Guitarist Gary Lucas found himself smack dab in the middle of two of America’s musical geniuses, Don ‘n’ Frank. Captain Beefheart and Frank Zappa were boyhood chums whose fates were inextricably linked, for better or worse, richer or poorer, in sickness and in health. Gary Lucas only learned the nuances of their relationship when he became not just Don’s manager but a member of Captain Beefheart’s Magic Band. The following is his remembrance of both men and a love letter to his mentor, Don Van Vliet. Fitting that it should run on what would have been the Captain’s 80th birthday.
Don ‘n Frank.
Beefheart and Zappa.
Don Glen Vliet (the “Van” came later by judicial fiat), and Francis Vincent Zappa (although “Frank” not “Francis” is what is actually written on Zappa’s birth certificate).
Two names to conjure with, for sure. A couple of legendary avant-garde ubermenschen–childhood friends growing up miles from nowhere in the High Mojave Desert. Two peas in a misshapen pod…twin sons of different mothers—a fact made obvious whenever the bedrock of SoCal musical oddity is overturned for closer examination.
“White ants runnin’ / Black ants crawlin’ / Yella ants dreamin’ / Brown ants longin’ / All those people longin’ to be free / Uhuru Ant Man Bee” — lyrics by Don Van Vliet a/k/a Captain Beefheart from the song “Ant Man Bee” as featured on Don’s 1969 magnum opus Trout Mask Replica
An aura of American visionary genius surrounds these two amigos—two tall-in-the-saddle cowboys radiating a creative brilliance on the level of Charles Ives, Duke Ellington, Baron Mingus, Sun Ra, Son House, Richard Penniman, George Herriman, Pee Wee Herman, Herman Melville…
Yet for those who admire their artistry and let’s face it their stranger-than-thou creative schtick (and I love ‘em both), there is a pronounced Yin-Yang, Tweedledum and Tweedledee, white meat / dark meat quality to this curious pair.
In Freudian terms: If Frank represents the Ego—the industrious control-freak composer/rock star/ businessman, with 116 albums released to date and more on the way “from beyond the grave,” then Don represents the Id—the transcendental poet/holy fool/bad boy/problem child—a “heavy mystic” swimming in the deep dark waters of his subconscious mind searching for sunken treasure — occasionally breaking the waves bearing aloft the finest pearls.
Don’s output was, by his own erratic and rambunctious nature, limited to 13 official albums only, with no posthumous official releases currently on the horizon, despite being heavily bootlegged over the years.
“Didn’t I put out enough stuff already?” Don grumbled to me when Warner Brothers Special Products guy Kevin Laffey came a-callin’ in 1984, hell-bent on releasing a double album of the best of Don’s Warner period (Full disclosure: I was Don’s manager and guitarist for 5 years).
But, do not pooh-pooh Van Vliet’s relatively scant musical output versus Zappa’s enormous oeuvre—as, in truth, Don was a veritable Vesuvius of ideas, constantly erupting with new poems, drawings and paintings.
The main problem was best put to me by Don himself:
“They can’t get it up, and I can’t get it down!”
Don was really too fast for most humans—and certainly, pre-internet, too slippery for the various labels that signed him and tried to exploit his work. Don did, however, catch a few breaks along the way from several far-seeing folks determined to expose his creative genius to the world.
First and foremost, was his old pal Frank Zappa, who brought Don into the Warner Brothers orbit promising Don total creative freedom for what was to become his acknowledged masterpiece Trout Mask Replica.
Like I said, childhood friends for life–despite a few hiccups along the highway. Witness Don lashing out at his old friend, enabler and “Trout Mask Replica” producer, after said album tanked: “Zappa is an oaf!”
And also, according to Don, a thief: “Years ago, I was taped by Frank Zappa, and a lot of ideas on a lot of his records started out with me. Like “Suzy Creamcheese, What’s Got Into You?” and “Brown Shoes Don’t Make It”. Hot Rats is my title. Lumpy Gravy—I was referring to the ups and downs of life, the lumps in the sperm and the gravy.”–Interview with Captain Beefheart in Oui magazine, 1973
Now I admire a lot of Zappa’s music (I especially love the music made with the original Mothers of Invention)—but I hardly knew the guy, encountering him exactly twice.
I love pretty much all of Don’s music –even the Tragic Band sell-out albums, which grew on me over time—and I really did know the guy, about as much as anyone can know anyone short of their immediate family—
spending a vast amount of time with him over many years. They are both of them in my mind indisputably great artists.
