That Was Then/This Is Yesterday

Interview: John French (Captain Beefheart’s Magic Band), 2003

Posted in Uncategorized by wwyork on July 19, 2015

[W]hen you’re involved in a cult situation like that …, you become so accustomed to your environment that when you’re out of the environment you feel foreign. I felt like I didn’t belong. I didn’t wanna be in the band, but I didn’t belong outside of it either. It was an odd place to be, psychologically.

This interview was originally conducted for a little blurb on the reunited Magic Band that was to appear in Alternative Press back in 2003. Alas, the piece got bumped (though in favor of what nonentity of a band, I’d rather not even know). In any case, it was pretty cool to be able to talk to the guy who played drums—and helped arrange much of the music—on the legendary Trout Mask Replica, among other LPs by the early incarnation(s) of Captain Beefheart’s band. Mr. French wrote extensively about his experiences in the Magic Band in the liner notes to the Grow Fins box set, which served as a jumping-off point for this interview.

How does this whole thing come about, as far as getting this band together for the reunion?

Well, actually, it’s funny because it’s a chain reaction from the [Grow Fins] liner notes. I was writing the liner notes and I realized how much fun it was calling up my old buddies and talking to them. And I was listening to the music, because I’d decided to write a book—everybody said, “You should write a book,” so I started writing a book. And out of the book, somebody suggested that I do track notes—track-by-track, song-by-song—of all the different albums.

So anyway, as I was going through the track notes, I started listening to the music, and I sort of rediscovered it, in a sense. I found myself really getting intrigued—especially with the singing—and really enjoying it for art’s sake, and not having the usual kind of things that you have from the inside out when you actually do music. What you associate with the music you’ve actually created yourself is, you know, the room that you were in, the experiences you were having at the time, and all that. I was able to get away from that and see it from the outside in for the first time, and to really enjoy it. And I thought, “God, it would be great to do a reunion with the old Trout Mask band guys,” ’cause I grew up with all those guys. They lived here in the area where I live, in Lancaster.

So, I wanted to do instrumental versions of the songs—that was the original idea—and also to do stuff from Lick My Decals, too. So I wanted to have Art Tripp and Jeff Cotton, Bill Harkleroad, Mark Boston and myself. And I was just gonna concentrate on those two areas. And I thought, “Wouldn’t it be great to do that?” because those are sort of benchmark albums.

Right.

So, Art Tripp wasn’t interested at all. Jeff Cotton wasn’t interested at all. Bill Harkleroad was reluctantly interested, and I kinda talked him into it. Mark was interested. I replaced Jeff Cotton with Denny Walley, who worked in the 1975, 1976, and 1977 [bands], I think. He played on the unreleased Bat Chain Puller album.

Oh, I only knew him from some Zappa things.

Yeah, he worked with Zappa quite a bit. He was in the band on the Bongo Fury tour. That was the beginning of him meeting Don, and Frank suggesting, “Well, why don’t you work with Don when you’re not working with me?” So when he wasn’t working with Don, he was working with Frank. And he sang in Frank’s band, too.

Yeah.

So, um, it evolved to that point, and then the whole project idea fell apart. This guy that had contacted me couldn’t really get things moving, so I withdrew from the project. And when I withdrew, Bill, who had been reluctant to begin with, decided he wasn’t gonna do it. So two months later, when I got an offer from another guy who was interested, Barry Hogan, Bill Harkleroad said, “I’m not interested any longer.” So, the next person who I felt was highly qualified was Gary Lucas, who was in the very last Magic Band. And I had never played with Gary onstage. In fact, none of us had. I played with Denny and with Mark, but I’d never played with Gary.

But you’re on the same record with him, Doc at the Radar Station—right?

This is true, but he just played a solo piece. He wasn’t actually in the band; he was managing the band at the time. So, I had met him briefly, when he came to the [Doc at the Radar Station] session, and that’s it.

Anyway, at that point, I wanted to keep it democratic, so we voted on the tunes, and they voted on a lot of songs that were, in my opinion, impossible to do instrumentally-they had to have vocals. So then we kinda went around and around about that. Some of the guys suggested, “Well, why don’t we get a Beefheart clone?” as we call them—guys who, you know, try to imitate Don and sing like him. And I thought, “No, I don’t wanna deal with somebody who’s obsessed with Don.” If you’ve read the book, you’d know that it wasn’t always so easy to get along with Don. So I didn’t wanna deal with somebody who worshiped Don. And I also didn’t want to front the Magic Band with somebody who wasn’t a Magic Band member.

