End of 1968/Early 1969
Ensenada Drive, Woodland Hills, Los Angeles
01-Untitled Piano Song (1:33)
02-Untitled Piano Instrumental #1 (1:53)
03-A Lot Of Money For You, A Lot Of Money For Me-Untitled Piano Instrumental #2 (1:19)
04-Short Whistling (0:10)
05-Untitled Piano Instrumental #3 (2:04)
06-Why Can't We Be Free? (0:50)
07-Untitled Piano Instrumental #4 (0:58)
08-Untitled Piano Instrumental #5 (0:31)
Total Length: 9:18
That is what the guy I got the tape from could tell about: 'I also have about 20 min worth of one of Don's 'worktapes' !!!! It's really amazing and insightful, it's got whistling, singing, piano playing etc. Incredible. I got it last year from a friend who received the tape as 'dead'. He was able to extract the 20 mins that I have.
It sounds GREAT too !!! You'll have to get this one.'
The date of the tape is uncertain. Maybe the whole stuff is from 1975 or 1981. Any ideas about?
For some more stories from band members, comments and detailed analysis on Don's piano playing and the composition method used for Trout Mask Replica and later albums like Bat Chain Puller or Ice Cream For Crow see below:
John French: Steal Softly Through Snow was the first thing that Don Van Vliet wrote after he got his piano. Don usually wrote on tape recorders and then copied things for listening, but he never bought any tape, so unfortunately we were always recording over things that were very important to Don. And if I erased something (because I was the guy in charge of the tape recorder) I'd always erase something that he wanted to save so he was always screaming 'YOU ERASED THAT????' After a while it was totally terrifying because he was 19 stone, it was pretty intimidating. Finally I said one day, 'Don I'm sorry but the tape recorder's broken.' I think I pulled the fuse or something. I had this idea. I'd bought some music paper and I'd been practicing writing out rhythms, so I could think of a rhythm and write it out quickly.
He was playing the piano a few days later and I went up and just kind of wrote down what he was playing, sitting next to him on the piano, without any real though of anything, just to see if I could do it. And I set it down. He came down a little later and said 'This looks pretty good. Can you tell me what I was playing?'. I said 'Yeah' and he said 'Play it for me.' So I sat at the piano and fumbled my way through it. On Trout Mask, that's me transcribing a lot of it - I won't say all of it. Pieces like China Pig and a couple of other song - Pena and parts of My Human Gets Me Blues I think were vocally transmitted to the band. I'd say 75-80% was transcribed by me and then taught to the other players.
I sat at the piano all day for hours every day figuring out the next part and it got to be a little marathon. The first thing he wrote was Dali's Car and because the electricity had gone out on the street, we did that by candlelight, so the music has all this candle wax on it. Then we did Steal Softly Through Snow and Hair Pie. The drum parts on those songs were figured out partially during rehearsal and partially by me writing it out later. I wrote a lot of my own drum parts for the album. And what I did was take the music and take the main rhythmic thrust of each instrument and try to combine it into one part.
Now I knew that I wasn't going to play in three different time signatures at the same time on all these songs, but what I wanted to do was grab the essence of what the part was and make a part that would suggest tying together - even though it was going to be a counter rhythm, just like everything else. Some people were playing in 5, some in 7, some in 3 or 4, so somehow I had to tie this together and that was the only way I could think of. I would consider in terms of building a foundation with bricks of unequal lengths: one set of bricks is THAT long, another is THAT long, putting them all down then you're laying the next down, starting to figure that out, that's what I had to do a lot of. I always felt that I should have got some arrangement credits, but it never happened. When I asked Don, I'd say 'OK I've got all this written down, who's playing what?' He'd say 'Oh, you know what to do.'
At this time we lived in a small house, basically had to rehearse in one room. There was another room that somebody could go down into. Everybody but me was able to practice. I wasn't able to 'cos we had this neurotic neighbour who couldn't stand any noise, so every time we started to practice she called the police. We had several visits from the police before I finally put cardboard on my drums. Everybody would get a part, go off and stand in the corner of the room playing parts, guitarist in one corner, bass player in another. And I'd be sitting in the middle of the room like writing stuff out, trying to arrange paperwork. And I'd HEAR someone making a mistake, that's how nuts I was!! I could hear everyone playing at the same time. I wasn't very much good socially. I'd go out on a date and I'd be sitting there catatonic. Didn't have a lot of fun in those days. Didn't have a car, didn't have a lot of money, it was tough.
I was starting to get these kind of visions: 'Wow, if I could somehow grasp - what everyone's doing' - like I was talking about before ' and put these things together and write down parts' which I started to do. I think my first concept was 'I'll take the bass rhythm and put it on the bass drum, I'll take one guitar rhythm and use cymbals and snare, I'll take the other guitar and use just toms, I'll try and put it all together, see what happens.' Boy, was I sorry that I decided to do that. We're used to playin certain kinds of things, but all of a sudden I was faced with this dilemma.
I didn't have training reading this stuff. I had to like really look at it a long time. I thought, this is the way to do it, go about it by writing it down, making a draft of it, working your butt off until you can do it, OK? But I wanted to make it natural, so instead of trying to change it alot to go with all the counter rhythms that were going on, I thought 'I'll stick to one thing and try and make it groove as much as I can, so everyone's got one thing that ties in - there's an anchor there, I'm not just going off somewhere.' Because it was hard enough to keep this music together anyway without having me experimenting.
When I had learnt that first beat, it was like this (whispers) 'I love this, this is it, this is the culmination of what i've been trying to do all my life!' That's when I really got nuts!
That was the breakthrough for me. When I got that far I thought, 'I can do this, I can do it for a lot of things.' Now I didn't get to do this as much as I would have liked, because I spent so much time transcribing, teaching other people parts, trying to duck the lady next door who was neurotic and who didn't want to hear the drums practicing. By the way, that last take of Hair Pie done in the studio was done with cardboard on the drums. We did one version at the house, recorded on a remote system and one in the studio. They asked me to put cardboard on the drums for that. I used to put it underneath the hihat, and on all the drums and underneath all the cymbals, to deaden the volume - nothing really noisy for the neurotic lady. So the drum sound there is dedicated to the neurotic lady who lived across the street.