But, personally, I always preferred Don’s work to Frank’s, as it seemed at source more passionate, less cerebral, more warm-hearted and loving—let us say, more HUMAN.
And human Don was, as well as a sensitive artist.
With the commercial failure of Trout Mask Replica, Don suddenly turned on his childhood friend and loudly proclaimed his distaste at having been lumped in for promotional purposes by Zappa and his manager Herb Cohen as part of their Straight / Bizarre Records roster ‘o freaks—which included the groupies who made up The GTO’s, gender-fluid glam-rockers Alice Cooper (who had the last laugh on everybody by scoring solid hits after leaving Zappa and Cohen’s menagerie), and homeless street-singing guy with serious mental issues, Larry “Wildman” Fisher.
Fact is, Don had gamely played along at the outset with Frank and Herb’s marketing gambit by accompanying Frank on a promotional trip to London to launch Zappa and Cohen’s new labels, performing several shows with the Magic Band opening for Frank and the Mothers after Trout Mask Replica was released on Bloom’s Day, June 16, 1969.
Despite Don’s handsome mug on the cover of Rolling Stone in 1970 (imagine that happening today!) and copious reviews singing the album’s praises, Beefheart didn’t quite capture the zeitgeist or move the needle like Zappa did both sales-wise and in the live sector. Was it mere jealousy of Frank’s high profile versus Don’s perpetually occluded status in the Rock Firmament that caused him to bad-mouth his childhood buddy like that?
Sure ‘nuff ‘n yes it was. Somewhat understandable, though, given the dilemma Don found himself in, knowing deep in his bones just how good his work was in relation to his more lionized friend’s, considering Trout Mask Replica’s incalculable influence on modern music (and growing ever more influential every day).
In any case, as Frank lay dying of prostate cancer, and Don was stricken with the multiple sclerosis that eventually killed him, these two old sparring partners finally kissed and made up (over the phone, anyway), with Don ringing Frank up once and playing him old blues and r&b sides they loved in their youth.
But, personally, I always preferred Don’s work to Frank’s, as it seemed at source more passionate, less cerebral, more warm-hearted and loving—let us say, more HUMAN.
As well he should have, with the burden of reconciliation weighing heavily on the part of Don. Consider: In the mid-‘70s, Don was hurting for work, with an actual bench-warrant out for his arrest in California preventing him from touring, stemming from his skating from a management contract with a couple of sketchy hitters (only the latest in a long series of disadvantageous contracts signed by Don). He was threatening to leave music and become a lumberjack rather than honor his commitments to these shtarkers. When pretty much the entire music business was running away from Don, Frank came to the rescue by hiring Don to be his special guest on the Bongo Fury tour and live album, which Frank generously credited on the sleeve to “Zappa / Beefheart”.
“Debra Kadabra”-Opening track from Bongo Fury, Captain Beefheart and Frank Zappa, live:
Frank frankly gave Don a new lease on life—simultaneously raising his profile while putting a few bucks in his pockets. (I once asked Don if he’d ever made any money in the music-biz, and he laughed and pointed to a hole in his jacket). Frank also offered Don a contract to record the next Beefheart album for Frank and Herb’s newest venture, DiscReet Records, their Bizarre/ Straight Records venture having played its string out. Go Frank!!
Thus was set in motion the recording of Don’s infamous Bat Chain Puller album, a return to form after the disaster of his two previous blatant stabs at commerciality for Mercury Records in what is known by Beefheart cognoscenti as the Tragic Band period. Unfortunately, due to the legal entanglements surrounding both Don and Frank at the time, Bat Chain Puller did not get a proper release until just a few years ago.
Given these two friends’ long, tempestuous relationship, director Alex Winter is to be commended for giving Don a walk-on / name-check in his new Zappa documentary—which repeats Frank’s oft-told tale how as teens growing up in the sleepy town of Lancaster CA these two misfits used to stay up all night listening to obscure blues and r&b together while eating pineapple buns filched from Don’s father’s bread truck. Something that, during Don’s snarky “Frank Zappa? You mean my friend who looks like a fly’s leg?” period, he insisted happened one night, and one night only.
Despite these two artists gravitating toward each other growing up, there was a discernible creative rivalry at play from the get-go, with each of them trying to one-up the other guy. Don once told me that Frank had tried to “hoo-doo” him as a teenager by telling him with a straight face that “a little green man from outer space” had come down to visit him in his bedroom one night, perching itself at the foot of Frank’s bed and speaking to him in an unknown tongue.
“And I thought to myself: ‘Man, these Italians sure are crazy!’”
