On page 768 of his (narrow-margined and in 10 point type) memoir of working with the man (which continues for another 96 pages), John "Drumbo" French notes, "In a short Van Vliet poem, Apes-Ma, the very last line sums it up: 'Your cage isn't getting any bigger Apes-ma.' Our earth isn't getting any bigger, but the human race continues to procreate. In Petrified Forest he writes, 'The rug's wearing out that we walk on, soon it will fray and we'll drop dead into yesterday.' There was always this type of urgency in Van Vliet's lief. Constantly writing, drawing, creating music, or spending time in fascinating conversations that went on forever. Even in these conversations, he seemed to be drawing conclusions, assimilating information, grasping at new ideas, and searching, always searching. Life was his university. Often, the other parties in the conversation seem drained, exhausted at the end. But Van Vliet seemed as though there was a restoration taking place, as though every moment he was alive was a moment to grasp something new to place in his collection of thoughts and images, and that collection was rejuvenation to him physically, mentally, and creatively." Not too much later after this paean French writes: ""I wonder what we all would have done in an alternate reality that never crossed paths with Van Vliet. Sometimes I think I would have been much better off, sometimes not. I found the best cure for calming my inner turmoil was Christianity, though I still have flare-ups, anxiety, and the feeling that disaster awaits me at any moment."
French's book, Beefheart: Through The Eyes Of Magic, is a fascinating document—sometimes morbidly so. While filled with what some might call dish, it almost never reads like a standard rock-and-roll memoir; more like the testimony of an adult abused child at a support group meeting. And it does go on, obsessive in detail. Euphoria of discovery turned into misery of humiliation with the turn of a comma, like a slap in the face. I remember around 1984 or so, interviewing the Red Hot Chili Peppers in the basement of Maxwell's in Hoboken. It was a pretty raucous scene; Flea was enthusing to backstage visitor Bill Laswell about the latter's bass line for Massacre's "Legs," Kiedis was doing his then-usual made-in-L.A.-stud-douche schtick, while soon-to-be-gone guitarist Jack Sherman and drummer Cliff Martinez, sitting off to the side by a column of canned peas, looked rather glumly accustomed to being relegated to a non-spotlight. However. When I brought up to Martinez (who later went on to a busy and productive career in film scoring) that I had enjoyed his drum work on the final Beefheart record, Ice Cream For Crow, he lit up, and began talking non-stop about how awesome the experience of working with him had been. (Two of my favorite rock and roll drummers, who also happen to by two of my favorite people, Anton Fier and Stanley Demeski, are, I believe, among the select percussive elite who have managed to teach themselves every drum pattern on the, erm, difficult Trout Mask Replica.)
Gary Lucas, who managed Beefheart for the Doc At The Radar Station/Ice Cream For Crow period, who played guitar (and French horn) on both records, and who mastered the this-should-take-eight-fingers Beefheart guitar solo piece "Flavor Bud Living," is a close friend of mine. Sometimes when he speaks of Beefheart he lights up like a little boy; other times, he glowers, grimaces. There have been some moments when I could have sworn to have seen a wraith of the then-still-living man over Gary's shoulder, goading him somehow. Gary was kind enough to ask me to read the song-poem "Old Fart At Play," from Trout Mask, at a Beefheart tribute evening at the Manhattan Knitting Factory in spring of 2008. It was an honor, and difficult. Knowing Gary has given me the impression of having known Don, which I did not; despite that, circumstances make his death yesterday feel very personal to me. I spoke to Gary for a moment yesterday, and he seemed in shock. "I really thought he would outlive us all." He had been estranged from Don for a long time; I couldn't say when it was they last spoke. When I was hanging out a bit with Billy Bob Thornton in the early winter of 2001, Thornton, a very hardcore Zappa and Beefheart man (there was a copy of The Negative Dialectics of Poodle Play on one of the bookshelves of the hacienda-style house Thornton was then sharing with Angelina Jolie, and I don't think it was hers [and how did that factoid NOT make it into my second Premiere profile of the man, I now wonder]) told me that he'd been having occasional telephone chats with Van Vliet—they had been put in touch by a common friend—and that they mostly talked about the weather in the desert. This really blew Billy Bob's mind, and no wonder. I was tickled, but I admit, slightly irritated on behalf of some of the people with whom Van Vliet was not speaking.
For reasons that are weird, personal, psychic, and perhaps thoroughly messed up—which is how Don sometimes liked it—this might be my favorite Beefheart song: