John French suffered many ups and down during his on-off career as drummer and amanuensis for Don Van Vliet aka Captain Beefheart. The lowest of the lows unquestionably occurred during the making of that celebrated oddity Trout Mask Replica (1969), an album still disturbingly unlike anything else ever recorded. This extraordinary artefact was conceived under cult-like conditions at 4205 Ensenada Drive, LA, where French and his Magic bandmates were assigned new identities (French became “Drumbo”), worked around the clock, were subjected to marathon lectures by the Captain, surreptitiously dosed with acid and abused psychologically, verbally and physically.
Systematically deprived of sleep and subsisting on a daily cup of soya beans, French was reduced to shoplifting and had to be bailed out by the album’s producer, Frank Zappa. Literally thrown out of the house when TMR had been recorded, he was replaced in the band by a “new” Drumbo – who couldn’t even play the drums – and was left off of the album sleeve. Incredibly, he returned for more. On more than one occasion.
Much of French’s subsequent career reads like a strictly personal attempt to explain to himself why he did it, also to reclaim the credit that he was so often denied. The door-stopping memoir Beefheart: Through The Eyes Of Magic (2010) is his minutely detailed take on the whole shocking saga.
His solo album O Solo Drumbo (1998) presents, in pristine audio, the intricate drum parts which were usually obscured by the lousy production that Beefheart albums routinely received. On City Of Refuge (2008), with the aid of fellow alumni Bill Harkleroad, Mark Boston, Greg Davidson and John Thomas, he faithfully recreated the sound of the prime-time Magic Band and even managed a scary approximation of the Beefheart bellow. He’s also revived the band itself for a series of tours so authentic that even the world’s number one Beefheart evangelist, the initially skeptical John Peel, extended his blessing.
John, you’ve described The Magic Band as “a play that should be rolled out from time to time”. We gather you’re getting ready to roll it out again, possibly for the last time…
I’m working on US dates but I’m also planning an extension into Europe from the UK. I haven’t locked in a keyboardist yet, as Brian Havey has gotten very busy and won’t be able to make it. I don’t think that this music was really his cup of tea, anyway.
We heard that Mark Boston – aka Rockette Morton – wasn’t up to further touring with you because of his health…
Mark is an interesting guy and a friend since High School days. Jeff Cotton saw him play at the local fairgrounds with a band called BC and the Cavemen in August of ’65. Our bassist at that time was Larry Willey, who was a great singer and bassist, but extremely hyper and he’d lose focus quickly. He made good money in his father’s concrete business, and sometimes wouldn’t even show for rehearsals.
Mark Boston was the first guy we saw who seemed like a great candidate to replace Larry, but he was in a group, so we didn’t approach him until about eight months or so later, in the early summer of ’66 when we formed Blues in a Bottle. I joined the Captain in October of that year. I’m not sure, but it seems like about two years later, when Jerry Handley quit the Beefheart group that Jeff and I suggested Mark replace Jerry.
Sadly, in recent years, Mark has had pretty bad health. He’s very simple in his philosophy and has always appreciated life on a “stop and smell the roses” kind of level. His priority has always been to avoid stress and just enjoy himself. In prioritising that, he neglected the health issue and didn’t discipline himself in the physical sense. This resulted in him having to undergo a five-way bypass two years ago. He was really scared and called me several times. We’ve kept in touch via phone.
He lives with a good friend in Oregon, I’m in Southern California. Although he’s feeling okay, he’s still easily winded and can’t walk 200 feet without having to rest. This makes touring nearly impossible. It was tough for me to hear him say: “John, I think my touring days are over”. That’s why I’m doing a “farewell tour” with The Magic Band. It’s just not the same without Rockette Morton. Having said that, there was a lot of stuff that he and Denny Walley didn’t want to bother to learn that the new guys did, so it was refreshing to have the chance to perform pieces like Bellerin’ Plain and Glider.
Did you ever have problems with the Beefheart or Zappa estates about using the names “The Magic Band” or “Drumbo”?
Never anything from the Zappa Family Trust, and almost nothing from Van Vliet Estate, except for one note from the personal agent, Mike Kappus, saying: “With regard to your proposed project, noted below, I have checked and please be aware that this is not approved by Don Van Vliet's estate and you should not put any further work into this.” I was extremely angry, then I decided to thumb my nose at their non-approval and go right on.
The “proposed project” was that I’ve been experimenting with orchestral versions of some of Van Vliet’s music and was asking for my original transcripts. My anger was due to the fact that they have no power to disallow any performance of VV music and the VV Estate only stands to gain through performance royalties and record sales of live performances. It all has to do with control, a bit of snobbishness and perhaps resentment.
