Herb a father to the Mothers?

By Michael Watts

Melody Maker, November 13, 1971

HERB COHEN, manager of the Mothers of Invention, Alice Cooper, Captain Beefheart, Wild Man Fischer and the GTOs talks to Michael Watts

First off, you should know that Herb Cohen likes to think of himself as an aware person. Lately, for instance, he has been keeping in touch by reading Alvin Toffler's "Future Shock," the current American best-seller about society in the seventies.

The blurb on the back of the book says it's about "what is happening today to people and groups who are overwhelmed by change."

Herb Cohen never lets anything overwhelm him. Or his groups. That's right – his groups. Herbie manages rock musicians. Has been for years. Ask Frank.

He and Frank Zappa have always been close, ever since Herbie saw Frank playing with some friends at a Hollywood party in '65. Now Herbie has always been a great talent spotter and the very next day he went into management. It didn't matter that he didn't quite understand what Zappa had in mind musically – he recognised someone else who was as aware as him.

These days he looks after the business interests of Zappa and the Mothers of Invention and together with Frank owns the Bizarre and Straight labels.

Ten years ago he was a folkie, managing people like The Modern Folk Quartet and Judy Henske, but he was quick enough to make the transition into rock when folk changed over. For all that, he was a great one for folk music. He used to own a bunch of coffee houses in California, among them The Unicorn, which was the first coffee house featuring folk to open on the West Coast. That was in '58, a few years after he left New York, which he split when he was 16, a kid with no training in anything, no qualifications and no degrees. The only job he is fit to do, he will tell you with a laugh, is to be a manager.

Mind you, he hasn't done so badly. Among the artists on Straight and Bizarre are Alice Cooper, Captain Beefheart, Wild Man Fischer and the GTOs. These people may not be consistent Top 40 artists but they're interesting from a sociological viewpoint. That's what Herb says anyway. "The records are sociological studies of the specific lifestyle of people who were the product of the rock culture," he tells me, and do you know that there are more Wild Man Fischer albums used in textbooks and classrooms in universities than albums by any other artists? Yes, Herb and Frank are continually getting requests for Fischer's first, and most probably last, record from psychologists and sociology majors. And to think that Frank picked him up from the streets, where he was singing for dimes.

It's curious, though, how Herb seems to have thrown in his lot with musicians and people who are, well eccentric in some eyes. Not so much Alice Cooper – they're a fun drag act – but ... like The Captain, for example. He's really gummed up. And Larry Fischer – wow! Then there are those girls – the Misses Lucy and Pamela, and Cynthia Plastercaster.

Of course, Herb was big buddies with the original social outcast, Lenny Bruce. He knew Lenny very well. He used to handle his working engagements for a time. And Herbie would leave his kid over at Bruce's house. Does that sound like a monster to you?

There was a time when The Mothers did a gig with Bruce. Frank has it on tape. It will probably come out as part of the nine-album set that Zappa releases over intervals next year. And then Lenny's Berkeley concerts have already been put out on the Transatlantic label. Herb bought them from Sally, his mother, after Bruce died.

Herb is at pains to point out that he did not take one penny, not one cent, ever, from Bruce. Neither, contrary to rumours, did he make anything on Larry Fischer.

Herbie laughs quietly when this subject is brought up because as everyone knows by now, the album may have been sociologically successful, and there may be a Wild Man Fischer fan club and baseball team with uniforms and all, but millions of records he did not sell.

He's an unfortunate victim of the culture, says Herb, and you can't deal with him on any logical basis. He got paid for it: "I never gave him large sums of money, but what we did was pay him every week for a long period of time The point is, if we paid him any money it was gone the next day. We tried giving him some money and then he was back the following day. I mean, the first thing he did was go out and spend it all on some mod clothes – silk shirts and all – but he was sleeping in the streets.

"What we did was put him on salary basis, and for the first time in years he was sleeping in hotels, and he lived in a hotel room for a period of about six months. But albums ... I don't think we sold more than 10,000. A lot of people in the business know about it, but it was never Top 30."

Herbie has learned to suffer in sweet silence the vagaries of certain recording artists. Like, for example, the man who went to high school with Frank Zappa as Don Van Vliet but who emerged years later in a class by himself and on 33 rpm as Captain Beefheart.

