PKM talks to Gary Lucas, who was Captain’s Beefheart’s manager and a member of the Magic Band, about the talented and distinctive Beefheart. Lucas has teamed up with Nona Hendryx to tour in support of their tribute album The World of Captain Beefheart.
Captain Beefheart (aka Don Van Vliet) was one of those artists who was so much his own thing, so sui generis, so unlike just about anything else, so distinctive, and so far-out, that to attempt to play his music might seem a tricky proposition. It’s a little like trying to a put a new twist on the Grateful Dead’s psychedelic opus “Dark Star.”
Beefheart died in 2010 after having been retired from music for nearly 30 years, but his music continues to reverberate, astound and inspire. As it happens, there were two records released last year of artists interpreting or paying tribute to Beefheart. The Boston outfit Men & Volts did a record of Beefheart covers, playing it pretty straight; by which I mean, playing it pretty raw and crazed by staying fairly true to the Beefheart originals. Beefheart and his Magic Band often had a biting, metallic — almost shrill — sound, and the drums, bass and guitar could lurch and tumble in a-rhythmic cascades or abrupt jerking punches. To copy that clattering electric sound is a challenge, but Men & Volts did an impressive job.
The degree to which the spastic, shamanic, abstract-expressionist blues blasts of Beefheart’s band were deliberate and premeditated, or some kind of made-up-on-the-spot drug-fueled lunacy has long been a subject of discussion among fans and detractors as well. The release of the 2014 boxed set Sun Zoom Spark, featured, in addition to three classic albums from the early ‘70s, a disc of outtakes, previously unreleased tracks and alternate versions. The bonus features, with some early versions of material that eventually showed up on the Captain’s last studio album, confirmed that Beefheart was a meticulous taskmaster about getting his bands to render his music in just the way he wanted and intended it.
Guitarist Gary Lucas is someone who knows quite a bit about that. Lucas knew Beefheart well: he was Beefheart’s manager for a time, and he was also a member of the Magic Band toward the end of Beefheart’s recording career. (He made a guest appearance on 1980’s Doc At the Radar Station, and he was a full-fledged band member on Beefheart’s final record, Ice Cream For Crow, from 1982.) Lucas went on to work with Leonard Bernstein, Jeff Buckley and Lou Reed, so he’s collaborated with his share of musical geniuses.
In his role as Beefheart’s guitarist, Lucas got to hear the music go from sketch or demo recording to fully realized final production. He got to transmute Beefheart’s urgent proddings, singing and musical cues into riffs and lines that could be played and practiced and ultimately recorded. After the Captain’s retirement, Lucas presided over many Beefheart tributes and projects, and he is again fronting a Beefheart tribute band. This time he has teamed up with Labelle vocalist Nona Hendryx, who sang backup vocals with Talking Heads and others, and who’s also been performing Beefheart music for some time.
On their record The World of Captain Beefheart, the pair and their backing band move through a range of the Captain’s material. One of the most immediately striking aspects of the record is how Hendryx zeroed in on songs that highlight the often overlooked or downplayed aspect of Beefheart’s romanticism. Sure, everyone knows that Beefheart could come off crazed and ultra avant-garde — “a squid eating dough in a polyethylene bag is fast and bulbous, got me?” — but he could also sing songs of love and physicality.
I spoke with Lucas by phone from his home in New York City at the end of last year about Captain Beefheart and the new project. Lucas says he experienced Nona Hendryx’s take on Beefheart at a 2014 tribute concert that they both participated in.
“I kept her in mind because I thought she really seriously did a good job and she obviously loved Don’s work,” he said.
“Right away I’m saying ‘Don, you’re using all 10 fingers on the keyboard, and there’s only six strings on the guitar’. He said ‘You’d better find another four’.”
On being Beefheart’s manager at the end of his performing career, Lucas recalled: “It was completely by default. I think I did a fairly good job, but he was not that manageable. And once he became fixated on giving up music as a career and being a painter, that’s when I got out. I told him ‘I’m just not comfortable being your art pimp.’ I love his art, but I got in there for the music.”
On the subject of trying to get Beefheart to promote his last record and tour in support of it: “He didn’t want to tour on Ice Cream For Crow. He didn’t want to make a video, but I talked him into it. He didn’t like MTV, but I said ‘Look, we’ll make a cool video. … Don came up with some great ideas, which were incorporated as best we could into the video [for title track ‘Ice Cream For Crow’]. … I got [the video] in the Museum of Modern Art’s permanent collection. He was proud of that. You can arrange private screenings.”
