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Gary Lucas meets Captain Beefheart
12:35 pm


Frank Zappa
Captain Beefheart
Gary Lucas

One of the nice things about editing this blog is when fun—and unexpected—things arrive in your inbox, like this delightful tale from grand guitarist Gary Lucas, on the occasion of the 40th anniversary of the live Frank Zappa/Captain Beefheart album, Bongo Fury, which was released on October 2, 1975:

I’d originally met Don Van Vliet at Yale when I was an undergraduate there in the early 70’s. I was music director of their radio station WYBC in the fall of 1971, when he and his band came up to play a show at Yale around the release of The Spotlight Kid album, and I got the task to interview him and then do a hospitality meet-n-greet when the band arrived to play at Woolsey Hall (with performing monkeys as the opening act, I kid you not).

I had previously seen his NYC debut the previous year at a little club on the Upper West Side called Ungano’s in January 1971, and it changed my life. I vowed to myself that night:  “If I ever do anything in music, I want to play with this guy”—it was that life-affirming and radical of a show/presentation.

I always made a point after that to hang out with him backstage when he came around the NYC area to tour—I saw him at Town Hall several times with Bob Seger and Larry Coryell opening, also at the Academy of Music on 14th sandwiched between a then-fledgling Billy Joel and The J. Geils Band.

Don eventually gave me his phone number and we drew closer, with marathon phone conversations that would last an hour. We lost touch when he did his “Tragic Band” thing on Mercury. I didn’t have the heart to go see it live, having loved the old band and songs but in 1975 I was home in Syracuse NY when I saw in the newspaper that Don would be the special guest of Frank Zappa at the Syracuse War Memorial.

I had to see that—especially as his last words to me about Frank hadn’t been too favorable. He came out in the show and did the great cameos which are featured on Bongo Fury which came out later that year. He was still great!

When the show was over and they were packing up, I approached the stage and there he was, looking lost amidst the chaos, clutching a paper grocery bag filled with sketch books, harmonicas, cigarettes. I called his name and he yelled my name: “Gary!”—and came over and hugged me.

He was hungry and wanted to eat barbecue, so me and a pal drove him to a midnight barbecue pit known as “Tobe’s” that this old black guy Tobe Erwing ran after hours in his backyard in the ghetto of Syracuse,
you had to drive up a gravel road to get there. Amidst the midnight ribs chowdown, after Don, delighted by this scene, sang some a cappella blues while Tobe sat around looking bemused packing heat in his apron,
I revealed to Don that if he ever wanted to put his band back together I’d love to audition for it.

“You play the guitar?!?” he asked incredulously.

I’d never revealed this to him before as I was a) shy and b) didn’t want to offer my services until I was convinced I could handle his music, which I’d been secretly wood-shedding on.

“Come on up to Boston where I’m playing with Frank on Friday night, and bring your guitar” he instructed.

We caroused around some more in downtown Syracuse, eventually Don and myself bringing Frank back a bag of Tobe’s ribs (we found him in his bathrobe watching some cheesy Skiles and Henderson-like comedy duo in the top floor revolving restaurant of the Holiday Inn where they were staying).

I went home to crash about 6am, and got up around 10am to race back downtown to Syracuse University’s Crouse College Auditorium for the press conference of Frank and Don for invited students—the Soundcloud clip is just one excerpt from a fairly hilarious hour.

Later that week I duly took the Greyhound bus up to Boston with my ‘64 Stratocaster in tow… crashed with my Yale pal Bill Moseley (whom I ran a successful midnight horror film society with—Things That Go Bump in the Night—at Yale; Bill is now worldwide horror icon as Texas Chainsaw Massacre II‘s “Choptop” character, and has starred in a couple of Rob Zombie’s films). We went to see Frank’s Boston show with Don and then I went back to Don’s hotel room, where I proceeded to play for him.

“Great!! We’ll do it!” 

But when? He was vague… and I had a ticket to go to Taiwan in a few weeks to start work for my uncle (my parents attempt at shipping me off overseas to free me from the clutches of a 56-year-old Italian-American shaman-ess whom I’d been living with…)

We parted as friends—and I knew I was destined to play with him.

It did take a few years, but in 1980 things fell into place with Doc at the Radar Station …but that’s another story.

