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Zoot Horn Rollo

In April I went to see the Magic Band play in London. It was great fun and I emphasize the word FUN.
The original plan for the reunion was to get together the band that made the Trout Mask Replica LP. There was never any question of Don Van Vliet (aka Captain Beefheart – for a quick glossary of Magic Band pseudonyms click HERE) himself being involved. If you saw the Anton Corbijn film Some Yo Yo Stuff on the BBC a few years back you’ll know that Van Vliet concentrates now on his career as a fine artist and lives as a virtual recluse. His voice is also nearly gone due to an undisclosed long term illness (rumoured to be Multiple Sclerosis) and so even basic speech is slow and painful judging from the film which dates back to 1994.

So John “Drumbo” French on drums became the project leader. Mark “Rockette Morton” Boston was tracked down and resumed his bass role. Jeff “Antennae Jimmy Semens” Cotton declined the invite (he lives a modest life in Hawaii according to internet fan sites) and so Gary “Mantis” Lucas from the late 1980-82 era band was drafted as a replacement. The other guitar role was filled by long time Beefheart associate Denny “Fingers Reebo” Whalley who played on the original, unreleased version of the Bat Chain Puller LP.

Conspicuous by his absence was Bill “Zoot Horn Rollo” Harkleroad.

Zoot at the Royal Albert Hall, 1972

Bill played guitar on Trout Mask Replica (having come in to the band just before rehearsals began as a replacement for Alex Snouffer), Lick My Decals Off Baby, The Spotlight Kid, Clear Spot and Unconditionally Guaranteed. He was the first name on my list of favourite guitar players for a piece I wrote for Diskant in August 02 and I know a lot of people who feel the same.

For someone whose involvement was so central in a music that has often been talked about and analyzed, it seems to me that the opportunity to talk about his view of the time he spent in the Magic Band has not really presented itself to Bill, even when it maybe should have done so.

The BBC documentary The Artist Formerly Known As Captain Beefheart featured many Magic Band members but again Bill was notable only by his lack of involvement and the same could be said for Mark Boston, whereas Jimmy Carl Black whose involvement was miniscule in comparison seemed to get a starring role (Black played percussion for a brief while in the 1970s after Bill had left the band). As an aside, it seems like the BBC is making a second part to the film as they filmed the reunion shows. Let’s hope they take the time to talk to Bill this time round, not to mention Art Tripp or Elliot Ingber or Jeff Cotton.

When I first started doing a fanzine in about 1995 I tried to get an interview with Bill to fill a hole in my own fascination with the Magic Band. I was politely turned down. I tried again in the event of all this Magic Band activity and this time he said yes. In fact he said “sure”.

I caught up with him via email earlier this year while he was in his studio at home working on music in between teaching guitar and improving his golf handicap. I conducted this interview via email so I have written this piece in a mixture of past tense and actual question/answer formats. Sorry if it becomes confusing but the actual email was very long and I wanted to put some kind of chronological order on this, hence the dropping in and out of interview mode and the addition of after thoughts on my part.

First of all, I wanted to know the reasons for the gaping Zoot shaped hole in the BBC documentary that led me to this interview in the first place

“They were going to come to my home to interview me but they said they ran out of money. It was strange for me also that Jimmy Carl Black was so prominent, although he did say nice things.”

This kind of shoulder-shrugging relaxed answer is something Bill seems to specialize in.

Take the recent reunion as a prime example. It’s natural for anyone who has invested a large amount of effort and time in something to want to feel acknowledged for that effort – especially if that acknowledgement has not been forthcoming or has been attributed to the wrong people. Why else would the current Magic Band reunion be taking place? The idea of a Beefheart-less reunion seems to have some very appealing by-products for those involved. One of the main problems for Magic Band members over the years has been the lack of credit given out for their own roles in writing the songs. A reunion would bring attention to the players and increase their own personal ownership of the music they worked so hard on, so it seemed odd to me that Bill apparently chose not to be involved.

“Did you have any involvement in the recent Magic Band reformation?”

“First, as far as I know the band isn’t reforming but just a get together for a couple of shows. I was involved, and it took a lot of time and energy to learn the material and go through the business stuff. So when the first incarnation of the reunion fell apart (there was an earlier plan to reform the band prior to the ATP event and according to interviews with John French they got to the rehearsal stage with Bill involved but the financial backing fell through and it disbanded) I knew I couldn’t spend that much time and energy again away from what I’m doing”

Although I think he’d never say as much it seems to me (from his book and doing this brief interview) that Bill has dealt with his past in the best possible way – by not mixing it up with the present. That’s not to say that Bill has been totally dismissive of his past; he wrote a book about his time in the Magic Band called Lunar Notes. Rock journalists have offered more complex assessments of the Magic Band and the way the music was made but no one has managed to convey the frustrations and overwhelming bizarreness of the time quite as directly as Bill.

