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John ‘Drumbo’ French: Through The Eyes Of Magic review and interview

Cover of Beefheart: Through The Eyes Of Magic

In 1966, aged only seventeen, drummer John French joined Captain Beefheart and his Magic Band. One year later, he was playing on their seminal debut Safe As Milk (featuring a certain Ry Cooder on guitar), a record that John Lennon would declare as one of his favourites. By the end of the decade he had played on one aborted album (Mirror Man), their sophomore effort (Strictly Personal), and finally the groundbreaking, jaw-dropping, potentially violence-provoking, bona fide work of art, Trout Mask Replica. Along the way he, would also be screamed at, beaten up, drugged, ridiculed, humiliated, arrested, starved, stolen from, and thrown down a half-flight of stairs by his employer, the Captain – Don Van Vliet. Despite having transcribed every note of Don’s ramblings on the piano and arranged them into playable pieces, and taught them to the other band members over the course of nine months, French would leave the band (head-first down the stairs) and go uncredited – and unpaid -on the finished album. But he would return to the Magic Band another three times over the course of Beefheart’s career (Lick My Decals Off Baby, The Spotlight Kid, Doc at the Radar Station and Bat Chain Puller – which is currently gathering dust, unreleased, in Zappa’s vault).

Other than Van Vliet himself, who has retired from music, is rumoured to be ill and is, in any case, unlikely to give an honest account of his career thus far, John French’s tenure in the band posits him as the authoritative biographer of Captain Beefheart and the Magic Band. Beginning literally at the childhood of the original Magic Band members, in Through The Eyes Of Magic French tells not only the story of the band from his own perspective, but using articles, books and interviews he conducted with band members from all periods of the band and various other talking heads (mostly from Zappa’s entourage), pieces together the definitive Beefheart book. Littered with anecdotes and enough detail to keep the obsessives obsessing, Through the Eyes of Magic is a remarkable work. At nearly 1000 pages it seems that French has left no stone unturned. He even accounts for the times when he was not in the band via interviews with other band members (ex-drummer, current chiropractor, Art Tripp‘s stories of earning money as a pool-shark at nights are particularly enjoyable).

John French back in the day

Of particular interest is French’s liberal destruction of the Beefheart mythology. That Van Vliet wrote Trout Mask Replica (all 28 songs) in one 8½ hour sitting (it actually took three weeks, but Fellini’s was on TV one night); that he taught his band members their instruments (he poached them from other bands because they could play their instruments); that he was telepathic (a few Magic Band members actually seem to believe that this may be true – but they were all on drugs); that he had a 5½ octave voice that could shatter microphones (he had a low voice and a high voice and would stand too close to the mic); or that Strictly Personal was a bad record. Most of these myths were propagated by Van Vliet for gullible journalists, but the truth, as related by French, is far more entertaining. Van Vliet’s inability to play any instrument almost crippled his ability to communicate with his band (telling one drummer to play like he was balancing a plate of ball bearings), so he turned to bullying and manipulating them into doing what he wanted. He lived off his mother throughout his career as his tendency to sign every contract put in front of him did not leave him in a good financial position – a pain his band felt even more.

John French today

Jaw-dropping, hilarious, heart-breaking, entertaining and oozing with veracity, Through the Eyes of Magic is a must-read for all Beefheart fans – for all serious music fans, in fact – and provides a little-needed excuse to have another listen to some of the best, groundbreaking music ever recorded (detailed track notes on every major release will even tell you how it was recorded).

Even after ten years of writing about Beefheart, and answering every conceivable question within this hefty book, John French kindly agreed to an e-mail interview with this obsessive fan!

Firstly, how does it feel to have the book finished and out there for your fans to read? I imagine it could be quite cathartic.

It feels quite good, of course, though it’s still not available in the US, which is a little disappointing for US fans. I have actually been selling a few signed ones on eBay though a friend. It is a little cathartic in a sense, but these kinds of public situations are not something from which you can ‘move on’ – like a divorce or something. It’s always going to be a part of my life, like now, as I now answer even more questions.

How has the response been to it?

Surprisingly good, in light of the ‘warts and all’ kind of approach I took. It wasn’t much of a choice, so much as the fact it’s the only way I know to write. I never was much good at glossing over things, or exaggeration. The reviews have really been quite positive, in the face of the fact that the story is a bit unpleasant at times.

Years ago, when I told Jeff Cotton I was writing a book, he said ‘Tell the truth, even if it hurts.’ He wouldn’t submit to an interview and basically has been one of the few to successfully divorce himself from the Beefheart public. He has been quite successful in business. A mutual friend played my CD (City of Refuge) for him and he liked it. I might miss Jeff most of all, as he was my closest friend from the early days – he and Don Giesen, who left music years ago were the guys I spent huge amounts of time with as teenagers dreaming about musical success.

Have other Magic Band members read it? If so, what do they think of it?

I don’t think anyone has actually read the whole book yet, but Denny Walley had read a bit the last time I spoke with him. He loved it and thought that it would ‘open doors’ for me – hopefully not trap doors.

