Evert Wilbrink: THE CAPTAIN’S FINAL JOURNEY…
(featuring Captain Beefheart, Frank Zappa and the Grandmothers from Austin, TX)
It was the 17th day of December 2010. I woke up with the mid-winter blues. A little depressed, missing ‘Da Love’ inside that usually fires up the moment I open my eyes. A helluva migraine kicked in and way in the background I started hearing sad sounds, very slow memories of the Lemon Pipers, like water running down from a snowman’s nose: ‘Drop your silver in my tambourine, help a poor man fill his pretty dream, give me pennies I'll take anything… Watch the jingle jangle start to chime, reflections of the music that is mine, drop a dime before I walk away, any song you want I'll gladly play, money feeds my music-machine; now listen while I play My Green Tambourine’.
Unbeknownst to me it would be the last day on earth for Don Van Vliet. Captain Beefheart. The growling and squeaking artist, singer and composer who will always be remembered for his landmark album “Trout Mask Replica”.
In the nineties I was a regular commuter between Amsterdam and Manhattan, New Amsterdam, where I presided over the legendary King Biscuit Flower Hour. Once I arrived a day late in New York and missed a remarkable exhibition: fifteen paintings of Don Van Vliet in the Anton Kern Gallery. I thought I would get another chance, but regret sets in the moment I hear that the Zig Zag Wonderer, after years of multiple sclerosis, moved from temporary to eternal, just days before his seventieth birthday.
The first time I heard the Captain was in October 1967. I was press-officer at the oldest record company in the Netherlands, Negram-Delta. Amongst the samples that would come in every day from around the globe, from labels that we represented in our small country, quite often little gems would stand out that we had no rights to. Sometimes earthshattering pieces of vinyl. Warner Bros, par example, mailed us the 45RPM of Jimi Hendrix’ “Along The Watchtower”, alas, at that time represented in the Netherlands by Polydor. And in an envelope from Pye Records I found the album “The Gilded Palace Of Sin” of the Flying Burrito Brothers; I could only listen to it in jealous despair because an employee of our competitors would do the work that I would have wanted to do. Pye Records also held the Buddha Records label, for the UK only, and thus “Safe As Milk” by Captain Beefheart happened to arrive at my turntable. An album filled with confusing, heartbreaking blues. High-strung Muddy Waters, played by a ‘jugband’, encapsulated in a bottle with a letter - not to be thrown in sea but to be rocketed to the moon. Bob Krasnow was ‘A&R’ at Kama Sutra Records, the parent company of Buddha. He adopted Don Van Vliet & co when they were prematurely dropped by A&M Records.
“Safe As Milk” turned out to be a commercial flop. Dutch hippie publications Hitweek and Aloha, as well as the liberal radio makers at VPRO, totally went for the album produced by Richard Perry (who would eventually rise to fame with totally different repertoire sung by Barbara Streisand, the Pointer Sisters and Diana Ross), but only two years later the Captain started making more sense. Albeit to a still very select audience. Krasnow in the meantime teamed up with Tommy Lipuma to form a new musical venture. Their Blue Thumb Records did what had taken Elektra’s Jac Holzman more than a decade. And gathered, right from the get-go, an incredible collection of artists and took ‘m to record a bunch of historical albums. Ike & Tina with “Outa Season” and “The Hunter”; Arthur Lee’s Love, ‘featuring’ Jimi Hendrix, on “False Start”; the Pointer Sisters; Dan Hicks & his Hot Licks. The most incredible album that was ever released on Blue Thumb (did we have the rights at Negram or did I get these through big sister EMI? Oops the memory starts playing up!) was Dave Mason’s “Alone Together“. Released on beautifully marbled vinyl and in a ‘kangaroo’ sleeve: a fold-out with four or five flaps and a pre-drilled hole to hang it from a nail in your bedroom wall. What a disc! How come I forgot to mention this one by Steve Winwood’s former side-kick in my Top Twenty Best Records of the Twentieth Century? Virtuoso guitar-licks and phenomenal jewelry of tunesmithery: "Only You Know And I Know", "Look At You Look At Me", "Can't Stop Worrying, Can't Stop Loving", "Sad And Deep As You", mesmerizing songs that went straight to the deepest depth of your soul.
Captain Beefheart’s “Strictly Personal” was the very first long-playing album to see the light of day at Blue Thumb Records, October 1968. ‘Beefheart’ according to a now much wiser Bob Krasnow, ‘was a marvelous source of inspiration. His head, his unprecedented ideas, his meandering talents. More than just rock ’n roll. A very complex jigsaw puzzle of rock, blues and electricity, yet easy to solve’. Nevertheless Krasnow could not afford himself to continue working with the rattling and rumbling Van Vliet. And then Frank Zappa walks on stage.
