O Captain! My Captain!

A Squid Eating Dough in a Polyethylene Bag Is Fast and Bulbous, Got Me?

The death of Captain Beefheart was announced yesterday, he died in a hospital in Northern California from complications associated with Multiple Sclerosis from which he had suffered since the early 1990’s and which had confined him to a wheelchair. In reality Captain Beefheart had died many years before when Don Van Vliet gave up music in order to concentrate on his painting.

Don Van Vliet was a true visionary artist in both his musical career and his painting but not an easy one to get to terms with. When my wife asked who Captain Beefheart was. I explained that if she took everything she hated about my music, stuck them all together, gave them a good shake and then played it backwards she be on her way to understanding. Captain Beefheart was definitely an acquired taste but to those who loved his music he was one worth acquiring!

I went to see him on what turned out to be his last ever UK tour in October of 1980 at the Apollo in Manchester. A friend of a friend asked me if I wanted to go and I said yes. In the same way as when I saw Frank Zappa (a musical collaborator and lifelong friend of Van Vliets) for the only time; I saw him before I was ready, before my musical education had expanded enough to really appreciate him. I am however so glad that I did see him. My memory of the night is of him shuffling on and scowling at the audience but maybe that’s just the image I have in my head after so long.

Fast and bulbous
That’s right, The Mascara Snake, fast and bulbous.
Also a tin teardrop.
Bulbous also tapered
That’s right

While I was at University I remember borrowing Trout Mask Replica from the Rock Society in the Student Union. I, like so many others, found it to be almost impenetrable but I persevered over the years and it slowly became a favourite as did the wonderful music of Captain Beefheart. Ironically I had loaded a couple of his albums onto my mp3 player last weekend and had listened to Safe as Milk a few days before he died. Curiously three or four of my friends had also felt the urge to listen to that very album this week too.

Beefheart had a wonderfully deep voice which was as much a growl as a singing voice, he also played harmonica and Sax. He was known as a hard task master reputidly locking the Magic Band into a rented house for eight months while they “lived” the Trout Mask Replica album. The band struggled to get to grips with the experimantal music that transcended rock, jazz, blues and a multitude of other styles. One of the Magic Band members, John “Drumbo” French, once described the process of recording with Beefheart as

If Van Vliet built a house like he wrote music, the methodology would go something like this… The house is sketched on the back of a Denny’s placemat in such an odd fashion that when he presents it to the contractor without plans or research, the contractor says “This structure is going to be hard to build, it’s going to be tough to make it safe and stable because it is so unique in design.” Van Vliet then yells at the contractor and intimidates him into doing the job anyway. The contractor builds the home, figuring out all the intricacies involved in structural integrity himself because whenever he approaches Van Vliet, he finds that he seems completely unable to comprehend technical problems and just yells, “Quit asking me about this stuff and build the damned house.”… When the house is finished no one gets paid, and Van Vliet has a housewarming party, invites none of the builders and tells the guests he built the whole thing himself.

Abba Zaba go-zoom Babbette baboon
Run, run, monsoon, Indian dream, tiger moon
Yellow bird fly high, tabacco sky, two shadows at Noon

The Magic band reformed during the middle of the last decade and toured a few times with Drumbo taking the Captains role. I caught them performing at Glastonbury in 2004 and while they were enjoyable it wasn’t the same. It was always hoped by fans that Van Vliet would come out of retirement and tour again but he was never really comfortable with performing, once freezing on stage before turning around and walking off the back of a 10′ high stage and landing on the band’s manager.

So Van Vliet spent his last years as an almost recluse and concentrated on his painting. It’s said that a friend told him that no one would take him seriously as a painter while he was Captain Beefheart and he would always be considered as a musician who painted.  It was this that made him give up performing to concentrate on his painting. His art, like his music, was abstract and experimental but he was considered to be an talented painter and his work sold for high prices.

The dust blows forward ‘n dust blows back
And the wind blows black thru the sky
And the smokestack blows up in suns eye
What am I gonna die?

Here is a video of Captain Beefheart performing on the beach at Cannes in the south of France in 1968. It’s a great video of him performing at the height of his career made even better by some superb camera work.

I took of my pants ‘n felt free
The breeze blowin’ up me ‘n up the canyon
Far as I could see


Don Van Vliet (January 15, 1941 – December 17, 2010)

Guess who just got back today

Thin Lizzy

A few weeks ago I discovered that the scanner at work was capable of scanning slides and negatives and ever since I’ve been wanting to find my collection of negatives which include loads of images from concerts in the late 70’s/early 80’s – mostly at the City Hall in Newcastle.

