The Magic Band
To understand the power and majesty of Captain Beefheart’s music, it is best appreciated in a live context (Vanity Project review of their 2004 London show), and thankfully for we slightly younger devotees (I was 4 when Don Van Vliet released his final Captain Beefheart album and retired from the music business to concentrate on his painting), that is now possible, thanks to formation of a new Magic Band composed of four ex-members of the Beefheart group. While the four incumbents of the current Magic Band had never played live together prior to 2003, between them they bring experience of virtually all the variant album line-ups into one cohesive unit paying tribute not only to Van Vliet’s music, but to their part in it’s conception and execution. It is a tribute richly deserved all round. This is music that just needs to be heard. It defies expectation and plays havoc with conventional rhythms, whilst also remaining sturdy as some of the finest blues music ever made.
Taking on the lead vocal role in this incarnation is John French, who brings an impressive growl to the filling of some pretty big shoes. It is fitting that ‘Drumbo’ should be the focal point of the group as he appeared within several incarnations of the Magic Band, and aside from Van Vliet himself, is probably the most significant musician in the Captain Beefheart story. He is the ideal man to talk to as he himself is a keen historian of the group, having compiling an excellent and thorough set of liner notes for the comprehensive Beefheart 5 disc box-set of rare material, ‘Grow Fins’, that was released on Revenant in 1999.
It was this task that exorcised a lot of demons for French, who highlights in the following interview just how intense an experience playing as part of the original Magic Band could be for the musicians. It also galvanised him into putting a group together so this music could breathe again.
Hopefully the following interview will contain something useful for Beefheart fans of old and those new to the group. I am very honoured that John took such time and care over these questions, and that he should wish to appear in Vanity Project at all. As such, his answers appear verbatim here.
>Introduce us to yourself and the other members of the Magic Band. What do you each bring to the band, musically and otherwise?
Mark ‘Rockette Morton’ Boston. Bassist. Mark brings to band half the essence of the unique rhythm section that was the basis of all Beefheart’s groundbreaking work. He is the only bass player I know of who actually finger picks and plays chords on the bass. It is a very unique style that he developed while working on the album ‘Trout Mask Replica’. Discography includes albums ‘Trout Mask Replica,’ ‘Lick My Decals off, Baby,’ ‘The Spotlight Kid,’ ‘Clear Spot,’ ‘ and ‘Unconditionally Guaranteed.’ He went on with Bill Harkleroad to form the group ‘Mallard’ in 1975 and recorded two albums, ‘Mallard,’ and ‘In a Different Climate.’
Gary ‘Mantis’ Lucas – A guitarist who later joined the band after co-managing Don Van Vliet for several years. Lucas had first seen the band play at a club in New York called Ungano’s in 1971. He was very impressed with Bill Harkleroad’s rendition of ‘One Red Rose that I Mean’ – a Van Vliet guitar solo composition from the album ‘Lick My Decals Off, Baby.’ Lucas formed a vision to play in this unique style even then and it became a strong motivating factor in his life. Album credits include guest appearance on ‘Doc at the Radar Station,’ and as band member on ‘Ice Cream for Crow.’ He also appears in the video of the title track of the latter album.
Denny ‘Feelers Rebo’ Walley – Slide guitarist who was a member of Frank Zappa’s ‘Bongo Fury’ touring group of which Don Van Vliet was also a member. They became friends and at the suggestion of Zappa, Denny became a member of The Magic Band for approximately 3 years while alternately working with Zappa’s group, for which he also was lead singer for several years. Denny brought a more soulful slide sound into the band and modified his style to embrace the ‘Magic Band’ syncopated finger-picking style of guitar that had become the trademark of the unique sound of the band. Album credits include the un-released original Bat Chain Puller recorded in 1976.
John French – Drummer joined in 1966, in and out of the Magic Band over a 14-year period ending in 1980. My early tenure in the band gave me to unique opportunity to explore and develop unique drum patterns because of the extreme originality of the music. Now split between drumming and ‘front man’ duties, I have also enjoyed the experience of singing and playing harmonica. Album Credits include ‘Safe as Milk,’ ‘Mirror Man,’ ‘Strictly Personal,’ ‘ Trout Mask Replica,’ ‘Lick My Decals off, Baby,’ ‘Bat Chain Puller’ (unreleased), and ‘Doc at the Radar Station’ ( where my role was primarily as guitarist though I play drums on two compositions.’ I played with Don approximately 7 years.