Despite many celebrated folks singing Don’s praises over the years—including original punk avatars Joe Strummer, John Lydon, David Byrne, Alan Vega, Mark E. Smith et al., as well as Mink Deville, Genesis P. Orridge, PJ Harvey, Questlove, Nona Hendryx, Lester Bangs, Julian Schnabel, Bob Dylan, Mike Watt, Tom Waits, Nick Cave, Matt Groening, Joan Osborne, and my original musical mentor Leonard Bernstein (who sent a congratulatory note to Don upon the release of the first Beefheart album Safe as Milk), Van Vliet labored in relative obscurity to the public at large for years, his fearsome rep and massive influence notwithstanding.
Consider that Trout Mask Replica was included on the short list of historic recordings in the Library of Congress’ National Recording Registry a few years ago. And that when Don died, in 2012, the Los Angeles City Council held a 10-minute moment of silence in his honor. And that the guy is forever being cited by fledgling left-field newbie artists as a Big Influence.
By dint of influence alone Don should have been inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame years ago—a distinction which he probably would have disdained—but still…(My own lobbying efforts on that front proved frustrating, and I’ve now more or less recused myself as an advocate. The last time I brought up the subject was at Pop Montreal over tea with Sire Records’ Seymour Stein—a major player in Cleveland’s Hall. When I asked Seymour why Don had not yet been inducted, Seymour smiled and said: “Gary, my friend NEIL SEDAKA isn’t in the Rock ‘n Roll Hall of Fame either— and how do you think I feel about that?”).
I worked as Don’s manager by default for nearly five years, from late ’79 to early ’84—first in tandem with my ex-wife, Ling, and then after we split up on my own—juggling my managerial hat with being a full-time member of the Magic Band on what proved to be the last Captain Beefheart album, 1984’s Ice Cream for Crow.
Captain Beefheart introducing Gary Lucas on stage at the Beacon Theater in New York, Nov. 28, 1980:
Originally Don invited Ling and I to manage him in the run up to the recording of the previous album, Doc at the Radar Station—as he knew we both adored him and would have his best interests at heart. When asked to assume this serious responsibility, I originally balked and told Don I was uneasy about taking on such a Herculean (and thankless) task, as I am not a business-person (then and now). At that time, I was holding down a copywriting gig in CBS Records’ Creative Services Department, basically just trying to bring home the bacon.
Don assured me that was cool with him—maybe even better that way. “I still think you can do it, man,” he said. I eventually agreed to co-manage him with Ling as we really did want to help the guy—to me, he was the greatest artist I’d ever known (still is)—and we thought he’d gotten a raw deal. We did it as a labor of love, basically.
I’d witnessed his first show in NYC in January 1971 as part of his band’s 3-night stand at Ungano’s, a showcase club off Central Park West. That concert was an epiphany—it totally changed my life. I had already experienced some tremendous shows including the Rolling Stones with Brian Jones in 1965, Janis Joplin and Paul Butterfield in 1969, and John McLaughlin and the Mahavishnu Orchestra in 1970—but this was something else again. I walked out of the club that night thinking: “If I ever do anything in music, I want to play with this guy!”
And I actually did make my dream come true—but it took a few years of my life to get in the band, and a few years off of my life to get out of there (be careful what you wish for, as they say). As part of my lengthy journey into the (Beef)heart of Darkness, I witnessed firsthand Frank and Don interact up close and strictly personal—and saw some real sparks fly on an epic scale.
I’d originally met Frank in Spring 1975 after a Zappa concert at the Syracuse War Memorial, where Don was billed as Frank’s special guest. I had an intense moment reconnecting with Don after the show. We’d been buddies ever since he came up to Yale to play in 1972, where we first really bonded. But I’d lost touch with him for a few years, avoiding going to see him during the Tragic Band period. Now here he was onstage again big as life with his childhood friend Frank—and he was bringing the house down in the encore with “Willie the Pimp”. He still had it!!
Show over, I approached the stage. There was Don looking lost and kind of confused, carrying all his worldly possessions (several harmonicas, a couple of sketchbooks, some magic markers and a water bottle) in a brown paper shopping bag. While roadies swarmed around him breaking down the stage gear, I called his name and Don came to life: “GARY!!” He ambled over to me and gave me a big bear hug.