Don would try to get the band together to watch TV, 'cos Don was a real strong one for getting everyone to do everything that he wanted to do. If he wanted to do something, everybody needed to spend attention on him. If he wanted to write on piano, he didn't want everyone to go outside, he wanted everyone to watch him writing on piano. If everyone wasn't paying exact attention, he'd go 'Will you stop it?' to sort of get their attention. It was really hard for me to get time away from watching TV, and I had to be there when he was composing to write it down. Or listening to him play saxophone 'cos instead of going off somewhere and practicing, he would come out and do a concert for us and we'd have to sit and listen to him play. And of course there were several recitations a day of the lyrics, usually done by Jeff Cotton. He'd say 'Jeff, read this for me', 'cos he'd always have people writing lyrics down for him too. He'd have Jeff read a lot. We'd spend hours doing that.
Then we'd used to have these, what I called 'brainwashing sessions', where he would decided that someone in the band was Public Enemy no.1. He'd centre in on them for 2-3 days, feed them coffee and not let them sleep until their sense of deprivation was such that they'd say 'I'll do anything you say!'. Then they'd fall apart and cry or something. I'm trying to make light of it as much as can, but it was very emotionally disturbing to all of us and it took us a long time to get past that.
There was a song called Wild Life that's on Trout Mask Replica. That drum part was one of my favourites. It's in five. ...
Don Van Vliet could actually, if he sat down and just applied himself for a while, (which he seldom did for anything except his writing) have been a very good drummer. The reason I say that is that he had a great sense of rhythm and great ideas. And the beat of Ant Man Bee was just him sitting down at the kit one day. On Trout Mask, where at a later point we didn't have time for me to write all the drum parts, he just sat down and played an idea of what he wanted.
One of the reasons that I tried to write as many parts as I could was that it is very unchallenging to play what a non-drummer plays on drums. It's boring to play stuff over and over so I wanted something that would be more challenging. Something we called the 'Baby Beat' was employed a lot. Don would sing a part and I'd play the part with my hands and play the 'Baby Beat' with my feet that seemed to give a kind of syncopation that he liked. And it was quick to learn and could be employed in songs quickly.
Q: When you were notating the musical parts to Trout Mask Replica and you were going crazy about having this idea about how you could fix it all together so it would be playable, what were the other band members reactions to being given this music to play, and trying to link all the parts together, which would obviously not be something they'd done before?
John French: Well the reaction was really positive because the way Don always composed before was tedious, really slow. It would take hours because he would always do everything vocally and verbally and sing parts, sometimes he'd try them on drums, sometimes he'd try playing them on guitar, but it was always sort of (from band) 'Is this what you mean': 'No, that's not it' and finally they would do it. But with the piano, with it being written down, there was usually a delay between the time it was written and the teaching to the band. In that length of time Don would build the intensity level of the mode of creation and would be able to concentrate more on helping the person to understand what he was trying to do, so it actually made it a lot easier. Everybody was very receptive to it as far as that goes. It wasn't 'Oh my God, that is terrible.'
It was actually more work, but we got a lot more accomplished and we would have got even more accomplished if Don wasn't the sort of paranoid personality that he was. He always thought that someone was trying to sabotage the music. We'd have these talks that would take days and everyone would be worn out and sleep for a day and then get back to work. As far as the working of getting the actual music together and rehearsing, we had a great time doing it because we could work on our own endeavour. Because we'd just concentrate, everyone had a line towards seeing this thing done - 'This is exciting, this is new, no-one has ever done this before, we are cutting new ground here, let's do it', you know. So we had to roll up our sleeves and get working on it.
We were all totally broke. There was no money. Basically Don's mother was supporting the band and Zoot Horn Rollo's mother would send down cheques to pay the rent and buy food. I remember once going for a month and all we had to eat every day was one little ration about this big, a four ounce cup of soya beans. That was our food for the day.
Q: Don wasn't a keyboard player as such, so you must have sifted out a high percentage of dross and picked out the melodic parts, would you say?
John French: Well, Don was very good because the fact that he wasn't a keyboard player meant he couldn't play long passages, so that's why all the phrases are short. But usually what I would do was have him play it and I would sit next to him on the piano and I would learn it. I'd say, OK, give me a minute. And because I basically knew how he thought rhythmically, so I would learn from him.
Q: Would you say that what was in his head came out of the fingers, or did he play randomly and pick stuff out that he thought as usable?
Could he play the same thing twice?
John French: He could, it was difficult for him but he could do it. I would say that he mostly sat down and experimented with something, that's what it seemed like to me.
But there were times that he didn't take it seriously and he'd just play something once. I'd go 'Was that it?' and he'd say 'Yeah.' We'd need a part for a song. Don would say 'Oh well', (mimics running hands over keyboard) and throw the stones where they would land. But there were times when he had moments and I would say that one of the most brilliant things he ever did was on Lick My Decals Off, called Peon. He actually recorded that, played it on the piano and we recorded it EXACTLY, except for maybe two notes. It was exactly the way it was performed. That shows his brilliance and his ability to grasp the concept of what a keyboard was and utilise it in compositional form without any training whatsoever (points to head) so the man definitely had some smarts up there.
(John French: Drum Workshop. Conway Hall, London. May 26, 1997)
Bill Harkleroad: The story that Don has always told about the Trout Mask Replica album is that it took him 8 hours at the piano to write the album, and 6 months to teach the band the music. Well, I'm afraid that's bullshit!!! Total bullshit. To say it took him 6 months to teach us the parts, when he couldn't even remember them ten minutes after he played them to us, is ridiculous. It's true that it probably only took him a certain amount of hours banging around on the piano to come up with the basic parts - and that's not to downplay the quality of those parts or what he was trying to get across. He was very much in control and had a vision - but at the time I was probably too lost in trying to figure out how the hell to play the things to know what that vision was.
The writing process started with Don banging out certain things on the piano. Other parts he would whistle - it is well known what a whistler Don was - he could blow smoke rings and whistle be-bop at the same time, it was his party trick. John French would then translate these parts into musical notation. I don't know exactly how he did it, but it actually ended up in formal notation.
We would all watch as this musical process evolved (Don loved an audience). I know John kept things as close as possible to what Don had pounded out on the piano. When I say pounding, I mean he was literally chiselling away, and I don't mean that necessarily in a derogatory way. It was just him trying to get a feel across. That's the best description I can come up with. Another way of looking at it might be to say that he didn't know what the fuck he was doing and he was beating the shit out of the piano and trying to turn it into something because he was an "artist". But, we'll settle for the former, ok!