Even someone who is unaware of the history of the band can see something huge brewing through Lunar Notes. If it’s read as a story you can guess the ending almost immediately. Beefheart was notoriously harsh on his musicians taking credit for 100% of the music. In the BBC documentary mentioned above, Beefheart delivers this quote from a radio interview

“I play the guitar. Don’t you think Stravinski would be annoyed if someone bent a note the wrong way?”

From this it was always my assumption that no one in the Magic Band ever received a percentage share of the publishing (writing) money from the songs and Bill confirms this

“Never did, except Grow Fins. Fahey and Blackwood paid at least the original Trout Mask Replica players.”

(Grow Fins was the 5CD box set issued on John Fahey and Dean Blackwood’s Revenant label a few years back, collecting the original recordings Zappa made at the house for Trout Mask with live bootlegs and radio oddities. It’s fantastic).

Zoot at the Collisseum, Athens, April 1972

“Was there one specific event that led to your departure from the Magic Band as the general feeling that something was not right seemed to have been in place from the very beginning?”

“You are kidding right! No way to answer that…way too many reasons…but in short: being ripped off, abused, constantly lied to…and on and on. A well adjusted person would have left in ten minutes.”

”A note about the Stravinski statement. Bullshit!”

“When did you join the Magic Band? I understand it was before Trout Mask in which case wasn’t it a bit weird to suddenly be in a band and be locked in a house eating poorly learning a record that you knew yourself would not sell? Did you know the direction the music was going to go in before you joined?”

“I joined in June 1968, just before Strictly Personal. Believe me it was weird, but not because I knew Trout Mask Replica wouldn’t sell. It was over a long period that that record would evolve. It was only after we played live that it became obvious that screaming groupies were out of the question. As far as the direction, we were going to record Strictly Personal so I was playing that material which was strong and reasonably accessible. Veterans Day Poppy, Moonlight on Vermont, and Sugar n’ Spikes were all to be included.”

The Magic Band in the garden to their rented house on Entrada Drive in Woodland Hills where they wrote and rehearsed Trout Mask Replica. L-R – Bill Harkleroad, John French, Don Van Vliet, Mark Boston, Jeff Cotton

However, Strictly Personal as we know it was already recorded with the guitar pairing of Jeff Cotton and Alex St Claire. Beefheart was unhappy with the initial Strictly Personal and when Bill joined the intention was to re-record the album with new songs included. However, the album ended up coming out in its original form, apparently without the bands knowledge. Beefheart’s own knowledge of this has been debated since, he claims to have known nothing about the impending release though others have suggested that maybe he was playing the general after the war and had decided he didn’t like the LP after the critics questioned the “psychedelic” production. Again, Mike Barnes’ comprehensive biography offers great in-depth insight into this period. The songs mentioned by Bill above were shelved (they later came out as part of Trout Mask). The band moved into the now famous group house in Woodland Hills to write and practice Trout Mask. Solidly. For months on end.

“Did any of you have wives or partners to see during that time or just regular stuff to do? I find it hard to believe you were in that house 24 hours a day rehearsing (though at the same time when I listen to that album it seems completely believable). Surely at one point or another you all must have thought “That’s it, this guy is mental! I’m leaving!”?”

“The Trout Mask Replica band was all single at that time, and we did stay and rehearse constantly in that house. All of us went through extreme depravation and at different individual points wanted and did leave the band. I can’t remember how many times John French left and rejoined the band.”

The music suddenly changed direction too. Bill told me a little about the music that made him want to learn to play the guitar

“The Ventures and various surf bands were the first influences. Then very quickly it became the blues players and of course the Beatles etc.”

“If someone were to sound similar to the Trout Mask era Magic Band now the influences would be relatively easy to pinpoint because of the wealth of leftfield rock music but at the time it’s harder for me to pin down where you were getting the sound from. I guess I’m trying to say that you guys invented a lot of what passes as avant-garde or leftfield music nowadays. It’s impossible to escape the comparison to the Magic Band if you make any guitar based music that is slightly off-centre. My guess with you guys is that it came from a mix of early blues artists and the growing free jazz scene with people like Ornette Coleman and John Coltrane branching out into looser, structure-less forms but I’m keen to know how you see it…”

“You nailed the core, but you need to throw in the beat generations “art attitude”. Don Vliet had quite a pocket full of creative things he was fond of.”