Although Beefheart and the Magic Band went on Late Night With David Letterman twice to promote the video, it did not become an MTV hit (surprise!): “What happened was MTV rejected it. They thought it was basically too weird. It didn’t fit their format.”
Here is Captain Beefheart’s first appearance with David Letterman, 1982, during which the host allowed the video to be played.
On the recording of “Evening Bell,” a solo guitar masterpiece from Ice Cream From Crow: “That one, he sent me a cassette of him playing the piece on piano in a manner known as through-composed. He sat down and improvised on the spot and sent me the tape of that and said ‘OK, learn this.’ He was of the Allen Ginsberg school — first thought, best thought. … Whether Don could repeat that piece… No, he couldn’t. He was not a trained pianist, and he hadn’t worked it out in his mind. He wasn’t that kind of a composer or musical virtuoso, and yet he was a genius. … He sent it to me. Right away I’m saying ‘Don, you’re using all 10 fingers on the keyboard, and there’s only six strings on the guitar. He said ‘You’d better find another four’.”
Here is “Evening Bell” from the Ice Cream for Crow album:
On how playing Beefheart’s music improved Lucas’s guitar technique: “I was able to realize that piece [“Evening Bell”] pretty accurately through sheer close listening and just thinking ‘What are the notes and how am I gonna get to them?’… It definitely extended my technique at the time. It kicked me into whole new areas of playing.… Coming into Beefheart, I was coming from the Jeff Beck school. I loved country blues and I had rudimentary finger-picking techniques. But I never was good with those finger picks. I used a thumb pick only on ‘Semi Multicoloured Caucasian’ [another instrumental off of Ice Cream For Crow]…. I forced myself to learn my own technique, which was to cut my fingernails on my right hand and build up calluses on my right hand. Also using all of my fingers including my thumb and the pinky. It gives a characteristic sound. It was painful at first. Your fingertips don’t want to be put through the rigors of being cauterized by the strings.”
On the sonic qualities that Beefheart was seeking: “He liked a thin sound, like barbed wire. He kind of went for that sound. I’ll tell you a little bit, because it was kind of frustrating. We, the band, wanted a thicker, beefier sound, that you could say might have been achieved with a Gibson Les Paul as opposed to Fender. But he loved the Fender sound. And so do I honestly. My dad gave me a Stratocaster for my Bar Mitzvah in 1965 but at that point I couldn’t achieve a good tone with it and I chucked it at the time, foolishly. Some years later, pre-Beefheart, I got a ’64 Strat. It is what I used with Jeff Buckley as well…He favored that, but he made us put the heaviest strings — like piano strings — on the guitars. And that would also drive your hands crazy.”
On Beefheart’s musicianship and how he conveyed musical ideas to his band: “He could play guitar too, sort of. Sometimes he’d get on the guitar and thrash around, and say ‘OK, play that.’ … He was a sculptor. This is something you’ve got to understand about Don Van Vliet. He would look at it like a block of marble. … Sometimes he’d scat sing sounds. He’d take songs out of nature…He’d draw pictures. He’d write instructions.”
On Beefheart as bandleader: “When we were recording ‘Flavor Bud Living,’ he said to me right before the first take, ‘Play like you died.’ He composed with threats. Sometimes he’d holler with you before you’d record to put you on your toes. He’d say ‘I like that tension.’… Sometimes I say he treated people like sculpture, which can’t be pleasant if you’re a sensitive person… If he was happy with the result, that was the main thing, because we knew we were part of this beautiful, historical thing that we were recording.”
On learning “Flavor Bud Living”: “That was recorded originally for Shiny Beast (Bat Chain Puller). That was the first piece of Beefheart music I was officially assigned to learn, but it was from this tape of [Magic Band drummer John] French [playing it on guitar], he probably learned it from a piano recording of Don’s.”
Here is “Flavor Bud Living” from Doc at the Radar Station:
Beefheart wanted Lucas to take a different approach from John French. “He wanted me to play it using his exploding-note theory,” said Lucas. “Like bombs bursting in air. Rapid-fire bursts of notes, very staccato…. Often you do hear a certain tension in the playing. It does sound like we’re being menaced, because whenever anything was going along too smoothly he would disrupt things. He loved to disrupt things. He loved to throw things in there to fuck things up.”