So, I had been working on one song that I wanted to sing, “Big Eyed Beans.” I felt like I was getting the kind of energy that needed to be there to make that song work. And I thought, “Well, if I can do it with that one, I can do it with the other ones.” So I told the guys, “I wanna sing.” And it was all still up in the air until we got to the studio. Everybody was sort of holding their breath, and I was under this sort of scrutiny. [Laughs.] But I passed—I passed the exam.

Yeah, I was amazed by the singing. Is that something you’ve been working on for a long time?

Yeah, I’d come home and for maybe half an hour a day, after I did my work, I’d come home and just sing along with the songs. And then I got to where I was tape-recording myself. And for awhile, it seemed like it was gonna be hopeless. [Laughs.] I listened to myself and I sounded more like Popeye the Sailor. And suddenly it just sort of popped out one day, and I realized where the energy needed to come from, and how to focus better. Something came out that worked, you know what I’m saying?

Yeah.

And then, of course, the next big area of concern was, “Well, what’s gonna be the fans’ reaction? Is it gonna be, ‘How dare he?'” I’d read a review of a show that Gary Lucas did, an instrumental thing called Fast ‘n Bulbous. The review of that show said, “Of course nobody sang, because how dare anybody try to sing Captain Beefheart songs?” And I thought, “Well, that’s kind of silly.” A lot of people cover other people’s material. So I didn’t see any problem with it. But I knew that the fans might react adversely. But they didn’t. Surprisingly enough, everybody seemed to accept it, and I think they just enjoyed hearing the music performed again and seeing some of the original members back together.

I noticed in the book [the Grow Fins booklet] that you didn’t know where Mark Boston was when you were doing the liner notes. Did he read those and then get in touch with you?

I can’t remember what happened. [Pause.] Oh, I know what happened. Actually, I think Bill Harkleroad’s brother, Bob Harkleroad, who lives north of the Bay Area, found out that he [Boston] was in Santa Rosa at the time. So I contacted him and went up to Santa Rosa. And I interviewed him for my book, but it was too late for it to be included in the [Grow Fins] liner notes.

You said that now you’re at the point where you can listen to the old music without all the personal baggage. How recently has it been that you’ve been able to do that?

Last couple of years. Before that, I had just put it away for a long time. I’ll tell you the truth, it was when [Grow Fins] was released, and I think what happened was, the public reaction to the writing was good. And I had a really low opinion of myself and of what the public would think of me. And when the public reacted so well, it gave me sort of a release. It was sorta like it all came offa me. [Laughs.] All the bad stuff that happened and the cult atmosphere that was in the band—and the things that had left me with—all the sudden just sorta lifted off. And it was sort of a good release. I guess it was “cathartic.”

You mentioned the word “cult-like,” and you also used that description in the Grow Fins liner notes. But back then, did you feel like things were that way?

Oh, absolutely, I felt it was completely wrong—that there was something truly wrong with this picture. It wasn’t something that I was sucked up in at the time and then later would look back. At the time, I felt it was wrong, but you know, we were contractually bound. We were also sort of honor bound, ’cause we had started this project and we all wanted to finish it.

Were there ever points when you thought it would not get finished?

There were a couple of times when I just didn’t care. It was like, “Well, it isn’t worth it to go through this for … anything. Nothing is worth this.” But the interesting thing is, when you’re involved in a cult situation like that, after a while, in order to survive, you become so accustomed to your environment that when you’re out of the environment you feel foreign. I felt like I didn’t belong. I didn’t wanna be in the band, but I didn’t belong outside of it either. It was an odd place to be, psychologically.

The first thing that I ever read about Trout Mask is something that must have felt terrible when you saw it—thatthe whole thing about how it took 8 1/2 hours to write that album and that he did it all in a single stretch at the piano. Do you remember when you first saw that, or when that legend started circulating?

You mean when I read these untrue stories about how Don taught four untrained musicians how to play this music that he had written in 8 1/2 hours?

Yeah.

Yeah. 8 1/2 seemed to be a very important number to him, and I think he got it from that Fellini film, actually [laughs], which was on television during that period of time. That’s the only thing I can figure—that’s the only relevant thing that 8 1/2 reminds me of. Now, you asked me what I felt when I first read this.

Right.

I felt completely betrayed. And I also had a very strong realization that the press—certainly you can’t believe everything you read in the press. That’s when I started realizing that there were a lot of flaws in journalism. This man [Langdon Winner] who wrote the article I read in Rolling Stone in 1968 or ’69—early ’69—is a brilliant man, but he seemed to fall for everything that Don said. Including the whole thing about Agostinho Rodrigues, the famed Portuguese sculptor. [Note: the article actually came out in 1970, but Mr. French’s memory of the article otherwise appears almost photographic based on his recollections of it; see below.—WY]

I don’t know that part.