At rehearsals John French would show us all these parts and then the first thing we had to do was to try and figure out how to play them. Some parts involved playing seven notes at a time - which is kind of difficult with only five fingers and six strings on a guitar! I would try to find a way to delete a note or invert things to make it into something as close as possible to the original. The results were these parts that had incredible width -sometimes I had to play with both hands on, or by putting my thumb on the face of the guitar so that all five fingers were on the fingerboard of the guitar.
I remember thinking - probably not a popular thought - that everything was built from a rhythmic sense. Certainly it was that rhythmic element which has remained the biggest musical influence I have assimilated from that time. My feeling was that the actual notes themselves were interchangeable - it really wouldn't have mattered a whole lot as long as they created the same effect.
As far as I could see, Don really didn't know anything about music in the conventional sense. He was not a composer or arranger, but a very intense conceptualist. So it took a great effort on everyone's behalf to create these "sculptures" from something that was written in a non-musical way. Of course, that's as far as the music was concerned the lyrics were a whole other ball game.
Sometimes it was easy to grasp what Don wanted, especially when his influences were blues-based. But it all depended on the description we were given. Often he would get frustrated about his inability to communicate to us in a way that we could understand. Sometimes he would just use imagery, other times he would pick up an instrument himself. About the only thing I don't remember him playing very often was Mark's bass. But he could beat the shit out of a guitar - the result can best be described as Jackson Pollock trying to play John Lee Hooker. I showed him an A chord and he could do these little hammer things on the second fret - he could do that forever.
At times he wanted to hear something from us that we were too stiff or overwhelmed to play. But it was difficult just working from all these images. Sometimes I wished he could have said, "Well, it's an A 7th, and you do this and you do that". Using musical terms would have made things easier, but it would never have covered the whole concept and detracted from the bigger picture of what he was trying to get across. Also, to have told us directly what to play would have given us way too much control over the music. So he kept control by waiting until it sounded like something he liked, rather than something he intended. And I should underline that - he would work until it sounded right - not that he had any intention of it being a specific way, most of the time.
It could be a very frustrating process. I remember reading an interview with a later band member where the guy was talking about Don and describing "all these great artistic things" - to me it was a lot of hero worship bullshit. Yeh, he was creative and all that but he didn't come from another planet. When he tells you to "paint the room blue and imagine this", that's all very well - but using more than an image would have required a specific intention on his part, rather than the air of generality which left the players to shoulder the responsibility of interpretation!
So, most of the time the band acted as interpreters of Don's ideas. As far as contributing to the actual writing, occasionally I would posh the question, "Well I can't do this but what about this?" and the parts would get changed. But I can't really claim to have written any of the music. If I played something and Don said, "Yes, what was that?!", then it was included. The whole vibe consisted of us being enlightened by our overseer. There was just this constant overpowering feeling of, "We are playing music, practicing music - just music, music, music!!!" It was really hard for me to decipher boundaries.
(Bill Harkleroad: Lunar Notes, 1998)
Scott McFarland: Don had hundreds or thousands of piano ramblings or fragments within him, undoubtably, but the painful (and at times laborious (and, for people like French and Harkleroad, uncredited) process of turning them into 'songs' was, by most accounts, difficult and time-consuming. The way I think of things is that Don supplied the aesthetic sense that molded the songs, as well as the clay that the songs were made out of (on piano, by whistling, whatever). But he couldn't actually do the musical sculpting himself, since he had limited ability (very little) on guitar; he needed to direct others who actually did it. This fits in with what I was told was Don's closing remark after the Ice Cream For Crow sessions to his musicians: 'Thank you for the use of your hands' (or was it fingers maybe? I wouldn't know).
Don't get me wrong: In my opinion Don was responsible for demanding/maintaining the rhythmic intensity of the music, which is what sets it apart and makes it so special. I'm not trying to take anything away from him; I believe that he is/was a genius. Put any of the rest of us in a house for a year with French, Harkleroad, Cotton, & Boston and you wouldn't end up with Trout Mask, or anything remotely like it. But he exaggerated, and he didn't have that many finished songs sitting around, and his last few albums do go back and use a good amount of stuff which had been played by his 60's & 70's bands.
Gary Lucas: I split up with my wife after (Doc At The Radar Station) and, being single, I had the time to go full time with the band. Don would send me music for the upcoming record Ice Cream For Crow. He started by sending me the Evening Bell piano piece, which was a monumental task to learn. I remember sitting with a cassette of him playing it on the piano; all of his music was kind of 'through composed': he would play it once, but if you asked him again, I'm sure he wouldn't be able to play it. He wasn't really a technical musician that way: he played completely instinctively.
I would sit with it and struggle in an attempt to transcribe what he had done on piano to guitar. It has a peculiar flavor because the low E was tuned to D as the piece was more or less centered in D. To play piano music on the guitar creates a contention in the listener because the piece is not idiomatic for guitar. It was great, but a lot of work. I remember telling Don that it was almost impossible to play, because you've only got nine fingers on guitar and ten on piano. He told me that I needed to grow another finger.
We recorded a lot of the older pieces for the record at a session in Los Angeles. A lot of the other pieces were composed - I think he was working on them. He would scat sing the parts to us at the rehearsals and we would memorize them; he would whistle parts while we followed him around with a tape recorder and we would take it back to the hotel to figure the stuff out. It was really interesting. One day he took an ashtray, hurled it against the wall and recorded the sound it made as it spun around on the floor, sort of a wobbling sound, and said to Robert Williams, the drummer: 'learn it - that's the drum solo'. A lot of the pieces have found sounds out of nature. That's how a lot of rhythms were inspired. Bat Chain Puller, for example, is apparently the sound he heard his windshield wipers making as they squeaked on the windshield of his car.
(Andrew Bennett: Gary Lucas. Guitar God & Monster. Your Flesh #26. Summer 1992)
Gary Lucas: It took me six weeks to figure it out. Each day I would get up in the morning, practice guitar for an hour and go to work. After I came back and had dinner, I'd work on it for another three hours. I was happy to get 10 seconds of it worked out per night. When I went to Los Angeles to do the album, Don corrected me all over the place. He changed some of the structure of the piece too.