>On the DVD, Denny Walley claims there is much more ‘joy’ in performing the music now? Why do you think this might be and do you feel the same way?
I feel this is true and feel much the same way. Van Vliet, genius and visionary though he was, also had a reputation for being a bit of a tyrant. I experienced this during my several tenures in the band. It took away a lot of the joy, because there was often a feeling in the air that one might be verbally (or even physically) attacked at any moment. Behavior that would be deemed ‘normal’ in most circles of society were often frowned upon by Don. My perspective on this is when a gifted individual such as Van Vliet has to summon the courage to make such a strong and unique statement, they tend to put up a strong defense mechanism to fend off the expected assaults and criticism that would naturally follow. This same mechanism, though quite effective publicly, proved counter-productive in the group and nurtured strong feelings of paranoia and suspicion, which undermined the one key element that allows a group to develop: trust.
>Don, in 1977, is quoted as saying “Everything they did I had ‘em do. I mean I’m a dictator”. How much was this the case and how close to the truth is his claim that band members disliked him for it?
Don was the initial creative force in the band, there’s no denying that. Lyrically, he is unsurpassed. Musically. However, he was not very organized, nor did he at all understand the extreme learning curve it took to actually bring his vision to life. As a result, the band members – some more than others - contributed a great deal more to the actual completion and arranging of the music than Don ever realized.
If anyone mentioned this, Don’s extreme reaction was to say something to the effect of ‘oh, so now you’re saying YOU wrote the music?’ which, of course wasn’t the case. The truth lie somewhere in between. Don’s musical relationship with the band was much more symbiotic than he or the public ever realized. The atmosphere that developed from this was one of tolerance on the band’s part to take the submissive role of appearing to be a group of trained monkeys with absolutely no creative ability. I’m exaggerating, but that is how it appeared from the inside. The public was not interested in us, because Don portrayed us as not being very interesting or relevant. Therefore, our ‘careers’ (a word which makes me shudder, but probably fits) suffered because we had almost no recognition except with hard-core fans, and then only because we were associated with Van Vliet.
Frankly, Don really never seemed to appreciate the band members. He often told me he ‘hated musicians.’ He also had a kind of Jekyll / Hyde mannerism in which he would befriend the musicians one on one, but then in a group atmosphere verbally abuse and humiliate them.
It was part of the price paid for being a Magic Band member and was very unpleasant for all involved in the earlier bands. I saw less of this in the later bands – from ‘Shiny Beast’ thru ‘Doc at the Radar Station.’ However, interviews with various band members convince me that this atmosphere, though less intense, prevailed from beginning to end.
>Is there any part of you that feels you deserve this acclaim and attention having paid your dues after such incidents as being left off the credits of ‘Trout Mask Replica’ and not receiving adequate remuneration for your part in the writing of the music?
I don’t understand this question fully in regards to the term ‘this acclaim and attention.’ If you are speaking of the attention I and the rest are now receiving, I’m not sure that I sit around telling myself ‘ finally, I’m getting what I deserve.’ I suppose that I have learned now to accept what I have earned as a result of my former not-so-pleasant experience. My motivation, however, is not to ‘get what I deserve.’ It is more a matter of returning, with a fresh look, to my primary musical roots – a very familiar place with which I am extremely familiar. I want to create an atmosphere for myself and others in which performing the music can be an enjoyable experience rather than a tedious and stressful task.
>I am aware that you do not wish to take anybody’s place by taking on the vocals but are these Magic Band shows and records an attempt to reclaim some of the credit for these works?
No, not at all, as that would be pointless. The primary motivation I always felt was a love of the music and the look of connection I see in the eyes of those who understand the music and enjoy hearing it once again. It’s a wonderful privilege and experience to be able to travel from the US to Europe and play something this unique for audiences who still appreciate the music. My original vision of the reunion was based upon my experience while writing track by track notes on each Beefheart CD and realizing how much I missed playing the music. There’s nothing like this out there, and so everything else is like a commuter plane flight as compared to a trip to the Moon. Who wouldn’t want to return to their musical roots?
>You joined and left the band on many occasions. Each time, what made you leave, and what was it brought you back?
