This is an email interview with Rick Snyder, being done on an "as-he-has-time-for-it" basis. Rick played with Captain Beefheart and the Magic Band primarily as bassist for the "Ice Cream For Crow" album and corresponding tour. If you've seen the episode of "Saturday Night Live" where the Magic Band performs, he's the fellow in the red suit that jumps all over the place. Last I talked with him, he was playing in California with the Mystery Band, and a CD was on the way.
Any questions or text from me is in bold.
1. When did you first hear of Beefheart?
I first became aware of Captain Beefheart through the predictably good musical tastes of my older brother. He managed to pick up a copy of "Safe As Milk" at the time of it's original release (inner sleeve and bumper-sticker), but my 9 year old mind did not readily receive the music -- yet.
My next exposure to Don's music was through the unbridled enthusiasm of my dear friend Steve Rietta (aka Ace Farren Ford) with whom my association, once initiated in 1966, has continued to this present day. His fandom of Don and his music was total -- unusual, to say the least, of a lad of 11 short years of life. He regularly played "Trout Mask Replica", "Strictly Personal" and "Safe As Milk", but the first things to make an impression on my mind were the spoken parts (e.g., "A squid eating dough...", "...laser beans" and the like) and the a cappella segments (e.g., "Dust Blows.." and "Orange Claw Hammer"). I enjoyed hearing this strange music, but in this particular ocean of sound, I had neither the inner compass nor sextant required for such turbulent sonic seas -- and at such a tender age.
Steve (who by 1971 would come to refer to himself everafter as "Ace") occasionally would make tapes of various musical segments, comedy bits and spoken word -- not unlike the "free form" underground radio shows proliferate in that day and age -- and send them off to me for my pleasure and, may I say, education. One of these tapes contained "Woe-is-uh-Me-Bop" and "I'm Glad". Both caught my ear, but "Woe..." caught my fullest attention. This song would become the key that unlocked the first door of mystery behind which would lie the ability to hear and appreciate all of the rest of Don's music. I was permanently, incurably, hooked -- much to my father's wonderment.
Being a 12-year old kid without income, I scraped any and all finances musterable through allowances and chores and headed directly to any record store with any Beefheart to sell. I even got into the habit of buying several copies of the same record, just in case one of my "play" copies managed to acquire a pop, tick or scratch through repeated listens. "Lick My Decals..." became, to myself and a small circle of friends, the be-all and end-all of the possibilities of rock music -- the ultimate stencil that would be applied to some of our own musical endeavours as we plied our budding talents to instruments we had, at that time, yet to gain any degree of mastery over.
Each Christmas, Ace and I would exchange gifts. Reliably, we would give each other the latest Beefheart releases -- a ritualistic exchange that tightened the bonds of our friendship for years to come. Little did I know what role he would eventually come to play...
2. How did you come to join the Magic Band, and when?
A short story -- but I'll manage somehow to elongate it. Pardon my verbosity...
Ace and myself continued to explore music, both as fans and as musicians, albeit in a rather criss-cross manner. Ace's tastes tended to the most extreme avant-garde and obscure musical forms of musical expression available (Free jazz, delta blues and outre` rock) while mine swung a little further into relatively more traditional territories (Progressive rock, obscure singer-songwriters and psychedelia). Somewhere between those two tendencies we managed to find meeting points around which we would manage to unite our budding talents in various musical outlets, most notably a band that called itself ACE & DUCE.
The DUCE half of "ACE &" was Robert Pfaucht (pronounced "FOWT"), who also used the alias Zoot Horn Rebert da Pevert. It would be next to useless for me to declare that he too was a Beefheart enthusiast...but I would be negligent in my duty if I did not declare him another important influence in my musical gestation. Along with Roark Honeycutt (a classically trained guitarist who could read and play anything), Dennis Duck (on drums, naturally) and myself on bass and occasional marimba, Ace & Duce themselves would man all manner of horns, particularly soprano, alto and tenor saxes and musettes (the Beefheart influence *again* on the very choice of their implements of musical destruction!).
ACE & DUCE, as a force to be reckoned with, was short-lived and indisciplined. However, in the shows that we *did* manage to play, we worked in versions of "Sugar & Spikes", "Click Clack" and "Alice In Blunderland" into our set of Free jazz workouts and Beefheart-inspired originals.
With their demise, I continued to work out the guitar and bass parts of Don's mysterious and magical compositions by ear -- not to mention by repetition and grim determination. I only hoped to be able to take his musical puzzles apart and piece them back together -- very little more ambition was there to this exercise. In the meantime, I played bass in a late '70s power-pop outfit called "The Shake Shakes", hitting clubs from Pasadena to Santa Monica and managing to gain a very small but reassuring degree of notoriety in the process, but no money to speak of. I managed to keep the bills paid by working as a "Psychiatric Nursing Assistant", still keeping an eye on a potential career in Psychology, having acquired a B.A. therein.