Zappa and Mothers Of Invention manager Herb Cohen had just started two labels. At Negram we handled the Bizarre and big sister EMI, unbeknownst to most of our employees the full owner of our proud firm, represented Straight but dumped it into our lap a couple of months down the road. The first ever release on Bizarre Records, and I totally freaked, was the double live “An Evening With Wild Man Fisher”. Larry Fisher was a singing schizophrenic wanderer with a voice like a corkscrew. I had stacked the 7” of “My Little Red Tricycle” b/w “Merry Go-Round” in the jukebox of coffee-shop Purple Haze in my hometown of Alkmaar and every time I entered the establishment I threw some quarters in. It wouldn’t take long for somebody to get angry and pull the plug. Alternatively everybody would walk out to smoke a doobie. Eventually the jukebox would sadly pass away on account of the negative energy that ‘Wild Man’ Larry would steam up into most of my Alkmaar friends.
At a Glendale, CA, high school Don Van Vliet befriended Frank Zappa and a couple of times they convened in local recording studios, where Don modeled his raspy voice á la Howlin’ Wolf. Frank kick-started the Mothers of Invention and Don formed Captain Beefheart & The Magic Band. When it didn’t work out with Blue Thumb Records Don had to make a living selling vacuum cleaners door to door (‘Sir, this really sucks!’). It’s 1969 and Frank asked him to do the vocals of “Willie The Pimp” for the album “Hot Rats”. Almost simultaneously he offered him a deal with Straight Records. The debut disc under the wings of Uncle Frank was the monumental, groundbreaking double album “Trout Mask Replica”, a strange, mesmerizing masterpiece. His genius guitarist Ry Cooder had already left the Magic Band behind and Beefheart was now more art than music. More akin Willem Breuker’s avant-garde jazz than electrified Delta Blues.
I first encountered Don van Vliet when we were both involved with Richard Branson’s Virgin Records. I handled Richard’s brand in the Benelux territory and the Captain was offered a multi-album deal by our A&R director Jumbo van Rheenen. Thus in 1974 we released “Unconditionally Guaranteed” and in 1976 “Bluejeans & Moonbeams”. The Magic Band had been retired and replaced by a bunch of musicians that die-hards mockingly baptized the Tragic Band. Despite all criticism that Beefheart was wasting his talents I judged the man’s work more accessible than ever and thought he would finally be able to make a living. I tried a few singles and even got him to mime ‘his greatest hits’ in mega-popular Dutch TV-shows like Van Oekel’s Discohoek and Toppop.
After a TopPop shooting Don freaked out in the green room of the NOS studio at the Insulindelaan in Hilversum. Foaming at the mouth he was calling the very absent Zappa all kind of names. Rotten fish, dirty crook, f-word criminal, prince of thieves. ‘Everything Frank ever did was stealing my ideas, he’s ruined my life!’ and Don claimed that both “Freak Out” and “Absolutely Free” were totally based on Van Vliet’s imagination.
At a different occasion in the Amsterdam Museum Hotel his confessions were of an entirely different character. In his room overlooking a canal Don divulged memories of his past promenades through the Dutch capital. Reasonably credible stories that smelled of a very ancient Amsterdam. It turned out to be the Amsterdam of the seventeenth century: “I am Rembrandt reincarnated,” Don explained. Assuming the air of Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn. Thus it didn’t surprise me a bit that Captain Beefheart left music behind for a life in paint and linen: I had seen it coming!
When I flew to the Netherlands with Deborah on December 18, 2010, to spend Christmas with my family, I kinda forgot about the Captain. Until we decided to leave the biting Amsterdam chill behind and warm ourselves in a chaotic Rijks Museum, which the last few years had been ‘under permanent reconstruction’. Deborah was hypnotized by the majestic painting of “The Nightwatch” and I was drawn way by one of Rembrandt’s self-portraits. A small painting on the side. Bloody hell, this was Don Van Vliet staring at me! The same face that I looked into when he was singing “Upon the My-Oh-My” in ’74: ‘Hands low, hands high, upon the My-O-My; Got to make her roll, got to make her fly, upon the My-O-My. Now tell me, good Captain, how does it feel to be driven away from your own steering wheel? Upon the My-O-My….’