Frank, his old buddy from Lancaster High, California, has been pretty swell to Beefheart, who, after cutting an album for Kama Sutra and another one for Blue Thumb, found himself in a lot of legal hassles between Kama Sutra and Blue Thumb as to who owned what and who signed where and when. Mister Beefheart is not exactly what you would call an astute businessman, so Frank, who in earlier years had probably exchanged ink pellets with him, bailed him out. Or rather, the task fell on Herbie, whom it took six months just to figure out the legal entanglements.

Frank says that old Donny was not at all like he is now when he was a teenage baseball pitcher. He and Frank have not spoken in over a year. The Captain was a touch miffed that young Frank would not take time out to produce him anymore, yet neither Frank nor Herb are beefing. Herb thinks he's one of the best blues singers he's ever heard, that his lyrics are sheer poetry, and that  if you want to put people in bags, don't put Don in the nut bracket. Beefheart's thoughts are very clear to himself. He knows exactly what he's saying, Herb remarks, but he's so far beyond, or removed, from the mainstream of normal thinking. Whether what he's saying has the same meaning to you and me is another thing.

All this is not to say that Herb hasn't had problems with The Captain. Beefheart, he allows, is a little strange. Like, when they were making "Trout Mask Replica" Beefheart gave Herb a list of expenses of which 800 dollars were for a tree surgeon. When Herb, a little mystified but patient nevertheless, asked why he needed a tree surgeon Beefheart said, well, there's this tree in his front yard that overhangs his house and he wanted to make sure the vibrations from the amplifiers when they were rehearsing didn't disturb the tree so it would get angry and the branch would fall on the house in retaliation.

Herb suffers – he really does, because The Captain can be so trying. On that first session, for instance, Beefheart also asked for 20 sets of sleigh bells. Naturally, Herbie asked him what he needed them for, there being only five people in the band, one producer and one engineer, which makes seven in all – and if each person held one set of sleigh bells in each hand and that's still only 14 sets, assuming his band had just two hands per person – with Beefheart it's hard to tell. Herb asked him what he intends to do with the six other sets, and Beefheart replied, very confidentially and coolly, "we'll overdub them." So, as you can see, dealing with Don on a certain level is just not the most clear-cut situation in the world. All the same, he did get him the 20 sleigh bells. He just couldn't argue with logic.

Another thing, too, about Van Vliet, is that none of his band with the present exception of drummer Art Tripp, who used to be with The Mothers, are real musicians. Zoot Horn Rollo and the rest can only play what Beefheart has taught them; nothing else. The reason for this is that The Captain feels that accomplished musicians already hear certain sounds and are prejudiced in terms of musical forms, and he wants people who are open enough to be able to play things that aren't musical, or aren't what a musician would consider to be musical. Or at least, that's how he explained it to Herbie one time. So those guitars aren't tuned. They're all dissonant thing.

Of course, this situation can be a little trying in itself. When Beefheart does gigs half of the audience leaves. Of the other half which stays, half of them actually like him and the rest are masochists. Like Herb says, it's very difficult to listen to a lot of Beefheart music. You really have to like what he's doing. Then again he has a reputation for not showing up at gigs. Although he's playing on the West Coast a little now, for years he wouldn't go out and work. He just couldn't get the band together.

For a hell of a time he wouldn't go to Europe, either, and then when he did arrive, two years ago, it was a very scarring experience. He hasn't been there since then, because last time he got on the plane at Los Angeles, flew 13 hours to London, got off the plane, was put in a cab and taken to the Speakeasy, where he was expected to do a set on somebody else's equipment. That left a very bad taste in his mouth, says Herb, and it's been very difficult to get him to do anything else.

Talking of performing, The GTOs have never been very active in that direction. They only ever performed twice and that was with Frank, who arranged the situation, rehearsed them and was able to control what they did. The GTOs were just a bunch of girls living a certain lifestyle in L.A. who finally weeded themselves down to five as a viable group. They're not really performers, and Herbie would feel very badly about putting them in an exploitive situation where other people would be making money off them and using them for what they represent.