So I went off to the garage where we have lots of stuff still stored and looked through some of the boxes. I found them in an adidas box where they have been for the best part of 25 years! So I took them home and started to sort through them. Almost straight away I found the ones I took at a Thin Lizzy concert in 1979 which I decided would be the first set to be scanned.

So I took them into work and while I was digitising a 3 hour video tape I set about scanning them in on another computer. Once I had worked out how to work the scanning system which involved moving this, plugging that in and then putting the negatives in a frame I made the first preview scan. Then I had to work out how to make them bigger than 35mm by 25mm! Once I had scanned the first batch I was quite pleased with the results.

The first thing I noticed was how much better the colours were than the ones I had scanned from the original prints

Scanned from Print

Scan from Negative

It just goes to show how badly printed some of the photographs were back in the 1970’s – the colours just weren’t reproduced properly and a lot of the images had a red cast to them. I also noticed as I was going through packets of negatives how many images had been cut in the wrong place making it difficult to scan them in. So much for the golden age of photography!!

I think the problem was that photographs were developed and printed by machine and the machine would guess where black was and probably couldn’t cope with a huge expanse of it! So when I took my photographs into Boots, Turners or even Chas Eagles thinking they would be printed well they weren’t. I seem to recall that sending them away to be developed wasn’t much better.

Mention of Turners reminds me of a story. The problem I had was that sometimes, in an effort to get just one last shot out of a 24 exposure roll of film I would wind on the camera and feel a snap as the film came out of the cannister. When this happened I had a changing bag that I would put camera and one of those black film pots into. I would then take the film out of the camera and roll it up and put it into the cannister – quite tricky when you can’t see what you are doing!

Once I had got the film into the pot and the lid on I would then tape it shut and put a sticker onto it saying “loose undeveloped film – open in dark room only”. Anyway I took the film into Turners and handed it to the assistant and after I had  explaned about the contents I was somewhat dismayed to see him take the lid off, look inside and then hand it back to me saying “Sorry that’s probably no good now!”

Lindisfarne

There used to be a saying that “Film is Cheap” meaning that it was better to take as many pictures as you could rather than miss the “one”. Unfortunately what with all the other demands on my cash such as concert tickets, records and beer I couldn’t always afford to buy too many films and get them developed despite the fact that I did a morning paper round, an evening one, two Sunday rounds and a Saturday job in Woolworths in addition to my pocket money.

So you will find that on a standard 24 exposure roll of (400asa) film there will be one concert at the start of the film and another at the end – like the one I just scanned which started with a couple of shots of the support band, then there were some of UFO, then from the next gig there was Steve Hillage and finally some shots taken back stage that night!

There were negatives of shows I didn’t remember taking photographs at and ones where I had 2 sets of images of different shows (UFO and Lindisfarne for example). I wish I’d taken my camera to more shows but it really depended on getting good seats and the goodwill of the bouncers on the night. I do think I was lucky as the bouncers at Newcastle would only object if you used a flash which I didn’t.

Dire Straits

Two shows I regret not taking pictures of was Bruce Springsteen at Newcastle City Hall and Kate Bush at Manchester Apollo. I took my camera along to the Bruce gig but there was a sign on the door saying no cameras or recording devices that wasn’t usually there. So fearing I might have it taken off me I took it back to the car – of course there was no reason as security weren’t checking. The Kate Bush shows were openly hostile to photographers even before you got there. they had been saying in the press that photographs would not be allowed so I didn’t take my camera as we set off on the coach to Manchester. I did notice that the bloke next to me got a camera out of his bag, a serious camera as well, and took some shots. Seeing I had clocked him doing it, he just smiled and said “Well you have too, don’t you!” that was the night before the Thin Lizzy show that I took the photo at the top of the page at.

I really wish I had kept it up but after moving to first Manchester and then London I found it a) more difficult to get good seats and b) less camera friendly. I used to sell some of my photographs to the Durham Book Centre in Sunderland and I did at one point look into doing photography if I didn’t get into university. Still mustn’t grumble I end up doing something I love as a job anyway!

Alex Harvey

oh and I have already been asked twice about using my Thin Lizzy photographs on websites about the band – you can see them here or here on my Flickr site