Interview Excerpt #5
FRANK J. OTERI: Let’s talk some more about Captain Beefheart [a.k.a. Don Van Vliet] because he is somebody who’s almost like an equivalent figure in rock to someone like Harry Partch, someone who was really unique and created music exclusively on his own terms.
GARY LUCAS: Yeah, a diamond in the ruff, an Absolute sweet generous genius…
FRANK J. OTERI: And someone who is completely under-appreciated like Partch largely due to his own reluctance to play the music industry game.
GARY LUCAS: He liked to subvert the game. I mean, Zappa was able to carve a niche out of a social center of the time for himself. And took swipes at a lot of obvious targets. I mean, he said a lot of things that needed to be said, and he relied on a certain level of satire. Don’s lyrics I think were a lot more poetic and obscure. They’re like puzzles that need to be worked out. But once you get into the flow and I think they become self- evident but you have to work at it a lot harder than with Frank. Frank served up his satiric observations more or less on a platter. It wasn’t hard to figure out what he was saying. Don was a just a bit more on a higher, more rarified plane than most people in the world; he was really willing to do the work. Also, for a few of his records, he was attracted to making genuinely radical, revolutionary, new music approaches and a lot of people found them too difficult. The first time I heard Trout Mask Replica I thought it was utter chaos, I didn’t really see the plan behind it.
FRANK J. OTERI: And it was all recorded what, in an 8 hour session…
GARY LUCAS: Yeah, and it was rigorously worked out.
FRANK J. OTERI: Notated arrangements?
GARY LUCAS: Well, notated by people in the band who were able to write it out. Don really never wrote music out. But it was certainly memorized. It was through-composed and then codified. So like classical music, there was no improvisation other than his vocal and saxophone playing on the record. But saying that, to me it stands as the most brilliant, classical music of this century. I rate him as a Titan of music. I rate him as one of the greats, he’s right up there with Stravinsky as a composer. And as a writer I think his poetry is second to none. People go on about as a great rock poet, and Dylan. I think they are both gifted, but I think Beefheart was really ahead of them. His stuff really reads more like poetry for me.
FRANK J. OTERI: And he’s always had incredible sidemen. It’s interesting to look at the trajectory. The very first Beefheart record, Safe As Milk, had Ry Cooder and the very last Beefheart record had you.
GARY LUCAS: (Chuckles) I hope I’m upholding the tradition. You know I feel that it was my first goal in music to play with this guy. I mean, after seeing him in New York City at his concert debut in 1971 in a little club which no longer exists, I made a vow that if I ever did anything in music it would be to play with this guy. I came down with some buddies and drove in from New Haven. I’m a Yalie. And I heard the records, but I wasn’t prepared for this. It really took me over. I thought I’d never heard a guitar played so brilliantly and uniquely, and that’s what I wanted to do. From that point on, it was my goal to play with this guy. And I announced it to my friends. Luckily about 6 months later he came to play a show at Yale, and I was the music director at the radio station at that time, so I was assigned the task of interviewing him. And I have a tape of it somewhere – my voice was shaking. You know, he was on the cover of Rolling Stone, he had a reputation of being a heavy psychic. And he was very affable on the phone, charming and funny. And then meeting him I was convinced that there was a genuine presence.
FRANK J. OTERI: And luckily you got to him just before he gave up playing music. Any thoughts as to why that happened?
GARY LUCAS: He was very discouraged with the kind of limited nature of the record business. He had never really broken through in any commercial way. So he was still getting contracts to make records, yet they weren’t for a lot of money on the front end, and he wasn’t seeing anything on the back end. He really hated to tour; he hated the rock circus. It was taking its toll on him. You know I did the last European tour and most of the American tour in 1980. And afterwards he was just shuddering with disgust before going out on stage, I remember, in San Francisco for instance. So he just saw painting always as a much more creative expression for his personality. I disagreed with him because he made pronouncements to me and to the press that in his mind painting went a lot farther than music as an art form. Be that as it may, he made the decision do to that full time, and I’m proud that I helped usher him into making that transition to full time painter. He had been painting and sculpting since he’d been a kid. But I’m sorry he decided to stop doing music. We had a contract to do another record with Virgin after Ice Cream for Crow but he ignored it. He really didn’t want to put himself through the rigorous agonies of making a record. He’d turn himself inside and out to do these things.
FRANK J. OTERI: Is he writing at all? Do you keep in touch?
GARY LUCAS: I haven’t been in touch since the mid-80s, and I’m not sure how he’s doing. I hope he’s well. I went to an art exhibition a couple of years ago at a gallery on the Upper East Side here and was proud to see the work being displayed. And they were selling for a lot of money, so I hope he’s doing well. I don’t know if he’s continuing. But knowing him, this was a guy who never turned off. He was constantly writing poems, and dictating them into little tape recorders, and coming up with music parts, and whistling, crazy parts that he would have the band run again into a tape recorder… He was always sketching; he had hundreds and hundreds of notebooks filled with beautiful drawings. So I hope he’s still keeping up with the output, although I had heard rumors about his health problems. I saw a documentary that the BBC made a couple of years ago, and he sounded pretty ill, I mean just from the tone of his voice. And I had heard he had M.S., but I don’t know for a fact. I hope he’s well.