“Do you think it’s the case that the album is so interesting purely because it has to be the only
case of a very able band trusting someone who is (to a certain extent) a non-musician
to tell them what to play? Almost like it’s an experiment? Normally egos are involved with musicians but from your book it seems like you were willing to trust Don 100% even though sometimes what you were playing or trying to play didn’t make sense. In most cases if this occurs then the musicians will over ride the request and pretty much play what they want.”

” Yes… but trusting isn’t the correct word and we did change things to make them playable but in keeping with what the setting was.”

Magic Band, October 1969, Amougies Festival, Belgium.
L-R – Bill Harkleroad, Don Van Vliet, Mark Boston, Jeff Burchell (often known as the “Imposter Drumbo” – he was a roadie who replaced John French for this one gig), Victor Hayden

Part of the weirdness of Trout Mask can also be attributed to the sound of the record. The record was slated to be released on Straight Records, the label owned by Van Vliet’s childhood friend Frank Zappa. It was Zappa who was in charge of recording the album and originally did so using mobile recording gear in the house in Woodland Hills. Some of the recordings made it onto the album (Hair Pie Bake 1 for example where you can hear kids interrupt the recording at the end) but Van Vliet wanted to re-record in a proper studio. Bill speculates in his book that Van Vliet may have felt Zappa was shortchanging him and trying to record on the cheap. The peculiar sonic feel comes from the band employing quirks in the studio that came from the house such as covering the cymbals in cardboard to deaden the sound (a necessity in the house because of complaints from neighbours).

Another quirk is the slightly out-of-synch feel of Van Vliet’s vocals (listen to the last line of Moonlight On Vermont as there is a definite place where he should sing it but it seems to come in early). I mentioned these things to Bill;

“This is close to what my take is. The cardboard was on the drums for a while before the studio, Frank stayed pretty much out of the picture (a nice thing on his part) and as far as the vocals…. half deliberate and half paranoia on Don’s part”

One of the strangest and hardest things about playing music is that, personally, I find it really hard to talk about the music I make. People ask a lot because there’s a genuine curiosity when people find out you make music. I find myself embarrassed because I know I may believe in what I do one hundred percent but I also know the person I’m talking to might not have any idea what it’s about or my motives for being involved if they are anything other than fame.

“I was wondering how your parents felt about you joining the Magic Band and whether they understood what you were doing? Did you play them the music you made and what was their reaction?”

“I talked about this in the book because it was a stretch for my parents to play the neighbors Trout Mask Replica and try to find some pride in it. I don’t remember being embarrassed, just very aware that almost everybody wouldn’t get any part of what was happening. I believe my parents were happy that I wasn’t on my way to Viet Nam and had stopped smoking pot and taking acid.”

“How much time went between Trout Mask Replica and Lick My Decals Off, Baby?”

”I think just one year.”

Magic Band before making Lick My Decals Off, Baby.
L-R – Art Tripp, Mark Boston, Don Van Vliet, Bill Harkleroad (John French would rejoin for the recordings)

”Lick My Decals Off seems just as far-out as Trout Mask but I can’t believe you guys went back to the house and did the same again, I’m guessing you had the formula and technique down for that particular style and Lick My Decals Off was easier to make? It often gets overlooked because it isn’t readily available but that record really is astounding.”

”It seemed to me to be the next logical step. For me I was much further into Decals because I did so much of the deciphering. I won’t call it arranging but it comes pretty close. I was very close to all the parts on that album. If the album was easier to make I think it was because our playing and retention was getting better, not a formula because things were done in so many different ways”

One of the key differences between Lick My Decals Off and its predecessor was the absence of Jeff Cotton but with no one to replace him on guitar. For the first time, Bill was the lone guitarist in the Magic Band. Jeff’s replacement (of sorts) was Art Tripp who added the distinctive sound of the marimba to the album as well as doubling up percussion in live shows of the era. From his book and the sounds of the records that followed it seems that Lick My Decals Off marked the beginning of a steady increase in input on Bills part into the arranging and deciphering of Don’s musical ideas. This came to a peak between the 2 albums that followed Lick My Decals Off The Spotlight Kid and Clear Spot, often due to the absence of John French who left prior to Decals (he returned for the recording) and again after The Spotlight Kid.

“To my ears at least the later stuff you did like Clear Spot seems to be based more in a guitar riff rather than a series of notes. It’s almost like you had to do Trout Mask to “unlearn” rock and blues then when you came back to playing more traditional structures you were all the more focused for coming at it from a new angle. The parts on Trout Mask seem to be note based and I remember seeing John French talk about making that record and him assigning parts to each player. Were the later records more of a band effort in this case?”

