The Magic Band: Captain insensible

The traumatic experience of recording with Captain Beefheart left some of the The Magic Band scarred for life. So why, Nick Hasted asks them, have they released a tribute album to their tyrannical leader?

Friday 11 July 2003 00:00 BST

The Captain lives in the desert now as Don Van Vliet, a reclusive but successful 62-year-old painter who has been a minor star in the American art world for two decades. Many more still call him Captain Beefheart, and revere him for the matchless innovations he and his Magic Band offered rock with 1969's Trout Mask Replica and the albums that followed till his sudden retirement from music in 1982.

Beefheart's Howlin' Wolf blues growl, free jazz rhythmic collisions, and Beat poetry mixing the Beatles, absurd non sequiturs and Nazi death camps was an unrepeatable underground explosion, flinging shards of influence from Tom Waits to The Fall. His acolytes make do with rumours: that he has gone mad, that he is enfeebled and dying, or that he has ordered wall-sized new canvases and remains formidably potent.

Even as the Captain remains a tantalising black hole, his Magic Band are back among us with a line-up spanning their tumultuous career: John French and Mark Boston from nearly the start, Denny Whalley the middle, and Gary Lucas and Robert Williams the end. A new CD of them rehearsing old favourites, Back to the Front, reanimates old quirks, with French bravely impersonating Beefheart's growl. "John wanted to do it as a tribute to Don," Boston explains, "to bring this music back to life."

Once you know their terrifying history, a Beefheartless Magic Band doesn't seem wrong. Its members contributed more than Beefheart ever dared admit, and suffered more fear and violence from him than playing music deserves. When I meet them in a north London rehearsal room, they are swapping stories like this is a platoon reunion, discussing traumatic events only fellow veterans will ever understand.

For French and Boston, the battleground was the decrepit bungalow in California's Woodland Hills where Beefheart trapped them in 1969 to create Trout Mask Replica from a brew of induced paranoia and desperate creative leaps: the greatest unfilmed horror movie, lab experiment, and avant-garde achievement in rock history.

The Magic Band's true beginning, though, was in the isolated Mojave desert town of Lancaster in the 1950s. "The freeway hadn't reached us, and that affected the music," remembers French. "Because Don had no cultural input, no way of categorising or restricting things."

French played on the Magic Band's debut album, Safe as Milk (1968), which made Beefheart seem a raw bluesman. But a year later, a far stranger, more frightening world awaited. Frustrated by a commercially remixed second album, Strictly Personal (1968), Beefheart signed with Frank Zappa, also from Lancaster, to make music with complete creative control. He achieved just that in the bungalow over 10 mad months.

The house - "old and run-down, with a spooky, haunted ambience" - sat at the top of a hill lashed by huge rainstorms. As Beefheart drilled Trout Mask Replica into them, they rarely saw outside and when neighbours complained of the unearthly noise, windows were covered with rubber, creating dungeon darkness where time crawled unnaturally. Only one of the band at a time was let out for food, in case they didn't return. At one point, Boston recalls, they "broke down" and painted each room different lurid colours. When French returned to the house after Beefheart "sacked" him by hurling him down the stairs, he found the Captain had covered every surface in pictures and poetry.

At the back of this crazy-painted dungeon, Beefheart was the sleeping ogre. He would rise in the late afternoon to reveal sketchy riffs and lyrics, which he would whistle or murmur to French. Musically unskilled, he relied on French to translate these intimations into something the band could play. But he showed no gratitude. Waking in unpredictable moods, he would scapegoat individuals for imagined errors, turning one against the other, ruling by fear. Only 19, French was crushed, till his head had nothing left in it but music.

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"My personality had been encroached upon and nibbled away until there was a little bit of me left cowering in a corner," he remembers. "I couldn't express an opinion. I was afraid to. I concentrated on music instead. When the others were playing by themselves, all at once, I could hear each wrong note. I was consumed. It's an awful feeling."

The strangest part of the Magic Band story may be how a non-musician, Beefheart, created such extraordinary sounds by relying on skilled players whom he bent to his will by sensory deprivation and mind-games - exercising tyrannical power over people he was helpless without.

"I think he was intimidated by the fact that we could play complicated things more than once," French considers. "He always used to put down schooling. But I employed techniques I learnt in school. We all had to. We had to be experienced players to finish Don's fragments." The others chip in with tales of mutiny, vague musical instructions, and the paranoia the Captain created so they wouldn't bond. Lucas: "He once said to me, 'On the way over here I think, whose turn is it in the barrel?"

French: "You read about how Wagner was... I mentioned this to Don, and he said, 'Yeah, well, you can handle reading about those guys in literature and history - but you can't handle the real thing, man, I'm just like those guys!'

"It makes me shake," he says, almost to himself. "It still makes me shake when I start thinking about it, it makes me... tense."

"I left once," Boston adds. "Hid myself in the bushes and ran. But - they found me. Drug me back."

The question is how much Beefheart's cruel undercutting of individuals protected his own position - and how much it was the key to the new cacophony they made.

"We're proving by getting back together that we play better without that tension," says French. "We achieved one per cent of what we could have done if he'd let us express ourselves. The only good thing was that it allowed Don to impose his musical will upon us. And there had to be walls in order to play things that weren't considered to fit together. He used to say, 'Everything goes with everything.' You listen, and there's a cat crossing the street, there's a car going by, and nobody can really control it, it's all happening at once, it is dissonant, it's an imperfect world. And that's what he was trying to do with the music."

Beefheart bullied all his Magic Bands till their fanfare, 1982's Ice Cream for Crow. Still, a mystery remains. They are still here. French, who Boston says Beefheart "scarred", came back for more, almost till the end. This reunion was his idea. "Oh, I think a lot of Don, I always did," Boston admits. "Because I knew, even back then, that he was going to be one of the artists of the century. I knew it in my heart."

'Back to the Front' is out now on ATP

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