Try to imagine a sixteen-year-old high school girl waaaay back in 1965, living a rather ordinary Leave-it-to Beaver existence, tucked safely within the clean, green San Fernando Valley — finding herself standing before the unimaginable presence of one Captain Beefheart
by Pamela Des Barres
Once in a while, I wonder how my life might have turned out if Don Van Vliet’s cousin, Victor Haydon, hadn’t arrived at Cleveland High that February. Victor was an edgy, somber loner, who immediately went into hiding to escape the stern VP because his longish auburn hair was brushing his collar. He did not fit in, but I found him oddly fascinating, carrying his art supplies, immersed in books by the likes of Sigmund Freud. I kept an eye on him. Turned out he was observing me too. He must have seen some lurking weirdness I wasn’t quite aware of yet.
As a sophomore, I valued good grades and was going steady with a handsome, pompadour’d, bad-boy greaser, Bobby Martini, who often spent time in Juvenile Hall, something I found pretty darn sexy. Still Beatle-obsessed, I was sending Paul McCartney handwritten poems on a weekly basis, knowing that he’d read every single word of gush-blather. I had convinced Bobby we should name our kids Paul and Paula, and adoring me as he did, he gave his wary consent. Uh-oh. My mental axis was about to shift dramatically.
Slowly, Victor made his way toward me, right around the time I stopped teasing my hair up like the Ronettes, heading more in a fluffy Patti Boyd direction, sans hairspray. He sidled up beside me at nutrition, dismaying my “Beatlesweetie” girlfriends, who scattered, horrified, in all directions. Each day he filled my head with startling counterculture ideas, insisting I listen to the folksinger Bob Dylan, who’d help me understand that indeed, the times were changing and I’d better hop aboard the Truth Train before it left without me…Your sons and your daughters are beyond your command…He also turned me on to the Rolling Stones, which coincided with my burgeoning horniness, and I melted over Mick Jagger like a vanilla ice cream cone in the Death Valley desert.
One of his [Captain Beefheart’s] many pithy pronouncements to me was, “God is a perfect musical note.” How could anyone disagree with that?
When Victor invited me to meet his cousin, Don, a musician who was playing with his Magic Band at the Fourth Annual Teen Fair at the Hollywood Palladium, I threw on the hip corduroy jacket my daddy brought me from Mexico, jumped into Vic’s Hudson Hornet and traveled over the hill, directly into Oz. Even though Vic had told me much about his first cousin, who had taken to calling himself Captain Beefheart (he had a BEEF in his HEART, don’t cha know), I was entirely unprepared for the most incongruous meeting ever. Free tastes of Knudsen’s latest treat, yogurt, had been passed out to the milling teens, and as I stood amid soggy little cups and tiny plastic spoons, Don Van Vliet seemed to tower over me like a monument to the flipside. Tall, shaggy and imposing, with pale, penetrating blue eyes that drilled into my psyche and turned it inside out, he told me my corduroy jacket was “a gas,” then scanned the crowd imperiously, before adding, “If only they were all like you…”
Suddenly, an alternative had been presented and I stepped without hesitation onto the road less traveled before I knew it existed.
When the Stones came to town to play the Long Beach Arena, Vic and I waited in line all night long for our tickets, snagging one for Don, who accompanied us to the concert. He didn’t say much, but each sentence was a profundity I struggled to understand, nodding sagely at his complex, highfalutin metaphors. As much as I wanted to flail and wail over Mick’s wriggling, I had to hold onto my cool because I was sitting next to the Captain, which was actually a lesson in how to maintain. I still silently thank him for helping me control my fanatical fandom early on. Being able to spend time with a unique individual I so greatly admired, helped me to appreciate myself as an equal. On May 7, 1965, I wrote in my diary, “I feel like I’m a part of Beefheart’s group, a big part. They all think I’m a crazy little chick, hep and with-it. I keep thinking about when Don said he wished ‘they were all like me…’ wow.”