On pushing to get Beefheart to embrace production techniques in the studio — like the use of reverb — when recording Ice Cream For Crow: “We tried with the engineer Phil Brown. We tried to see if Don would agree to a little more production, like give it more reverb in places to draw in the listener, and he was having none of it. He said ‘Man, I think it should sound like a two-dimensional painting.’”
On the relative production value of Beefheart’s records: “To me, the best sounding of all Beefheart’s albums was Clear Spot, which had [producer Ted] Templeman.” [Templeman went on to produce records by the Doobie Brothers, Van Halen, Eric Clapton and others.]
“Low Yo Yo Stuff” – The opening track from Clear Spot:
On his first exposure to Beefheart’s music: This was probably in 1968. Lucas was carrying a record by the British band The Move, “I heard about [Beefheart] through the auspices of a guy I ran into randomly in Syracuse, New York, where I’m from. One day a guy named Fred Perry with the longest hair I’d ever seen at the time approached me on the Syracuse campus and said ‘Hey, you’re carrying a record by The Move.’ Turned out he was a big Anglophile and a DJ who I’d been listening to on S.U’s radio station. He had an acoustic guitar and written on the case was ‘Captain Beefheart and His Magic Band.’ ‘Who’s that?’ I asked. “Oh, that’s a band my brother just produced in LA.’ Then I went off with him to get high, we smoked some pot. … In our little moment, I put two and two together and asked him ‘Is your brother by chance named Richard Perry?’ The answer was yes. [Richard Perry had produced Tiny Tim’s 1968 record God Bless Tiny Tim and also Beefheart’s full-length 1967 debut Safe As Milk.]
Lucas says he wasn’t initially taken with Strictly Personal, from 1968, when he heard it. “For my tender teenage sensibility it was just too raucous sounding,” he said. “But all of these things grew on me.”
“Ah Feel like Ahcid” from the Strictly Personal album
It was Beefheart’s magnum opus, Trout Mask Replica, that conveyed the Captain’s inimitable talent to Lucas.
“Trout Mask came out six months later, and that I bought right away. After listening to it a few times, I said ‘What a genius.’ As soon as I figured out they’re really playing this stuff, it’s heavily worked out and it’s not being just made up on the spot. It was really sculpted. And then I got up to Yale as an English major. And then Decals came out.”
When Beefheart and the Magic Band played their first show in New York City, at Ungano’s in January 1971, Lucas was there.
“I went to this club with my two closest friends at Yale, Bob Rubin and Steve Hendel. Afterwards, I said to myself ‘If I ever do anything in music, I want to play with this guy’,” he said. “I made a promise to myself. And I’d seen some great shows. But this was something else, it was like a three-ring circus. I wanted to run away and join the circus.”
Later that year, Lucas interviewed Beefheart for the Yale University college radio station. “And then I met him. He was coming up to play Yale. In the fall of ‘71, right before that, because I was a huge fan and proselytizing everybody within earshot about the band, I was asked to interview Don in the capacity of music director of WYBC, Yale’s radio station. I was a DJ there as well. [They did an on-air-interview.] I have a tape of this interview, and my voice is a little shaky at first, as I was nervous. I guess I was trembling. The great Beefheart was calling me. He’d been on the cover of Rolling Stone. But he was super friendly and sweet. We bonded right then. So I met him when they rolled up to Yale for the show. I was there at Woolsey Hall. I met ‘em all.”
“Some years later when I was at CBS Records working as a copywriter I started talking to Don every day–almost as soon as I got there, on CBS’ dime, sometimes for marathon one- to two-hour conversations.”
At one point, Lucas took a bus to Boston and met up with Beefheart in his hotel room, where Lucas played some guitar for him. And Beefheart said he liked his playing. But Lucas said he didn’t think he was quite ready yet. Lucas moved to Taipei for a time to work for his father’s business, but upon his return he re-connected with Beefheart.
“He really liked talking to me as I could keep up with him mentally, because his talking was full of associative leaps,” said Lucas. “Which I got. He was Joycean in that way. We were very tight. We talked and talked about everything and nothing.”
Eventually Beefheart asked Lucas and Ling, Lucas’s wife at the time, to co-manage him. And that led to the musical partnership that continues to shape Lucas’s career.
Lucas and Hendryx perform The World of Captain Beefheart at City Winery in New York City on Monday Jan. 22 at 8 p.m. For more information about the show HERE