(Jim Green: In Search Of Captain Beefheart. The elusive Don Van Vliet tracked to his lair. Trouser Press #82, February 1983)
Gary Lucas on Oat Hate: This is a work tape of a composition Don played through once on piano, then sent to me on cassette with the simple instructions, 'Learn This.' It took me about six weeks, negotiating five seconds or so of music a day, transcribing by ear and literally feeling out the notes on my guitar as I worked my way through it, like stepping gingerly through a mine field. When I got out to Amigo Studios in LA in the spring of 1982 to begin recording what became the last Beefheart album, Ice Cream for Crow, what I was told was to be utilized as a solo piece had become one half of the rickety equation later know as Cardboard Cutout Sundown. Don had independently of me taught the rest of the band a discrete three minutes or so of music, and setting me off in semi-isolation from the rest of the band behind a wall of baffles, refereed the recording of the piece like a whistle-happy umpire, gleefully bellowing, 'STAART!' and 'STOPPP!' when he wanted me to play my part (at double the speed of this work-tape workout) against the band's own full-on fury. Amazingly, you can hear the band and myself synch up for an miraculous near unison section near the end of the album track. How the fuck did he do that?!? Don would just nod all-knowingly, smile sardonically and draw deeply on his Dunhill pipe.
... Meanwhile, enjoy the Mexican jumping-bean beauty of Oat Hate (Beefheart slang for sexual jealousy.) The recording is from March, 1982, New York City.
(Improve The Shining Hour linernotes)
Mike Barnes: With his newly named acolytes around him, Van Vliet was ready to get them playing the new music that would constitute die bulk of Trout Mask Replica. But there was more to his method than mere Machiavellian ego-flexing. When Van Vliet Set about composing the music for the album he began sowing the seeds for one of the few truly unique musical Statements of the twentieth century. In an inspired, unprecedented move he composed most of it an the piano he'd had moved into the house. Superficially there was nothing unusual about that, except that Van Vliet couldn't really 'play' piano in the technical sense of the word. To compose a masterpiece on an instrument on which he was a beginner took a huge amount of selfbelief, but then he had plenty to spare.
Harkleroad looked back in 1998: 'We're dealing with a strange person, coming from a place of being a sculptor/painter, using music as his idiom. He was getting more into that part of who he was as opposed to this blues singer.'' 'It amazed the hell out of me' was Jim Sherwood's reaction to Van Vliet's new method of composing and the music it produced.
His compositions in this vein were, in methodology, more or less the inverse of John Cage's 1951 solo piano piece, Music Of Changes, which was based on the I Ching, the ancient Chinese Book of Changes (which can be used for divinatory purposes through following chance or, more accurately, synchronous procedures). Cage was a composer who displayed a maverick irreverence towards classical tradition. Music Of Changes found him abandoning straightforward scores altogether, instead giving the pianist instructions which added aleatoric or chance elements, ensuring that every performance would be partly indeterminate. It was not meant to be repeatable.
Van Vliet, meanwhile, was coming from the opposite direction, playing an instrument on which he had no training. He approached it in a totally intuitive way, finding his way around the keyboard in an exercise that was more an outpouring of raw material than a controlled improvisation. He was unencumbered by technique as he possessed none. The lines he produced were themselves semialeatoric passages, which were recorded and then several were pieced together to form a composition. Gary Lucas, a guitarist in the last incarnation of the Magic Band, learned some of his parts from Van Vliet's piano tapes. He likened the composer's process to throwing a pack of cards in the air, photographing them as they fell and then getting the musician or musicians to reproduce the frozen moment.
The Polish composer Witold Lutoslawski also used aleatoric elements in his work from the sixties onwards, but they were sporadic and their parameters were tightly controlled. Music Of Changes employed far more aleatoric elements, but Cage still saw the composer as being in charge of the overall musical concept - he became concerned that as the music made virtuosic demands, it would focus too much glory on the player. As far as Cage was concerned, the performer's function was analogous to a contractor who constructs a building from an architect's plan. There are overlaps, certainly, between these views and those of Van Vliet's towards his music and the role of the Magic Band.
The way the music of Trout Mask Replica was composed was unprecedented, and French played a vital role in this process. Indeed, it is difficult to imagine how the album could have been made without his input as facilitator and arranger. Prior to the piano being brought in as the main compositional tool, French had operated the tape recorder used for capturing Van Vliet's whistled or vocalized lines. After once incurring his wrath by erasing something by mistake, French decided to sabotage the machine, putting it out of action. He'd bought some manuscript paper to write down drum patterns and surprised Van Vliet by memorizing one of his spontaneous piano lines, writing it in notation and playing it back to him.
French would sit with Van Vliet for hours each day as he played these passages, transcribing them and playing them back to Van Vliet. He recalled the beginning of this 'marathon' in 1996: 'The first thing he wrote was 'Dali's Car' and because the electricity had gone out on the street, we did that by candlelight. The music has candle wax on it.' A good way to gain an insight into this compositional process is to attempt to play the guitar duet 'Dali's Car' on piano. Even with my own, sub-Van Vliet piano ability, it is possible to roughly approximate the piece, or at least to see how it is based around a primeval 'root' chord, with the lines of each guitar assigned to each of Van Vliet's hands. But he wasn't just an idiot savant, gleefully bashing away. French confirms that he could replicate some of his lines. 'It was difficult for him but he could really do it. [But] I would say that he mostly sat down and experimented.'
Van Vliet's improvisatory 'through-composition' was a simple and expedient - idea, and one with no attendant theory. Rather than borrowing from avant-garde techniques, it became his own unique avant-garde technique. It was too intrinsically personal to be transferable - a 'better' musician could not have got past the self-awareness, the application of learned technique, the ' 'I' consciousness', as Van Wet called it. Even his famously erratic timing ended up being a vital part of the music. Some of the lines were eventually smoothed out, while others preserved the original staccato note clumps that distantly echoed the jagged time signatures of Stravinsky. Although it would be inadvisable to draw any more than the most tenuous of comparisons between the two composers, each episode of 'Dali's Car' pivots around literally a handful of notes in an unusual time signature. In this respect it does share common ground with some of Stravinsky's chamber pieces.
