In the early days of my friendship with Don Van Vliet, I had a quite different impression of the direction he intended for the Captain Beefheart and His Magic Band. The Beefheart band, judging from the performances I had attended before I knew Don, was a blues band.
Sorting through the complexities regarding anything Don Van Vliet did in music is a task beyond my capabilities, but I can say that the transition from blues to avant-garde rock did not come quickly, and probably not easily. Many years later, drummer John French remarked to me, “I thought I was joining a blues band.” And, although I knew of Don’s leanings away from traditional blues, no one was more surprised than I when the change came.
Indeed, French’s entry into the Magic Band as drummer in 1967 was probably pivotal. John’s hiring, in my estimation, marked the beginning of Don’s true ascendency as the band’s leader and effectively signaled the end of the group as a democracy.
In the wake Bob Dylan’s rise to international fame and the British Invasion in the 1960s, American fans were besotted with overly produce, glitz-ridden and often just plain lousy music. Part of this may have been due to the misperception, even within the industry, that what Dylan and the Beatles did was easy-a guitar, three or four chords and you’re a rocker.
I am on record, I believe, as having witnessed Don Van Vliet demonstrate his disdain for both Dylan and the Rolling Stones, but in the beginning he was heading at breakneck speed in the same direction. However as Don gained power within the Magic Band I saw his perspective change regarding popular music, or perhaps more aptly, he simply began to share his already well-thought out ideas with me.
I have always wondered if A&M Records’ failure to capitalize on the momentum Captain Beefheart generated at the Hollywood Teen Fair in 1965 effected Van Vliet’s attitude, at least toward record companies, if not Top 40 rock in general. This may not be the case at all, but it certainly seemed so to me at the time. After all, the Doors took off shortly after their appearance there, and the Magic Band seemed to me a bigger draw. (The Doors opened for Beefheart at the Whisky A Go-Go on at least one occasion, and they were not initially thought to be a “comer” in the Top 40 market.)
At any rate, I was present for most of the writing of the Safe as Milk album, and the songs were quite different in the writing from the cuts that made the album. Most of the rehearsal tapes and demos made the Grow Fins project, so this should not come as a surprise to Beefheart fans, but Van Vliet had been heading in a different direction with that album before French entered the group.
In fact, when Don first sang, “Call on Me” in an early band rehearsal for the SAM album, I nearly fell out of my chair, the similarity to a song I wrote with Johnny Otis was so striking. Otis and I (using the penname “Don Aldrich”) had penned that song, “Knowing That You Want Him,” a year earlier and I had played the demo for Don. I was further amazed when Al Snouffer actually bought an electric 12-string from my singing partner, Gary Lotspeich, to duplicate the sound.
Don Van Vliet was all too aware of the culture’s affaire de coeur with Top 40 rock and roll, and we had many conversations about it during those early days of the band. In the beginning, there was not a question in my mind that the entire Magic Band, Don included, wanted commercial Top 40 success. “When we make it … ” he said to me quite often, in that specific context.”
I have often thought that Don may have finally concluded that he didn’t have an audience among the Top 40 crowd. Don was not a showy performer and I was astounded to learn that he was a far better dancer than Mick Jagger. The dude could move. Much has been made of Don’s shyness, but I don’t think that was in play here. In the first place Don was not shy, he simply had periodical panic attacks, as evidenced by the Monterey Pop Festival debacle. Still, he elected to be rather stoic on stage, within limits.
A few years after the Trout Mask Replica project I ran into Van Vliet at a Lancaster nightclub. During the evening the house band invited him to sit in for a couple of tunes, and Don obliged. At the end of his performance Captain Beefheart threw his microphone to the stage. The band, the crowd, everyone was shocked as Van Vliet exited the stage and returned to his seat.
Later, a member of the band approached me and said, “Man, he destroyed my microphone!” To which I replied, “You’re lucky he didn’t blow the sound system.” This, Beefheart fans will understand, was in reference to Don’s legendary “blowing” of Woody Woodbury’s sound system on national TV.
Regardless of the rationale behind Van Vliet’s gradual move toward the avant-garde, as individual members of the original band peeled away, he gained almost autonomous decision-making power within the band; and with the departure of Al Snouffer and Jerry Handley that power was total. The evolution toward avant-garde rock of course started very soon after the band’s formation, however, it began in earnest when Don had complete control.
I have said, and still believe, that Zappa’s newfound success had at least some influence on Don’s change of heart. With Freak Out! Frank Zappa had broken a wall and many Americans, especially university students, the academic intelligentsia and cocktail circuit prowlers in New York and Los Angeles, were gravitating to new and different sounds. I have no doubt that Van Vliet believed initially that he, too, could achieve a degree of commercial success in the new avant-garde market.
In the end, of course, that was not to be; Don Van Vliet would go on to achieve a different, and many would say greater, kind of success. However, two notable commercial attempts did come out of the Trout Mask Replica Magic Band: Mark Boston and Bill Harkleroad’s Mallard (financed by Jethro Tull’s Ian Anderson), and Jeff Cotton’s MU. Neither achieved the commercial success they sought and perhaps deserved, but I believe the state of the art was advanced somewhat for their attempts. MU particularly managed, I thought, quite effectively to meld Van Vliet’s free rhythm form with a more contemporary sound.
An aside here: I performed with MU on several occasions in 1970, and was present at their official debut on the Queen Mary that year. I considered it a great honor to have been asked to sit in with the band, and it is my opinion that Jeff Cotton was one of the greatest slide guitar players of the 20th century.
Don Van Vliet’s place in the history of rock and roll is established; he will only become better known over time. In seeking fame as a rock musician he ultimately achieved something much more important, I believe. He stands out among the greatest names in rock during the 20th century as a truly unique genius.