“I think the first statement is pretty accurate, Decals was done like Trout Mask but I did the work of learning and changing the parts to be finished up by Don. I don’t think the later records were a band effort it is just that the piano went away and Don used what we were playing a lot more. A big chunk of Clear Spot was based on guitar things I was playing and then expanded into the tunes by Don.”

“Do you think taking over from John French as the “transcriber” of the band was the reason that some of the guitar parts are more prominent on the later records?”

“If indeed my parts are more prominent it was more a function of each situation. On Decals I was the only guitar except for overdubs. Later as Roy (Estrada aka Orejon) was playing bass Mark (Boston aka Rockette Morton) played guitar so my parts might have been put into a stronger position.”

Magic Band on a set at the Warner Bros Studios, Hollywood from the photo shoot for the cover of Lick My Decals Off, Baby.
L-R – Art Tripp, Bill Harkleroad, John French, Don Van Vliet, Mark Boston

To say Bill’s guitar parts are strong is something of an understatement. Bill’s playing rules.

If you name any semi famous or “recognised” guitar player there will be a wealth of information about him or her on the internet. Bill is a mysterious exception. There are plenty of admirers – Mojo put Trout Mask in the Top 100 Greatest Guitar Albums Of All Time and even named the famous

“Mr Zoot Horn Rollo – hit that long lunar note and let it float”

slide guitar moment on Big Eyed Beans From Venus as the 5th best “Guitar Moment” of all time. But written music or tablature is at a minimum, probably because of the sheer difficulty of working it out. Ditto for pictures or info from the time showing the gear Bill used to get these amazing sounds.

I guess I am excusing myself for asking the next question which is geeky to the extreme. If you don’t play guitar you may want to go and get a drink and maybe something to eat…

“What equipment were you using throughout the Magic Band era? I know you had that cool Fender Telecaster with all the modifications (what were they?) but I’ve also seen films of you playing a red Gibson.”

“The Tele had an old Gretsch pickup installed, separate volume and tone controls for both pickups, an out of phase switch (terrible sounding thing) but at the time cool. The Gibson was an ES 330 (shown in the larger live photos in this piece; you can see the sound holes are taped up to stop it feeding back), before that on Decals I used a (Gibson) ES 125 (shown in the Decals era photo with the band in tuxedos).”

“Did you use any FX pedals etc?”

“No FX pedals. Terrible amps… (Fender) Dual Showmans, Ampeg VT22? Acoustic six tens, a custom amp named Godzilla or something. To me this is the weakest part of that time, little Fenders would have been soooo much better. Keep in mind I didn’t choose the amps.”

“I remember in your book you spoke of losing the Telecaster and other gear in New York to a cab driver on the way to Ornette Coleman’s place – whaaaat? How did you manage that?”

“As we stepped out of the cab at Ornette’s house he just drove off with the gear. The Tele didn’t bother me as much as the Strat that had a serial number of 2045 or close. The next day I bought the Tele that I still use 32 years later”

“Have you ever thought about checking EBay on the net in case it ever comes up for auction?”

“Ebay? I don’t think any body would give a shit about my old guitar!”

“What are you playing these days?”

“The Tele is still the guitar I put the most time in. At least a couple hours a day. I have a pieced together Strat with a midi pickup, a (Gibson) ES 175, a Danelectro Seal, Jerry Jones Baritone, a Breedlove acoustic, and a Hernandes classical.”

Amsterdam, Holland, April 1972
(photo by Tom Damman)

Following Clear Spot, which seems to have been a high point for all concerned, Van Vliet got involved in some complicated business deals which clouded the making of the follow up and seemed to weaken the enthusiasm of everyone involved by the time the recording sessions came round. Unconditionally Guaranteed proved to be the last album made with members of the Trout Mask era band – except John French who would play a huge part in the first unreleased Bat Chain Puller record and the later Doc At The Radar Station. After Unconditionally Guaranteed the band simply walked out on Van Vliet who promptly replaced them with a pick up band (dubbed The Tragic Band by many Beefheart fans) for an upcoming tour. Bluejeans And Moonbeams followed with a similarly half strength band and Beefheart retreated from music until something of a resurgence in his creativity with the 3 albums Shiny Beast (Bat Chain Puller) (the bracketed section referring to the previously mentioned first version of this album which remains unreleased except in bootleg form), Doc At The Radar Station and Ice Cream For Crow in the late 70s through to the early 80s.

“Am I right in thinking a lot of the later stuff (after Bill had left the band) was written back in the late 60s/early 70s when you were a part of things?”

