Dropout Boogie

By Miles

Mojo, December 1993

When Captain Beefheart recorded his vocal for Zappas Willie The Pimp at the Hot Rats sessions, Miles was there.

It was 2am, September 1969, and I was having o cup of styrofoam coffee with Don Van Vliet in the 24-hour automated snack-bar of TT&G studios in Los Angeles while he waited to add vocals to a Fronk Zappa track.

His face was green in the fluorescent lighting, a nightclub pallor. Coming from the desert, Don never went out in the sun, rarely went out in the daytime at all. He said he would like to live in England because he understood there was no sun there. The edges of the formica-topped tables were serrated with cigarette burns and the room was overlit and bleak.

We looked out of the window. Outside, the magical skyline of palms and twinkling lights was dominated by 'the biggest psychedelic mural in the world' on the side of the theatre playing Hair.

Don told me, conversationally, that he could break glass with his voice: 'I once blew out a $1,200 Telefunken microphone.' I was impressed. He took a deep breath and emitted a long-drawn-out yell. We inspected the window. Not a crack. 'I'm feeling a little tired,' he said.

Just then the door was thrown open and a furious Frank Zappa burst in: 'What the fuck was that?' he demanded. The yell had penetrated the studio soundproofing and leaked onto a track. He was recording Hot Rats, though Don's vocal on Willie The Pimp was not recorded until the next night.

For most of the session Don sat in the corner of the control booth, absolutely still (maybe even asleep) as Frank overdubbed a new ending on to one of his guitar solos. When Gail Zappa showed up before down, Don had gone.

Driving home up Laurel Canyon, Gail steering the Buick with the palm of her hand, Fronk seemed visibly distressed. 'He's burned them all,' Frank told her. 'You didn't have photocopies?' Gail asked. 'No. Years of work. He told me tonight. He did it two weeks ago.'

Don had destroyed the only copies of hundreds of his songs. Zappa's dismay showed the depth of his respect for his friend's work, despite the fact that they were not on the best of terms.

The famous friendship between Don and Frank had been severely strained by the recording of Trout Mask Replica. Zappa was offended by such recording techniques as Don's singing in the studio with the microphone set up in the soundproof control booth. This meant that Frank had to push the record levels up to maximum, with all the hiss that entails, in order to record anything at all.

When I asked Don about this particular effect, he shrugged: 'Well, to me, that's just the way it is.' One track was recorded when Don began singing a song to Zappa down the phone line. Frank quickly plugged the phone into the board and started the first tape that come to hand, some empty tracks on a Mothers Of Invention tape, then had Don start again. Don had mixed feelings about the record: on the one hand he appreciated that Frank had given him the chance to put out something so off the wall, though he would have liked to spend more time on it. On the other hand, he didn't appreciate Frank's taking all the credit for it. In a later interview he said: 'Zappa wonted to pretend that he had done Trout Mask Replica, on which he had done nothing but go to sleep at the mixing board. It was way over his head. Not really over his head, just too unstructured and telepathic for him because he is so formed and regimented.' In fact, during one of the many stand-offs during recording, Frank seriously threatened to remix the album to his own exacting standards.

A couple of days later, at 4am, Don emerged from a business meeting with Zappa and his business partner, Herbie Cohen. Zappa took Cohen aside for a further talk while Don and I took a walk around Frank's pool with Georgia, the Zappas' German Shepherd, sniffing at our heels.

'Everyone is out to burn,' said Don, in what may have been on oblique reference to his own burned manuscripts. 'All artists get burned. All art gets burned.' He seemed quite upset and said many unflattering things about Cohen. He was offended by the way Cohen and Zappa were marketing him as a freak 'alongside that madman Wild Man Fischer and The GTOs'. He thought maybe he would leave rock'n'roll and go into another field. He told me that he was at least as good an abstract painter as De Kooning, and that he could play saxophone as well as John Coltrane. So his ego, at least, was intact."

Note. This text consists of passages taken from chapter "Woodrow Wilson Drive" of the highly recommended book In The Sixties by Miles.

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