I hadn’t seen Don since I’d graduated from Yale and, recuperating from that traumatic experience, moved in with my 56-year-old Sicilian-American girlfriend in NYC. After we exchanged excited words, Don said he was hungry, and jones-ing for spare ribs. So I drove him, my pal Tom Prowda, and Frank’s then-slide guitarist Denny Walley to an underground barbecue joint known as Tobe’s, situated in the Black section of Syracuse, where an actual barbecue pit and picnic table was set smack dab in the backyard of Tobe’s rickety old house.
I’d witnessed his first show in NYC in January 1971 as part of his band’s 3-night stand at Ungano’s, a showcase club off Central Park West. That concert was an epiphany—it totally changed my life
There I informed Don to his utter astonishment that, indeed, I played the guitar—I’d never mentioned this to him before, as I was extremely self-effacing in those days, and just didn’t think I was good enough. Now after secretly studying his music for some years—“wood-shedding”—I wanted a shot at auditioning for the next edition of the Magic Band.
Don was thoroughly immersed in the moment, scarfing down Tobe’s ribs served on slices of Wonder Bread generously laden with Tobe’s secret sauce (one part Liquid Smoke, and maybe another part Blood). Tobe was a grey-haired older gentleman who, chef-like, sported a pistol in the sash of his apron (it was a rough neighborhood). He kept slathering more secret sauce on the ribs sizzling on his grill and offering us some barbecued chicken to boot.
Don was truly enjoying the beat ambience of this magnificent fugitive joint—and unprompted, busted out some a cappella blues. In between bites, regarding my request for an audition, Don said: “Bring your guitar up to Boston on Friday and you can play for me, man”.
He then determined that we should buy a bag of ribs as a gift for Frank: “Oh he’ll dig ‘em, man! He loves this kind of stuff!”
Around 1 a.m., we found Frank relaxing in a beat-up purple bathrobe, sitting at a table all by his lonesome in the revolving cocktail lounge situated on top of the Holiday Inn where the band was roosting for the night, staring intently at the sight of some godawful pair of comedians trying to do their thing. Don introduced me, and Frank nodded coolly—he could barely tear his eyes away from the low-rent showbiz spectacle unfolding onstage before him—so Don and I split to hang out with Denny and Napoleon Murphy Brock in the room they were sharing.
The next day I spoke with Frank briefly after he and Don gave a press conference replete with Q & A at Syracuse University’s Crouse College Auditorium (you can hear some of it here: https://soundcloud.com/garylucas/jamie-asks-don-a-question ), and asked him if he’d enjoyed our gift.
“The ribs were burnt!” Frank sniffed, and then he climbed on board their band bus.
“Can you believe that guy?” Don scowled when we were alone. “Those ribs were delicious!! That take-out bag alone was a work of art!” (The white paper tin-foil-lined bag sported the visage of the squawking head of a cartoon chicken). “But that’s Frank for you…”
Flash forward seven years later to Spring 1982. The scene is the Stone Fox Rehearsal Studio in beautiful downtown Burbank, right next door to Amigo Studios, where Don’s classic Clear Spot album was recorded.
I’d been working for months in NYC mastering the music Don had sent me. He’d mailed me some cassettes of a couple of fiendishly difficult piano pieces which meandered hither and yon, wandering through multiple keys and time signatures in Don’s inimitable, “through-composed” kind of way.
Don was great at on-the-spot, off-the-cuff improvisation…but if you asked him if he could play any of his piano pieces over again he would be way out to sea.
Don was a genius composer insofar as how he constructed his music, shaping parts for the band like the prodigy sculptor he was. But he had no traditional keyboard skills, as such, whereby he could repeat any of the pieces he improvised on piano. An astounding vocalist yes. A champion whistler and gutbucket harmonica virtuoso, yes. An intense noise saxophonist, yes—but not a keyboard virtuoso.
Basically, he flung notes down on the piano with both hands like so much paint on canvas—once and once only (“Ivory in a Nutshell” was one of his unreleased compositions), taping himself on his omnipresent Sony Cassette-Corder. And then he handed you, or in my case mailed me, the tape– with the instructions: “Learn this on the guitar!”
“Don,” I pointed out to him, “you’re using all ten fingers on the keyboard—but there’s only six strings on the guitar.” “You better find another four, man” was his cryptic reply.
In the run-up to what was to turn out to be the Last Beefheart Album, courtesy CBS Records’ useful WATS lines, I’d had many lengthy and sometimes marathon conversations with Don about doing a follow-up to Doc at the Radar Station.
For nearly the entire length of my employment at CBS Records, from 1977 to 1990, Don and I spoke on the phone every day for at least an hour. I’d ring him daily from my office in Black Rock direct to Lancaster, where he was permanently ensconced with his wife in a stationary trailer replete with all mod-cons belonging to his mother Sue and moored in a trailer park surrounded by old-age pensioners.
