Stay Tuned By Stan Cornyn: "General" Beefheart
Every Tuesday and Thursday, former Warner Bros. Records executive and industry insider Stan Cornyn ruminates on the past, present, and future of the music business.
The Vliets’ son, Don, grew up as teen friends with The Zappas’ son, Frank. When creating their futures, both Don and Frank preferred oddness. They’d met in high school in California small town Lancaster. Don was already deeply into art (at age 13 he’d been offered a scholarship to study sculpture in Europe, but his parents, the Vliets, said “no.”
Still, art ran his life. So when Don took up music, it was not to create hit songs, no, it was to re-create music as an abstract art. Like Dali would, not like Hollywood.
Music as an art form obsessed him. When Zappa started his Straight Records label with Warner/Reprise, Don Van Vliet came along; he’d added the “Van” to his name by then. As a musician, he also made up a new name for his second self: Captain Beefheart.
For three years after high school, Don created fresh music with his own group. He was Captain of that band, which he called his Magic Band, and he ruled it like a General. He’d continued near Zappa post school; together they started their own rock opera, which they named “I Was a Teenage Maltshop.”
But music, for Don, it all had to be thought through, re-born.
To accomplish his new forms of music, Don and the Magic Band lived in one small house in Woodland Hills, California, nearly pennilessly, borrowed food from relatives, for three years. They lived like an art cult in this small house, a bit like the Manson family.
How should music sound, Don pondered. Why should “phrases” be linked? It was like, in music, he was going through art forms, like painters had gone through impressionism, expressionism, and Dada.
Still buddies, but he and Frank Zappa were not in the same band. Beefheart noted, "I don't believe in time, you know, 4:4 and all that stuff. Frank believes in time and we could never get it together. He writes all his music and gets sentimental about good old rock 'n' roll, but that's appeasement music.”
The Magic Band and its Captain made a couple of singles for A&M, but nothing. Their style was hardly melodic. It was jerky. Melodies stuttered.
Then came another call from Frank Zappa.
Two Straight Albums to Begin With
Zappa told Van Vliet that he could produce his music for Zappa’s new, Warner-based sub-label, Straight Records. As “Captain Beefheart.”
More of a challenge. Don pondered on: How should this Beefheart and the Magic Band sound? They practiced Beefheart’s music up to 14 hours a day. Beefheart was the total boss over his Magic Band, creatively and emotionally.
He also was obsessed with his new identity: Captain Beefheart, and made up that identity as he lived him. Ask him a question, and get a reply that was original, often surreal. For their first album, Beefheart claimed to have all its songs in one eight-hour day.
Don felt songs might be assembled out of bits, like brush strokes, pasted together, two measures of this, then a fragment of that. Some were vocal solos (“Well,” “The Dust Blows Forward and the Dust Blows Back,” and “Orange Claw Hammer”). Traces of other songs were copied in the new “tunes.”
When it came time to record for Straight, the Magic Band cut 20 instrumental tracks during one double (six hour) session. Afterward, Beefheart added his vocals.
Trout Mask Replica came out with 28 tracks, two albums full.
Here is part of “Moonlight on Vermont”:
Moonlight on Vermont affected everybody
Even Mrs. Wooten well as Little Nitty
Even lifebuoy floatin'
With his lil' pistol showin'
'n his lil' pistol totin'
Well that goes t' show you what uh moon can do
No more bridge from Tuesday t' Friday
Everybody's gone high society
Hope lost his head 'n got off on alligators
Somebodies leavin' peanuts on the curbins
For uh white elephant escaped from the zoo with love
Goes t' show you what uh moon can do
Moonlight on Vermont
Well it did it for Lifebuoy
And it did it t' you
And it did it t' zoo
And it can do it for me
And it can do it for you
Moonlight on Vermont
Gimme dat ole time religion
Gimme dat ole time religion
Don't gimme no affliction
Dat ole time religion is good enough for me
Uh it's good enough for you
Well come out t' show dem
Hear “Moonlight on Vermont”:
Trout Mask Replica’s first priority was originality, with no regard for how “hits” got made. Oddities in Trout: Solo vocals sounded like sea chanties. Two guitars would be heard playing different “lines.” Conversation between Zappa and Beefheart would get heard talking. Like pointillist art, but on a record, flagrantly stacatto.
Trout Mask Replica came out and confused critics. It sounded like madness. Cartoonist Matt Groening wrote he listened to it, over and over, until the seventh time, and when he heard what it really was, it clicked, “and I thought it was the greatest album I ever heard.”
Next: “Lick My Decals Off”
Only 15 songs this time, but the album now came with lyrics printed so people could keep up.
Also on Straight Records, now one year later. By 1970, the Captain was attracting lots of artists to him and to Burbank, where both Straight and Warner-Reprise faced a curious world. The ritzy cover was shot on the set of Warner Bros. picture’s movie “Hotel.”
Beefheart’s tunes were not catchy in the AM/FM sense. But art shown through songs like “I Wanna Find a Woman That’ll Hold My Big Toe Till I Have to Go.”
And now, just a teeny bit, Beefheart was feeling Hollywood-y.
Art to Sell Music
Early 1970s were most innovative years in the history of Warner/Reprise. One aspect were little song-movies, or as we learned to call them, “videos.” Another fringe creative guy within the Warner house started making them. He was Van (no relation to Vliet) Dyke Parks, who’d earlier created his own, timeless LP, Song Cycle.
Parks impressed Mo Ostin, which is about all it took to get funded at Warner these days, with Van Dyke’s creative itch to make some of the first short “record-selling films.” Van Dyke collaborated on one of these based on Beefheart’s album, Lick My Decals Off, Baby. The title song starts by mentioning the Beatles . . .
