The World of Captain Beefheart unites vocalist Nona Hendryx and guitarist/producer Gary Lucas in one of the most imaginative pairings in recent memory. More than that, it serves as a tribute to Captain Beefheart, the late Don Van Vliet, the musician and painter who wore the Captain’s guys from the 1960s until the early 1980s when he retired from music. Though a figure central to the avant garde, Van Vliet, like his school friend Frank Zappa, had a deep love of R&B and soul music. That Hendryx, known for her work in the legendary vocal group LaBelle, was tapped to contribute vocals to the album is in one of the album’s immediate strengths. That Lucas, who served in Beefheart’s Magic Band and, for a time, managed his musical hero, is also on hand lends the project further credibility.
Both Lucas and Hendryx have worked on highly commercial fronts (Lucas co-wrote material that appears on Jeff Buckley’s Grace album; Hendryx also sang with Talking Heads) but also have avant garde pedigrees that few can rival. Lucas proves an affable interview subject, sharing stories about his time working with Van Vliet as well as his appreciation for his mentor’s spirit and craft. He’s also quick to praise his collaborators (in addition to Hendryx he’s joined by bassist Jesse Krakow, keyboardist Jordan Shapiro and drummer Richard Dworkin) and concedes that maybe the world is finally ready for Captain Beefheart, some seven years after Van Vliet’s death.
The World of Captain Beefheart is out now.
Jedd Beaudoin: Tell me a little bit about the origins of this project.
Gary Lucas: I met her at a tribute that our bass player and co-producer Jesse Krakow put together in New York at the Bowery Poetry Club six or seven years ago. She was very nice. I really liked how she interpreted these songs and it became obvious that she was a huge fan of Beefheart’s. After that, I was given an opportunity to do symphonic Captain Beefheart evening in Amsterdam with the great Metropole Orkest, a 65-piece fusion orchestra that’s done a lot of pop and related projects with artists. I was in the planning stages with my friend, the producer, Co de Kloet, whose sort of the Dutch Beefheart/Zappa go-to guy. I suggested Nona as one of the vocalists and that worked out nicely. As it was difficult to contemplate touring with a 65-piece orchestra with me and Nona, I thought the next step would be to reduce the numbers and make it a more manageable project that could tour.
You mentioned Metropole Orkest. That group has premiered pieces by Mike Keneally, Steve Vai, a range of musicians that might not have that same visibility here. It has to be remarkable to engage with an organization like that, one that is interested in new music.
I thought it was just a joy. Co and I go way back. I think I met him with Don when we played at Paradiso in Amsterdam. I think Co went with us to the Van Gogh museum. We got reacquainted some years later, became very good friends and he did a project involving my work with Jeff Buckley. There were different singers and that came off very well. I’m just impressed with the Metropole arrangers. They’re young kids from all over the place, really accomplished with being able to score out these things for the orchestra.
You have the tie with Beefheart from having been in the band.
And I managed him! Sort of. If you can manage flesh and blood. I was the manager by default because I’m not really a businessman. But at the time he approached my wife at the time, Ling Lucas, and I were very sympathetic to Don and wanted to help him out. He just put it to us, really, like, ‘I don’t trust anybody but you guys. I think you could really do the job.’ Ling was very gung-ho and did a lot on the touring side of things and organizing that. I concentrated on publicity for the new album at that time, Doc at the Radar Station. We did get some great press for it. I set up listening parties for it in our apartment.
Ling and I split but sometime after that Don contacted me and said, ‘I want to make another record.’ So there I was the sole manager and proprietor of this enterprise. I’m proud of what I did which was hooking up a deal with Virgin and Epic. Nobody told Epic records at that time that Captain Beefheart was a going concern on the Virgin roster. I went to Greg Gellar who was head of A&R at Epic and told him we were ready to make a record. He got all excited. I also pushed to make a video for the song “Ice Cream for Crow,” the title song.
The reason I pushed Don to make the video was that he was reluctant to do anymore touring after the last extended go around of touring in 1980 and ’81. He just didn’t like it. I said, ‘If you’re not going to do any more touring, which I hope you’ll change your mind, make a video. It’s MTV, it’s happening. How else are we going to promote this record?’ He didn’t much like MTV either but I talked him into it and he brainstormed a very avant garde video. It was very different than the slick videos of the day. But we got great people working on it and they did it for very little money. We shot it in the Mojave Desert, early in the morning one day in the summer of ’82.
MTV said, ‘It’s too weird for us.’ That was a big pill to swallow. But in the U.K. and Europe it did get played. It was circulated among interesting people. Then, years later, I did notice that MTV was playing it at one in the morning on 120 Minutes or whatever. By that time the band was no more and Don had segued into becoming a fulltime painter. I don’t think it helped the record that much but it’s kept the legend alive.
It’s kind of a shame that he didn’t like video more because I think someone like him could have taken the form in some interesting directions.
Considering that we had a budget of about five cents I think it’s a pretty good video. Let’s just say that we had to pull in a lot of favors to get any minimal financing to do it at all. The cinematography was by Daniel Pearl who I knew from The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. When I found out he was available I was excited. We did a lot of tricks with editing in one night. We had to get on these machines when no one was around. It was a fugitive/pirate project. It’s in the Museum of Modern Art, man. I got it in the permanent video collection. They recognized its quality right off the bat. They dust it off and show it in exhibitions every seven or eight years. It’s something I regard fondly but it was very hot in the desert that day. And Don, despite living in the desert, didn’t really like the heat.
I imagine that you’re approached to do a number of Beefheart-related projects every year. I imagine that you don’t accept all of them. How do you decide which ones you will do?
Often it’s just a question of budget. People often try to get me to do stuff for nothing. They say, ‘Hey, it’s something you can’t hold in your hand. It’s music, it’s fun. Let’s just get this guy to devote his time for nothing.’ It’s my living, man. This is my fulltime living since 1990. I kind of have to make sure that the underpinnings of these shows that I would do will have some sort of remunerative element to them or I would have gone out of business a long time ago.
But I jumped in there in 1990. Let my day job of longstanding in order to do this fulltime. I try to be nice about it. I would never belittle anybody’s efforts to do any tributes to Beefheart on any level. I appreciate that anybody would take the time and the care to want to do that. I just want to make sure that I’m compensated fairly for my time. Because I did put in a lot of time. I devoted a good five years to Don Van Vliet. I’m proud of the job I did.
So, I’m curious about the idea of bringing in a female vocalist for this project.
The problem with a lot of tributes, I think, any Beefheart project and where they occasionally fall down is that it’s very hard to get a front person in there to sing these things that wouldn’t be trying to imitate Don and his inimitable vocals. He had such an exceptional voice. But just singing in a gruff voice isn’t going to cut it. It’s not enough. To reimagine this project in the context of Nona’s voice was a pleasure because she’s bringing something really unique to her to the table. She’s a very well-established singer in the soul/funk genre. But she’s done a lot of interesting avant garde music with Material [with Bill Laswell] and when she was singing with Talking Heads.
But Don used to tell me, ‘I really sound like a black female blues singer.’ In his estimation. I heard it once and mentioned it to him and he agreed. He said, ‘Yeah, I really got that woman thing in my voice. A black woman.’ Where the two of them intersect and dovetail, I’ll leave it to you. But I will also say that if you see any of his paintings, a lot of his iconic images that recur in his larger oil paintings are of nude African women. There’s one called Beezoo Beezoo but it’s an image that recurs in at least three of his major paintings.
And we should also mention that for all the talk of his music being avant garde, he loved R&B, soul, which also shines through on this record.
We did put a thumb on the scales to tip them toward the more R&B and soul material. At the same time we made sure to include some of the gnarlier, weirder, darker material. Because Nona liked all of it. So we really wanted to give a really good cross section of Van Vliet.
Listening to the lyrics again I’m struck by how, on something like ‘Tropical Hot Dog Night,’ you can read it as absurd/abstract/avant garde. The images are wild, out there and yet I can go, ‘Hey, I think I know what that means.’
[Laughs.] That’s funny because Don’s lyrics are like little puzzle poems. He definitely used very original imagery. But some things that do not make sense or seem very surrealistic on first hearing them reveal themselves to you in the middle of the night: ‘That’s what he was trying to say! That’s what that’s standing in for.’ He told me once, ‘I’m an old Beatnik.’ He was big on blowing up ordinary imagery and thoughts into images that might partake of very unusual language but might actually be describing something very basic.
Whenever you tried to pin him down to try and explain these things he’d either give you a bum steer or a non sequitur or just say, ‘I don’t need to provide meanings.’ But some are more obvious than others. One time I said to him, ‘What is this title “White Jam?”’ He said, “Isn’t it obvious? It’s about a bunch of white people jamming.’ I don’t think so, myself.
One of his favorite aphorisms came from the Beat poet Gary Snider who said, basically, ‘If you call it, you stop the flow.’ Putting a label on something restricts it, inhibits it and freezes the action of observation and takes away some of the joy of discovering of it on your own.
I can’t say that his music is necessarily more popular than it was in the 1980s but I sense that there’s a deeper awareness of Beefheart’s music in the contemporary scene.
I hope so. I put it down to there being a lot of bored people out there who aren’t being satisfied with what’s being given to them. Also, under the regimen of digitization we’ve all had to endure, things might be more accessible to our fingertips, and there’s more arriving on a daily basis, just makes the selection process really daunting.
Don’s music was always something of a minority taste but it was singled out as being exceptionally great by many tastemakers. That could be what’s drawn people into it. There’s a substantial critic body of work about Don out there if people are interested. It’s a shadowy but legendary name to a lot of people that might account for this. It might be that they’re bored with what they’re getting in the guise of challenging music and so they’re turning to one of the old masters.
I of course want to talk about your guitar playing for a moment, the way that you can move from blues and Americana into the avant garde. Do you think that that versatility is in part inspired by the era you came up in?
Probably. Back in the day when I was a young, fledgling musician, I listened to a lot of music and had my ears open. The era that really got me fascinated was the mid-to-late ‘60s. Those are my formative years. I felt comfortable shifting from one thing to another in those days. I loved the Rolling Stones and The Yardbirds but at the same time when psychedelia crept in, I would go for a more esoteric sound, Syd Barrett, Pink Floyd, Peter Green, stuff that didn’t really make a big impact in the U.S. for a while. Those people really influenced me.
When Beefheart came on the scene and I woke up to it, it drew me back to country blues. I was a very eclectic listener then. I hardly listen to anything now other than old music for recreational purposes. This is the paradox of making music for a living: You withdraw into yourself because you don’t want to be influenced by current things.
It’s fitting that this album is collaborative in nature. Your discography boasts a high number of them. You must be easy to work with.
I don’t know about! [Laughs.] I try to get along with people. Unless somebody says, ‘This is a terrible person, stay away from them,’ I like to give people the benefit of the doubt. Collaborations are funny because often the end result is a lot larger than the individual efforts that go into it. In working with Jeff Buckley on “Grace” and “Mojo Pin” and 10 more songs, I’m very proud of those songs and those collaborations. I personally believe that they’re among my finest work and I think that Jeff felt that same way. I daresay that had either of us attempted to work on that music alone they wouldn’t have come out as good as they did.
To fixate on your own work and work alone is fine but it’s a big old world out there and there’s all sorts of energy that can be unlocked and freed up by lending yourself to a good to a good collaboration. You can bring something really special into the world.