Don had met the Stones in the UK and took Vic and I along to the Ambassador Hotel to hang out with Bill and Charlie. They welcomed him warmly, nodded to his young pals and proceeded to turn up the gravelly growl of Muddy Waters, and right then and there I was introduced to the blues by the Rolling Stones. I did try to meet Mick that night but when I knocked timidly on his door, he opened it stark naked and my recently acquired with-it hepness disappeared in a Jumping Jack you-know-what.
The kids at Cleveland didn’t believe we’d met the Stones and the gap between myself and my high school peers grew wider. I broke up with Bobby and he paced grimly in front of Victor’s house, threatening to beat him up. I became Beefheart’s Valley Chapter Fan Club President, and never missed the Magic Band playing live. I still have the bumper sticker for his first album, Safe as Milk, with the floating babydoll head, safely tucked away.
“Autumn’s Child” from Safe As Milk
After my early sojourns into Hollywood, I started heading to the Sunset Strip on a regular basis, and after graduation in June ’66, I started meeting local bands – the Byrds, the Doors, Love, dancing at love-ins and onstage with a passel of like-minded girls.
Victor joined Don’s band in 1967 as The Mascara Snake, and performed on what I believe to be the Captain’s greatest masterpiece, Trout Mask Replica. (Fast and bulbous!) He also created the art for the gatefold and paints and draws daily to this very moment. I represent his art. Let me know if you’re interested.
“Pena” from Trout Mask Replica, in which the Captain announces “fast and bulbous”.
]One of my most indelible life experiences happened with Don and the Magic Band in his overgrown Reseda backyard one late night. He had the strongest pot known to humanity, and after a few puffs we all stood around in a circle of hazy smoke, listening to a spoken word piece, Come Out by the avant garde composer Steve Reich. I stood silently for a timeless time, along with Vic, Drumbo and Zoot Horn Rollo, listening to this phrase on repeat: “open the bruise up, and let some of the bruise blood come out to show them.”
Time certainly ceased, and for some screwy, stoned reason, my eyeballs started rotating in one direction and then the other, round and round they went, willy-nilly, and I was absolutely unable to stop them mid-roll! It went on and on until I focused intensely (praying a little bit) and was finally able to slow the unruly spinning to a stop. Whew. Later part of the phrase, “Come out to show them,” made it onto Trout Mask Replica. Don was an original thinker indeed. He was probably trying to make us rethink “reality” that night. It worked.
Frank Zappa and Don had grown up together in Lancaster, and remained close, although they were known to poke each other in the brain, bicker and disagree. Perhaps they knew each other too well. Frank was a well-known teetotaler, and Don definitely dabbled. Still, one fine evening, I found myself sitting on Don’s ample lap in Zappa’s studio basement, listening to one of my favorite Beefheart songs, “Bat Chain Puller”, long before the release date – another memorable night hearing a particular song over and over until it melded into my bloodstream. My eyeballs stayed put that time.
“Bat Chain Puller” from the Shiny Beast (Bat Chain Puller) album:
I only had one intimate encounter with Don, and it’s a doozy. We were hanging out in his backyard at dusk, when he led me to a secluded spot, gazing somberly into the darkening sky at the shifting cloud formations. He said I should look up to see how the clouds looked just like nuns wearing habits, then asked if I’d like to “feel something warm.” In I’m With the Band,” I wrote, “beads of sweat formed on his upper lip like pearls of wisdom,” as he placed my hand around his very warm, very exposed member, guiding my hand back and forth, back and forth… as the cloudy nuns moved serenely in the sky above us.
I stayed friendly with Don until he became very ill and disappeared back to the desert from whence he came. The last time I saw him was at a gallery show where his massive paintings were selling for huge sums. He was already in a wheelchair. The good Captain died December 17, 2010, after suffering for years with Multiple Sclerosis. What a monumental loss. One of his many pithy pronouncements to me was, “God is a perfect musical note.” How could anyone disagree with that?
Back in 1967, I’d gathered several like-minded free spirits, and was still dancing all over Hollywood, falling in and out of lust with various musicians, enjoying my flower child self immensely. I’d joyously spotted Frank Zappa at the Lenny Bruce eulogy, and again at the Sunset Strip riots, which thrilled me to my expanding core. One night at the Cheetah club on the beach, as he floated by, I spontaneously reached out to touch his tumbling mane and he grabbed me, tossing me to the floor, where we rolled around wildly, before he disappeared back into the teeming crowd.