Do you still see any of the other Magic Band members from Beefheart days?
Jerry Handley and I hadn’t really been in the same room since he left the band in 1968, but I spent some time with Jerry and his wife earlier this year. He’s raised his family and is now retired. Our time together was very cathartic and I was so happy that we were able to discuss the issues that caused the breakup of the original band. He was the last guy to go, when Mark replaced him.
Bill Harkleroad – aka Zoot Horn Rollo – and I communicate via email and occasionally talk. I would have loved him to be in the reunion group, but he’s locked into giving private lessons locally, in Oregon – about two hours from Mark – and also by Skype. He studied hard and understands guitar from top to bottom, including jazz improvisation, scales, theory… very accomplished. I did get him in on an early MB reunion rehearsal in 2001, less than a month after 9/11, and was amazed to watch him casually play One Red Rose That I Mean as though it were a basic garage band piece. He left the reunion project after the first investor failed to make it work, and never looked back.
I speak with Doug Moon on the phone occasionally. He lives near me, but has gone into more bluegrass, banjo kind of stuff, so we’re not really doing things where we cross paths. We never had a particularly strong bond, as he was replaced within months of my joining. I just re-connected with guitarist Jeff Cotton – aka “Antennae Jimmy Semens” – and was happy to hear from him. He’s been through a bit of family grief, but is healing nicely. He’s been a very successful businessman since leaving the music business. As he’s a very private person, I’m not going to go into more detail.
The California that is so often celebrated in popular culture by The Beach Boys or The Eagles or whoever is a very different one from the California that spawned The Magic Band’s music. Can you tell us something about that desert environment, plus the kind of people and art it produces?
The isolation of that high, dry desert in the sixties made it a kind of enclave. Kids were bored. Some committed crimes, took drugs, and joined gangs, while others got involved in music. Frank Zappa and Van Vliet both lived here during their high-school years and I think the isolation spurred their creativity, but in very different ways.
Yes, we had top-forty radio, but we also had Wolfman Jack, before he went more commercial, broadcasting from Baja and playing some unique stuff. That, plus Frank and Don’s early love of the blues were strong influences but drove them in opposite directions. Don was more earthy, intuitive, and gritty. Frank was more intellectual about music; he trained and studied to understand music in a more accessible way.
Many musicians who have played with Frank – Steve Vai, Mike Keneally, Terry Bozzio, Chester Thompson – were able to springboard into successful solo careers. Not so with Magic Band members. I’m not saying none of them had success, but the solo careers of former Zappa affiliates just seemed to soar. I think this is due to Frank’s music being more accessible and Don’s being specialised and unique.
TMB progressed from purist blues to psychedelic blues – a transformation that a lot of bands were making at that time – with Ry Cooder but then went on into the outer fringes of the avant garde. What were the factors that made this happen? The desert? The drugs? The genius of Zappa and Beefheart? The exceptionally talented musicians that played in The Magic Band? All or none of the above?
Frank’s influences included Edgar Varese, and I think that had a lot to do with his later desire to compose music for orchestra. He trained himself and studied. Unlike Don, his workaholic tendencies cause him to become a composer. In Frank’s book, he wrote that The Mothers and his “rock” music, coupled with his demented sense of humour and parody, was basically performed to support his classical composer ambition. I always thought of his commercial efforts as a latterday version of Spike Jones, who did a lot of parodies with a group of accomplished musicians.
Don’s influence was more blues and jazz than classical. The late Gary “Magic” Marker, a bassist from Santa Monica who played in The Rising Sons, became a friend of Don’s through occasionally subbing for Jerry Handley on local club dates in the early days. Don was something of a blues emulator but later came into his own, with the primary influences including Howlin’ Wolf, John Lee Hooker and Muddy Waters. Marker was the one who introduced him to avant-garde jazz artists such as John Coltrane, Archie Shepp, Ornette Coleman and Roland Kirk, a guy Marker occasionally played for.
There’s a funny story in my book Beefheart: Through the Eyes of Magic, where Gary relates in an interview how Roland, who was blind, actually talked Marker into letting him drive his car around Hollywood, late at night! Imagine the chaos!
Is it true that Don recorded with Miles Davis, or is that just another bullshit story?
Sounds like BS to me. I think Miles was in the audience – according to Don – when we played Ungano’s in New York in 1971. I never saw him. Ornette Coleman was there, for sure. Anyway, Van Vliet and Marker went to jazz clubs together. Don loved what he was hearing, and started pushing more for this kind of sound with the band, but he didn’t take into account the obvious discipline that it takes, thinking that he could learn everything as intuitively as he had learned the harmonica. You can watch the progression into musical madness from Safe as Milk (rather tame but with some odd interjections) to Strictly Personal / Mirror Man (more experimental, less structure on the blues-jam stuff and definitely more ambitious arrangements) into the seemingly chaotic (but almost completely arranged… often by yours truly) Trout Mask Replica and the follow-up Lick My Decals Off, Baby.