Well, Don claimed that when he was a child, he won an art scholarship. First of all, he had his own television show, and he was on television when he was eight years old or something, and gave lectures on his sculpting. And he may have appeared on some kids’ shows, who knows. But he tends to use hyperbole a lot [laughs], to a great degree—an excessive amount, I might say. Anyway, he says that a man named Agostinho Rodrigues, who was a famous Portuguese sculptor, somehow got a scholarship for him to go to Europe and study sculpting. His parents, at the time, lived in Glendale, California. He says they moved him to the Mojave Desert because, as he put it, “All artists are queers.” That’s what his parents told him.

So … what am I to draw from this story? I’ve never been able to find one piece of sculpture done by this “famed” Portuguese sculptor. The only information I could find on the entire Internet is on the Beefheart website, quoting him. So who is this guy? And that’s something that I always wondered about: why the journalists just kept perpetuating that story on and on and on. So I’m curious about that one; I’d love to have some info on Agostinho.

[Note: The factoid about Beefheart’s tutelage under “Augustino Rodriguez”—the same spelling used in the Rolling Stone article—is mentioned in a 1983 People Magazine (!) article. However, a recent web search also turned up this piece, which suggests that Agostinho Rodrigues actually did exist, even if if his fame was somewhat overstated —WY]

When was the last time you talked to Mr. Beefheart?

I can’t remember what year, but it was just before the re-release of Trout Mask Replica onto CD. I don’t know if you’re aware of this, but I wasn’t credited on the original LP.

I’ve read that, but you are on the CD, I noticed.

Yeah, I am. I called Warner Brothers and talked to Carl Scott, one of the guys there, and he told me that I had to get Don’s permission, and Don had to call him. I said, “Fine.” So I called Don and spoke to him. That was probably 15 years ago, at least. And he was still upset with me for leaving the band the last time. [Laughs.]

Oh, really?

And he kept saying, “I don’t have any money, man. I don’t have any money.” And I’m going, “I don’t want any money.” [Laughs.] “I just want my name on the CD.”

Do you have any idea what his thoughts are on this project now?

No. Really don’t care. I’m havin’ a good time. Everything is aboveboard. He’s getting paid royalties, performance rights—you know, we’ve tried to arrange for everything. We don’t need his permission to do the material. We have more right than anybody to perform it, you know what I’m saying? Besides him. So I don’t see any problem. I mean, there’s Beefheart copy bands out there doing his material, so I don’t see any problem.

I don’t wanna dig too deep into this stuff if it’s like opening wounds or something, but . . .

No, no, no, it isn’t. Like I said, it all kind of floated off of me a couple of years ago.

I wanted to ask about the whole situation of you transcribing the Trout Mask album. They say he wrote it in 8 1/2 hours at the piano, but you were actually the one who was more at the piano? Or you were just transcribing it straight on to paper?

Yeah. Don would go on for hours if you gave him a tape recorder. He would just record for hours. And then you’d have to sift through this and try to find something that made sense, that was musically interesting, because he would ramble—he didn’t actually play piano; he just kinda poked away at it. And some of the stuff he did—90 percent of it—was just junk. And then he would come across something, some little riff or something.

So, he would never buy any tape, and we were out of tape. So I just told him, “The tape recorder’s broken,” because I didn’t want a deal with it anymore—trying to record him and trying to find tape. So, I was writing music—writing some drum parts down one day—and he was playing the piano, and I went over and he played the same thing over and over in kind of a similar pattern. And I kind of wrote down what it was and walked off, and left my book on the piano. And he picked up afterwards and said, “Is this what I was playing?” I said, “Well, I tried to do it.” He said, “Can you play it back?” So I went and played it back for him. It took me awhile [laughs] because I don’t play piano either—I can read a little bit. I played it back for him, and he said, “Man, I didn’t know you could do that!” And that’s how it got started. So everything—not every song, but the bulk of the material—was written on piano in that fashion, where he would play a one- or two-bar riff and I would write it down.

How was it put together, as far as who would play what, and what instruments and in what order?

I figured that out, for the most part. Every now and then, I would ask him a question, but most of the time it was like, “Oh, you know what to do.” And he just kind of delegated it to me.

So, you would decide how many times a certain part would repeat and all that?

Yeah.

So how did he fit his vocal parts over that?