The dread of the cult atmosphere would squeeze me out of the group like toothpaste from a tube. Sometimes I quit, sometimes I was fired by Van Vliet for simply being myself and reacting truthfully and frankly to his statements. I wasn’t telling him what he wanted to hear, and in his desire for control, I was the square peg that didn’t fit the round hole. What brought me back was my love of the music. There’s a lot of ‘me’ in there… so it’s only natural that I would migrate back. When it gets too cold, birds migrate South for the Winter. When the atmosphere of the group grew too cold, I would seek a warmer climate. When the atmosphere was more congenial, I would come aboard and always by invitation of Van Vliet with the exception of my re-joining to do ‘Doc at the Radar Station’ where I actually approached Don.
>I heard a rumour that you originally wanted to put together the ‘Trout Mask Replica’ band. What advantages and disadvantages of having a Magic Band that didn’t play together as a unit prior to this Captain-less reincarnation?
My original vision was the TMR band with the possible inclusion of Art ‘Ed Marimba’ Tripp. My vision was two-fold: One, as a healing experience for the members so that we could associate the music with a pleasant experience. I couldn’t listen to TMR for years because of the association with all the unpleasant cult experience. Yet, as years went on, I was able to separate the two and now have good memories of the songs with the exception of Big Joan. Two, as a fulfillment to fans I had re-connected with thanks to wonderful people like Graham Johnston, Derek Laskie, Steve Froy, Theo Tieman, and Justin Sherril (apologies for missing anyone) who became webmasters of Beefheart sites and did much to re-kindle interest in the music and The Magic Band. Also, I grew up with the Trout Mask band. We were friends during our teen years.
>Do you intend to add to the repertoire of songs the Magic Band have thus far performed? Would you consider writing something new?
Repertoire is a problem. We are harmonica, vocal, two guitars, bass, and drums. Some of the great songs had marimba and just don’t ‘sound’ without that timbre playing that part. Others have Mellotron, Synth bass etc. Others just aren’t that interesting to begin with or are so densely-mixed that it becomes nearly impossible or counter-productive -- time-wise -- to learn them. Also, we live in remote areas of the US and so have to pick material that we can quickly rehearse and achieve performance mode. It’s actually a very complicated procedure and we are dealing with very complicated music. I once calculated that there are many distinct guitar riffs on one Beefheart album (‘Trout Mask Replica’ or ‘Lick My Decals Off, Baby’) as on approximately 12 more conventional Rock-Type groups albums. The sheer work involved in learning this material is sometimes overwhelming. TMR originally took nearly ten months of rehearsal. My vision was to do three concerts and stop. The others wanted to go on and I suppose that once I brought life to this monster I had to allow it a chance to breathe on it’s own.
Re: New material -- I have written new material and will be recording a CD – probably within the next six months or so. This music is written in the Magic Band style but will be released under my stage name: Drumbo. Lyrically, it is adequate, I believe, and focuses mainly on social issues. Musically, I feel that it captures some of the essence of the spirit of the Magic Band in a fresh and unique manner.
>Have you heard if Don Van Vliet has any opinions on you guys playing his music again?
I heard he was ‘grouchy’ about the reunion. I am absolutely certain that he would not be pleased. However, I’m not doing this for him, but for my own fulfillment, the fulfillment of the other players, and to please the fans. Like I said earlier, there’s a lot of ‘us’ in the music, so it’s something all of us naturally migrated towards. I have done everything in my power to make sure that Van Vliet is paid royalties and performance rights for every composition.
>Bill Harkleroad states in his book that at various times, he, you and Mark Boston came physically to blows. How do YOU remember the time when you were in the band together?
When Don wasn’t around, Mark, Bill and myself got along quite well. We were childhood friends before joining the Magic Band and had never had any major conflicts before, and haven’t had any since. It is true that physical violence reared its ugly head several times during our tenure together (from TMR to Spotlight Kid). Bill told me that while writing his book, he once had to run outside and collapse on his lawn – vomiting -- from re-living the trauma. The four of us have a bond that most people will never understand. I’m sure it’s similar to that relationship ‘War Buddies’ have with each other though not as intense.
>Was this atmosphere engineered do you think?