Rather than I want to hold your hand,
I want to swallow you whole
'N I want to lick you everywhere it's pink
'N everywhere you think
Whole kit 'n kaboodle 'n the kitchen sink
Heaven's sexy as hell
Life is integrated,
Goes together so well
'N so on
Well, I'm gonna go on 'n do my washing
Well, now you may think I'm crazy but I want you to
Lick my decals off baby
'N I don't want you to be lazy
Van Dyke’s video did not use Beefheart’s song as its sound track. Van Dyke made his own “ad.”
The result made Dadaism look like a Kellogg’s commercial.
Starting with Beefheart’s surreal, free jazz, its visuals included close-ups of a woven basket, over which a deep-voice announcer spoke of California cities and their real and imagined people: “In Encino, it’s Zoot Horn Rollo.” Other visuals: Beefheart’s flicked cigarette butt hitting walls with huge thuds; revolving flour sifters and egg beaters; band members strolling the streets sideways.
Little public play came from the video, although a few years ago it was in an exhibition at the MOMA in New York.
Beefheart Switched Over to Warner/Reprise
Van Vliet/Beefheart stayed connected to the Warner labels from 1969 through 1976, and enlarging his pseudo-psycho identity: Captain Beefheart.
As the Captain, he recorded with his Magic Band, but spoke his own lingo. To set this out in ink, here’s one of hundreds of interviews quotes the Captain gave during his Warner years:
Wisdoms Voiced by Beefheart:
* “Everybody’s colored, or else you wouldn’t be able to see them.”
* “If you give ants sugar, they won’t have to eat the poison.”
* “There are only 40 people in the world, and 5 of them are hamburgers.”
* “I don’t want to sell my music. I’d like to give it away, because where I got it, you didn’t have to pay for it.”
1972 and Touring
With two scandalous albums out and behind him – 1969’s Trout Mask Replica and 1970’s Lick My Decals Off, Baby – Captain Beefeart and His Magic Band were still at it: on the road, touring America. And still poor, as were all in the Magic Band.
But Beefheart was into it. He even sang a capella to sold-out crowds. One saved review from back then captured how the band – after a bass solo by Rockette Morton --“was joined by the Captain, Zoot Horn Rollo, Ed Marimba, and Winged Eel Fingerling who, as a collective unit, proceeded to work the Citizens for Beefheart (concert sponsors) into a veritable frenzy with their blues-flavored excursions into the outermost reaches of the cosmos.
“After providing the audience with an hour-long high, the Captain responded to the pleas of the cheering throngs (‘More! More!’) with an encore of – what else – “More,” which he whistled, unaccompanied.”
Events keep happening: in New York, playing in concert on stage after chimpanzees, presented by their manager, named Sabu, who showed off a huge chimp he described as smarter than a 14-year-old. The Magic Band is now Show Biz.
Beefheart audiences are not there casually; they often have a Beefheart fetish. Beefheart plays a lot of harmonica, and presents new songs like “Spitballs Scalped the Baby.” An instrumental.
In interviews, Beefheart claims to be writing a lot of albums, like when he told us “I wrote a new album last night on the way over to MIT, I mean on the way over to Yale. The name of it is Brown Star. Also writing a book of poetry, which he seeks a publisher for. Title: Singing Ink. And a novel called Old Fart at Play, which he believes will replace Tom Sawyer.
It’s Beefheart’s character, not Van Vliet, at work.
Interviewed, he now mentions his real new Reprise album, The Spotlight Kid. Ten songs, total. Including “I’m Gonna Booglarize You Baby,” “Alice in Blunderland,” and “Grow Fins.”
Critics were now coming out for Beefheart. Stereo Review mentioned that the Band was sounding more “commercial,” then added “Captain Beefheart’s conception of commercial is still sweetly weird.”
The Spotlight Kid was Beefheart’s first album to edge into the Billboard 200 chart; it made it up to #131.
Clear Spot, 1972
Later that year (1972) the Captain created a second Reprise album, Clear Spot. (The cover photo shows the audio engineer Don Landee inside the engineer pit, being watched by Beefheart and unknown.)
Clear Spot was held together with two professionals: producer Ted Templeman and engineer Don Landee. “I’ve been looking for these people for seven years. That’s how long I’ve been in the music business.”
Clear Spot was definitely aimed at “commercial.” Twelve tunes. Horn players in the background. Zoot Horn Rollo takes the solo mike on “Big Eyed Beans from Venus.” Beefheart is now “singing for women.”
Describing his work on Clear Spot, Beefheart noted “I left my horn at home. I’m like an alcoholic about my horn. If I had it here I’d be playing it, and we’d be making another of those albums people don’t buy.” He did say something nice about his own voice: “I have a very unusual voice. I have seven octaves. I have a way of going from a high note completely down to the bottom. I can just completely relax, and I’ll almost go to sleep to get that low note, but not so asleep that I don’t have the blood there.”
Still One More Life to Lead
But now, Don’s explored music to his satisfaction. His mind wanders off to his home, up in Eureka, California, where he is focused on his next art form: painting.
By 1982, Don Van Vliet had given up music, and retired from performing. He also took up sculpture, which he’d started as a child, and made money selling his expressionist paintings and drawings.
Van Vliet made few public appearances after his retirement from music (and from his Beefheart persona) in 1982. Then, for many years, decades, he was completely off-stage. “I don’t like getting out when I could be painting,” he said, “and when I’m painting, I don’t want anybody else around.”
- Stay Tuned