Part of the impetus was Don’s almost insane rivalry with Frank Zappa, and the turning point came when we went to his cabin in Laurel Canyon and, as we were leaving, he spied Frank having Ian Underwood play what Frank had composed on piano. Frank couldn’t really sight-read, so he would write stuff and then have Ian sight-read everything to make sure it worked. Don decided then and there to get a piano; an old upright thing that was delivered by two guys who almost duplicated the Laurel and Hardy piano delivery, but then discovered the back entrance at the top of the hill, avoiding a huge flight of stairs up to the front of the house.
You copped the job of transcribing his keyboard creations...
Van Vliet’s original plan was to endlessly play onto tape and then have us cull the good stuff from it. I didn’t like the plan and pretended that the tape recorder was broken by removing the fuse, as I had spent hours dealing with tape. Don seldom bought any new tape, so it was just an endless mess for me. I originally thought that he would just teach the guys stuff as he played it, but then I made the mistake of writing down one or two of his phrases and he saw me and asked if I could play it back. When I did, I was delegated most of the responsibility for conveying his creative spurts to the band. It actually worked out well, but was a giant leap away from anything he’d done prior to this.
It was a hodge-podge of ideas and I quickly realised the parts he was giving me didn’t really fit together, so I started taking piano time – with my very limited skills – to sort through everything, like putting together the pieces of a jigsaw puzzle. I would mark the beginning and end of the mostly-untitled sections, and then sort through the parts, sometimes referring to the lyrics.
After a while, I was very confident in my work, and used basically the same arrangement structure from beginning to end with the exception of Neon Meate Dream of a Octafish and Frownland. On the former, I arranged the parts so they overlapped, rather than the guys changing to a new section at the same time and on Frownland, I just tossed them the parts and invited them to have at it.
Listening to the album, you can almost distinguish the “pre-piano” and “post-piano” work. “Pre” is stuff like Moonlight on Vermont, Veteran’s Day Poppy and Sugar and Spikes. “Post” is stuff like Hair Pie, Steal Softly Through Snow and My Human Gets Me Blues though on the latter, Don sort of “dictated” some of the parts, and had a lot more to do with the arrangement.
How was your own relationship with Frank Zappa? I know he admired your playing. Was there ever a possibility of you joining The Mothers?
I wouldn’t have done it. The thing I didn’t care about in Zappa’s music was some of the lyrics. Don told me: “He never seemed to quite get past his potty-training”. Hell, the guy even posed for photos on the toilet. I didn’t like that stuff, though I really had great respect for his work ethic and musical knowledge.
He was very approachable, and when I asked him questions about his compositional approach, I was always impressed by the enthusiastic way he answered. I feel that I was strongly influenced in my approach to creating music, though I’ve seldom had time to work on my own. City of Refuge is the best thing out there that I’ve done, but it was barely promoted, so although the critics loved it, the general public barely knew it existed.
You were just a kid when you joined TMB and you were required to play a bunch of complex and unorthodox drum parts. Have you always been gifted with formidable technique?
It was largely because I was unfettered by technique. Most of the time, conversations with drummers were boring to me, as they talked about stuff I never studied. Plus, I don’t really care that much how drums are built and who makes the best, though I must say that Yamaha and Taye are two of my favourites. Also, I transcribed a lot of my own parts, and they are the most advanced and challenging.
The stuff that Don wanted me to play was so simplistic, he would sit and play with his modest abilities then demand that I reproduce exactly what he played, which was so limiting. I wanted more of a challenge, so started transcribing stuff combining two and three rhythms at the same time. I snuck these ideas into the music, and I think it made for a much better album. However, Don’s drum ideas were sometimes amazing. Ant-Man-Bee, for example, has one of the cleverest beats I’ve heard in my life. I believe this is probably because he was more unfettered than me. I approached writing parts more like Frank Zappa, whereas Don did it all from intuition and feel.
You’ve said that you’d like to run a drum clinic to teach the drum parts from Trout Mask Replica and other of those records to young drummers. Don’t some of the parts require a degree of limb independence that a lot of drummers – including some very celebrated ones – just don’t have?
