Look, let’s just get one thing straight. I don’t have to have a good reason to post anything about the Magic Band…
But, if I did, (and I’m saying “if”), a curious series of events on a routine Easter trip to Bristol has led me to thinking a lot about Don van Vliet.
A freak saucepan accident occurred which I won’t go into – it’s too unlikely to dwell on. (Suffice to say that the car is still in the garage, the pan ended up embedded in the underbelly and still had lentils in it – and if that’s not a Beefheart-ian sequence, I don’t know what is…) It led to us walking into the city centre from a completely different direction to normal, stopping for a consolation cider brunch at a café and wandering along Whiteladies Road, an area we’ve really only driven through in the past. Jolly nice it was too especially as it culminated in trip to Rise Records at the top of Park Street.
As there’s been a Rise in Cheltenham until recently (thank you John Lewis…), I’ve never bothered with the Bristol branch before, although I know they do music sessions there generally has a fine rep. It was pretty good, lots of nice stuff, reasonably priced and all that and I picked up a couple of things.
The real bonus, though, was this, “the definitive account of life with the Captain from the inside”:
For a fiver, too (I’d quite literally been eyeing it on Amazon the night before for £20).
A chance conversation with a drummer feller I half-know, had recently got me thinking about favourite drummers. Robert Wyatt was first to mind, of course, but “Drumbo” followed pretty closely on his heels.
John French is a bit of long-suffering hero of mine and I’m kicking myself for not getting off my arse and coming down to see him in Bristol last year. This is the man whose clumping, goofy drumming cajoled the Magic Band through Safe as Milk, Strictly Personal and, of course, Trout Mask Replica. Not being a musician myself, I understand little of the nuts and bolts that drive a record, but every time I put on one of these, French always seems to be performing curious little twists and tucks that stand out even amongst the mayhem and rank craziness that mark all of Beefheart’s best stuff.
French’s other great contribution to the Magic Band’s records was to transcribe the screwy ideas handed to him, into some form of music the rest of the band could follow, with only the Captain’s toothy whistling or table banging for guidance. He did a remarkable job, with no little forbearance as van Vliet became increasingly dictatorial, and was rewarded by being thrown out of the band after the completion of Trout Mask Replica (literally, if the stories are to be believed. Down a flight of stairs…). Incredibly, his contribution was largely uncredited on the sleeve of Replica.
I’m not finished the book yet – it’s quite a tome – but it’s an enjoyable, gracious, if rambling, read that is only making me admire the man’s remarkable patience all the more. Predictably, Beefheart’s first three albums, plus the at-the-time unreleased Mirror Man sessions which is the sister LP to Strictly Personal, have all been blasting from the car stereo this fortnight.
They’re a crazed, irresistible musical statement that take some beating (and occasionally a little patience), and I can’t really do their warped, oddness much justice. I did buy a 1966 live album from eMusic (Plastic Factory) this week too, but to be honest it’s not a patch on these. It’s mostly pretty standard blues reworks, remarkable only for Beefheart’s brutal, Howling Wolf-style vocals.
There’s not a lot of good Beefheart on YouTube, unfortunately, and the clip that is regularly trotted out on BBC clip shows is that vaguely creepy (and not in a good way) Upon the My Oh My clip from Dutch TV, which sees the Captain looking not so much eccentric as just plain lonely (and well past his best).
There is this glorious clip, though, shot in 1968 during the MIDEM music festival, on the beach at Cannes, which you’ll have seen, but does certainly capture the Magic Band in all their jerky, groovy weirdness, preparing to embark on their quirky, fraught journey aboard the strange Beefheart gyrocopter.
(Btw, I don’t think it does feature Ry Cooder, despite what it looks like and what people say. Cooder had already quit the band the year before, after Beefheart stopped a performance during “Electricity” and fell into the audience, claiming he’d seen a girl he knew turn into a goldfish…)
(I’ve only recently found out that the words for this, my favourite Beefheart song, were not actually written by the Captain at all but by a (to me) mysterious collaborator named Herb Bermann. Go here for an interesting read about the background to the writing of the song and a clip of Bermann reading his own poetry.)