Well, he never rehearsed with the band, so he didn’t know what he was doing. So when we tried to record at the house, we would’ve had to have done everything live, and Don didn’t have a clue as to what he was gonna do on the vocals. He said that the band wasn’t playing the tracks right, and we had to get in a studio because we were trapped in our environment. [Laughs.] So Frank says, “I’ll give you six hours to do the basic tracks.” Because I think Frank knew that if Don started overdubbing, it would take forever, because Don’s very slow—he’s not a technical person at all. And he knew he hadn’t rehearsed. So that’s how it went.

You just went in and did it in four and a half hours.

We did it in four and a half, yeah. He gave us six, but we got done in four and a half.

Did you just finish one song and start the next without taking a break?

Well, you know, we’d say, “Hey, is that a keeper?” “Yeah!” “Ok, let’s move on! What’s next?” Somebody had a set list, and we just ran ’em down. We had been in the a house for a year, living with these songs. Almost a year—8 to 10 months, probably.

And then he did his vocals on top of that, just totally separately?

He overdubbed everything.

What did you think about the way that album was put together and edited? Was that completely a Zappa thing?

I don’t know how much of it had to do with Don. It seemed to me like it was a Zappa approach, using the little anecdotal things in between. And I liked it. I thought it had a really fresh, kinda happy, funny feeling—a complete illusion [laughs]. The complete opposite of what the reality of being in the band was about. But I liked it because it did reflect the art in a good light. And I felt like the art was the only good thing that came out of it.

So the band that did that album—you know, I read this, so I should know—but did that band stay together long enough to go on the road with those songs?

No! We played one time as a group. It was at the Aquarius Theatre in 1969, for some kind of a benefit—I think it was a cancer benefit. As a matter of fact, Denny Walley had just come to California and he saw the band play. And he said Frank was off to the side watching and really digging it.

What were your dealings with Zappa like? I guess there’s some bitterness with Zappa and the Bat Chain Puller situation.

Not with me. I don’t know the exact details, but what basically happened was, Herb Cohen was Frank Zappa’s manager. The album was done for the record company, DiscReet Records, and Don had some kind of a contract with DiscReet—he had signed with them. By that point, Don signed contracts and we were all sidemen. There wasn’t a band, basically; it was just Don. So he did sign some kind of contract with Frank for this album. He did the album—we went on tour, we came back, a few months down the road we recorded the album—you know, after a couple of personnel changes, because just about everybody left except Denny and I. So we had to replace two members. We recorded the album a couple of months after that, while Frank was on tour, and he came back and found that Herb had completely locked him out of his studio, and there was this big lawsuit thing going on for years. Well, a lot of the stuff, like the Bat Chain Puller album, was held up in some kind of legal safe [?] there. And it couldn’t be released, because there was litigation going on, and it was involved in the litigation. So that’s why it wasn’t released. And then Don recorded a lot of material for the album Shiny Beast. So then it became less valuable because it had been rerecorded-with different people, who didn’t really play it as well. Because if you listen to the original and you listen to the other versions, even Don’s performance isn’t as good on most of that stuff. And the best songs on Shiny Beast are songs that aren’t on Bat Chain Puller, like “Tropical Hot Dog Night.”

So nobody knows what’s going on with Bat Chain Puller now, then?

Nope. It’s still held in the Zappa vaults, and Gail, bless her heart, has had enough to deal with with Frank’s death and all the stuff that he left behind. I was just in the Zappa vault last week, and I cannot believe the amount of material that that guy [didn’t?] put out in his lifetime. He was so prolific. [Note: The album was finally released in 2012 through the Zappa Family’s VAULTernative label, but it disappeared in short order despite being poorly distributed and expensively priced, in keeping with the label’s unfortunate M.O.—WY]

From what I’ve read, it seems like there was a lot of tension between him and Beefheart. Was that mainly to do with business things?

Tension, tension—okay, we’re on a different subject now. Ask the question again.

I’ve just read a lot of stuff about Beefheart being really resentful towards him.

Towards Zappa?

Yeah.

Zappa was the best friend that Don ever had. Don was jealous of Zappa—this is my point of view; this is my opinion. Don was jealous of Zappa, envious of him, felt insecure toward him. And resentful. And he was resentful basically because Frank was a very successful man in the music business, and Don was just barely scraping by any given point in time. Also, Zappa got along better with his musicians. He knew how to treat musicians better. He understood musicians because he could play something more than once and he knew the process that it took to be able to do that. Don didn’t have a clue as to how difficult that was and how much discipline it required.