I haven’t really pursued the drum clinic idea, as I was given a pretty harsh “reality check” from a Remo representative concerning how much trouble it is to set up. Basically, I would be lugging a drum kit all over and setting up and tearing down. If I could just walk in somewhere, have a drum kit already set up, with a mic and sound system to play my accompaniment tracks, it would be great. They only do that stuff for drummers whose bands have posters pasted on young girls’ walls, not for old geezers like me.
It does take a great deal of limb independence but learning those parts actually increases that, which is why some of them would be beneficial for any drummer to learn. Magic Band drummer Andy Niven gave me a great compliment one day. He said that he had learned Zappa’s Black Page while in college and that he considered it “simple” compared to learning Hair Pie, which is almost entirely my parts. Unfortunately, conventional drumming really hasn’t progressed much in the last hundred years past playing two and four on the snare. Some of the metal drummers shred on the double kick, but that conventional two and four is still there, and the conventional fills are still the strong interjections. That’s mostly limited by the music. I do greatly admire speed-metal drummers with good double-kick technique though, like the late “Rev” from Avenged Sevenfold.
Everyone knows that Trout Mask Replica, in particular, was made under circumstances that probably breached many of the Geneva Conventions. Why did you stick with Van Vliet and keep going back? Was it because the music was like nothing that was being made anywhere else?
Well yes, also I thought I had entered into contractual obligations there or I probably would have left. The situation at the “Trout House” was horrible. There’s nothing like having a band leader who’s an only child, also a paranoid schizophrenic (his own words) and a pathological liar (his former girlfriend’s description… she told me he was attending therapy in High School).
With Van Vliet, it was all about him. I remember once hearing him say that he was probably “the most important person on the planet”. That just shows his extreme narcissism. Read my book for an explanation of all that and why I was in and out of the band for years. It’s too involved an explanation to go into here. One clue, however… Stockholm Syndrome. I’m glad I stuck it out, however, because of the amazing music.
You talk in your book about going through an actual exorcism. Can the book itself and a lot of your post-Beefheart work be construed as alternative forms of exorcism? Is it important for you to set the record straight and reclaim some of the credit that you were denied?
It was very cathartic, but also you must realise that this music, whether it’s mine that sounds like Don’s or me performing his, is my roots. It isn’t something I can just walk away from, it’s ingrained in my very being and identity. Hence my intense anger when told that “The Van Vliet Estate disapproves”. What pomposity! It’s like Hubert Sumlin, post Howlin’ Wolf. Can you imagine Howlin’ Wolf telling Hubert: “Once I die, you can’t play the blues no more, boy!”?
Will we live to see the day when Trout Mask, and the rest, get digital re-workings and we are finally able to hear all the parts clearly?
I doubt it. The Zappa Family Trust just approached me, saying there’s going to be a big box set of all things Beefheart coming out on vinyl soon. I mentioned to them the horrible production values on Trout Mask Replica and how I’d really like a chance to re-mix it. They completely ignored my offer. Ironic, isn’t it?
Frank’s kids, who weren’t even born, are now going to profit from an album they had absolutely nothing to do with. And they aren’t offering any of us who worked so hard to bring that piece into fruition anything. I can’t tell you how much this pisses me off. I’ve watched TMR re-released over and over, and I’m just not able to even think about it anymore. It’s beyond anything I could have imagined in terms of complete lack of regard for the players.
It’s doubly annoying that the stuff which features you and Art Tripp playing off each other is so hard to hear. What was it like playing with Artie?
He was so good, but also was a conservatory musician. This both helped and hindered, as he was more conventional in his approach. He gave me some wonderful pointers in technique – which I seldom used – but I really have to say that he knew how to “cook” way better than me, and the stuff he played on Clear Spot really makes the music. He used to listen to me play and say: “What an amazing style!” But at the same time, I heard a version of Steal Softly Thru Snow that he played on after I left and I thought he did a marvelous job. We complemented each other quite well, I thought.
How did it feel putting together the Grow Fins box set?
It was very cathartic, in one way, and also wonderful for me, as I was given the ability to interview many key players, which is important for perspective. All the interviews for my book were obtained during that time. Originally, Revenant wanted to put the set out as a Christmas release with the entire – at that time, unreleased – Bat Chain Puller album, but at the last minute Gail Zappa bailed out and they had to find a lot of other stuff.
The best find was the “field” recordings of the band at the house. They prove that we had rehearsed all the material and got it down prior to going into Whitney Studios and yes, we really did knock out the tracks – excluding Moonlight on Vermont and Veteran’s Day Poppy – in four and a half hours.
In your final stint with The Magic Band, you were handling other instruments than drums and you were set to play guitar on a big tour but dropped out on the eve of that. What was your thinking at that time?