Stravinsky wrote The Five Fingers (1920-1921) as five finger piano exercises - revolving around benchmark notes - specifically for beginners. These fragments were later orchestrated and premiered in 1962 as Eight Instrumental Miniatures. He used a similar technique in larger scale pieces like Four Etudes For Orchestra (1917-1929), about which he said: 'They [the woodwinds] play a four-note chant (the Four Fingers, you might call it), the same music endlessly repeated but at varying rhythmic distances.' Later, in jazz-inflected compositions like Ebony Concerto, he developed this idea of melodic cells of a few notes around which the rhythm pivots.
However coincidental it may be, the opening fanfares of his Symphonies of Wind Instruments (1920) do share similarities with 'Dali's Car'. Van Vliet's music and rhythmically agitated, homespun technique needs to be described in some way and although the overlap with Stravinsky (one of his favourite composers) is small even here, it was as great as with anything else in rock 'n' roll at the time.
When the lines for the two guitars and bass, often in different keys and metres, were overlaid, things got far more complicated. French: 'I would consider if you were building a foundation, like bricks of unequal lengths, putting them all down, then you're laying the next [part] down, starting to figure that out - that's what I had to do a lot. So I always felt that I should have got some arrangement credits, but it never happened.'
French assesses that 75 or 80 per cent of the music was composed and transcribed in this way, and other songs, like 'Pena' and 'My Human Gets Me Blues', were whistled. Harkleroad remembers Van Vliet's skill in that area: 'He was an expert whistler. Just awesome. He could sit there and blow smoke rings while he was whistling.''
Van Vliet generated a lot of rhythmic ideas himself and French assesses that with practice he could have been a good drummer. He had a particular fondness for a swung 4/4 groove he called 'the baby beat', as it reminded him of being rocked back and forth in his bassinet as an infant. French played some of these rhythm parts as taught, modified others and also wrote a number of patterns himself. His drumming was fuelled by a desire to square the rhythmic circle - to become the focal point that linked the disparate guitar and bass parts. This required a rare autonomy of limb movement and yielded some spectacular results. Harkleroad describes how the group meshed rhythmically: 'The cool thing about John French's playing is that one foot would be on one part of the beat, the other foot and the hands would be on other parts of the beat, all within the same (musical) part and all at different dynamic volumes. It was so fucking funky it would drive you crazy! His 'moments' were the most explosive creative drumming I've ever heard. Bass, guitar and drums - everything had an equal, divisional place. We all played rhythm and we all played melodically. Even (jazz drummer) Elvin Jones just did a kind of smooth tumbling, a real predictable tumbling that you could build something on. John was not to build upon.'
Although this way of composing gave the musicians unprecedented new musical forms to learn, their reaction was positive. It was much easier now to realize what Van Vliet wanted musically than struggle with the verbal descriptions and whistling. But learning to play these formidably complex compositions proved a daunting task. Sometimes the musicians would have to sort out passages where different-length parts in different metres had to hit a cue, or where sections were missing. Van Vliet would typically say, 'You guys know what to do', or would just run his hands over the piano to give the hitherto missing part. Van Vliet controlled proceedings in that he had the ultimate say over the shape of the compositions but would rarely rehearse with the group. He compared his spontaneous method of through-composition to 'going to the bathroom' and after his creative movement he was averse to looking too closely at what he had produced. But if he didn't spend a lot of time teaching them himself, they certainly had to learn. Or as Marker puts it, unconsciously echoing Cage's metaphor: 'He was the architect but he didn't hammer that many nails in.'
Rehearsals commenced in the autumn of 1968 and went through to the following spring. There were twenty-one new compositions to learn. To rehearse what was in effect a totally new approach to rock music from scratch in six months or so was quick work, but the workload demanded an almost monastic dedication. On joining the group, Harkleroad had seen French as a serious, focused character and the furrows on his brow were deepening from the task be had brought upon himself. French: 'Everybody would get a part, go off to the room and stand in the corner playing. And I'd be sitting in the middle of the room writing stuff out, trying to arrange paperwork. I could hear everyone playing at the same time. I'd hear someone making a mistake: 'No, that's the wrong note!' That's how nuts I got from doing this ... Didn't have a lot of fun in those days. Didn't have a car, didn't have a lot of money, so it was tough.' In an obsession bordering on the monomaniacal, French would also practise on his own out in the small wash-house with cardboard put against the windows to cut down the noise.
The Magic Band were far from the non-musicians Van Vliet later claimed they were. They were young, dedicated and exceptionally talented. Harkleroad and Boston had been under the impression they were joining a psychedelic blues band, but they were prepared to take the leap of faith required to play this new music, without the safety net of what they had previously learned. And once a piece was honed down to Van Vliet's liking, he refused to allow any deviation. Jim Sherwood came up with these observations: 'It was a necessity. Don had to control what he really wanted there. The guys (maybe) wanted to play some rock 'n' roll or blues licks or something like that. That didn't fit into Don's music style.' He also remarks that Van Vliet was 'overbearing' in the exercising of this control.
Cotton had already played the challenging material on Strictly Personal, but both he and Harkleroad had to radically change their styles to play these new piano-generated compositions. In 1995, Harkleroad explained the technicalities to Guitar magazine: 'Almost everything changed when I joined Beefheart, even down to the way I played - using fingers as opposed to a plectrum. I was aware of wanting my Telecaster or ES-330 to sound like, uh, shrapnel! Often I was literally torturing the guitar with these metal fingerpicks, and of course it made a difference whether I was playing 'steel appendage' or 'glass finger' - metal slide or glass. But I'm not sure how much the sonics were an issue. It was always more of an issue of, 'How in the hell am I going to play this?' That was the constant thought, so the sound kinds came afterwards.''
In his book Modern Music, Paul Griffiths highlights the point where tonality wrenched itself out of the Austrian/German classical tradition: 'Mahler, in the Adagio, which was the only completed movement of his Tenth Symphony (1909-10), came suddenly to the atonal chasm with a ten-note chord which makes an awesome point of punctuation, and it is imossible to imagine where he might have gone had he lived beyond the following year.'