‘Did you really meet Frank Zappa?’ Deborah asked me when we got back in Alkmaar to reunite with the family. She insisted on my answer before she would respond to my ‘Why?’ I wish I could have shown her the front-page of Dutch daily Het Parool, from that Thursday in October ‘68. Royally in the center of that page a big black & white shot of Frank and yours truly together at Schiphol Airport, captioned: ‘Left Evert Wilbrink. To the right Frank Zappa (of the Mothers Of Invention)’. Just like I needed no further introduction. Despite the fact that I used to review the most recent pop albums for the Saturday edition of the paper I had not expected anybody to remember my name.
Two years later I booked the Mothers in the Amsterdam Delphi Hotel in the Apollolaan, where we always enjoyed favorable rates. The Mothers came over to play a three hours set for VPRO TV-show Piknik, ‘live’ in Uddel in the middle of one of the most beautiful Dutch state parks. Yme Wijminga, road manager of Turquoise, the neighborhood band that I managed on the side, begged me to chauffer Zappa com suis. I believe I paid him 50 guilders for the job. But he also wanted my OK to bring his girlfriend Dicky McKay along, the interesting, warm and sexy daughter of the police chief of the township of Bergen… I didn’t whole-heartedly agree, but Yme kept insisting. When I arrived the next morning at the Delphi it was nice and sunny, the windows of the first floor were wide open and Yme’s girlfriend Dicky hung out of one of ‘m, kissing drummer Ainsley Dunbar and waving at me. ‘Girls will give their bodies to musicians as you would give a sacrifice to a god’ spoke Frank Zappa. ‘Beertje’ stayed in bed with Ainsley while I picked up bassist Jeff and singers Howard and Mark (three of the original Turtles), and –with Yme at the wheel- drove off to Bergen to smoke ourselves crazy through the afternoon, enjoying Yme’s spiritual stash and singing and recording most songs of Dylan’s Basement Tapes. Today Mark Volman lives around the corner from me, in Brentwood, Tennessee. I happened to walk into him at the Mercy Lounge, where he sat in with the Long Players at their “Highway 61 Revisited” revival and encored with his Turtles-hit and Dylan-cover “It Ain’t Me Babe”. I understand he professes these days as professor at Belmont University.
Ainsley Dunbar’s memory appeared a lot better than mine when eight years after Uddel I stood joking with a photographer in front of the main stage at the Pinkpop Festival. Journey’s drummer jumped seven feet off stage in front of me and yelled: ‘Hey Evert, don’t you recognize me?’ My screen went blank for a minute. I didn’t know shit about Journey, had no idea who stood in front of me. ‘Don’t you remember me? I’m Ainsley!”
Another ten years later I had a similar remarkable experience. I walked down Sixth Street in Austin, Texas, with my friend Sheri Frushay and all of a sudden a colorful character walks up to me, hugs me and defuses my worries with ‘Hey man, I’m Jimmy Carl Black, I’m the Indian of the band!” I hadn’t seen him since the Mothers played the Amsterdam Concertgebouw in October ’68, twenty years prior. The very last time I saw Jimmy Carl was Santa Claus’ day, December 5, 1993, the day after Frank Zappa died. Jimmy and the other ‘Grandmothers’ of Invention, saxophonist Bunk Gardner and pianist Don Preston, visited me at my office at the Stadhouderskade, where at the time I was helming SilenZ Records and MusicWorld Management. Their Amsterdam tour-guide was Dutch bassman René Mesritz, who lived in Austin, TX, under the alias ‘Ener Knifezipper’. The nicest guys. They played a ‘Zappa memorial’ that night and that’s the last I ever saw of them. Jimmy Carl died very peacefully January 2008: ‘He says hi to everybody and he doesn't want anybody to be sad.’
A couple of weeks after we returned from the nicest Christmas with our family in Holland, my mother passed away. I miss her a lot and think about her all the time. And I also keep thinking of Captain Beefheart. Somehow unexpectedly meeting him again at the Rijks Museum, staring at me from the wall, has made a big impression on me. We didn’t grow up with the ‘Hereafter’ and I’m skeptic about anything people believe about life after life, but quietly I wish both my mother and the Captain ‘bon voyage’…
Evert Wilbrink’s journey in music is multifaceted. With many years of experience from the business-side of music behind him in his native country The Netherlands, Wilbrink has also worked with music journalism, helmed the radio show The King Biscuit Flower Hour in New York, and produced records with among others Frank Carillo and Annie Golden, Julian Sas, Pat Mears and Zen. Since 2007 Evert Wilbrink devotes his time to Teye Guitars, as managing partner for the company.
Evert Wilbrink, Captain Beefheart, Frank Zappa, The Netherlands
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