There’s absolutely no doubt in my mind, and never has been, that this atmosphere was manufactured by Van Vliet. I didn’t understand his motivation back then. Now, I interpret it as one of the methods he used to control us. I’m sure he viewed our comradeship as a threat to his leadership and so felt he had to keep us compartmentalized by nurturing hostility. He did this by betraying confidence mostly. Something said privately about a third party would be injected into a group ‘talk’, which would usually be quite embarrassing and sometimes humiliating. These talks would go on for days until the targeted person ‘in the barrel’ finally broke down, usually either in tears or just in complete submission to Don. It was very much like brainwashing combined with a very bad form of group therapy.
>Did this tension help, or could the same records have been made in a different atmosphere?
The theory of some is that these records could not have been made without this psychological trauma being inflicted upon the players. My thought is that the music would have been far better performed, in less time, with wider appeal, had Don allowed the group to have some credit for our contribution and given us the ability to express ourselves musically a bit with gentle guidance instead of fierce oppression. We were all seven to eight years younger, and he was the guy we all had looked up to.
>Were the Trout Mask sessions your most intense experience in music?
Actually, ‘The Spotlight Kid’ period was worse in some ways – especially for Bill. The music was less-challenging, and Don was more controlling. It was less physically violent, though that did exist throughout from what I understand.
>Do you think this experience changed you in any way?
How could it not change one? Yes, most definitely. I became socially dysfunctional for years after this. I would ‘duck’ when people would ‘talk with their hands.’ I became a bit of a hermit and envisioned myself as completely useless, often contemplating suicide. My spiritual beliefs helped me in real ways to overcome this on a personal level. I can truly say that my real public liberation came when I wrote the notes for the Revenant Set and people actually accepted my writing and began to understand that there was a dark underlying theme that haunted all the earlier members. I don’t think the later band members will ever truly understand the extent of intensity that was reached at one point. Some of them refused to allow me to interview them for the Revenant Set. Most of the ones who did interview were ones who had gone through an equally bad experience as my own and needed to talk about it. A couple of my interviews felt more like therapy sessions, and rightfully so.
>What do you consider your finest achievements in music?
Well, Trout Mask Replica was my first. I was dedicated, as were we all. 14 hour days of playing music were more the rule. I transcribed a lot of the music, showed the parts to the players, helped with arranging. It was a great feeling when we actually recorded all those tracks in the studio in 4 ½ hours.
I have found that most of what players themselves think is a fine achievement is usually not at all the same thing the public reacts to. For instance, the most impressive drumming I have ever done is on my drum solo CD ‘O’Solo Drumbo, and is an arrangement of Van Vliet’s ‘The Thousandth and Tenth Day of the Human Totem Pole’ complete with drum parts and melody – even a few harmonies thrown in. I used 8 tom toms tuned with a guitar tuner to notes. It’s seven minutes long with no repeating phrases and took me months to learn because of all the intricate interplay between drums and melody. Few people really react to it. They like ‘Abba Zaba’ because it’s fast…
>What more would you like to achieve with Magic Band and otherwise?
The main thing that has always been missing in the Magic Band is that the arrangement of the music is so static and dictatorial. I would like to develop and modify the arrangement and structure of the music in such a way that each player has space to express themselves within an acceptable framework. I also hope that I would guide them away from dead-ends and unrealistic visions that would not be accepted by the fan base or would be counterproductive in general.
In my own music, I would like to inject many of the same elements that appeal to the fans, but also make it easy on the players to learn the material, to feel free to modify parts to their own style, and to open up areas for improvisational expression. We’ve touched on that, but I feel that every concert should be different, like a fingerprint, and that can only happen when the individuals are allowed the freedom to be themselves within the music and the framework of the arrangement.
>How do you view modern music? What are your likes and dislikes?
I really honestly do not listen that closely. I have a teenage daughter and I have heard some of the groups she listens to, but for the most part, I feel that in order to be a different fish, you have to get out of the school, as Don used to say. If I immersed myself in studying what everyone else is doing, how could I possibly compose something unique without second-guessing myself? I can say that I don’t care much for rap, though I have a great deal of respect for rappers who have to utilize a great deal of skill to combine rhythm and speech in such a manner. Generally what alarms me is that so much of what I see and hear seems to be based upon what the artist looks like rather than what they sound like largely due to the fact that music videos are so predominant. Many groups seem more interested in being visually a bit ‘out’ while playing music based on the same old beat and chord structure that’s been around since I was a kid.