Guest post by Gary Lucas

Below, a brief excerpt from a Bongo Fury-related press conference at Crouse College of Music auditorium, Syracuse University, 4/23/75. My late friend Jamie Cohen (A&R maven for EMI, Columbia Records, and Private Music) was a student at Syracuse University back in 1975 when he asked Don Van Vliet this question at a press conference I also attended the morning after Frank Zappa and the Mothers—with special guest Captain Beefheart—performed at the Syracuse War Memorial:


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‘The Artist Formerly Known As Captain Beefheart’ - the complete documentary

Captain Beefheart t-shirt by Black And White T-shirts

This excellent documentary from 1997, narrated by John Peel and shown as part of a commemorative BBC Peel Night, has been online for a while but finally arrives in one 50 minute long piece thanks to uploader abrahamisagreatman. You may have seen this before, but it’s definitely worth another watch:

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Lester Bangs and Gary Lucas on Captain Beefheart

Illustration by Ashley Holt

Two great pieces about the late Don Van Vliet AKA Captain Beefheart. First up the classic and epic Lester Bangs profile from the Village Voice circa 1980 (you might want to print this one out):

As reviews over the years have proved, it’s always difficult to write anything that really says something about Don Van Vliet.

Perhaps (though he may hate this comparison) this is because, like Brian Eno, he approaches music with the instincts of a painter, in Beefheart’s case those of a sculptor as well. (When I was trying to pin him down about something on his new album over the phone the other day, he said: “Have you seen Franz Kline lately? You should go over to the Guggenheim and see his Number Seven, they have it in such a good place. He’s probably closer to my music than any of the painters, because it’s just totally speed and emotion that comes out of what he does.”)

When he’s directing the musicians in his Magic Band he often draws the songs as diagrams and shapes. Before that he plays the compositions into a tape himself, “usually on a piano or a moog synthesizer. Then I can shape it to be exactly the way I want it, after I get it down there. It’s almost like sculpture; that’s actually what I’m doing, I think. ‘Cause I sure as hell can’t afford marble, as if there was any.”

Much of what results, by any “normal” laws of music, cannot be done. As for lyrics, again like Eno, he often works them up from a sort of childlike delight at the very nature of the sounds themselves, of certain words, so if, to pull an example out of the air; “anthrax,” or “love” for that matter appears in a line, it doesn’t necessarily mean what you’ll find in the dictionary if you look it up. Then again, it might.

Contrary to Rolling Stone, “Ashtray Heart” on the new album has nothing to do with Beefheart’s reaction to punk rockers beyond one repeated aside that might as well be a red herring. (“Lut’s open up another case of the punks” is the line reflecting his rather dim view of the New Wavers who are proud to admit to being influenced by him. “I don’t ever listen to ‘em, you see, which is not very nice of me but… then again, why should I look through my own vomit? I think they’re overlooking the fact - they’re putting it back into rock and roll: bomp, bomp, bomp, that’s what I was tryin’ to get away from, that mama heartbeat stuff. I guess they have to make a living, though.”)

And then there is the heartfelt appreciation of Beefheart that appeared in Sunday’s Wall Street Journal, from onetime Magic Band member, guitar genius Gary Lucas:

I never met anyone remotely like him in my 30 years in “this business of music.”  He made up his own rules, was sui generis and sounded like no one else.  Steeped in gutbucket blues and free jazz, Van Vliet operated on the highest of artistic and poetic levels that left most people bewildered and scratching their heads.  But if you were willing to put in the work to really LISTEN – his music was not a background experience – you would be rewarded with a searingly honest beauty and a breathtaking complexity that made most other efforts in the pop arena seem cheap and disposable.

Besides music, he transformed and made art of everything he touched including poetry and painting and sculpture.  I was honored to have worked with him for five years as both his guitarist and manager. A total rebel artist and contrarian, he had the guts to go on David Letterman and announce “I don’t want my MTV!” after they rejected our video for “Ice Cream for Crow” as being “too weird.”  He could be a terror and a tyrant to his musicians, but most of them were fiercely devoted to him and put up with his extreme mood swings for the privilege of being part of the experience of working with him. We all knew we were involved in a world historical project.

His music was notoriously and fiendishly difficult to play – and the first piece he gave me to record, a guitar solo piece entitled “Flavor Bud Living,” which is featured on the “Doc at the Radar Station” album, absolutely put me on the map musically, the reviewer for Esquire Magazine writing that I must have grown extra fingers to negotiate my way through the piece.  Even the great Lester Bangs who had famously good ears (and was an early critical Don Van Vliet partisan, praising Beefheart’s most advanced albums “Trout Mask Replica” and “Lick My Decals Off, Baby” in Rolling Stone) was fooled by my performance of “Flavor Bud”, which involved months of rehearsal and shooting pains in my arm from the physical exertion learning to master the piece correctly, inquiring “Which part are you playing there Gary, the top or the bottom?” when he first heard the playback of “Flavor Bud Living” at a listening party.  “Lester, that’s all me, performing live in real time” was my reply.  That was really maybe the highest compliment I have ever been paid re. my guitar playing.

Via Michael Simmons/Steve Silberman

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