Live on ‘Detroit Tubeworks,’ 1971
Captain Beefheart and the Magic Band’s appearance on Detroit Tubeworks is justly famed. On January 15, 1971, Don Van Vliet’s 30th birthday, the group cooked and ate Trout Mask Replica‘s “When Big Joan Sets Up” and two cuts from side one of Lick My Decals Off, Baby, “Woe-Is-Uh-Me-Bop” and “Bellerin’ Plain.” There is a Library of Congress in my mind, and this tape reel is the only item on its windswept shelves.
The group also played an untitled, unreleased, improvised number for 120 digits. Under what sounds like the whine of an air conditioner—though it could just as easily be a swarm of bees at a Ligeti concert, a first lesson on the musical saw or a plain old case of sticky-shed syndrome—a dozen feet and a dozen hands follow Beefheart’s direction. His mouth moves, so maybe he was vocalizing in the studio. What’s the difference? You can’t hear it.
The YouTube comments point to a 2012 interview in which John “Drumbo” French says Van Vliet’s main concern was keeping the Magic Band from talking to the press:
There’s a film of The Magic Band that I think is from ’71 where you’re playing three or four songs in a TV studio, and then the band is filmed silently twirling your feet underneath a table…
Do you remember this?
He appears to be conducting you as you’re twirling your feet, and I was just curious, was that the idea that you were, like, playing the parts of one of your songs with your feet supposedly in time with each other, or…
No, actually, I really think that those kind of, sort of Dadaistic moments that Don created, were because he would do anything to keep us from being interviewed. He didn’t want the band to be interviewed. And I think mainly the reason was because he had created such an alien environment to work in that it would have become evident right away that there were a lot of problems in the band, that something wasn’t quite right. So he would invent these things to do as a diversion. I had no idea what that was supposed to mean one way or the other, but we all took off our shoes and they filmed our feet under the table. That’s all I remember about it. I think that was done in 1971 on a tour in January. If I recall, it was either outside of Detroit or outside of… let’s see… yeah, it was outside of Detroit, and we did it at night en route to the hotel.
It looks a little fuzzy, but so would you if you were a 46-year-old TV clip. The rest of the Detroit Tubeworks performance, first released on Revenant’s 1999 Grow Fins box, is at beefheart.com. Watch for the “hand and toe investment,” a kind of Masonic gesture for Beefheart freaks.