>Can you easily reconcile in your head that you are now essentially paying high tribute to the music of a man who once, apparently, threw you down half a flight of stairs?
That may be the way an outsider views it, but to me I have nothing to reconcile. Actually, I’m basically just going back to my roots. I don’t think of this as a tribute to Don but as a return to my own unique musical identity.
>Is it fair to say you are a man who doesn’t hold a grudge?
My spiritual belief, Christianity, forced me to face the fact that the strong grudges I held for years against Don were also the main factor in my dysfunctional state. I forgave and immediately the healing process began. I didn’t WANT to forgive. In fact, I had to get past the resentment I held towards God at having to forgive. Very complicated. When the dust finally settled and I was able to just shrug off all the pain and resentment, it was truly remarkable how many things quickly fell in to place.
>Do you retain any resentment at all?
In my mind, sometimes. My basic faith believes that man is three parts: Body, Soul, and Spirit. The first need not be defined, the second is basically the mind, will and emotions. The third is spirit: that part of us that is the essence of life, lives forever, and connects us with God. I hope I’m not putting anyone off with religious terms but it is necessary to explain that here in a nutshell is what finally truly liberated me.
I had to realize that my ‘soul’ would never forget, but as long as I maintained in my spirit that I had already willfully ‘released’ my pain and resentment to God, all I had to do when those ugly memories returned was resolve to speak to my own mind the words, ‘I have already turned this over to God and so these memories no longer hold any power over me or my future.’ This realization, after a time, brought me a great deal of inner peace and clarity. When people ask me about Don, I think of him generally in amiable terms, not due to my own ability to forgive but the power of God in me to transform my mind from a bitter person into a much happier one.
>In the Grow Fins box set liner notes, you say that it is difficult for you to hear the goodness of ‘Spotlight Kid’, for example, due to the poverty you suffered during their creation? How then does it feel now to be seeing songs like ‘Click Clack’ and ‘I’m Gonna Booglarize You Baby’ on stage?
I am able to now separate the association of the experience from the music itself and hear the music as separate entity more as an outsider would. The essence of who Captain Beefheart was to the public is now mostly what I see and hear. It’s like standing on the moon and viewing Earth – just a completely new perspective.
>Do you have a particular favourite Beefheart tune? Why so fond?
Orange Claw Hammer. It is totally Don, simple and direct, no band help, no mish mosh of players ideas. The story is clear and precise, filled with poetic images and sung in a straightforward manner. It was created during a memorably happy time when there were no immediate conflicts, and was given relatively quick birth. I can sing this song with pure abandon, because I love every word of it. Also, I feel sometimes like I’m the old peg-legged guy coming back to my ‘daughter’ after thirty years by re-visiting this music.
>What are you passionate about in life, apart from music?
God first, but I try to live my beliefs, not preach them. People’s ears have become dull from so much input, but their eyes may see the difference in my life.
Secondly, my family. I think the nuclear family is the most important building block of a healthy society. It is where one explores their roots. Every child should ideally be raised by their genetic parents and know them well so they understand themselves better. This promotes free-thinking, confidence, the ability to avoid pitfalls and understand what makes and breaks human relationships; the highest form of which is civilization in general. If one does not get the proper foundation in childhood, it is much more difficult to contribute to the general good of an entire society.
I am not so naïve as to think that genetic parents are all GOOD parents. But, for the most part, I believe they have the highest potential to be the strongest positive element in a human’s development.
A lot of the problems we face in society seem largely built upon the us/them theory that ‘we are right’ and ‘they are wrong.’ My spiritual beliefs seem to indicate that we are ALL wrong and HE (God) is right. By looking for a higher source of inspiration than our own puny human brains (of which we only use about 10 per-cent) it becomes more and more clear that none of us really have all the answers yet, are not fully in control and shouldn’t be, and so must always stay open. These are interesting times to live on planet Earth.
A DVD containing a full live show and a John Peel-narrated documentary, ‘Crow’s Milk’ is available from www.subdiva.com.
A live CD is due very soon, whilst ‘Back To The Front’, a CD recorded at the initial rehearsals is still available.
The Magic Band tour the UK in May and June. Details at www.themagicband.com.
Further resources: www.beefheart.com