In late 1981, we began hatching a plan over the phone to record Ice Cream for Crow. In truth, the album was finally, only green-lighted as a result of my impatience with Virgin to kick-start the project. This led me one day in early 1982 to contact Epic Records A&R chief Gregg Geller—one of the nicer people I’ve worked with in the music business. I was invited into his corner office where I informed him that, ‘oh by the way, Captain Beefheart and the Magic Band were still very much active artists on Virgin Records’ roster’—a fact that had not once been communicated to him by Virgin Records as part of their new U.S. distribution deal with Epic! They had simply disappeared us from their “active artist” roster.
“Don,” I pointed out to him, “you’re using all ten fingers on the keyboard—but there’s only six strings on the guitar.” “You better find another four, man” was his cryptic reply.
I told Gregg we would very much like to record a new album to be co-financed by Epic Records and Virgin. Lucky for us, it turned out Gregg was a big Beefheart fan—and he got the ball rolling. Once the deal was set in motion for the princely sum of 60K all-in–a 40K production budget and a 20K advance to Don against royalties—not much by major label standards—Don began assembling the album players and mailed me cassettes of his music to learn.
On this album I was bumped up to full Magic Band member status, as opposed to being a special guest on 1980’s Doc at the Radar Station—the previous album for Virgin which had (barely) been distributed in the U.S. by Atlantic Records.
Despite numerous press raves and a lengthy tour of Europe and the U.S. to support the album release, we got shmeckled on Doc–with Atlantic severing their distribution ties with Virgin the very week the album was released in September 1980–effectively rendering the whole thing DOA and largely absent from U.S. record stores. So, a new deal with a new label co-financing and distributing our album in the U.S. sounded like music to me and Don.
Two months before I was to leave for Los Angeles to begin rehearsals, Don rang me to propose a rather unusual scheme over the phone. According to Billboard Magazine, Zappa’s lawsuit of many years against his longtime manager Herb Cohen had finally been resolved in Frank’s favor—freeing up a number of albums co-owned by Frank and Herb from their aborted DiscReet label venture. These albums had been frozen in limbo for years during their long drawn-out litigation, and they had all been financed (unbeknownst to Frank, until it dawned on him) from royalties Herb had collected for Frank as his manager and clearly owed him.
The rights to these albums had now reverted to Frank—and one of them was Bat Chain Puller–the Great Lost Beefheart album that had never seen the official light of day. And it would ultimately go unreleased until just a few years ago—Frank, Herb and Don long dead—with the Zappa Family Trust under Gail Zappa finally shoving it out in the world with the cheapest, shoddiest cover imaginable–(white type on a black background only—no photos or paintings or drawings. They could have used one of Don’s fantastic paintings on the cover, but no. Even worse, Gail claimed to the press that Don himself had blocked the release of the album for years—which was simply not true.
With this in mind: “Hey man!” Don growled down the phone one day, “I’ve got an idea! Why don’t you get Frank’s guy, Bennett Glotzer, on the phone and ask him to get Frank’s permission for us to use three songs off Bat Chain Puller on our new album. Frank OWES me! Think of the money we’ll save by just using those old tracks as is! I won’t have to spend the time teaching you guys those songs—they’re already done! And here’s the beauty part—we can just pocket the money left over from the budget that we didn’t spend re-recording those songs!”
What a hare-brained scheme! (Not to mention, how would we even manage to arrange for a kickback—and with who, the bookkeeper at the studio?). But mine was not to reason why…
In retrospect I have to laugh–as I do pretty much whenever I think of my years spent with Don. We never really, fully, thought this one out. But wtf—it was worth a shot! So I called Glotzer (whose name might ring a bell here to anyone familiar with Al Kooper’s song “House in the Country” from Blood Sweat and Tears’ first album, wherein he is name-checked in a spoken word section in the middle: “Quiet, Glotzer! Three years! Three years I thought about it, Glotzer—Not a chance! Look at you!”).
And after making my rather strange request via Don, the guy put me on hold while he apparently called Frank to check this out with him—and then came back on the line a few minutes later saying: “Frank says it’s okay.”
We did it!! Don and I did a coast-to-coast Happy Dance over the phone—it was all going according to plan.
Except that as the time drew closer and I moved to take possession of the master tapes (for the record, the songs Don wanted were “Odd Jobs”, “The 1010th Day of the Human Totem Pole”, and his spoken-word “81 Poop Hatch”), Bennett Glotzer stopped returning my calls.
