Beefheart: Through the Eyes of Magic Hardcover – 11 Jan 2010
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This book tells one of the most incredible sagas of 20th century music. --Mojo
Few names carry such formidable mystique and rabid cult status as Captain Beefheart, who led various lineups of his Magic Band to make some of the most startling, ground-breaking albums of the last century. In 1982, he retired to concentrate on painting, leaving the mythology he’d stoked himself to grow untamed over the years.
John French is better qualified than anyone to talk about Beefheart, joining the Magic Band in 1966 at the age of 17 just before recording their Safe As Milk debut album, finding himself plunged into a tyrannical regime which would dominate his life for the next 14 years as he played a major role in eight subsequent albums, including translating the mindblowing avant-blues assault of 1969’s Trout Mask Replica into readable music for the Magic Band from the Captain’s piano poundings under torturous conditions he likens to a cult.
Spanning nearly a thousand pages, French’s remarkable memoir starts with a vivid description of the rarely-documented early 60s Lancaster garage-rock scene which also spawned names like Ry Cooder and Beefheart’s childhood friend and later nemesis Frank Zappa, whose appearances in the book will enthrall his own legion of fans. As his spellbinding, often shocking tale unwinds, he encounters names including jazz giant Ornette Coleman, Jim Morrison and Paul McCartney, writing with dry, sometimes surreal humour and disarming honesty about his old boss and even himself, occasionally bringing in his old Magic Band comrades to jog his memory.
The book is packed with new revelations, many previously-unseen photos and enough anecdotes to keep the Beefheart faithful ruminating for years, French finally crystallising and bringing to life over 40 years of legend and speculation in what has to be the ultimate book on the mercurial genius of Captain Beefheart.
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Having followed the music since the release of Safe As Milk I had previously only read interviews and magazine articles in the music press, most of which perpetuated the popular myths without question. This book makes a serious attempt to address those questions and to get at a truth, which I suspect can never really be known. Considering the number of pages though, it also raises questions that remain unanswered. For me, as a musician, I was fascinated by accounts of the creation of the music, particularly the groundbreaking Trout Mask Replica (even if, like the author, I always found "Lick, My Decals Off, Baby" a more rewarding listen). However, since French was so intimately involved with the creation of that extraordinary music I would have been fascinated to have seen evidence of some of the transcriptions he made for the other musicians. I would have happily forgone several of the interviews for a glimpse at some of those charts! Perhaps the recent Magic Band revival tours were an attempt to capitalise (finally?) on all the blood, sweat and tears that went into the music in the first place, maybe to lay a few ghosts to rest and maybe as an act of self-healing? Sadly this chapter of The Magic Band's history is completely absent. The Drumbo I saw performing with The Magic Band as (spine-tinglingly good) vocalist and drummer in London a couple of years ago did not seem to be the same Drumbo narrating this book that is part musical history, part confessional and, at times verges on the "misery" genre with its shocking revelations of abuse and cultism.
Ultimately one has to recommend this book to anyone remotely interested in the music of those times and places and particularly to anyone who has at least one Captain Beefheart record in their collection. For all its faults I found I was eventually unable to put it down, particularly once I'd managed to get past the first hundred or so pages. The price for a hardback book is pretty unbeatable ... and my copy is signed by one of my musical heroes, the author!
Now to go through the albums, one by one, with John French's commentary.
Anyone who loves Beefheart's music must buy this book. As someone coming at the Magic Band from the direction of Frank Zappa, there's loads there about FZ I hadn't seen before, like the bass player responding to Frank's criticism by saying that at least he didn't have to look at his fingers while he was playing.
Loads of good stuff, but a lot of it is repeated several times - sometimes in adjacent paragraphs. I sometimes found myself wondering if I'd put the bookmark in the right place as I thought "Hang on, I've read this bit before."
But if you can live with that, it's a great book. Recommended.
Although there were many strange and hazy myths surrounding the birth of TMR, John blows away the smoke, literally, and reveals the cult like environment that eventually took over in the house. Don Van Vliet was a diagnosed paranoid schizophrenic, probably brought on due to excessive LSD use, who would terrorise and intimidate the band members until they breathed, ate and slept the way way he wanted them to. It sounds insane, but they stuck with it and eventually they produced one of the most extraordinary albums of all time.
The book goes into to incredible detail and is a truly rewarding read. I would also recommend this to Zappa fans as there is a lot of entertaining facts about the birth of The Mothers and how Zappa grew up and eventually collaborated with Beefheart.
Overall an excellent book, definitely the DEFINITIVE Beefheart book to date.
I enjoyed the photos - more quality pics would have been great.
The track by track listing is very good.
If you are even vaguely interested in Beefheart this book is essential.
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