Ah, you’re referring to the Doc at the Radar Station period. Don reverted from humble guy to the same powerful but illogical leader he’d always been. Yes, I played guitar, bass, drums and even a little bit of marimba; not great, but enough to get by. I was also singing on Dirty Blue Gene. I thought we had really come to terms and he seemed a different person. My main role was playing guitar, however, and I told him I needed him to decide soon what tunes we would be playing on the upcoming tour because I wasn’t “a guitar player” and would need a lot of time to learn them. Just a few weeks before the promo tour, he handed me a list of forty songs to play. I crumpled the list up, threw it on the floor and quit. I never looked back after that.
Did you read Bill Harkleroad’s book? Or the one by Mike Barnes?
Yes, I did. Bill had a lot of mistakes in time-frame but other than that, a lot of the events in his book happened when I wasn’t around, so it’s hard to say how accurate it is. I enjoyed it. It’s a quick read. Mike Barnes and I are good friends, but I purposely withheld information from him as I wanted to write a book based on interviews with all the Magic Band members and I felt like I would be giving away a lot of what should really come from me. I’ve got to say that he did a great job with fantastic research… he’s a great writer.
I think that all three books should be read by anyone who follows the music, as between them all there is a pretty good perspective and overview with virtually no details whatsoever overlooked. Barnes was able to get interviews with Jeff Tepper and Eric Feldman, who wouldn’t give me interviews, sadly. They were still quite close to Don, who would have disapproved. Zoot’s book is basically his recollections, and I think it comes off quite well, but is, of course, more limited in scope.
Do you know if Don saw your book in the year between its publication and his death?
No, I have no idea. He completely shunned me after I left the “Doc” band. I did call him once and threatened to sue him if he didn’t get my name put on the first CD release of Trout Mask Replica… in case anyone didn’t know this, he had left it off the original release. Anyway, he called Carl Scott at Warners and had it done.
Don famously blew the Monterey “audition” gig. Is it also true that he turned down Woodstock?
I’m actually working on a screenplay regarding that incident at the Fantasy Fair in Mt. Tamalpais, the week before our scheduled performance at the Monterey Pop Festival. Don didn’t really want to appear. He wanted to stay home and write in his pajamas. What happened was the result of high-anxiety coupled with hypochondria, brought on by high doses of LSD. I wasn’t around for Woodstock, but I don’t doubt he would have turned it down. He thought hippies were “disgusting.”
Can you tell us anything about Don’s brush with Charles Manson?
Not much. I know they went up to this place called “Fountain of the World” one night and Bill said later that Manson was having a conversation with Don, but they were off in the distance, so he didn’t overhear it. Everything I know about that is in the book. I just remember that I refused to go. My instincts kicked in, and Don wasn’t very pleased with me, but he was never very pleased with anyone who showed that they were capable of independent thought.
How do you regard Don now? Was it important for your own piece of mind to forgive him for all the stuff that happened?
I view him as highly troubled and larger than life. He certainly was a tyrant at times, but there were definitely strong redeeming qualities. I certainly wouldn’t have spent so much time performing his music if I didn’t admire him as a great writer and composer. It was important to forgive him.
It took me a long time, but finally, I heard a pastor by the name of Kenneth Copeland – who a lot of people don’t like, I’m sure – explain what forgiveness is. It’s an act of the Will. You forgive, but you never forget. Every time those memories come up, you say: “I already made peace with God about this”. Seems awkwardly religious to most people, but it definitely worked for me.
Were Don Van Vliet and “Captain Beefheart” two separate entities?
Well, it was a stage name, but Don definitely had a charming stage personality who I refer to as Captain Beefheart and then a private, much darker personality. I truly believe he was never a very happy person and this was a symbol, in a sense, of his own daily battle with contradiction.
Are John French and “Drumbo” two separate entities?
As far as I’m concerned, “Drumbo” is just a stage name. I have definitely made a few enemies since initiating the reunion, but I’ve yet to really compare notes with others about their behaviour. I feel as though I’ve never purposefully abused, cheated or lied to anyone. My conscience is clear.
John, thanks for your time. Is there anything else you’d like to say?
I’ve been working on a show in Austin, Texas with some musicians, horn players, and backup singers. It will be recorded and might be released. I’m also working on orchestral versions of Beefheart material and might someday get a chance to play it with an orchestra. That would be nice. I’m going to open a Patreon account, where people who want to help me financially can arrange for a monthly donation. If that works, I’ll probably continue performing. Finally, a big-time manager has expressed interest in handling me. It could be a big break, or just more BS. We’ll see.
The Magic Band play Rescue Rooms on Sunday 12 November, 7.30pm. Get tickets here