Song Writing

Gary Lucas and The World of Captain Beefheart

by Jeff Suwak

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A look at the life of Captain Beefheart from his longtime collaborator.



Captain Beefheart was known for being a jerk almost as much as he was for being a genius, but guitar virtuoso Gary Lucas isn't interested in talking about all that. Lucas knew another side of Beefheart (real name: Don van Vliet), which he wants to focus on as he promotes The World of Captain Beefheart, an album designed to bring the infamous artist's music to a new generation.

From the moment Lucas saw Beefheart perform live, he knew their careers would entwine. From that night onward, the Yale undergrad set out on a mission to land a spot in Beefheart's Magic Band. He achieved that goal, and over the following years came to know Vliet as mentor, collaborator, and friend. Today, he works to keep his old compatriot's legacy alive.

The World of Captain Beefheart is meant to resurrect the music for those who missed it during Vliet's life, and it fulfills that purpose admirably. The album samples from the full spectrum of Beefheart's repertoire, from borderline-mainstream songs like "I'm Glad" and "Her Eyes Are a Blue Million Miles" to beautifully bizarre pieces like "When Big Joan Set Up" and "Tropical Hot Dog Night." It's hard to imagine a better collection for the uninitiated.

With the sometimes-snarling and sometimes-tender pipes of Nona Hendryx singing the tracks, the album's recreations of Vliet's tunes are also sure to please those who are already Beefheart fans. Lucas took time away from a day spent dealing with his dog's medical emergency to talk about the new album, his history with van Vliet, and some recent highlights from his unique and winding career.
Jeff Suwak (Songfacts): In your sophomore year of college you saw Beefheart live and vowed to make a career in his band. What exactly did you see there that so captured your imagination?

Gary Lucas: I had never seen a landslide of music that was so captivating. I can't describe it, but maybe the Dada element had something to do with it. When I saw them, they used to start the show, one would come out - I think it was the drummer, John French or maybe Artie Tripp; they had two drummers – and just start a drum solo. And then the other guy would come out and do the double drum thing and play patty-cake, and then one by one they all entered the stage and entered an element into the sound. It was just phenomenal.

It was like a circus; it was a three-ring circus. And Don was the last one out there and he was like the genial ringmaster, cracking the whip on this Dada circus. Plus, they all were dressed unbelievably. They looked like mythical creatures. So, it didn't really look like a normal band or musicians as one knew it, and the sounds they were getting were compelling and other-worldly and jazzy and edgy, the kind of mute and blues sound, but with a lot of forward energy with the drums. Then Don picked up the horn and started blowing into the head, and there was something else.

So, yes, it was a very refreshing, head-cleaning kind of an assault sonically. It tickled me. There was some rock in it, jazz and free jazz stuff and blues. I love all this stuff. There's some very attractive fresh formatting. Don picked up his harp and played but, actually, his voice was the most powerful instrument. He just bellowed into the mic, and his lyrics were surrealistic poetry, though they certainly make a lot of sense. As a poet, I think he's quite good.

So, that was how I got hooked, because I was like, Oh my god, this looks like so much fun. These guys are having a ball up there, and it's different. I always liked different. I got bored easily, so this was something completely different and new. That's why I thought, Wow! Either that or it was the high-grade marijuana that we smoked.

So, I just said to myself, if I ever do anything in this business, I'll play with him.

Songfacts: How did you initially approach him?

Lucas: Well, lucky for me it was announced that he would do the show up at Yale six months later when his album Spotlight Kid came out. People said, "Hey, you've gotta talk to the guy, first of all, to promo the show. We're going to set up an interview." So, I have a tape of me talking to him for the first time on the phone. I think he was in Boston. My voice is quavering - I was talking to my idol. Plus, he'd been on the cover of Rolling Stone and he was known to be very quick-witted and a little bit authoritarian. So, I was a little scared. But he was very nice, and he was very welcoming to me. He made me feel at ease.

Songfacts: The infamously cantankerous Captain Beefheart made you feel at ease?

Lucas: Yeah, he did. He was super warm. Anyway, he rumbled away: "Hello, Gary."

So, that is how I first encountered him. Then I arranged to meet him when he came up a couple of days later. I met him and his wife and the band - they were very gracious, and we bonded. The concert was a little disappointing but overall everything went great.

So, I made a point to see him every time he played around the New Haven area or in New York City. I came down to see him at Town Hall a couple times and always went backstage and said hello. Then I wrote about one of his gigs for a magazine called Zoo World. I don't know if you remember that, but it was sort of a Rolling Stone-like tabloid out of Florida. I did a cover story for that.