Joining throngs of musicians, Frank had recently moved to LA and had taken up residence in the Laurel Canyon log cabin built by movie cowboy legend Tom Mix in the 1920s — across the street from Houdini’s eerie overgrown castle. Nestled among the various rockers in the Canyon, in terms of sheer audacity and innovation, Frank easily outfreaked the likes of David Crosby and Mama Cass. A master musician and composer, his lyrics poked fun at the fanciful foibles of humanity with scathing irony.
Hey Punk, where you goin’ with that flower in your hand?
Hey Punk, where you goin’ with that flower in your hand?
Well, I’m goin’ up to Frisco to join a psychedelic band.
I’m goin’ up to Frisco to join a psychedelic band.
Hey Punk, where you goin’ with that button on your shirt?
Hey Punk, where you goin’ with that button on your shirt?
I’m goin’ to the love-in to sit & play my bongos in the dirt.
Yes, I’m goin’ to the love-in to sit & play my bongos in the dirt
“Flower Punk” from the Mothers of Invention’s We’re Only In it for the Money album:
One of my saucy new dance partners, Miss Lucy, had known Frank in New York, and one glorious afternoon, she invited a few of us chicks to meet him. I soon discovered Mr. Zappa didn’t need drugs to yank the hidden creativity out of everyone who entered his open doors. I’d already gone from Hippie to Flower Child, and after that day, I was ready to join the Freaks. He asked a lot of questions, and took to us immediately as we danced around to his ersatz piano playing in front of the massive rock fireplace, while his baby daughter Moon crawled hither and thither. I was equally impressed with his lovely wife, Gail, who kindly brought us cups of tea, making sure we noticed her very important position in this rarified atmosphere. As we made our exit, Frank picked each one of us up off the floor and proceeded to give us a chiropractic treatment by swiftly cracking our backs — crrrr-aaa-aaccck — one of his many surprising talents. We’d been calling ourselves The Laurel Canyon Ballet Company, but after a few more visits to the cabin, Frank gave us a new moniker –The GTOs – Girls Together Outrageously, insisting we write fourteen songs about our wacky teenage rock and roll lives for an album he’d produce! Oh glory!
The seven of us went to work down below the cabin in the bowling alley where Tom Mix had long ago buried Tony the Wonder Horse, and in a few weeks, ditties about our fave-raves and the horror of gym class had been scribbled and scrawled. When we spewed lyrics about the giant ladies’ shoes Beefheart wore, or the lascivious fellows who picked us up hitchhiking — “The organ grinder behind the wheel/ is hoping he can score a feel/his eyes are bulging at your bod/he thinks you are a free-loving mod…” Frank would beat his knee in pure unadulterated joy. Nothing was off limits, which made being in his presence enticingly off-kilter. With his encouragement, my blossoming ideas seemed somehow edifying, and my wavering confidence took a great leap forward. My dear Mr. Zappa led me as far out on that unwieldy limb as humanly possible without it cracking in two, and even though he always kept his alluring aura of mystery and reserve, I came to feel very safe in his presence.
Then presto! The GTOs were in the studio, making our very own record with Frank Zappa at the helm, along with the newest member of the Mothers, Lowell George, as co-pilot. A few other Mothers of Invention played our music, while our newest rockstar pals, the Jeff Beck Group, added some flavorful licks and raspy shouts to our girlish caterwauling. When Rod Stewart joined us on Miss Mercy’s song, “Shock Treatment”, Frank directed us with his baton, the huge smile never leaving his face. His glee permeated the room. It was palpable.
“Shock Treatment” from the GTOs Permanent Damage album:
Our first gig was opening for Alice Cooper at the Whisky a Go Go, where we took over the dance floor in our skimpy outlandish ensembles, singing “Getting to Know You,” with the Mothers backing us up. When I heard Mick Jagger was in the audience, I was tickled hot pink inside and out. We performed a quickie song at Thee Experience where Noel Redding and John Bonham accompanied our shrieking on bass and drums — but our real debut performance was Frank’s Christmas Show at the Shrine Auditorium, December ‘68. We rehearsed our goofpot tunes for weeks, under the watchful eye of Pauline, a British nanny Frank sicced on us to make sure we’d be ready for the big night, and despite our constant foolheaded shenanigans, we were! Our thirty minutes onstage elicited enthusiastic applause from the agog audience, after the shock wore off, and Frank was proud of his girls, cracking our backs as proof. I just knew the GTOs were headed for superstardom!