One day, Ace, who had by now managed the occasional phone call from Don over the years, told me that Don was auditioning guitar players for his "Doc At The Radar Station" tour, as John French was declining to participate in touring. Waves of fear overcame me as Ace told me that he had suggested to Don that he consider me as a suitable replacement. Ace gave me the necessary reassurances and infected me with the requisite enthusiasm to get me to agree to speak with Jeff Moris Tepper about a "first audition".
While "at work" at the hospital, the nurse in charge of our unit allowed me to practice my guitar on hospital time in order to hone my parts into perfection. She and my co-workers covered all my work for me while I had several hours a day of "salaried" practice time. She was an angel to be so generous with the hospital's time and money. A most incredible set of "circumstances", indeed...
I met Jeff at his house, and after a brief bit of polite conversation, I played my "assignment" for him. The audition pieces were, if I remember correctly, "My Human Gets Me Blues", "Nowadays A Woman's Gotta Hit A Man" and "Dirty Blue Gene", playing the assigned "part" by myself. I expected very little from this meeting, but was called back for the "second audition", this time *with* the band and with Don in attendance to oversee the final selection process. The other "finalists" were Eric Williams (a friend of Robert Williams -- no relation -- who would later appear on Robert's solo recordings as well as ply his trade as a session guitarist regularly) and Peter Bilt (former guitarist with Pearl Harbor and The Explosions). In my mind, the other two guitarists had it over myself in terms of sheer technique -- after all, I *was* primarily a bassist by choice and self-definition! I soldiered through and gave the audition my best shot, hoping that I might at least be able to fall into reveries everafter recalling my sure-to-be-brief moment as a part of The Magic Band.
After the audition was over, I somehow felt that, if all else was to fail, I must play the humblest card that I had at my disposal -- to offer my services as a roadie for the impending tour. Don chortled, in a friendly way, at this offer -- and thanked me for playing for him that day, assuring me that I had done much better than I felt that I had.
A few weeks passed by. "Well -- that's it", I thought. No tour -- either as a member of the band or as a roadie. Shortly therafter I received a phone call from Don himself and we had a few minutes of casual conversation (at least, one as casual as I *could* have with Don). At some point during the phone call, I worked up the nerve to ask him who had gotten the position with the band. In words that would swirl my brain into gelatin, he said, "Don't you know? You did!"
I quit "The Shake Shakes", I quit my job. This was where I wanted to spend the rest of my musical life. It was 1980 -- I was 22 years old and happier than (fill the blank)...
3. Which albums and tours did you perform on?
Well, the real question -- unfortunately -- is what *album* and *tour*, without the plural "s".
Chronologically, the tour came first. As I mentioned previously, John French had played guitar on "Doc.." and as he was not too keen on touring, I entered the fold as his replacement. After the tour, we took a break, hired Cliff Martinez as the new drummer, added our manager Gary Lucas as guitarist and put me back on bass (where I really wanted to be *anyway* -- thank you, Eric, for being too busy with Snakefinger at the time...) and began rehearsals for "Ice Cream For Crow" (hithertofore to be known as "ICFC" for the sake of expediency), the last Beefheart album.
4. The following is a list of some common bootlegs that you may have performed on - Could you share any interesting tales about each show, if there are any?
*Showbox, Seattle, 1/15/81 - Don's Birthday Party* I don't remember any specific details about that show, outside of enjoying that show quite a lot (especially the venue) -- and enjoying the Seattle area in general. Before the show that night, Robert Williams and myself took a sojourn to one of the strip joints near the Showbox that night -- a rather strange place where one would deposit a token into a coin slot, whereby a window shade of sorts would raise up for a specific period of time before closing again, revealing a brief window-view to a room wherein several extremely disinterested nude girl dancers moved about most unprovocatively to decidedly bad dance music, as if to dare you to be stimulated by them. This unusual "Skinner Box", where the patrons' conditioned behavior of depositing coins into a slot for an intrinsically motivating reward of a brief glimpse of nudity, however poorly parlayed by the dancers, was a remarkable glimpse into man's unfathomable and inexplicable value system. It was fun, on an intellectual *and* glandular level. Ah, the folly of youth...
*The Country Club, 1/29/81 - Best Batch Yet*
This was as close as we got to a home field advantage on the tour, as
both Eric and Jeff were denizens of the immediate area. Lots of families and
friends -- much distraction, but a feeling of "We just can't go wrong here!"
