“I Hate Neon Lights”

Back Stage with Captain Beefheart

By Bill Gubbins

Exit, May, 1974

Despite the late arrival of the sound equipment which delayed their sound check until 7:15, the atmosphere in Captain Beeheart's dressing room was relaxed if not down right friendly. [1]

Captain Beefheart sat drinking a Buck-eye beer. He was very cordial toward the interviewer and photographer, as you will soon read, though all possibility of a lengthy or concise interview were quickly erased by both the constant motion of dressing room activity and the constant motion of Captain Beefheart.

BG: How's the tour going?

CB: Good. Real Heavy. Sold a lot of records. The record's on the charts. In England we're with Virgin Records. What number's the record on the charts in England?

Auggie Di Martino (Beefheart's road manager): I don't know, but we broke in England a week ago and this week we break on the American charts.

CB: It's only been out three weeks!

AD: Right. So we've got something like 60,000 in sales now.

CB: I’ve only been in this business since I was 26, and I'm 33 and 1/3 long playing now. You know the first record that I made was 8 years ago, I’ve got nine albums out.

BG: I heard from someone that your new tour wasn't getting good response, you even got booed at Town Hall in New York City, right?

CB: Who did you hear that from?

BG: Our music editor heard it from someone at Mercury.

CB: Awww, they’ll say anything. Boy, if that’s negative reaction I'd sure as hell hate to see the positive reaction. We’d have to have guards in front of the stage.

BG: They said you were getting some boos because of the changes in your music.

CB: I went down and talked to them and I said ‘What are you doing?’ and they said ‘We are shouting appreciation. We love ya.’ People boo, but they dig it and they're vocal. I think they dig it. They told me they dug it.

BG: What about...

CB: The booed Dr. John the other night I was talking to him, they booed him in Detroit. Shit!

That guy’s been playin’ piano in New Orleans all his life and they said he didn’t know how to Boogie. He used to be the producer on a lot of Jimmy McCr'ackin records and they boo him. What the hell!

BG: Do you get that kind of reaction? The ‘Boogie! Boogie!’ stuff?

CB: It's alright if they want to boogie.

BG: You don't mind that?

CB: No, they're being completely honest. They dig that, my voice. Sexy. I sing seven and a half octaves.

BG: I know. I’ve read that and heard it myself. You've also said that you sing for women.

CB: I do. I sing for men too, but I sing first for women. When I'm up there I'm a naked 50 lb., or 100 lb. or 500 lb. woman. That’s the way I feel about it. If you were up there you'd feel the same.

BG: Why did you leave Warner Brothers?

CB: I left Warner Brothers because my contract was up and I decided to try Mercury. Warner Brothers was getting too big, you know what I mean, they weren't giving me the attention I deserve.

I put a dedication on the album to Don Smitzerling my friend at Warner Brothers.

BG: Are you getting better attention from Mercury?

CB: Yeah, I got good attention at Warners too, but I was doing avant-garde music and now I want to hug the world.

BG: What’s the change? There's obviously a big change between ‘Neon Meate Dream of a Octafish’ and ‘Sugar Bowl.’

CB: Yeah, but it's the same thing.

Willie Dixon said ‘Whole world's talkin' about the same thing.’, and it's true. I mean, I wrote on ‘Electricity’. ‘Friends don't mind just how you grow.’( whispers) Anybody don't want me to have money, I'm trying to build an animal preserve in Northern California, and I’m gonna do it!

That record has sold 60,000 copies in three weeks release. That’s pretty good. For three weeks. Jesus! That’s more than I got at Warner Brothers, but then again I was doing avant-garde music.

BG: You don't think you're doing avant-garde music now?

CB: Occasionally we let go with some stuff, I got a guy with me who used to play with Charlie Parker, a man who sucked a cosmic particle up the bell of his horn and illuminated his brain: Del Simmons. We occasionally stretch out. I don't want to go to sleep, but we stretch out.

BG: Would you say that your music on the current album has taken on a more, how do you say it, ‘commercial’ turn?

CB: I would say ‘Hug the World’. I would say that people that say I copped out must be buyin' the police. I haven't copped out. Shit!

There's only one thing and that's music and the thing is that I like to do different music. Every album that I’ve put out has had a different group and different music.

BG: What ever happened to the old members of the Magic Band?