Don was pissed when I told him our plans were going south rapidly: “That goddamn guy– playing me for a sucker like that! That old fool! Let’s deal with Frank when you get out here.”
Soon enough I was Out There—and undergoing intensive rehearsals with my Magic Band-mates Jeff Moris Tepper on guitar, Rick Snyder on bass, and Cliff Martinez on drums. We fused together as one at our first rehearsal at the dilapidated Stone Fox rehearsal studios in beautiful downtown Burbank. We had a truly magical hour playing together and getting to know each other—Moris and Rick I already knew, having toured with them and Don, and Cliff was an unknown quantity but turned out to be a great guy and a superb percussionist.
We started playing Don’s instrumental, “Semi-Multicoloured Caucasian,” together for the first time, and we were soaring, we were jubilant: “This is gonna be great!”
Enter Don, after a long drive in from the desert. He immediately snapped: “What are you guys doing fucking around with my music?? That’s HORRIBLE, man!”
Don then proceeded to browbeat us and de-construct the entire tune over the next five hours, rebuilding his beautiful waltz-time instrumental from the ground up, beginning with this spur-of-the-moment notion: “Everyone thinks it’s hip to put a FALSE ENDING on a song…you know, when the track starts to fade out, and just when you think the song’s over, the music swells up again? Well, I’m going to put a FALSE BEGINNING on this one! Just repeat the opening four notes, play ‘em twice, kind of like a stammer—and then hit that big chord! People will think their phonograph needle got stuck in the groove!!”
And duly we did learn it that way, and played it that way…right up to the moment before we were due to move down the block into Amigo Studios to begin recording. That night Don came into our final rehearsal after playing Jan the work tapes of every track we were due to record, and exclaimed: “What was I thinking, man?? Jan HATED this idea when I played it back for her. Jan said: ‘You’ve ruined my favorite song, Don!’ GO BAAACK!! Just GO BACK to the original way you played it!”
“Semi-Multicoloured Caucasian”-from Ice Cream for Crow by Captain Beefheart & The Magic Band:
Backtrack a bit to shortly after I’d arrived in Los Angeles: Don decided at 1am after a hard day’s night at the Stone Fox that he was hungry. He gathered the group around him and in a stentorian voice declaimed: “I can feel it, man! Tonight, we’re going to CANTER’S!” This would be Canter’s Deli on Fairfax–one of our favorite nosheries.
The other guys looked at each other doubtfully in a wearied sort of way. They just wanted to go home. And I was like: Uh-oh—I guess I’m ‘It’. We climbed into my battered brown Plymouth direct from Rent-a Wreck, and Don sniffed: “Somebody died in this car!”
“How do you know?” I asked.
“I can smell it.”
He then proceeded to suck in his breath while simultaneously making guttural moans from the back of his throat, as if the ghost of the original driver still inhabited that car:
I almost bust a gut laughing, and nearly cracked up the car.
Don on a good day was the funniest fucking guy I ever met, a total Imp of the Perverse. To this day I never fail to cheer myself up, if not actually laugh out loud, by recalling all of Don’s antics and playful silliness.
Don on a bad day, though…
Soon enough, we were at Canter’s. Don made a beeline for the upstairs bathroom and proceeded to primp and mug in the mirror and fix his hair for about half an hour. I watched this until I couldn’t take it anymore:
“Don, the only time you’re serious is when you look in a mirror.”
“Good one, man!”
We then went downstairs. Don strode through the room slowly hoping to catch an eye or two. We passed many tables of young hipsters and alte kakers—but no one batted an eye or offered a glimmer of recognition. Finally seated by a helpful waiter, Don grumbled in his defense as to why he’d gone unrecognized: “I know…they’re not musicians, man—they’re ACTORS!”
Then in the unreal 24-hour chintzy glare of this venerable Jewish delicatessen, over our matzoh ball soup, pastrami and fries, and Dr. Brown’s Cel-Ray soda, the subject turned to just how were we gonna pry those tapes out of the tight-fisted clutches of Frank Zappa. Bringing matters to a head, we agreed that Don would have to bite the bullet and call Frank personally the next afternoon—the first time they would be speaking together after years of Don bad-mouthing him since the non-starter that was Bat Chain Puller.
