On January 15th, the singer, composer and painter Don Van Vliet, better known as Captain Beefheart, would have turned 70. As I prepared the tribute to him in the current issue, following his death last month, I spoke to guitarist Gary Lucas, who played on 1980’s Doc at the Radar Station and 1982’s Ice Cream for Crow and managed Beefheart at the time; guitarist Denny Walley, who played on the unissued 1976 LP, Bat Chain Puller; and photographer-filmmaker Anton Corbijn, who took the iconic cover shot on Ice Cream for Crow and made the 1993 short-film portrait of Beefheart, Some YoYo Stuff. Here are unpublished excerpts from those interviews.
Gary Lucas: “I went to Beefheart University”
Beefheart may have been the last beatnik, the way he epitomized the “outsider” in his expression and behavior.
He was the last rugged individual in the truly American sensibility, someone who just went his own path. He fell into that tradition of the hobo. The imagery of his poems referred to that kind of character.
Yet he genuinely believed he should have been a rock star, that his music could and should be popular.
It was his dichotomy. It was one side of him that was still bound for glory. With every record, he would say, “This is it. This is the one.”
What did he tell you when he retired from music, after Ice Cream for Crow?
He said he didn’t want to do music anymore, because he thought he’d said it all. But the main reason was he believed he never would be taken seriously as a painter if he continued to perform. Sadly, I went along with it.
You first saw Beefheart and the Magic Band live in 1971.
I saw him at Ungano’s [in New York]. It changed my life. I made a promise to myself: If I play with anybody in music, I want it to be him. It was the most dynamic thing I had ever experienced. It was beyond music. It was like a circus of wonders. He stood there, but there was a magnetism. He was in control – potent, charismatic – and these other guys whirled and danced around him.
His instrumental facility was limited, but he had these extraordinary melodies in his head. What made it worth the trouble to translate them for him?
They had integrity. We were mimicking his nervous system – his tics and quirks. “Flavor Bud Living” [on Doc at the Radar Station] – he sent that to me to learn. He said, “I want you to use my ‘exploding note’ theory. Play it like each note has no relationship to the note before or after it – like bombs bursting in air.” And that was the first take. I stumbled off the plane, got in a taxi to this studio in Glendale, California – close to where he grew up – and played it. He went, “Yeah, that’s it.”
He always got an up-or-down reaction to his music: ecstasy or indifference. Was he too far off the radar for most people?
Most people want a conventional beat and a nice lullabye. That’s what he was fighting. And it was a brave fight. He had a radical vision, was able to harness these energies somehow, get people to do his bidding to realize it and create art that still astonishes in its range and power. I tell people that I went to Beefheart University. I’m more proud of that than going to Yale.
Denny Walley: “I had never heard a voice like that in my life”
You knew Beefheart and Frank Zappa in high school, in Lancaster, California.
I was best friends with Frank’s brother Bobby. Don – I saw him but never really spoke to him. It’s a stretch to say he went to school. He had a blue Oldsmobile – he would cruise Lancaster Boulevard in it, driving by the school nine times a day. He was enrolled in school, but I never saw him in any classes.
You were already in Zappa’s band when he invited Beefheart to join him on the 1975 tour recorded for Bongo Fury.
I will never forget the first rehearsal. We were doing “Willie the Pimp,” and Don kept missing his cues, forgetting words, not singing in tempo. Any time it happened, Don would blame it on somebody’s shoes: “Oh man, that guy’s shoes! How can I sing?” But I had never heard a voice like that in my life. I’d heard all of the great bluesmen. But that range – it was unbelievable.
What do you remember about making Bat Chain Puller?
The rehearsals for it were, as usual, chaotic. We rehearsed in this storage locker. But we’d maybe play an hour out of nine or ten. The rest of it was Don talking, giving verbal imagery of what he wanted. The album took a couple of weeks to complete. But from what I’ve heard, as far as people who recorded with Don on previous albums, this was a cakewalk. I can imagine the tedium of making Trout Mask Replica. When I played with those guys in the [2003-2006] Magic Band reunion, learning that stuff was monstrous – and that was without Don even being there.
Beefheart fired you from the Magic Band. Why?
Time didn’t exist for him. It was just a word. I was married and had a young son. The other guys were younger. They could stay with him, playing and talking, for 20 hours if he wanted. I couldn’t do that. I got a call from the bass player. Don wasn’t good at confrontation. He had to delegate someone else.
What was funny was after he started rehearsing his new band, I went to one session. Don saw me and was like, “Hey, man, where you been?” Like he didn’t notice I was missing. “Man, I don’t know what happened.” It was okay. The bottom line is I loved him. To play with Frank and to play with Don – it was total fulfillment.
Anton Corbijn: “He was a bright and funny man”
Your photograph of Beefheart on Ice Cream for Crow has a stark dramatic humanity, as if you can see that his years in music had taken a toll.
He was only 39 when I took that picture [in 1980]. But by taking his hat off, he became less of an act. He seems very vulnerable. There is a beautiful human being there, but it is different than the artist.
What inspired you to make Some YoYo Stuff?
When Zappa died [in 1993], I was in L.A. I was in a book store and saw a couple of books on Zappa. There was nothing on Don. I felt there had to be something in existence, when he goes. Because he was ill already then. I called [his wife] Jan. She said, “He’s been waiting for years for you to ask him.”
His voice sounds older, tired, not as authoritative and booming. But his wit and faculties are there.
I always saw him as a very bright and funny man. What I like about the film is the humor. Because you don’t see him talking, you could really listen to what he was saying. There’s some music – he sings in the beginning. There’s his love of animals and his dislike of mankind. He was more direct when he didn’t have to be the star.
When did you last see him?
In 1999. The last few times I tried to visit, it didn’t work out. But I spoke to him on the phone.We had very long conversations. Sometimes he was hard to hear. But the mind – he was sharp.