Bill Harkleroad called me and was quite enthusiastic, offering up on his own to write a short review for beefheart.com, and I asked him if he would also submit it to amazon.com, which he did.

Have you heard anything from Don about the book? Have you heard anything from Don at all?

No, nothing. I’m sure he won’t like it. He was grumpy about the Magic Band reunion, according to one source I must keep anonymous. I mentioned in the book that the one thing I thought is that I would wind up being friends with Don in later years and we’d both laugh about the music business. The truth has been a far cry from that. I became just another former MB member to be shunned. I imagine him commenting something like, ‘really bad fiction.’

I’ve heard that he is seriously ill and incapacitated. This is sad news, as I can’t imagine how frustrating it must be for him to have all that creativity and be unable to express himself.

You stop before the reformation of the Magic Band. Does that mean there will be a second book?

Hopefully, no, there will not be a book about the reunion. Not that interesting, actually. The usual conflicts that would occur in a band were a bit amplified, I think, by the fact that we all shared tenure – though in different eras – under Van Vliet’s regime. I didn’t really want to ‘lead’ – because I felt like that would be akin to painting a target on myself and strolling through a rifle range. However, I did receive some friendly fire occasionally, and it was uncomfortable to say the least. There were times when I felt compelled to step up to the plate and make decisions that weren’t popular. For instance, people were suggesting we have guest singers. I said ‘no way.’

Will there be another Magic Band reunion?

I don’t think so. I really don’t want there to be. One primary reason is that there is just no way to do that music justice when everyone lives so far apart. The second reason is that there’s really not much of a demand and so it’s a lot of work for almost no financial return – exactly like it was before.

Do you ever see other Magic Band members?

Yes, I like many of them and enjoy their company, but I’d say that I contact them more by phone and e-mail than actually face-to-face. I just spent time with John Thomas. I had a great day visiting with Mark Boston and drove him back to the airport last November after our Magic Band rehearsal for the ATP 10th Anniversary festival. Denny and I met up near my home so that I could give him a book. I will soon see Robert Williams. Gary sent me a very encouraging e-mail and said the book was ‘compelling reading.’ It’s all good.

Your latest solo album City of Refuge sounds more along the lines of the Magic Band than your previous releases.

I’ve always been influenced by what I was involved with. At the time I did the earlier releases, I was playing a lot of jazz, so there were more complex harmonic structures and accessibility as a result of that influence. Also, The Magic Band needed some new material to convince agents that we weren’t a ‘tribute band.’ I thought this material would fill the bill, but the band as a unit really didn’t want to do it. I think it was viewed as ‘John wants to be “the new Captain…”,’ but am not sure.

Were you consciously trying not to sound like Beefheart before (I know in the book with regards to Mallard you speak about finding your own voice)?

I would say ‘no, not consciously.’ It was more the influence of what I was doing at the time. I was singing a lot of jazz standards in a clearer voice and the development of that was totally natural, I suppose, in the same way that Van Vliet was influenced by the blues singers because of him constantly listening to them as a teen.

I was never actually a member of Mallard. When I sang with them, we called ourselves ‘The Magic Band’ and played small clubs in Northern California. This is the period to which you refer, and was 1974 as I recall. I was heavily involved in theatre at the time and was scheduled to go to SummerStock in Wisconsin with my instructor Sam Anderson (recognizable as the principal of the school in the movie Forrest Gump – with the line ‘your mother is a mighty persuasive woman’ – among his many roles).

So, I hadn’t sung in years. The Band guys remembered me from high school cover bands, where I sounded, if I may compare myself, like a baritone Stevie Winwood. Taking the saddle as singer with no real preparation was just not a good idea. We needed some time to develop as a group and have our own sound. Also, Bill seemed concerned that the harsh gutteral sounds of Van Vliet needed to be replaced with something similar. We disagreed on this point, and I was a little relieved when the group broke up. Sam Galpin had the voice, but was really more of a country singer in my estimation.

Mark Boston later approached Ian Anderson, who funded Mallard, but I had left the group at that point, and even though I was invited to return, the project was too rushed and I opted out.

Are you now of the rightful opinion that you were in actual fact responsible for much of the Beefheart ‘sound’ and therefore the Magic Band ‘sound’ is your voice?

I have always been of the opinion that The Magic Band sound was the culmination of Don’s influence combined with the resources of his players’ abilities, and was therefore more a conglomerate than a single vision of genius. I’m speaking musically – not lyrically. Although the ideas were Don’s, to varying degrees The Magic Band was always the uniting factor that made the music playable. Don’s most complete role as composer was on the Mirror Man/Strictly Personal albums, where most of the music and the arrangements were his ideas.

Referring to voice only, I did my best to emulate Don for The Magic Band reunion shows, as I felt that was appropriate to the occasion. City of Refuge was the result of me creating under the strong influence of what I was doing being the music of Van Vliet, so it was a natural that the music would be more inclined to that style. The concept became to shed ourselves of the title of ‘Tribute Band’ by having our own album, thereby becoming an entity unto ourselves.