But when Don rang Frank’s house the next afternoon, he got Gail on the line instead. She was delighted to hear from Don; there was serious mutual affection there. They kept bantering and cracking each other up discussing a groupie of their acquaintance and her “ack-ack perfume”. Eventually, Don asked for Frank—and Gail informed him that he was busy rehearsing at Zoetrope Studios, Francis Ford Coppola’s ill-starred soundstage complex built for the filming of the disastrous One From the Heart. Zoetrope was now being rented out to rock bands for rehearsal purposes.
Gail also told Don that Frank was due to fly to Europe the very next day to begin a 3-month tour. We had no time to lose. Soon as he hung up, Don said: “Let’s go find Frank!”
This time we took Don’s Volvo station wagon—with him driving—and slowly wended our way against the rush-hour traffic back into Hollywood. Eventually, we found Zoetrope, parked the car, and walked in on quite a scene. Frank was up on an actual stage conducting his 8-piece ensemble with his signature hand moves and gestures. I recognized Steve Vai and Chad Wackerman on the bandstand with him, Steve looking particularly beatific frenzying out on guitar.
Down in the pit was a sizeable crowd of well-wishers, sycophants, glad-handers and hangers-on, including several ex-Mothers and former Magic Band members–plus Frank’s 15-year old son, Dweezil. They’d all gathered to watch Frank’s rehearsal, some hoping to catch Frank’s eye with a goal of future employment. The moment we entered the room the crowd started buzzing:
Out of the corner of his eye, Frank clocked us strolling in and visibly blanched—literally jumping involuntarily.
As Don liked to put it: “I displace a lot of water, man”.
Frank was obviously disturbed by Don’s uninvited surprise presence—the Skeleton at the Feast.
“Come on, Gary,” Don said brusquely, and we walked to the back of the hall…followed by about half of the crowd who’d been previously gawking at Frank’s rehearsal and were now trailing after the imperious Van Vliet.
Once we got to the back, Don said a few hellos and shook a few hands—then turned and started cat-calling Frank in a loud voice: “REALLY LAME, MAN!!”
I’m not sure Frank heard him, but Don’s childish behavior certainly caused a ripple of laughter amongst the folks who’d drawn round him.
We watched Frank drill his crack ensemble—now and then stepping up to the mic to sing and play his guitar, repeatedly stopping his new song “In France” (basically a fuck-you to that beautiful country), pointing fingers left and right and chastising his guys whenever they screwed up: “He was wrong– you were right!”
Finally, he dismissed his crew: “See you all at noon tomorrow at LAX.” His band started packing up to leave. It was time to make our move!
Don and I stepped forward from the shadows and rolled up to the stage—and when we got up close, Don called out loudly to Frank’s back from the floor: “HEY, FRANK! YOU KNOW WHAT WE WANT!!”
Frank whirled on Don from the stage and spat back: “NO, Don…What DO you want?”
Woahhh, I thought, that was cold—and these are ‘old friends’??
Don bowed suavely, stepped aside, and then gestured me forward: “Gary??”
Uh oh! My turn.
I stepped up to the plate and went into my spiel in an emphatic, no-nonsense kind of way: “Frank, I called Bennett Glotzer months ago and asked him whether we could use three songs from Bat Chain Puller on our new album. We’d heard you’d got the masters back. Glotzer told me he checked with you and that you gave him the okay for this—and then he stopped returning my calls. Now we’re out here trying to record our new album, and it’s predicated on getting those tapes! So what’s the problem? We thought you’d approved this!!”
Frank fidgeted and cast his eyes downward. He wouldn’t look me in the eye.
“Yeah,” he came back slowly, “I heard about that…but after thinking about it some more, I really don’t want to split up the set. I mean, I think they’d have a higher market value out there in ‘Beefheart-land’ as part of the original album. So if you want to discuss a buy-out…”
‘Beefheart-land’– how disrespectful!
“Frank, do you honestly think that with the budget we got off Virgin there’s any way we can even discuss that? Come on, man!”
Frank fidgeted some more.
Don began to loudly recite the lyrics to his song “There Ain’t No Santa Claus On the Evening Stage”—a song about show-biz, amongst other things. Dweezil waltzed by us, oblivious, with a spacy, ethereal look on his face. It was that kind of moment. Frank glanced up from the floor again, and tried to be helpful: “How many minutes exactly do you need to fill out your album?”
“Okay. I can let you have a song called ‘Why Doesn’t Someone Get Him a Pepsi?’ It’s about ten minutes long–I wrote it and Don sings on it.”
Now it was my turn to get snarky: “Frank, do you honestly think we want to put a FRANK ZAPPA tune on a CAPTAIN BEEFHEART album? That’s not gonna happen! If you own the Bat Chain Puller tapes, and you’re not planning to put that album out, then why can’t we have those three songs?”