”Yes but I had no effect on that.”

The best reference point for this is in the foreword to Bill’s book, written by long time Beefheart fan Henry Kaiser. Bill talks in his book about recording jams and rehearsal ideas throughout the Magic Band. Kaiser had the enviable task of trawling the tapes of these rough ideas in the Warner Brothers vaults on behalf of Van Vliet to look for material for the later Magic Band to use. He confirms that Harry Irene, Ice Cream For Crow (originally titled Drink Paint Run Run) and Best Batch Yet (among many others) that were recorded by the later Magic Band actually come from tapes made by the Spotlight Kid era band with Bill.

“Did you get any offers to join other bands after you left the Magic Band in the 70s? I remember reading somewhere that you were working with the band Mercury Rev back at the start of the 90s – it’s possible I imagined this…”

“Yes you imagined it. I got a few calls but mostly from spin-offs, and I was really working at becoming a better player and I didn’t want to do the same ol’ thing.”

The core of the Magic Band as it was at the time of Unconditonally Guaranteed decided to continue on as a unit and after discovering Van Vliet not only owned the rights to the name The Magic Band but also to their individual pseudonyms they decided to regroup under the name Mallard. The original line up was Bill together with Mark Boston, Art Tripp, John French on vocals and original Beefheart guitarist Alex St Claire (who had rejoined the Magic Band for Unconditionally Guaranteed). John French was responsible for a lot of the first Mallard LP according to Bills book though he (and St Claire) had left before it was recorded. The impression given by Bill is that after the Beefheart experience he really didn’t have the drive to make Mallard work as well as it could have done, despite them being seriously under rated even now.

“Mallard for me was the idea that I had to stay with music because I had no other way of supporting myself. Mark put a lot of effort into it but I had to be “the guy” and I was worn out. Too bad, but musically I was getting different and need to grow on my own.

Being 28 years ago that the Mallard thing happened, my life has been in quite a few directions. I’ll just say that I have always played and taught since that time. Also I got a lot happier being out of the music business, the way I’m doing it now is from an UN-connected stance.”

“Do you ever let your guitar students know your background or do you find it hampers things? I expect you get people wanting to learn from you because of the Beefheart link and I can imagine that’s hard to do. I think if I had spent that much time playing those songs I would want to change my style drastically and not really play that way again. Do you feel the same way?”

“It really does hamper things, and I have had to send a couple of people away because they were not into learning guitar but being important. I am a very different player but not out of needing to get away from anything. It is just an evolution as a person and player. I guess if I was to be proud of something it would be that after all of this time (41 years of playing) I have been in constant motion. I believe I have a voice, certainly not with the players of great facility, but a voice.”

“Tell us about the solo record We Saw A Bozo Under The Sea and what we should expect…”

“Well I guess you haven’t heard it. It’s old now and I’m onto the next one. As far as what to expect….it’s never very comfortable to explain music. Bozo was a collection of little sonic movies of important people in my life, some of which are gone. People have called it jazz but I would never call it that, I still think of myself as a blues player with A.D.D. (Attention Deficit Disorder).”

“What are you into these days?”


….but you meant music. Thru the drummer Gregg Bendian on Bozo I’ve been turned onto some really good free players, Nels Cline and Gregg in particular. But mostly modern classical. Not a lot of different stuff, Bartok etc. but things that I’m studying.”

“So, do you have a favourite Beefheart record?”

”It has always been changing but it is always (between) Trout Mask Replica, Lick My Decals Off, Baby and Clear Spot.”

“Are you or any of the other Magic Band guys surprised at the lasting effect the music you made has had?”

”Speaking for myself yes and no. Yes because of being so close you know the dirty little secrets that bring down your feeling for things you are a part of. With distance and looking at it as if it was someone else, it doesn’t surprise me.

Good or bad there is nothing like it.”

* * *

Many thanks to Bill for taking time to do this and also to Teejo from Holland who runs the Beefheart fan site
http://come.to/beefheart for the use of the rare photos in the piece.

www.zoothornrollo.com – Bill’s own site where you can buy his solo album online
www.beefheart.com – comprehensive Beefheart fan site where a lot of the info for this piece came from.
A discography for Bill
Info for Mallard
The reunion and its different stages
Don Van Vliet’s 10 steps to playing guitar
www.beefheart.de – this is being rebuilt but it’s the most in depth site available
Info on the Grow Fins box set mentioned

The books mentioned here are:

LUNAR NOTES – Bill Harkleroad with Bill James
SAF Publishing Ltd 1998

Quartet Books 2000