So, we became very friendly, he gave me his phone number and I called him once or twice. Once he'd get on the phone he was a fascinating conversationalist. Everything was so beautiful when talking to him.

Songfacts: He was generally a warm person?

Lucas: Oh, yeah. On a good day, yeah. I know there are plenty of stories about his temper and his irascibility, and for me, all that stuff was revealed later on when I got in there professionally. He was super nice and deferential to me. He could tell if people were trying to put him down and he was very quick with a comeback. But he was trying to charm everybody, so I didn't see the darker side until I started to play and record with him.

But, I don't want to go so much into that, because I want to celebrate him. There are a lot of books where this has been documented. Yeah, I saw my fair share of that side, but I prefer to recall the life of charming Don Vliet. People are very complicated anyway. He handled situations differently than you or I might.

Songfacts: If I'm not mistaken, you were playing with him when he decided to quit music and turn to painting. How did that affect you personally?

Lucas: I was just interested in trying to help the guy. It disappointed me because he was saying, "I'm going to do this instead of doing music." So, I was disappointed about that because I got in there to play and not really be involved with his other business. But, I respected it because I guess he felt he had said everything over his 11 albums. He put out one amazing album after another and nothing had caught fire commercially. Unfortunately, it's a commercial biz, so he didn't see an upside, at that point, to continue to do them.

Music and ideas bubbled up out of him - he was a force of nature. But he was sick of the music biz on the whole. He really didn't want to answer to them financially. He didn't really want to tour, therefore it became imperative for him to just do the painting, and I was proud of helping him segue into that phase.

Once I'd hooked him up, I did go out and see him one last time to help him catalogue some of his stuff, just to make an archival tally of everything he was singing on. I resigned shortly after that, which wasn't easy because I'd invested a lot emotionally for five years.

Songfacts: So, you resigned before the band was officially disbanded?

Lucas: No, the band never officially ceased, but the band was no more after Ice Cream for Crow [1982] came out and Vliet decided not to tour. We did a video in place of touring to have something promotional that we could use to stimulate people to get the music out.

Songfacts: I watched that video last night.

Lucas: Oh, it's great. The problem is, MTV said, "Oh, no, it's too weird," and it was designed for them.

Songfacts: Did that bother you and him?

Lucas: Well, yeah, it was disappointing. It got him on Letterman for a couple of minutes and he blurted out, "I don't want my MTV if they don't want my video." So, yeah, he was annoyed. It was frustrating, but all good things unhappily come to an end.

After I resigned, I never spoke with him again. I just needed to separate. It had been five years and I quite enjoyed it, but then in an intense five years I'd put a lot of energy into it and I thought, I've got to just concentrate on my stuff and my life and I need to make a break because of just the kind of personality he had. He could really dominate you with your energy and everything. So, I figured, I've got my own music to do, I want to do my own stuff, and I can't really help him with his art business, it's not my world.

I'd been hooking him up with Julian Schnabel and I got the guy who represents him currently, Michael Werner, over to my house to look at some paintings. I'm proud of the job I did. At that point, I separated because I had to just for my own peace of mind. But I sent him all the contacts and said, "I really hope this works. If you want to do another album, though, let me know. That's why I got involved, not to just do your art stuff."

So, that was it for me, amicably that way.

Songfacts: So, when did you find yourself coming back around to where you wanted to start promoting Vliet's music?

Lucas: When Mike Barnes came out with a very good [Vliet] biography, he approached me to help him and to be interviewed for his book, and I was happy to revisit that period. Then I started listening again and right away I realized why it was so innovative in the first place. But, I hadn't really thought about it in years, which was good for me - it was healthy.

But, at the point Mike came around to ask, I was happy to revisit it. It made sense for me when I got a little perspective on it. Otherwise, I was too up close to it to really enjoy it at the end.

Songfacts: When you look back, where do you hold that period of your musical career?

Gary with Nona Hendryx
Lucas: I would say it's sacred. I'm very proud of it, sure. I don't regret it. I don't regret really anything. I can always second guess myself, but I think it gave me a great education in music and life. He was Don, a very perceptive guy with a lot to offer, with insights into how people ticked, and how the world was made and what to expect.

It's cynical sometimes but also, with music, I really developed a new technique, having to master his music, that I've applied to my solo career. I've put 30-plus albums out to date. They don't sound like Beefheart music, and yet I used a lot of my extended technique, let's say, that I derived from the experience of working with him. So, it came in handy. It was good grounding.

Songfacts: Was it you or Nona Hendryx who spearheaded the project? What made you decide now was the time to do it?