I remember jamming with Zappa in his basement one night, and having a great time, and then coming home and Don just being furious with me ’cause I had a great time with him. Saying, you know, “How could you get into his music and put more enthusiasm into it than into mine?” Things like that. That’s my point of view on it. I think he was insanely jealous of Frank. But the resentment didn’t go both ways. I think Frank really wanted to help Don, but Don was difficult to deal with and Frank just had to get away from him because it was too much negativity to deal with.

I wonder what the other musicians thought about that. There were a lot of people who played with the Mothers and then with Beefheart, but I guess they didn’t really stick around.

Well, there was a lot of resentment; Art Tripp had a lot of resentment toward Frank because of the original Mothers disbanding in 1970. And … I’m not really sure—I can’t speak for those guys. All I know is that they all had better credentials from playing with Zappa than any Beefheart player ever had from playing with him. And you never saw vice versa: you never saw Beefheart players going and working with Zappa. Actually, Ian Underwood worked in the Magic Band for a little while, playing guitar, but it didn’t work out.

So, like you said, this band you’ve put together now had never played together before the recording?

Right. I played with Mark and Denny. Denny hadn’t played with Mark. And Gary hadn’t played with any of us. Everybody rehearsed separately and was responsible for their own parts, basically. Denny and Gary got together about six weeks before we actually recorded and just sort of ran through everything, to make sure they were playing the right things and didn’t get their wires crossed. The album [Back to Front] was a rehearsal CD, so there’s a lot of out of tune guitars and false endings and mistakes, and we just left it. In fact, on “Abba Zabba,” we left a whole section of the song out. [Laughs.]

This is kind of a corny question, but did you have any idea when you recorded this stuff originally that you’d be playing it 35 years later, and that it would be such historic music?

No, it’s not a corny question. I thought about that when we were onstage, playing in Camber Sands [England] in April. I started playing, and I sort of became overwhelmed with emotion. I mean, I got tears in my eyes. And I was thinking, “My God, this is so wonderful to be able to revisit this music.” I’ve never played anything that’s so challenging and so interesting to play. So, yeah, I never dreamed we’d be doing this at this point in time.

After that whole experience with the Magic Band, especially in the late ’60s, was it hard to stay involved in music?

Yes, it was. It became impossible. For one thing, Don’s personality was the music. And for me to go out and do anything else, they were looking for a “little Don.” They weren’t looking for John French; they weren’t interested in my ideas or my musical concepts—they wanted a little Don. They said that all of us were like little Dons running around [laughs], and when we turned out to like different kinds of music and have different tastes and sing differently and etc., etc., etc., it was like a shock. They couldn’t accept that, that we were actually different people. It’d be like if Bill Wyman did a bossa nova album or something.

It’s like being branded.

Yeah, it is—exactly. We were pigeonholed. And it’s such a narrow little pigeonhole. It’s not like where you have somebody who comes out of Zappa’s band—you know, like Terry Bozzio, who went on to work with Missing Persons. And the guy’s a great drummer. He became legitimized by playing with Frank, because everybody knew and respected Frank, and Frank was a great composer and he was very musical. And if you couldn’t play something, he’d play it for you—that was the kind of guy he was. If you couldn’t play something that Don wrote, he’d say, “What’s the matter with you, man?”

Although I was always surprised by the percentage of Zappa’s musicians who would be great in his band and then not equal that outside of it.

Well, that’s because they were players rather than individual personalities to begin with. They didn’t have their own style; they didn’t have their own direction at all. Now with me, I had my own style and direction, but when I got in the Beefheart band, I just kinda put all that down and said, “Well, I’m doing this now.” And so, I became that. And some of the people who work with Frank probably didn’t have [their own style]. But then you’ve got somebody like Lowell George.

Oh yeah, that’s the big exception, the main exception I can think of.

And, uh, Steve Vai.

I guess I’m more of a Little Feat fan than a Steve Vai fan.

Yeah, I’m not a Steve Vai fan at all. In fact, I saw him in a video and I thought it was absolutely disgusting. I thought, “What is this guy doing? I don’t wanna see your underwear.”

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2 Responses

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  1. davekingsbury said, on November 7, 2015 at 2:15 PM

    Fascinating stuff, just seen Drumbo’s Magic Band live, keeping the stuff alive. Will follow. See my stuff on Beefheart, Airplane etc on https://davekingsbury.wordpress.com

    • wwyork said, on November 21, 2015 at 11:32 AM

      Thank you for the nice words! I have bookmarked your blog and look forward to reading it. — WY


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