Cut off just enough to feel well tailored.

Don’t you feel though, Don, that when you pick up on these weird guys and turn them into musicians…

You mean like Fellini does?

Well, yeah, but Fellini just uses his freaks for one camera frame or something. You…

Yeah, but that’s what I’m going to do from now on. Just like Fellini. Like, I want to get across to the people. I want to be commercial. I want to play rock ‘n’ roll. Do you know, this new album is the only one that has paid itself back and then done some! None of the others did. You see, I think everything is commercial. I thought ‘Trout Mask Replica’ was a very commercial album, didn’t you? There was a lot of humour on that album that I thought people would pick up on. That’s the only thing I give Zappa credit for. He was asleep most of the time at the controls, but if it hadn’t been for him, that album probably wouldn’t have come out. Also, he free-associates, there is a song on Zappa’s last album I like. It is called ‘Montana’ – I just like that title, you know, ‘Montana’.

But what Don Van Vliet does in art already has what the catalogues call a “distinguished aesthetic history” – which is not, of course, something to be ashamed of. And what he did in music was totally new. This is why people will always tend to be less interested in the development of his technique as a painter than in how he learnt to play the harmonica by holding it out of his parents’ window.

…which reminds me of a story evidently not repeated in the archive of the excellent web site devoted to all things Don Van Vliet, The Captain Beefheart Radar Station.

I vaguely recall I first read this story in Creem Magazine a long time ago. The Captain was asked what was the greatest solo he ever heard, and he told the interviewer something like: “Well, I was driving in the deep night on a straight shot through the desert, going 80mph, and I took a D Hohner harmonica out and thrust it out the window. Glory, man!”

Beefheart is the source also of the following:

Captain Beefheart, (Don Van Vliet,) describes the most memorable performance he ever witnessed.

I saw Monk once at a theatre in San Fernando Valley. They gave him a grand piano, a really beautiful Steinway, with a cut glass bowl of roses. He came in late wearing a trench coat. He dumped the bowl in the piano, knocked down the lid, and hit one note. The sound: everything going into the piano, the strings, the water splashing, the roses. And then he left.



1. Listen to the birds. That’s where all the music comes from. Birds know everything about how it should sound and where that sound should come from. And watch hummingbirds. They fly really fast, but a lot of times they aren’t going anywhere.

2. Your guitar is not really a guitar. Your guitar is a divining rod. Use it to find spirits in the other world and bring them over. A guitar is also a fishing rod. If you’re good, you’ll land a big one.

3. Practice in front of a bush. Wait until the moon is out, then go outside, eat a multi-grained bread and play your guitar to a bush. If the bush dosen’t shake, eat another piece of bread.

4. Walk with the devil. Old Delta blues players referred to guitar amplifiers as the “devil box.” And they were right. You have to be an equal opportunity employer in terms of who you’re bringing over from the other side. Electricity attracts devils and demons. Other instruments attract other spirits. An acoustic guitar attracts Casper. A mandolin attracts Wendy. But an electric guitar attracts Beelzebub.

5. If you’re guilty of thinking, you’re out. If your brain is part of the process, you’re missing it. You should play like a drowning man, struggling to reach shore. If you can trap that feeling, then you have something that is fur bearing.

6. Never point your guitar at anyone. Your instrument has more clout than lightning. Just hit a big chord then run outside to hear it. But make sure you are not standing in an open field.

7. Always carry a church key. That’s your key-man clause. Like One String Sam. He’s one. He was a Detroit street musician who played in the fifties on a homemade instrument. His song “I Need a Hundred Dollars” is warm pie. Another key to the church is Hubert Sumlin, Howlin’ Wolf’s guitar player. He just stands there like the Statue of Liberty-making you want to look up her dress the whole time to see how he’s doing it.

8. Don’t wipe the sweat off your instrument. You need that stink on there. Then you have to get that stink onto your music.

9. Keep your guitar in a dark place. When you’re not playing your guitar, cover it and keep it in a dark place. If you don’t play your guitar for more than a day, be sure you put a saucer of water in with it.

10. You gotta have a hood for your engine. Keep that hat on. A hat is a pressure cooker. If you have a roof on your house, the hot air can’t escape. Even a lima bean has to have a piece of wet paper around it to make it grow. ?

For my own part, the amazing dynamo man, Jamie Cohen, plucked down Trout Mask Replica on his turntable in 1969, and maybe he said ‘And if you think Zappa is weird,’ and it went down. That was my first experience of the avant-garde for sure. My own appreciation is centered on a few amazing bootlegs from 1971, and, much later, the masterful string of ‘free rock’ records he made between 1978 and 1982 before hanging up his harp and growl. Doc At the Radar Station (1980) is one of my favorite records, and, considering that it burst out of the magic volcano in the midst of the punk musical revolution, it is also one of the greatest musical commentaries on popular music…ever. RIP Don Van Vliet (January 15, 1941 – December 17, 2010)

Thirty years? Have a great new year in music.

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