Weekly Wire
Memphis Flyer Here's the Beef

By Edd Hurt

APRIL 5, 1999: 

Lunar Notes, Zoot Horn Rollo’s Captain Beefheart Experience, By Bill Harkleroad, with Billy James SAF Publishing, 151 pp., $17.95 (paper)

Any short list of the greatest rock-and-roll recordings of the 1960s and ’70s would have to include Love’s Forever Changes, the Beach Boys’ Summer Days (And Summer Nights!!), James Brown’s Sex Machine, the Rolling Stones’ Aftermath, and, of course, Elvis Presley’s radical reworking of the Hollywood musical, Clambake. We would all like to know, at this late date, just what it was like to be a musician on any one of these works. Yet the behind-the-scenes literature is not of high quality; musicians aren’t known for their ability to write, and the reading public is generally more interested in the sex lives of rock stars than it is in the nuts and bolts of making records (jazz musicians like Basie, Ellington, and Art Pepper seem to have fared better in this respect).

Of all the great recordings from this era, none is more mysterious than Captain Beefheart and His Magic Band’s 1969 Trout Mask Replica, a work so intricate, so forbidding, so crazy, that it seems almost impossible to imagine anyone actually sitting down to it in a studio. Yet Trout Mask Replica was simply the work of drummers and guitarists and an unusual singer called Captain Beefheart (real name Don Van Vliet), who gave his players names like Rockette Morton, Antennae Jimmy Semens, Drumbo, and Zoot Horn Rollo. Now Zoot Horn, whose real name is Bill Harkleroad, has written Lunar Notes, an account of what it was like to play guitar with Captain Beefheart, and while it sheds some light on the creation of seemingly impenetrable music, the book is unfortunately poorly written and edited. It clearly illustrates that musicians involved in even the most innovative work can have distressingly prosaic memories.

Rock-and-roll fans may know the widely circulated stories of how Van Vliet and his band of musicians created albums like Trout Mask Replica, Lick My Decals Off, Baby (1970), and The Spotlight Kid (1971). According to these accounts, Van Vliet, a prodigy from Southern California who won acclaim as a sculptor at an early age and who had already made two good rhythm-and-blues-based albums in the mid-’60s, created all the music for Trout Mask in one eight- and-a-half-hour session at the piano, and then taught his band to play the music exactly as it came out of his head. Anyone who has sat down and listened to the record, with its clattering steeplechase of polyrhythms, would have to be extremely skeptical about this account. As Harkleroad writes, “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 remember them ten minutes after he played them to us, is ridiculous. … At rehearsals [drummer] John French would show us all these parts and then the first thing we had to do was 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!”

As I said earlier, Lunar Notes is prosaic; it reads as if Harkleroad simply dictated it into a tape recorder. It’s hardly literature. There are some interesting stories, though. Van Vliet, for example, “was obsessively concerned about how to hold a cigarette. If you’re [sic] hand was swinging from the wrist, it was apparently an example of how ignorant you were.”

And there is this account of the glamorous life of the rock musician: “I can remember one particular time when Frank [Zappa] helped out on more than a musical level. … We made a decision that the four of us were gonna go to the Safeway store and steal some food. Well, as you can imagine – it being 1968 and John French with shaved eyebrows, both Mark [bassist Rockette Morton] and him with big Afros, and Jeff [guitarist Antennae Jimmy Semens] and I with waist-length hair, painted nails etc [sic] – it stopped the store dead in its tracks. And that was before we were running around sticking bologna in our pants.” Zappa, who produced Trout Mask, had to bail them out of jail.

Today Don Van Vliet no longer makes music. His last album, Ice Cream For Crow, appeared nearly 20 years ago. He has achieved some fame as a painter; his work, which has been shown in New York galleries, looks like that of a less inhibited Franz Kline. The twin-guitar interplay pioneered on his classic albums has been imitated by rock-and-roll bands as diverse as XTC, Gang Of Four, and Pavement. Who would have thought that this work, regarded not that long ago as the very acme (or nadir) of ’60s freakiness, would become part of the musical vocabulary of our time?

And Zoot Horn Rollo? He has reached the half-century mark, teaches guitar, and works in a record store in Oregon. He worries about his golf game. He cites Michael Brecker, Ralph Towner, and Jan Garbarek as favorite musicians. But I guess he has earned his right to bask in the soothing drift of Euro-jazz at the 19th hole. Me, I’m going to get out my old LP of Trout Mask Replica, cue it to “Neon Meate Dream of a Octafish,” and wait for the neighbors to call. – Edd Hurt

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