Lucas: I spearheaded it. I met Nona and she told me she was a big fan. It was at a tribute Jesse Krakow, the bass player, had organized and I was a guest. So, I thought, well, she'd be really good to do more of this with. And then I got a chance to do symphonic Beefheart in Amsterdam at the Paradiso with an orchestra, and I invited her. Then I thought it's too hard to tour with an orchestra, so let's try and reduce it to five pieces. That's how it came about.

I hope we do some more dates. We had a great show in New York a few weeks ago. It's just hard to get everybody's schedule to line up. She's super busy, I'm busy, the guys are all busy. It's hard to find one thing for everybody in music that becomes a stable situation these days.

Songfacts: You recently played for the UN. What was that experience like?

Lucas: If someone asked me what the best gig I ever had in my life was, I'd say it was that. I loved it. It was a thrill, man. I got up there with my acoustic and I rocked the joint. I mean, I rocked the General Assembly. I got over with these diplomats. I saw them raise their hands up. My proudest moment.

Songfacts: How did you guys select exactly what songs to put on The World of Captain Beefheart?

Lucas: I got together with Jesse [Krakow] and kind of worked it out. The criteria was just, "Do we like this?" But also, we wanted to favor some of the more R&B/soul oriented tunes and catalogue because Nona's great voice and her soul/funk background loaned itself to it. But she was game to go for some of the weirder, darker stuff too. I mean, we did stuff from Trout Mask Replica and Decal, so there's something for everybody, if you're into Beefheart, on that record.

Songfacts: I got the impression from that the main intent with this album is to try to get Beefheart into ears of people who weren't previously fans. Would you agree with that?

Lucas: Sure. I think it's a good gateway introduction to the world of Captain Beefheart. A lot of people who might become fans might be daunted with the hardcore original Beefheart. I love it, but not everybody can accept it in their lives. Some people don't give it a chance. I think this is a little bit more of a seductive side of things. It's not like we sweetened it or did anything contrary to it, but coming from the standpoint of R&B and soul music, we chose, dare I say, a little bit more of the accessible songs that are a little bit more – I hate using words like commercial - it's still pretty weird.

Nothing of his is ever straightforward, except he had a couple of disastrous, supposed-commercial records in the middle. Even though they're roundly condemned by a lot of people, there are some good songs on them too. We didn't play any of them in this stuff. So, I think it's a fresh take on it and it's made for people to discover and then move into the actual Beefheart corpus of work.

Songfacts: How would you sum up Vliet's legacy and his influence on music in general?

Lucas: Well, I think it was vast, because a whole bunch of punk and New Wave artists back in the day, from about '77 on, cited him as a formative influence: Johnny Rotten, Joe Strummer, David Byrne, Devo. So, in music, a big influence.

Then for visual artists, David Lynch, he loves Beefheart. Matt Groening of The Simpsons, he's the biggest Beefheart fan in the world now. Woody Allen, I'm told, is a huge fan. Ed Ruscha, the artist, we reproduced one of his paintings, he was a very famous West Coast guy, he loves it. Julian Schnabel, huge painter. The many, many people who love Beefheart. Tom Waits, PJ Harvey, Joan Osbourne - the list is endless. Jack White is a huge Beefheart fan.

So, it's too bad there's not more people like these in the world, so we're trying to change that. I think he had a big influence if people paid attention and listened. Most people couldn't get it, or it wasn't programmed. Like what happened with MTV. That video and that song was designed to get a lot of people to listen to "Ice Cream for Crow" and it was not to be, thanks to the corporate powers-that-be. But it lives on, man. All that stuff resonates. I put it up there ten years ago and it's gathered its fans. They are out there. I just want more people to know better. I'm on a mission.

Songfacts: I don't have it handy, but you had a great quote where you're talking to NPR about this subject, and you compared it to a mitzvah.

Lucas: It's a mitzvah, it is. In my life, I try to honor things that I feel deserve more attention. I find it very boring in the world and too stultifying with the current trends culturally. I can't stand most modern music - I'm not ashamed to say it. There's a very bad taste operating. So, I'm trying to put some light on this, and throw shade on programmers and people who said it's too weird, it's just for bored people. If you're just used to the same old, same old, you won't like it. You might, but you won't even give it a chance. You have to get past those gatekeepers and into people's hearts and minds.

Songfacts: Is there anything else you'd like to say about the album The World of Captain Beefheart?

Lucas: Just that it was a complete pleasure to play. I'm very proud of it. I think we did an awesome job and I'd love people to give it a chance and get into it and let it grow on them, because it will grow on them.

November 28, 2017
Read more in our chat with Nona Hendryx
Get The World of Captain Beefheart at garylucas.com
Photos: Glenn Kolotkin (1), Michael Delsol (2)

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