Best moment: when Denny Walley came onstage to perform "China Pig" with
Don, I ventured out into the audience to sit at a table and just enjoy that old
feeling of being just a fan of Don's. Some took note of my presence, but nobody
even bothered to talk to me while I sat enrapt with the proceedings, as if they
knew that this was a moment that I was savoring. Or -- they could have given a
proverbial rat's backside. Out of ego preservation, I choose to opt for the
*Golden Bear, Huntington Beach, California, 2/18/81 - Easy Teeth* Being the last shows, we were about as tight as we were ever gonna be. Don even introduced songs in the last night's last set that hadn't been performed *anywhere* else on the *entire* tour -- recordings of which I've yet to see surface, but for which I yearn to be reacquainted. My wife-to-be (and who still is, thank you) was my constant companion for these shows, making them even more fun to look back upon. Side note: "Easy Teeth" was Don's nickname for our ready-and-able road manager, Paul Young -- a man with a perpetual smile and a great organizational sense.
*The Paradiso, Amsterdam 11/1/80 - Flavor Bud Living*
I remember that this show was being taped for a radio broadcast, so I
imagine that the recordings for this show were of a better quality than the
5. Are there any other interesting stories about touring that you have?
Hoo-boy! Maybe too many to mention (and too many that would get too personal -- and would serve to alienate me even further from that particular social circle, however dormant it may be), but -- once we were in Bellingham, Washington (at what was probably the very best Holiday Inn on the planet), and several of us were hanging about in Don's room late in the evening. Don's legendary insomnia came to the fore, as Don saw Jeff napping in a chair nearby and, placing his face within mere inches of Jeff's, made a remarkable vocal sound that could easily rival the volume and intensity of a foghorn, arousing Jeff from his nap. Don said something to the effect of, "You can't fall asleep -- I'm still awake!".
Another unusual interaction occurred while Don and I were sitting together in a hallway alcove in our Liverpool, England accomodations. Don began to introduce me to a pair of fire extinguishers (one larger, one smaller) and a fire alarm bell that were attached to the wall as if they were old friends of his that he wished to acquaint me with, calling them by their respective names, "Pyrene, Pyrene Junior...and Bell!", always with a little pause before announcing "and Bell" as if to indicate its primacy. The surreal nature of this life moment shall never leave me, and I *do* appreciate it.
While we were in New York, Don was being interviewed by some magazine on the night that John Lennon was killed. At one point during the interview, Don stopped speaking, closed his eyes and then opened them again, saying to the interviewer: "Something big is happening tonight -- something horrible. You'll read about it in your papers tomorrow." Knowing full well that the doubting Thomases among you will say, "Ah, yes -- but he wasn't specific about the event. The way the world is, you could say something like that *any* day and still be right more time than not". Nevertheless, it was the strangest coincidence -- if indeed, that was *all* it was.
Before going too much further down this path, I must tell of the time that Don summoned all of us from our rooms and took us to a big ice machine in the hallway of our hotel, only to show us, with the enthusiasm of a pirate plundering a great treasure, his great delight at having found "DIAMONDS!" -- all the while digging his hands into the ice and letting the cubes fall from his hands back into the bin and continuing to intone, "DIAMONDS!". It was a delightful moment -- further proof of Don's playfulness in all life-matters, however small.
6. What was it like working with Don? Is he that hard to get along with?
In the fewest words, "great" and "no", respectively. He admittedly presents a challenge to any rock-bred musician who generally perceives music as having a specific time signature or key center which, once established, remains so for the duration of that particular song. Loving his music as I did, I accepted any unusual musical instruction I was given and for the most part, I was eager to please him in other ways as well (specifically, in welcoming a "nickname" as the others were reluctant to take, and allowing him to fashion the stage clothing that I wore for the duration of the tour, the album cover photo and the video of "ICFC").
His lack of formal musical training was his own enemy and his greatest asset. It was his nemesis insofar as it presented him with little or no vocabluary with which to communicate to musicians on their terms (e.g., at one time he instructed the drummer, Cliff, to play a beat that he had just given him "as if [he] was juggling a plate full of B.B.'s". Don really meant for him to play it in free time, without concern to making the downbeats of the phrase occur at regular intervals -- but he couldn't say it that way!). At no time could Don request of any of us that we play a specific note by name (e.g., "play an E flat there") -- he would instead whistle it, play it on a harmonica or, in a fit of exasperation, grab the neck of your instrument and percussively hit the fretboard with his hands in search of the note he was looking for. He frequently assumed the responsibility for any difficulty we were having, apologizing for not being able to tell us, in musical terms, what he was asking us to do.