Maybe if we’d said “yes” to Frank’s proposal (maybe not such a bad idea in retrospect), our subsequent album would have gone mega. But we had our pride. Frank looked down at the floor again. Then he abruptly jerked himself out of his torpor and turned away:
“Okay, I gotta go now and get some coffee—‘L’Herbe Dangereuse’!” he said sarcastically. (Jeez, I thought he hated France!). And then he waltzed off. Don and I walked out of the nearly empty rehearsal hall together. I was pretty dejected.
“What’s the matter, Gary?”
“We failed, Don.”
Don stopped and turned to me, grabbed my right hand with both his hands, and shook my hand vigorously: “Are you kidding?? Thank you, man! THANK YOU!! You made that guy SQUIRM! And now he’s gonna be thinking about that all the way through that tour! You HAMMERED him, man! Gary, that was the best damn thing any manager ever did for me in my entire career–ever!”
I perked up. Although I still didn’t see how this was going to exactly work out in our favor.
“Thanks Don. Still, we didn’t get the tapes—so what do you want to do now?”
Don smiled cagily, tapping his head with his forefinger: “Don’t you worry!”
An hour or so later, we were back at the Stone Fox Rehearsal Studio in Burbank. Dunno if it still exists, but it sure had a colorful cast of characters floating in and out of there—including Dewey Bunnell from the group America, Bill Mumy (“Danger Danger Will Robinson!”), and the remains of Badfinger (the original group minus the guy who’d killed himself).
Coming in through the front office we ran into an on-the-go mobile dealer who was a frequent studio visitor—a tanned surfer-type who looked like Ricky Ricardo on acid, sporting a Hawaiian shirt and a leather briefcase filled with every pill, powder and mind-altering substance known to humankind—a one-stop operation. And he had business aplenty.
One night after rehearsal driving on the freeway back to my home base in Santa Monica, I heard a KROQ announcer give the weather forecast—at the end of which he said: “And right now in the studios of West Hollywood, there’s a snow-storm going on.”
Don and I had a little discussion with this dude…and then went into our rehearsal room to greet our guys, who’d assembled in our absence.
Don took a hit off a joint—something I didn’t see him do too often—and got Busy Being Don:
“Snyder, play this on the bass–and add some fuzz, like “Diddy Wah Diddy”. (Don scat sings a rumbling stutter of a bass part). Jeff, learn this on guitar. (Don whistles a wan, happy-sad little melody). Gary, get out your “instrument of death” (Don’s nickname for my 1921 National steel) and use that glass slide. (Don scats ‘ba-da-da-da-da da-wooooh!’) Now repeat that. Cliff…kind of a trip…fall…stumble…crawl type of rhythm.” (Don gets on the drums and bashes out a spastic splatter ‘o thumps and cymbals). And, thus, “Skeleton Makes Good,” the last song on the very last Captain Beefheart album, was born.
Don laid down a growling vocal not unakin to a misanthropic demon whose thousand-year woodland slumber has been disturbed—and garnished the whole thing at the end with some choice alarums, banging insistently on an ancient Beijing Opera gong Ling and I had given him. And then it was finished, in all of its two minutes and twenty-two seconds of splendor.
Only twelve minutes and thirty-eight seconds of music left to fill!
Don just said “fuck it!” and without Frank or Glotzer’s permission copied the original “81 Poop Hatch” solo recitative off a two-track safety master quarter-inch tape of the original Bat Chain Puller album that he had stashed in his back pocket. (You may notice that the hiss level goes up markedly when listening to this track vis a vis the other tracks on Ice Cream for Crow. That’s because it’s a second-generation copy taken off a two-track master).
Don also had in his possession a 24-track master on two-inch tape of a second attempt at recording “The 1010th Day of the Human Totem Pole” –a version left over from the Doc at the Radar Station sessions and never used.
Don stripped both John French’s guitar and Robert Williams’ drums off the track—just because he was Don Van Vliet, and was pissed at the both of them at this point. Then he got Cliff to overdub a new drum track, and then he added some fierce blasts of his own on “prop horn” near the end.
Call Don a procrastinator, an undisciplined baby, a lazy son-of-a-bitch, whatever you like. But the man could certainly rise to the occasion, in all kinds of weather.
I loved him dearly for that…and I lived to tell the tale.
Gary Lucas performs the music from Doc at the Radar Station in September 2020, as a 40th anniversary tribute to the album: