The Odyssey of Captain Beefheart: Rolling Stone's 1970 Cover Story

Page 6 of 6

Like Socrates, Beefheart believes that everyone knows everything he needs to know already. What he tries to do is to make them realize this. Most people, he reports, fight it every inch of the way. They refuse to be free even when they see what it's like. "They just have too much at stake."

The absolutely boundless character of Beefheart's mind has taken him into investigations of extra-sensory perception, clairvoyance and even reincarnation. In addition to the ability to answer the phone before it rings, Beefheart is apparently able to foretell parts of the future. On all of my visits to his house in the San Fernando Valley, Beefheart told me that he knew in advance that I was coming. On one occasion he was able to prove it to me by showing that he'd put on "The Florsheim Shoe" and bright red socks which we'd joked about on my earlier visit. "I wore them just for you," he said holding out his foot. Beefheart also maintains that he has led previous lives. At present he believes that he is a reincarnation of a man named Van Vliet who was a friend of Rembrandt's. "Van Vliet was a tremendous painter who could never finish anything. Rembrandt used to write him letters saying, 'I'm pretty good, but if you ever got it together ... wow!' "

In order to pursue the possibilities of this previous existence, the Captain has recently begun painting again. Like everything else he does, his paintings are simply astounding. During one of our conversations he went to a two foot tall stack of poster paper and pulled out one of his recent works. Holding it under his chin and peering over at me, Beefheart asked, "Well, what do you see?" I stared into the splots and blobs of yellow, green and red and had to confess that the painting said nothing to me. With that Beefheart reached around and pointed to a small object in the middle of his masterpiece. "See the little finger with the decal ring?" he asked. I looked carefully. Sure enough, there in the midst of the chaos — a little finger with a decal ring! "Is that what it's about?" "It sure is," he replied.

What, then, of the future of Captain Beefheart? What are the chances that he will leave his self-imposed house arrest and begin to spread his music and magic more widely into the world?

At present the Captain stands at a crucial turning point. On the face of it everything seems to be in his favor. His new Magic Band is probably the best he's ever had and may be one of the best in the country. He has recently added drummer Artie Trip, formerly of the Mothers of Invention, who provides exactly the right blend of rhythmic novelty and imagination to the group's sound. Zoot Horn Rollo and Rockette Morton, musicians that Beefheart taught from scratch, have reached musical maturity and are eager to get out before the public. Both of them are remarkably talented and love the music they play with an unwavering passion. The Captain himself is clearly at the peak of his creativity in terms of both composition and performance. His new songs in rehearsal — "Woe Is A Me Bop," "Alice in Blunderland," and others — are even better than the tunes on Trout Mask Replica. I have heard the new Magic Band play this music in the shelter of Beefheart's living room and, believe me, it's simply incredible.

Beyond this, Beefheart now has around him a group of associates that he should be able to trust. His new manager, Grant Gibbs, is both honest and thoroughly sensitive to the special needs and foibles of his artist. Previously an unbiased observer of Beefheart's career, Mr. Gibbs is now trying to untangle the web of contractual knots which the Magic Band had stumbled into over the years. Although Beefheart thinks otherwise, Straight Records is probably giving him as good and forthright a deal as he'd find anywhere in the business. And there's no dearth of opportunities either. Beefheart is very much in demand both in the United States and in Europe. Offers for a tour of England and the Continent have come from five different agencies in recent weeks. He could also do well touring college campuses and jazz and pop festivals in America. All Don has to do is say yes.

At the point of decision, Captain Beefheart wavers erratically. He hires and fires musicians with great abandon and then says that the group is not yet ready. He also creates imaginary enemies in his mind and then spends his days trying to figure out ways to fight them off. During the writing of this article, for example, Van Vliet became convinced that I was public enemy number one. For days he brooded about the crimes that I was supposedly committing against him. What Beefheart cannot seem to understand is that he has nothing like the number of foes he thinks he has. There are literally dozens of people who would do anything to enable him to perform on stage again. All those who may have had evil designs on him have long since retired in frustration.

Fortunately, it appears that Beefheart is regaining the necessary confidence in himself and his surroundings. He has recently married a lovely girl named Jan who is a constant companion in the wild and delightful realm of Beefheartism imagination. He has also made tentative preparations for a tour and a new album. All of it hangs on choices that he will make in the next several weeks.

But who knows? Perhaps 1970 will be the year that we finally catch a glimpse of the man behind the Trout Mask. Maybe this will be the year that all of us can experience the amazing wisdom and humor that Captain Beefheart has in his grasp. Clearly though, it's strictly up to him.

To read the new issue of Rolling Stone online, plus the entire RS archive: Click Here

Music Main Next

blog comments powered by Disqus
Around the Web
Powered By ZergNet
Daily Newsletter

Get the latest RS news in your inbox.

Sign up to receive the Rolling Stone newsletter and special offers from RS and its
marketing partners.


We may use your e-mail address to send you the newsletter and offers that may interest you, on behalf of Rolling Stone and its partners. For more information please read our Privacy Policy.

Song Stories

“Bird on a Wire”

Leonard Cohen | 1969

While living on the Greek island of Hydra, Cohen was battling a lingering depression when his girlfriend handed him a guitar and suggested he play something. After spotting a bird on a telephone wire, Cohen wrote this prayer-like song of guilt. First recorded by Judy Collins, it would be performed numerous times by artists incuding Johnny Cash, Joe Cocker and Rita Coolidge. "I'm always knocked out when I hear my songs covered or used in some situation," Cohen told Rolling Stone. "I've never gotten over the fact that people out there like my music."

More Song Stories entries »