CB: They didn’t want to tour and they all quit playin’ music. Antennae Jimmy Semens is a fruitarian in Maui. That’s a good life, it just so happens that I smoke a lot. Cause I like cigarettes. But I’m going to quit cigarettes too. Cause I’ve got to do it for my voice. Cause I want to sing. Heavy. Heavy. Heavy. And if I have to quit smoking to get a better range, I will. I want to get 8 octaves, I’ve got 7 1/2 now, I want to get 8.

Zoot Horn Rollo, quit playing guitar all together and Rockette Morton quit playin’ bass. Imagine that Rockette Morton quitting forever. I think I got everything he had. I taught him everything he knew. Him and Zoot Horn Rollo.

Art Tripp went to teaching in Pittsburgh, I guess. They all quit playing anyway. They didn’t want to go out on the road. I taught ‘em how to play on those albums, every note. You know that. I taught ‘em every note they knew.

(with inflection) There comes a time in every man's life that they quit playin’ music. I'll never quit. I'll never quit painting. I shit tie-dye. I'll never quit. NEVER!

BG: What about your relationship with Frank Zappa? You were once good friends and then all of a sudden there’s this big feud going in the pop papers. What’s the story?

CB: Well, he’s following me around. He's appearing here tomorrow night, he’s following me around. Frank's alright.

BG: What exactly happened?

CB: We were close. We were just teasin’ everybody, man. (laughs) Sure. Frank's doin’ a different kind of music than I’ve ever done. Can’t everybody do the same kind of music.

BG: But you’ve been in bands together, Captain Glasspack and his Magic Mufflers.

CB: No, we were never. He said that. I was never in a band with him.

BG: Did you go to school together in Lancaster?

CB: No, I never went to school, that’s why I have trouble spelling. Probably one of the main reasons why I'm a poet, cause I couldn’t accept the English language as it was and I changed it. I have 7 1/2 seat trunks full of poetry, Queen Mary size.

BG: Do you regret your relationship with Zappa on ‘Trout Mask Replica’?

CB: No, I like ‘Trout Mask Replica’.

BG: Would you say that was the album that most fulfilled your desire to do avant-garde music?

CB: I think for the avant-garde, that’s one of the furthest reaching albums that’s ever been out in the history of man. And, uhhh, that’s over now, but it's still a beautiful product.

The album that I did now, I like an awful lot. But I'm looking forward to doing an album with this group, really. They’re good players.

BG: Do you think you’ll get a single out of this album?

CB: ‘Sugar Bowl’ is good, I like that. ‘They reach their fingers in that old Sugar Bowl, lickin’ ‘em sweet in my soul.’

What’s the matter with that‘? ‘Little Girls and Little Boys never get old, they know they're bein’ naughty but they love that sugar bowl.’

I think I’d like to have ‘Upon the My-Oh-My’ with ‘Sugar Bowl’ on the other side. But ‘Sugar Bowl’, maybe, we haven't decided yet or ‘Got Love on My Mind’, I dig that too. Cause that's the way I really feel. Hey these lights are FRIGHTENING man! Aren't they bothering you, man? I HATE neon lights!

(Beefheart jumps up and begins yelling and pacing around the room. He gets a beer as he talks.)

I HATE neon lights! QUOTE ME! I HATE neon lights! (He sits down) Jesus I hate that! Oh, I hate neon lights! (He switches back to conversational voice) Or remember that thing I wrote, ‘Neon lights walks the lights and chains - I'm going to pick up my spidel wrist arm band.’

BG: What records do you like these days?

CB: I love ‘Rock On’ by David Essex. I l love ‘Brother Louie’ by the Stories. That’s a good record. You know that.

BG: So the formerly avant-garde Captain Beefheart would really like to have a hit single?

CB: Sure I would. Why not?

BG: There are a lot of people who know you only through the music on ‘Trout Mask Replica’ who would be surprised to hear that.

CB: I like to merge the family. Make the family bigger. I like human beings. I always have.

(to Photographer Mike Mellen) You know what? I bet I, here take a picture of me like this. Let me give you one of my looks. You ready?

Dean Smith of the Magic Band: Get it Don. Break that mutha.

CB: You know what? One time a person took a picture of me and it never developed. That's the truth. I mean the picture, not the person who took the picture.

You know what we're going to play tonight? ‘Sweet Georgia Brown’.  I dig that song. Wheeewww!

Del Simmons used to play with Charlie Parker. I think he’s the best that ever lived.

BG: Didn't he play with one of the big band guys? Glenn Miller?