Armed, as it were, with a distinct lack of musical convention or vocabulary, Don was conversely able to create some of the most remarkable artistic "compositions" (he never called them "songs"), as if the noises made by our instruments were little more than colors to be applied to a canvas of air -- nothing more, nothing less.
In fact, the only time that we had an outright disagreement was when he instructed me to cut my hair (which I was quite fond of at the time), stating that if I insisted on keeping it long that I would not be allowed on either the album cover shot *or* the video, saying that I looked like "somebody's old aunt" with hair of such length. I eventually yielded, but not without a certain amount of grief on my part. A small price to pay...
7. How did you find out about his retirement from music? Ohhh -- almost by complete accident. No great announcement was *ever* made -- in fact, very little communication followed the release of "ICFC" from Don or his management for several months, but I was fully under the impression that we *would* be going on the road again to promote the album -- eventually.
Well, *eventually* I received a phone call from Gary Lucas, I believe -- informing me that no plans were going to be made for a tour and that Don was, in effect, retiring from the music business.
The part-time job that I had taken in the interim was soon to become full-time...
8. Would you rejoin the band if it ever came back together?
Hmmm...a tough one, that. I participated in two unique incarnations of the band.
The band that *toured* (with Robert Williams on drums) never got a chance to record as a unit, which was unfortunate, since the volatile chemistry and musical mastery that we had come to achieve by the *end* of the tour was never adequately preserved in a representative recording -- which I have always regretted.
Equally unfortunately, the "ICFC" band (with Cliff Martinez on drums, Gary Lucas on guitar and myself switching to my beloved bass duties) weren't able to achieve the same chemistry and/or intensity due to the relatively short preparation/acclimation time before and during the recording of that album. This band never really had the chance to prove itself or live up to its full potential.
There are probably a few too many "if only"s and "what if"s to be able to answer that question confidently, but with Don firmly in retirement, the answer would have to be no. I know you understand what I mean.
9. Have you analyzed the music you played in the Magic Band? What did you think? (Be plenty scholarly, here.) Also, contrast if possible the way you looked at the music growing up vs. once you joined the band.
I must admit that I never have tried to analyze Don's music -- at least in the same ways that one might analyze classical passages or works (e.g., in terms of motivic transformation, rhythmic/melodic variation, modulation, overall harmonic structure, etc.) -- and I suppose I've never thought about why I hadn't. Perhaps the answer could be thus: Don, at this best, has written music that defied all previously established conventions. I can't imagine *anyone* being able to explicate, in either a convincing *or* a sufficiently interesting manner, just what the hell is *really* going on in a piece such as "Frownland" or "Japan In A Dishpan" -- at least by using the language of conventional music theory.
Don may have said it best (and he said it regularly): "You've had too much to think!" Any time that we looked like we were in *danger* of understanding his music on anything other than a playful or visceral level, Don would stop us dead in our tracks and redirect our attention with anything at his disposal that would serve to get us out of our *thinking* about the music and into *feeling* it, including inventing new parts for us to learn -- only to dispose of them later. If Don hated anything, he hated the sound of refinement in our performance, as though it resulted from our having gone into an unfeeling, automatic state.
On a few occasions I caught myself questioning some of his choices for my basslines during the "ICFC" rehearsals, especially if they seemed to harmonically conflict with the guitars. In every instance, however, his opinion was *all* that mattered -- and after a while you became conditioned to what can perhaps best be defined as a state of "ego loss": a total surrender of one's musical will.
As far as how my viewpoint of music was altered by joining the Magic Band, I suppose I'll invite disbelief by saying "not very much". Music, as it is traditionally understood and practiced, exists on a plane that has no intersection with Don's brand of "noteplay", and may actually be better analyzed using "artistic" concepts; especially those that might be used to describe not only the work of the "action painters" that he admired (especially Willem De Kooning) and the "impasto" technique that they regularly employed, but also the work of the "dadaistic" school and its effect on Don (or, to paraphrase Tristan Tzara, "Anti-music for anti-music's sake").
10. What's your favorite Beefheart song to play? To hear?
My favorite Beefheart "composition" to play was "Brick Bats", as it seemed to require more of a sense of ESP than a sense of timing to get through the arrhythmic middle section, sandwiched as it was between some of the most beautiful counterpoint written for a bass and two guitars.
One song that I've never played, however, is probably the one that is my favorite to hear: "Frownland". I defy *anyone* to find a more intense and challenging chunk of musical thought -- that clocks in at well under two minutes! Only by the daily rigor of long hours of practice could such a moment be accomplished by human beings -- and this is the one that Don chose to *open* Trout Mask Replica with. Can there be any single greater act of defiance, musical or otherwise?