today and burned all his manuscripts books. He was over at the house earlier and seemed very depressed about not having a band and everything." All Frank could reply was "Oh brother!"

Later it was found that copies had been made, so the 40 books of poems and songs and drawings were still in existence, only the originals were gone.

A few days later I met Don Vliet myself when he came over to the Zappa household. Captain Beefheart is a big man, a prickly presence, a warm humanity, a large smiling hedgehog, a friendly Dickensian uncle, eyes that sparkle and dart – quick as humming birds – seeing everything, missing no details at all. His grey top hat and overcoat a little incongruous in the warm Southern Californian night. A man just too creative, too human for the 20th century, so interested in people that he surprises them: ending each sentence with "You understand?" and waiting for the affirmative before continuing. A person you know instinctively you can trust.

His first album he wasn’t too pleased with and his second he was screwed over; his producer taking the tapes, mixing them himself without Don knowing, forming a record company – Blue Thumb – and releasing it. Don didn’t approve the mix or receive any money. Eventually he found a lawyer,…they would settle out of court, Don would drop the case for 35 thousand dollars, the producer agreed. So Don dropped the case, then the cheques bounced. Don feels strongly about the evils of the record industry. He returned to his old friend – Frank Zappa – who he knew would give him complete artistic freedom and no hustling on the financial side. Trout Mask Replica is exactly as Don wanted it. Few artists can say that.

"Come outside and we’ll talk", so we went at 4 a.m. out into Frank’s garden. Georgie the Alsatian was still sniffing round and a phone was ringing up by the pool, and there were people up by the changing rooms beyond the trees. "I’m a big cat, I know that; but I’m gentle, I couldn’t hurt a fly." It’s the American way; because you’re big, you must fight and be one of the boys. The American way; because you’re a freak and wear weird clothes and a beard, the police want to stop you and push you around. The old white Jaguar Don used to have had its seats all slashed to pieces by the LA police looking for the drugs which they didn’t find. No compensation.

"Why do you want to leave Hollywood?"

Don: "Because the police in Britain don’t wear guns – you don’t realise how important that is. People are treated as people. Life is respected. People are good to me there."

"You won’t miss the sun?"

"I hate the sun. Look at me! I never go out in it." It’s true…the inventor of fast and bulbous jelly is as pallid white as I am, and after all those years in Southern Californian. "I’ve got to get back to Britain, I must live there…I just want to live quietly….why should I ever want to come back here?…?"

Don recorded a large part of Trout Mask Replica at home and only a few studio sessions were needed. The group laid down backing – tracks for Don to sing over, but Don refused to wear headphones. Naturally the tracks couldn’t be played in the studio for him to hear because they would have got onto his vocal track and made mixing impossible. So they played the backing tracks in the control room and Don would stand in the studio and listen to the faint leakage through the sound proof glass. Of course, as soon as he opened his mouth, he couldn’t hear a thing. This accounts for some of the weird timing on the album. It’s fortunate that Don is fanatical about rehearsals and knew all the music backwards by heart anyway…

The band was shut up in the house for weeks on end, with no contact with the outside world. Don had persuaded them that chicks and sex would interfere with their music, and so they played day and night, day and night. Unfortunately there was no money either and they starved, came down with illnesses, and were found wandering in search of food – one of them in a woman’s dress, boots and a helmet, a crazed look in his eyes. Eventually they all left, some to return, but most to find food and recuperate and maybe even find a job with a band that made just a little money.

"I’m a great poet, better than those cats like Ginsberg, because I let it flow, I can’t stop it…I’ve got books and books of stuff. I’m a great horn player, man – I’ve already exhausted the instrument. I’ve done everything that can be done with it. Really I need a whole new art form."

He is creative in too many directions; to develop just one seems impossible. He is torn by creative energies, musical, poetic and visual images flash by faster than satellites, as nervous as the crickets at his feet, or the long winged moths in the foliage. He is a beautiful guy.

Another day, back at TT&G Studios. Don and I are in the ante room where the coffee and candy machines are. In the distance the Mothers are recording. Don looks out of the window at the lights of East Hollywood, "I can break glass with my voice, it’s that powerful, man." The volume is incredible as he strides around the room. After it has subsided, a distant voice can be heard: "What the fuck was that?"

In Britain, Don should find some of the facilities he needs: a more relaxed pro-life social environment where freaks are tolerated and the police don’t wear guns; an appreciative audience, a less crooked and uptight business community.

His recording contract is with Frank Zappa’s ‘Bizarre Records’ and is of course absolutely straight and honest. (Some American promoters on the other hand…) He is lucky to be with Frank who regards him as a genius. In return, he loves and respects Frank and declares him a genius. They are not however, a mutual admiration society.

It is 6.30 am in Zappa’s basement studio.

Beefheart: "That was an earthquake…did you feel it?"

Zappa: "Yes, but it was so small, it made the people seem enormous."

Beefheart: "It could have been the blimp…"

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