CB: No, he played with Artie Shaw.

BG: How did you come upon him?

CB: I just, it was very cosmic. Very cosmic. Very far-out.

(At this moment Del walks in smoking a big cigar and carrying his instrument case.) There he is! (Beefheart walks up to him and they begin faking jabs at each other.)

Hey get your clarinet out, man. (Beefheart begins clapping.)

Play me some clarinet man. You're gonna hafta go out there and play it anyway. I need some injections. Hot beef injections. Do some blues.

(Sings) ‘If I'm feelin’ tomorrowwww, like I’m feelin’ today, AHHHHHHHHH.’ (Beefheart hits a high note as Del begins to play. Del plays some incredible up-tempo blues clarinet patterns. Beefheart dances around as he plays shouting encouragement.)

Alright. Your been squeezin' them cheeks. (Applause from those in the dressing room.)

BG: Man!

CB: (laughs) Son of a bitch! Rock Clarinet. You ought to be ashamed of yourself, Del.

BG: Tell me the story of how you and he got together.

CB: We were walking down the woods and he was playin’ his clarinet and I was playin’ the harmonica and a cosmic particle went up the bell of his horn and illuminated his mind. Isn't that what happened?

DS: Yeah, that's what happened. I wouldn't kid that thing, man. (looking at the tape recorder.) Not a Sony.

CB: (laughs) Yeah, nobody ever lies to a Sony. (Picks up the phone) I might lie to a Phoney but never to a Sony.

DS: I was with one of Glenn Miller’s bands in the service. I worked for CBS in New York. Most of the time I've been with my own little bands.

BG: There's quite a distance between Glenn Miller and Captain Beefheart. You seem to fit in very well.

DS: I love the beat and the music. It's my whole life. I’m conditioned to touring and I accept the way of life and I like the way of life.

BG: Do you anticipate staying with the band for awhile?

DS: Yeah. I anticipate going as far as we can possibly take it, and exploit all the avenues, you know.

BG: Have you changed your style at all to accommodate the Captain's music?

DS: Yeah, my sax style in particular. I'm trying to play it as animalistic as possible. When you play with a rock band they're just too loud. That's why I like rock. It affords me the opportunity to play like I really want to play.

BG: Is that a significant thing, that someone like you, with your background, is finding musical freedom in a rock, rather than a jazz band?

DS: Don't let anybody kid you, rock is jazz. It's a free form of jazz. You can release your inhibitions, you can go anywhere you want to go with it and it's a great form of jazz. It's basic, it's raw, it's animalistic.

It's there, it's really there and that's why the kids love it, because it reflects a depth of emotion. Man, you feel like getting up and marching or walking or dancing. Rock is more moving, it inspires me more.

At this point Auggie walked into the dressing room and announced sharply, “Time for the sound check!” and everyone immediately moved out. The interview was not completely over though; Captain merely continued talking as we walked or as we stood or sat.

Among other bits of information, he said that he likes hockey and Jai Lai, that a disc jockey in Philadelphia compared his current band with the Rolling Stones and that he likes to tease his wife, Jan.

“Hey, Jan, wehre ya goin? I like to teasy my wife Jan. She hates these things; everybody runnin’ around like a chicken with its head cut off. “

The concert went well, with strongest numbers being “Upon the My-Oh-My, “ an acapella version of “Big Black Snake, ” sung by Beefheart as an encore and, of course, “Sweet Georgia Brown. ” For the short time that they have been together, the band supported the Captain well with sufficient tightness, but, at this time, lacke the fire and intensity of the old Magic Band.

After the concert, Beefheart was greeted by a number of his fans, including a rather heavy set fellow who told the Captain, “I’ll be better than you, real soon.” He told Jan, who remained at her husband's side throughout, that she was “the third luckiest person in the world.” Of course, Captain was number two and guess who was number one? Jan was not especially amused .

“Shit. That guy knows every lyric I ever wrote,” said Beefheart after the guy had left.

Back in the dressing room, preparing for a quick departure to Detroit, the Captain began to grow restless. He was also disappointed at the small turnout.

“If they had billed me first, they might have gotten more people.”

He walked over to the cooler and pulled one of the few remaining Buckeye Beers, poised himself, and then threw it at the back dressing room wall.


I had to christen the place," he said.

1. This interview was made in Friday, April 19, 1974, before Beefheart's concert in Toldo, Ohio. The concert review: Captain Beefheart / Dr. John at the Sports Arena.

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