Half a century later, the Magic Band were wrenching tonality out of the rock music tradition. They too came upon an atonal chasm and were obliged to jump in. Van Vliet might, for example, crash both hands on the keyboard, producing a ten-note chord that he demanded be played on guitar. The fact that the instrument only had six strings wasn't always accepted as an adequate excuse. Harkleroad recalls how he adapted his style to these demands: 'Some of the seven-, eight-, nine-note stretches I needed to make to get the intervals we were after meant that I had to have my whole hand in front of the fretboard with my thumb pressing down on the face for the bass note.'
He also praised Mark Boston for his equally radical bass technique: 'Mark was playing chords and stuff on his Danelectro double-neck with his claw-hammer technique. At the time it was quite scary! I think he was doing a whole different thing on the bass, much more so than we were doing on the guitar.'
Harkleroad describes how he saw Van Vliet's methods of composition and the way the results were learned: 'You could just form a bunch of rubbish up into a corner and move it over there and learn how to do it the same way every time. And then take a picture of it - and that works. I'm not demeaning it by that at all. There is no way the music of that period would have sounded anything like that except by the vision of Don Van Vliet. I'm just saying how haphazardly the individual parts were done, worked on very surgically, stuck together, and then sculpted afterwards. Boy, as a nineteen-year-old kid, what a learning experience on how to express music.'
Over the years myriad comments have been made by ex-Magic Band members on the issues of composition and arrangement, for which Van Vliet claimed total credit. Taking into account their claims of misreporting or misrepresentation by a music press that had never come across these methods of composition in rock before, the cuttings, in total, still present an ambivalent view: that Van Vliet was a genius, that it was his music, but in practical terms he didn't really know what he was doing in respect of the mechanic of putting it all together. One later Magic Band member even said that anyone who'd had to translate Van Vliet's less specific musical ideas should have got credit as the composer. These views seem to harbour a covert suspicion of his intuitive, exploratory methods, as rock musicians, indeed most musicians, need to have an idea of what they are doing - or if they don't, they aren't very good. It all comes across like the early group's comments to Van Vliet that he didn't know anything about music, and that his process was somehow less 'valid' than more conventional methods of composition. Harkleroad refutes this: '(They were) certainly not less valid. But from my side to be brutalized to adhere to a perfection that didn't exist only shows my lack of ego, and his amazing overabundance of ego.' Creative processes are often set in motion to see where they are going to lead the creator, so to not have a specific, fully formed vision, even to use chancy, vague procedures, often produces results. Harkleroad's bone of contention is not on this aspect of the composition -'Who's to say what process creates art?', he asks rhetorically. But as the musicians had worked so hard to make the music playable, Harkleroad feels that Van Vliet's insistence on total credit reflects unfairly on them: 'He claimed that he knew what he was doing to every note. In the BBC documentary (The Artist Formerly Known as Captain Beefheart, 1997), he said, 'Would Stravinsky allow a note not to be played perfectly?', alluding to the fact that he knew where every note was in place and that he intended it beforehand. Again, it was about fulfilling his ego, when there is no way he had a complete knowledge or intention for a completed work in the head. He wasn't a composer of that type. I'm not saying what he did was an invalid way to do it, it's just he claimed that he did it in a different and a much more knowing way. He took credit for everything and he was full of shit on that count - he was not what he claimed to be. But was he super-creative? Absolutely. Did he teach me how to play guitar? No. Did he influence how I played guitar? More than anybody.'
Van Vliet wanted to change the very way the group thought about playing music. He employed a 'twisting of idas' to steer them away from traditional, rock 'n' roll modes of expression. Harkleroad: 'He would say, 'Play a high note like a low note. Play a low note like a high note. Play something staccato but play it like you're imagining it lasting longer.' Any way to change something to make it less predictable in the musical sense. I see it as the way he wanted to see the world. Music almost seemed secondary to that!'
Van Vliet's shenai playing had been idiosyncratic to say the least, but in another display of self-confidence he announced to Marker that he was going to play saxophone on the album. He felt that if it was good enough for Ornette Coleman it was good enough for him. One night he had got loaded with Marker, who played him Coleman's monumental album Free Jazz (1960). Van Vliet was overwhelmed. Marker: `I think it made a big impression on him and maybe it's when he mistakenly got the idea he could play a reed instrument. He didn't really understand that Ornette wasn't just noodling randomly, there was actually some kind of organization.' Mistaken or not, Van Vliet wanted a piece of the free jazz action and wasn't going to be stopped by lack of technique, or anything else for that matter.
(Mike Barnes: Captain Beefheart, 2002)
Mike Barnes: But (in late 1975) he had been busy composing on the piano in the house on Trinidad Bay. He and Jan were forced by penury to leave behind the high rent, the redwoods and the wildlife of the northern Californian coast and move back to Lancaster, making their home in his mother's trailer in a trailer park on the eastern margins of the town. He was keen to start work on transforming these piano tapes into new Magic Band material. ...
Bat Chain Puller has generally been acknowledged as a major Captain Beefheart work, and a startling comeback, but some writers have assessed it as a sort of poor man's Trout Mask Replica, a wishy-washy distillation of former glories. This misses the point completely and shows how expectations can be impossibly raised - to the detriment of critical judgement - when an artist's previous work casts such a long shadow.
There are fundamental differences between this new music and the tormented structures of Trout Mask Replica and Lick My Decals Off, Baby. And although the music shared some overlap with that ground-breaking era, it also showed a marked development in style. This subtle difference was closely linked to Van Vliet's increasing proficiency - in his own terms at least - on the piano. His intuitive outpourings on the instrument were far more fluent now, leaving behind the sonic pile-up of fragmentary lines that had hallmarked those earlier albums. He was still through-composing, but was now able to express himself coherently over a longer time-span. The songs were based on elongated, linear explorations of rhythm, and the instrumentation was more tempered than that on Trout Mask, which Harkleroad assesses as being 'totally dictated by rhythm, and almost not at all by pitch'. Ted Templeman had created a studio-enhanced ambient space on Clear Spot. But here, using his own idiosyncratic methods, Van Vliet had generated greater structural within his 'purer' music.
(Mike Barnes: Captain Beefheart, 2002)
John French: Herb Cohen arranged a European tour. I thought this all was temporary, but now it was looking more permanent. An album was already planned after the completion of the tour. In August, I began transcribing the piano music for what become the original and unreleased Bat Chain Puller: Human Totem Pole, Seam Crooked Sam, Flavor Bud Living and Odd Jobs.