Oh well. Ahead of his time as always, the world wasn’t ready for Frank’s girl group of outrageous performance artists, and our album, Permanent Damage, didn’t climb up the charts, (or chart at all). Oh woe. After a couple of the girls got busted for drugs, Frank stopped paying us our thirty-five bucks a week, and the GTOs gradually frittered apart. I was heartily disappointed, but I’m one of those people blessed with optimism with a capital O. And Permanent Damage is now a coveted collector’s item, fetching hundreds of dollars on eBay. So there.
I was not one of the busted GTOs, praise Jesus, and stayed close with the Zappa family, which now included the adorable ringleted baby boy, Dweezil. I happened to be in London when Frank was making his revolutionary film, 200 Motels, and he asked me to play the coveted role of “news hen,” again giving me a rare opportunity to express myself. He was an attentive, focused director, and even while drooling over Ringo and my newest pal, Keith Moon (who played the role of “the nun”) I managed to interact with the vacuum cleaner, played by Mother Motorhead, with serious aplomb. I even got a good review in Variety.
I soon discovered Mr. Zappa didn’t need drugs to yank the hidden creativity out of everyone who entered his open doors. I’d already gone from Hippie to Flower Child, and after that day, I was ready to join the Freaks.
I lived with the Zappas off and on for years, as a nanny to Moon and Dwee (I preferred the term “governess”), and still consider the whole clan family. I learned that children are just small people, which was a revelation. I could talk about anything with Gail, who so often made me see the amusing side of heartache, sometimes staying up into the wee hours collecting her wise words. Mr. Zappa continued to amaze and thrill me as I tiptoed downstairs to bless him with copious cups of espresso, as he worked and worked like a man possessed. He’d sometimes play me snippets of his music and I never ceased to be awestruck by his blatant genius.
Unlike my brief encounter with Beefheart and the flying nuns, I was never intimate with my mentor – but not for his lack of trying. Despite being “the world’s most famous groupie,” I don’t tamper with marriage vows, and I adored Gail with my whole heart. So when Frank came to my hotel room to study 200 Motels, and suggested we look through the script while reclining in bed, I felt like a stunned doe in blinding headlights. “How do I get out of this,” my brain burbled while joining Frank in the sack, where he started caressing my hair and gazing fondly at me with those long-lashed, persuasive dark chocolate colored eyes. As I attempted to ignore his come-hitherness and find my place in the script, I was literally saved by the doorbell, leaping off the bed to see who was coming to my rescue. With perfectly divine saving grace, Frank’s flowers were being delivered — delivering me from a very sticky situation. Potentially very sticky. The spell was broken as I gushed over my huge bouquet. Jumping for joy and flooded with relief, I thanked Frank profusely as he slowly climbed off the bed, bowed, and gallantly left my room through the open door.
Frank also left this mad mad world too soon, after shaking up the earth’s atmosphere, leaving behind more music than one human being has ever made. My dear Gail carried his memory around inside her aching heart that beat only for him until she passed over two years ago. I wept openly during my recollections at her funeral (My water broke at Moon’s 11th birthday party, for instance, and Gail drove me to the hospital in her Rolls Royce, chanting, “You’re going to have a baby today!”) and her youngest son, Ahmet, lightened the mood a tad as Gail was lowered into the ground above her beloved husband. “Now Gail will be exactly where she’s always wanted to be. On top of Frank!”
Don Van Vliet and Frank Zappa live on in my cells like an attached umbilical cord to the other side. Not a single day goes by that I’m not filled with gratitude for the mark these two illustrious giants left on my soul. And somehow they’re still inscribing inner tattoos within me that only get brighter and deeper, coloring my life with living, pulsing vibrancy.