However, there IS much of me in The Magic Band, as there is much of Bill, of Mark, of Jeff, of Art Tripp etc. The point being, our strongest roots are in that music, so when I returned to do the reunion shows, I was returning to my roots as much as anyone possibly could. I wasn’t a sideman, merely trained by Don, but a contributor to the sound and an artist who grew with it. In that respect, I do believe that it became ‘our voice.’

Do you have any plans for a new album?

City of Refuge was released a year and a half after originally promised due to problems with the economy which sent Proper reeling as other distributors closed down. The book was actually released 14 months after originally promised, first because of the economy, then due to the fact that Music Sales became involved and wanted both volumes as one book. The delays completely ruined all my momentum and left me dead in the water. While I was awaiting the release of City I wrote about thirty rough drafts of new material. I surely have enough for a new CD, but it’s doubtful that anyone would sign me, as no one bought the first one!

I love writing, and if there’s any way people can listen to the music I write without me having to deal with the insane nonsense that I’ve gone through in the past, I would be very happy to do that, through MP3s or whatever. The economy crashed at a very strategic time, and that is the cause of the latest dilemmas.

Do you ever listen to Beefheart for enjoyment?

Occasionally, but it’s seldom I actually listen any more as I basically can just flip a switch in my head and hear it.

Are you able to enjoy it?

I must say I REALLY enjoyed listening to it when I wrote the track notes for the book. This was actually what motivated me to do the Magic Band reunion.

I got the impression that you were a fan of Clear Spot. Is your enjoyment a result of not having played on it (and hence not having bad memories to go with it)?

There are many great moments on Clear Spot. I think that not having played on it makes it easier to enjoy, absolutely. There are definitely no bad memories to go with it and I thought things were better for the guys. I found out later that wasn’t the case.

Do you wish that you had the opportunity to play on it?

No. I enjoy Artie’s playing immensely.

Do you have a least favourite Beefheart record?

I don’t listen to the two ‘sellout’ albums – Unconditionally Guaranteed and Bluejeans and Moonbeams, so I don’t know about those, but I will say that certain cuts on The Spotlight Kid are songs I nearly always skip – especially the title cut. However, I love ‘Glider’, ‘Click Clack’, ‘Booglerize’ and several others – especially ‘Grow Fins’.

How difficult was it to play drums to a Beefheart composition? Was it ever appreciated?

The most difficult part for me is that I was usually never able to really practice and keep my chops up, so most of the recordings sound clumsy to me. Some of the material was extremely difficult just from a physical perspective – it demanded high energy. The Trout Mask stuff was high energy and total absorption. I would say, very difficult indeed. TMR was definitely challenging but quite rewarding also.

I think drummers who really listened appreciated it. Drummers who tried to play it REALLY appreciated it. Craig Bunch, the drummer who played The Magic Band ATP event in December, 2009 loves the stuff and really understands how difficult it was to learn first-hand.

You obviously spent a lot of time practicing. Does it ever bother you that these days acting and dressing like a rock star often takes precedent over actually being able to play?

Yes, it does bother me. It seems like the emphasis became ‘who has the most zippers, tattoos, or body piercings’ (depending on the era) and less about musicianship. The music hasn’t evolved as much as the image. I personally hate most of the ‘Rock’ image, and think it’s just a ridiculous over-emphasis on rebellion, sex and drugs. You can’t live a real life and hold up to that image, it just doesn’t work. It will either ruin you health, your family, or your mind. No one is capable of being worshipped without suffering consequences.

Can you hear your influence in other musicians?

I seldom listen to other musicians, but I’ve been told the influence is there by people who do.

Despite a lack of financial gain, exposure or recognition at the time, do you realise how significant your contributions to music actually are?

No. I live in a small town filled with ignorant narrow-minded people. Mostly, I am considered a guy who can’t hold a steady job. My family members (brothers etc.) tell me that I think I’m ‘too good to work.’ That’s humorous, in light of the fact that most of the time I’ve had to support myself doing really crap work, as Beefheart’s music and image never was exactly a money-maker. It’s hard for me to rise above that. Most of the time, I’m mired in a mudhole. The thing I regret most is watching my wife and daughter suffer financially because of my supposed ‘contribution to music’ which is really more of a dream in my mind than a reality.

Does your family find it cool? Or are you of the opinion that it is pretty impossible for a parent to be cool?

Actually, I think my daughter is quite proud of me. She has been very uplifting to me. When I played with my own band at the Jimmy Carl Black benefit here in Southern California, she sat in front, ecstatic. I’m really happy that occasionally she has had the chance to see the ‘true me’ as most of the time, she sees the struggling frustrated father trying to figure out how to keep the household running with such limited resources.

Judging from the photos in your book, the band always seemed to have wild hair and cool beards. Is facial hair essential in order to make good music?

Absolutely not, but it is a great way to hide a not-so-pretty face. Ha.
Buy the book on Amazon
Interview and review by Stephen Toman