(Grow Fins linernotes)
John French: I transcribed the original sheet music from Don Van Vliet's original cassette in his trailer in the desert in 1975. It was the summer and it was hot.
(John French: O Solo Drumbo linernotes)
W.C. Bamberger: John French has said that Van Vliet's music changed drastically when he got a piano, on which he wrote some eighty percent of the material for the album. We can feel the difference the use of the piano made by comparing the compositions on the album with those which were composed in the interregnum between Trout Mask Replica and the album which preceded it. The two tracks which Van Vliet decided not to include in the Strictly Personal set have a different feel, noticeably less fluid than the slide-guitar-riff based music of that album. The same transitional feel is to be found in the music collected onl May Be Hungry (But I Sure Ain't Weird) CD. This music is stretched out, repetitive, with in some instances vocal drones which serve as harmonic arches stretching over the more jarring bodies of the interlocked guitars. This is much more relaxed music than that which followed it; and it is much more rooted in the voice, rather than the hands as on Trout Mask.
Van Vliet had not played a piano before acquiring one at the house, and while he acquired the instrument he did not acquire a piano teacher. The group had almost no money, but there were larger reasons why Van Vliet chose to go it alone, reasons rooted in his most basic way of being in the world. Obviously, the best Nay to perfect a new physical skill (including piano playing) is to find an expert to teach you its fine points. Some more subtle points are packed inside this bit of common sense. 'A Computational Theory of Physical Skill,' a study of juggling (!) and computer science conducted at MIT, analyzes a few of these hidden-in-plain-sight points in a way which helps shine a little more light on what Van Vliet was after on the keys. The decision to find or not to find a teacher is, according to Howard Austin. the juggling thinker who conducted the study, actually part of an ability: 'The ability to find or give yourself good advice.' This ability is found along that uncertain line (the existence of which. as years pass and attempts are made to map it, becomes less and less certain) where we so often find Van Vliet at work, that between intellectual and physical activities. Here 'advice. techniques, skill models and various other HIGH-LEVEL EDITOR features play the dominant role .... These activities are inherently intellectual in nature and hence lead to the claim that so-called physical skill is largely mental activity.'
By choosing not to seek out a piano teacher, by refusing this kind of 'influence,' Van Vliet kept himself cruising at his preferred depth, which is the opposite of that the MIT study explored: where supposedly mental activities-the creation of music, poetry and paintings-are largely physical. Which is to say that Van Vliet chose to "think" with his hands and ears. In this, Van Vliet participates in the historical moment of theories about cognition, agrees with those (scientists, musicians, philosophers, many others) who share a 'dissatisfaction with the cephalocentric view of intelligence.'
He aligns himself with those who feel 'Cognition is an accomplishment of the whole animal ....' It helps to clarify Van Vliet's technique to recall how all the while he was creating music, he most often characterized himself as a 'sculptor' rather than a musician. What Van Vliet was telling us has to do with sculpture's special place among the arts. As art critic Peter Fuller pointed out, sculpture 'in its material processes ... is much, much more intimately linked to the biological and physical levels of existence than are, say, literature or philosophy or painting or musical composition. Saying, 'I'm more sculptor than musician,' was Van Vliet's way of pointing out how he worked primarily with his body rhythms rather than restricting himself to his intellect or the vocal skills he had worked to perfect (skills which bring along their own musical habits) as bases for composing. He says as much in an explanation of the 'magic muscle' he advises a 'Space Age Couple' to stretch on Lick My Decals Off, Baby: '(It's) something like intuition or instinct, something we all have but which we ignore in favor of just thinking. There's too much rationality in this world.' Langdon Winner writes of the music here, 'Beneath the apparent chaos of its surfaces are structures of remarkable intricacy.' The fact that Van Vliet would at times just dash off a quick run of notes when the band needed another part is not incompatible with Winner's observation. Those who suspect a contradiction lurks here are forgetting that human idiosyncracies shape every discovery, even the most 'objective.' Scientific theories retain, as a kind of fossil poetry, the personalities of the scientists who propose them. Musical structures-those which rely least on received musical forms-have this same basis. Van Vliet's music is both intricately structured and spontaneous, even unthinking, in how it was assembled because this is what human beings have at their most basic operating level.
Kids, you can try this at home, get a rough feeling for how this music works as well as it does. Each of us is capable of producing any number of rhythms, more or less accurately, when we wish to do so. And every one of us, for that matter, has any number of rhythms going on inside us at any given time; some of which we can become aware of and try to copy, some of which we cannot. One thing about these body rhythms-both the ongoing involuntary sort and the kind we pound out on the table top or our knees-is that the body is not set up to keep them metronome-steady. (Even that 'Mama heartbeat' is not as steady as we like to think.) A rhythm by its nature 'wants' to change. Only mechanical sources (or inhumanly excellent musicians) keep perfect time and, while keeping steady time is many a player and listener's ideal, it is not everyone's. Duke Ellington pointed out that 'You can't swing with a metronome,' and much excellent music is rhythmically elastic. One of Harkleroad's most telling comments about the music on Trout Mask is that, 'everything was built from a rhythmic sense .... My feeling was that the actual notes themselves were interchangeable-it really wouldn't have mattered a whole lot as long as they created the same effect.' The notes do matter, of course, though this is not a contradiction of Harkleroad's thought. Any musician knows that playing, for instance, a fast triplet using the same note played three times, and the same rhythm played using three rising notes feels very different. Pitch colors rhythm. (Jazz saxophonist Roscoe Mitchell titled one of his compositions after this effect: 'Off Five Dark Six.')
With all this said, try sitting, relaxed, in a chair or on a couch, in a car seat, anywhere comfortable which gives you freedom of movement. (You might want to keep in mind Van Vliet's dislike of keeping any rhythm for too extended a period of time.) Begin tapping out a rhythm on your leg with the palm of your hand. It can be done, but there is no interest here, only control. Try tapping out a second part with your other hand. Soon you will begin to feel a wish for variety in your nerves, your hands will 'ask' to tap out more complex variations; let them. But then, and here is the part where you (like Van Vliet) have to exercise self- trust. (Think, if you need to rationalize this process, of the lyrics to 'Trust Us'-to find 'us,' you have to look 'within'-and ask yourself, who or what is this 'us'?) Trust that what is actually happening is not that your body is failing to do what you are asking it to do (become a machine), but that your consciousness is resisting following what your body is asking to do. Follow it, and you will find your "'nability' to keep steady time will lead you through a series of varied rhythms lasting for short periods of time, unsteady or conflicting if viewed against a machine ideal, but (trust yourself) each feeling right on its own terms.
