Captain Beefheart – A PoOPster remembers

An obit from the Guardian, UK   Captain Beefheart, who has died aged 69, was provocative and unpredictable | Music | The Guardian

Our fellow PoOPSter, Jim Finnigan, sent along this fine remembrance of the famously prickly Don Van Vliet

From: Jim Finnigan

Subject: My Captain Beefheart experience
Date: Friday, December 17, 2010, 11:39 PM

I  saw Captain Beefheart perform 4 times but I met him once.

It must have been in the fall of 1976, I hitchhiked from Albany to Poughkeepsie on a beautiful autumn day to meet a friend who lived in Po-town and catch a show by Beefheart at Frivolous Sal’s Last Chance Saloon. I arrived at the Last Chance a couple of hours early – it was a bar and it was already open as usual. I sat at the bar, had a beer and a burger, and ended up talking to Denny Walley who was also sitting at the bar. Denny and I talked about the gig, about how it was a warm-up for a gig in New York City in a couple of days where they’d be playing for some Capitol Records execs, to whom they were trying to sell the Captain’s new album, Bat Chain Puller. Denny said that he knew Beefheart and Zappa from high school – they all sat in the back row in class (alphabetical seating, remember?) and were always getting in trouble for horsing around or for throwing spitballs at the girls in the rows in front of them, and so on. After awhile Captain Beefheart came out from behind the stage with a large pad of paper and sat down at one of the tables. Denny said, there he is now, would you like to meet him? I said yes, and Denny said, be careful and don’t call him Captain, he only likes to be called Don.

So we went over, Denny introduced me and Don invited me to sit with him at his table. I of course said how much I liked his music, and we talked about which ones I liked and so on. We talked about some other things and I found Don to be very friendly and pleasant. Don also talked about this gig, how his band was all new, and how it was a warm-up for playing to the Capitol Records guys. At one point, either Jeff Morris Tepper, or maybe it was Gary Lucas, came over and sat with us. Don asked me if I’d like to PLAY with Jeff (or Gary), and if I thought that it would be fun to PLAY with his band, and other questions all involving an emphasis on the word PLAY. I thought, ok, now here’s where Beefheart’s weird side was starting to come out. Jeff (or…) excused himself and went backstage, and soon the club announcer came on and introduced the opening act, Chicago blues piano great Sunnyland Slim. At this point there were only about a dozen people in the audience.

Sunnyland played some numbers solo, and then a couple of young white guys came onstage and started playing with him. I think Sunnyland had the biggest hands I’ve ever seen, and after every number he would hold his hands up to acknowledge the applause. Beefheart and I were still talking when Sunnyland started to play, but then Beefheart said “shhh – this guy’s great, I want to listen to him, we’ll talk later.” Beefheart then opened up his sketch pad and started making these sketches that were obviously of Sunnyland. He drew very quickly and soon had made 3 or 4 full-page sketches, which I thought were all very good. Then he made a sketch that didn’t look like Sunnyland, and I thought that the sketch wasn’t as good as the others. Sunnyland ended his set – I think he was very, very good that evening.

Don then flipped through his sketch pad and asked me what I thought of his sketches, and I said that I thought they were pretty good, and then he turned to the last sketch. I said that I didn’t think that one was as good as the others, and Don said, “too bad, because that’s a sketch of you, and I would have given it to you if you liked it.” Well, the thought quickly went through my mind to say “No! No! I like it!” or whatever, but, being young and pig headed (or whatever), I decided to hold my ground and said “No, I don’t like that sketch as much as the others”, and Don said, “Well Ok, nice meeting you, enjoy the show”, got up and went backstage.

The Magic Band came onstage one at a time and started pounding out the opening number bit by bit. Robert Arthur Williams must have been sitting down low behind his drums, because he all of a sudden slithered up into view with a very snake-like motion and sat down at the drums, which kinda startled me. I noticed that The new Magic Band members included Sunnyland’s backing musicians. This is something I don’t think I’ve ever seen referenced anywhere – Sunnyland Slim & The Magic Band. I do recall that, in his book, Drumbo mentions that Beefheart and Sunnyland shared managers for awhile. For the second show, the other half of The Magic Band were Sunnyland’s backup band.

Anyway, Beefheart & The Magic Band played a good set, including new material, and stuff from almost all of his albums except Unconditionally Guaranteed and Bluejeans & Moonbeans. I recall that the rhythm of Bat Chain Puller reminded me of the Rolling Stones’s Hot Stuff – not one of the Stones more critically acclaimed numbers. One of the versions on the Dust Sucker semi-bootleg reminds me of the version they played that night. The audience was now up to forty or fifty people, and were hootin’ and hollerin’ along. One table of young ladies all prettily dressed in disco frilly shirts kept requesting Happy Love Song. Finally Beefheart said that this new band didn’t know that song, but he offered instead to do another song off of Unconditionally Guaranteed, I swear Upon the My-O-My, but Beefheart ‘experts’ that I’ve spoken to swear that he never did any of those songs after the tour with the Bluejeans-era band. Whatever. I remember what I remember.

Anyway, that’s my encounter with Beefheart. If he saved his sketchbooks, somewhere in the one with his sketches of Sunnyland Slim, is a sketch of me. Sigh.

Jim Finnigan

1 Comment on "Captain Beefheart – A PoOPster remembers"

  1. Hi, this was in fact the autumn of 1977: I was there, having just moved to the States.

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