When your hands feel you have done enough of what they have asked you to do, they will tell you to stop. This exercise in listening to your body will, if done with the right kind of self-trust, produce constantly changing patterns, patterns which are oddly satisfying to follow, and which are, finally, fascinating in how they tell us something about the personal rhythms we live by.
This composition by listening to one's body, applied to the piano (and with his use of the Magic Band to extend his body, and layer the lines his body dictated), is the basis of much of the music Van Vliet wrote at this time. This new compositional philosophy was an attempt, as Van Vliet would later put it, to 'turn himself inside out.' What is surprising, and hard to hear on Trout Mask, is the simplicity and beauty of the individual parts. Close listening will reveal that each guitar bass or drum part consists of a series of relatively simple riffs, one following another. The complexity comes in the combination of the parts, with each part (as Van Vliet intended) cutting across any lulling simplicity in the other. One guitar might be playing in 3/4, for example, and another in 4/4 so that they would share a downbeat (or 'line up') only once every several measures. Some of the compositions nonetheless retain a flow and beauty even in their completed form-'Hair Pie Bake 2' is one; the repeated chord riff which closes 'Veteran's Day Poppy' (a composition dating from the Strictly Personal period) is another. These are at one end of a spectrum that ranges across to 'She's Too Much for My Mirror,' where the waves of the lines cross and cut one another and produce a very choppy sea indeed.
(Others were working the same seam at this same time, if in search of a smoother result. The Grateful Dead, for one, flowered musically when Mickey Hart returned from studying with African Master Drummer Olatunji and taught the band how they might play in layers of different time signatures. This was almost exactly contemporary with Trout Mask.)
A look at transcriptions of two instrumental compositions from Lick My Decals Off, Baby, the follow-up to Trout Mask Replica which shares much with it musically, will further illuminate how this music works as well as it does. 'One Red Rose That I Mean,' and 'Peon' are both in the key of 'C.' ('A Carrot Is As Close As a Rabbit Gets To a Diamond,' released on Shiny Beast (Bat Chain Pulley) in 1978, but written years earlier, is very similar to these as well.) In looking over the transcriptions, it is striking that there are no accidentals, no notes outside the C major scale. Most blues, rock and jazz music, and many pop and classical pieces, have notes which fall outside the major scale of their key-the flatted notes of the blues scale, for instance, being essential to the music. But there are none here. Van Vliet has dismissed any worry about scales with an obvious pun: "Fish take care of the scales; as soon as I saw a fish, I realized that they had the scale department sewn up completely.' It appears that Van Vliet, even while not thinking of his note selections as belonging to any formal scale, composed these pieces using only the white keys on the piano, keys which comprise the C Major scale. Van Vliet, that is, never ventured onto the black keys. This restriction insures an overall consonance, or harmonic agreement of one note after or against another. Not all of Van Vliet's piano music was composed using such a restricted scale-some of his chords are dense clusters indeed-but some others were. Only the black keys, for example, were used to create fragments or musical raw material in E-flat minor. At least two pieces from Lick My Decals Off, Baby were constructed from these simple, individually consonant fragments.
But Van Vliet's primitive-modernist piano style has elements which keep it from falling into children's song simplicity. While each section used all white keys, it may begin on any note of the scale; and the melodies have a tendency to end on the note where they began. If this is strictly adhered to it is termed playing in a 'mode'; the 'Aeolian mode,' the 'Mixolydian,' etc. This is much more common in jazz circles than in rock and roll. While an explanation involving modes could more accurately describe what happens, we might more simply say that Van Vliet takes different tones on the C scale to be the 'root' of his melody. (Rarely does he play a 'second' relative to the note he chooses to be his root. It is interesting to note that this 'second'-for instance, 'd' if the melody starts on 'c'-is the note which would fall between the thumb and finger of the right hand, for the beginning pianist one of the hardest notes to hit.) Some of these choices, played against an overall C background, creates music with a shifting, unresolved feel. The feeling of dissonance (which might be said to be an 'illusion,' considering the limited six-note scale) is produced in part by proximity-'e' and 'f' clash when adjacent, but not when played in a Fmaj7th chord: 'f-a-c-e.' Some of the perceived dissonance is also due to the misalignment of rhythms produced by the arrangement process described above. The transcription of 'Flavor Bud Living,' recorded on Doc At the Radar Station in 1980, but composed at an earlier date, shows these same characteristics. The music feels as if its is being forced into too small a space.
(W.C. Bamberger: Riding Some kind of Unusual Skull Sleigh, 1999)
Arthur Douglas: There's a lot of Music on the White keys because of the Modes of the Major Scale. For instance just noodle around on the white keys and with your left hand hold down the note C, You're in the First mode, Major.
Listen to how things sound, then change your left hand to hold down the note F, things changed a bit but stayed the same too. You're now in Lydian mode, My favorite because of no Avoid notes, You can almost play all the white keys at the same time. Move your left hand, or finger to A, You're now in Aeolian or pure Minor, Funny, a Minor scale in the Key
of C Major.G is Mixolydian, the closest scale to the Blues scale. This is why when in the key of C Blues you play a G Harmonica, which has the notes of C Major going G to G. Oh Well I guess I'm Babbling, I know there is some guys on the list that know a helluva lot more than me on this. I just wish they would disscuss this a little deeper, I'd be happy to Learn more and help out if I could. I've been taking lessons on this and a few other things.
Matthew Lewis: I think Don was capable of creating pretty melodies on the keyboard. He had a very good sense of phrasing (meaning he hit the keys at interesting times in the song) but if you were to say, 'OK Don, we play this song in the key of 'C' then we go to 'F' and 'G,' I don't think he would be able to follow very well. His playing was almost pure 'feeling' meaning he played more by what felt good rather than what was commonly referred to as 'musically.'
Steve Froy: Also some more of those 'work tapes' would be good to hear ... Don as American Primitive.