LUNAR NOTES: ZOOT HORN ROLLO’S CAPTAIN BEEFHEART EXPERIENCE

(Bill Harkleroad with Billy James; 125 pages; Gonzo Multimedia, Re-released 2013)

LUNAR NOTES

Short and to the point (94 pages of text plus a preface and foreword along with several pages of rare and personal photos), Bill Harkleroad recounts his days as one of the most well-known members of Captain Beefheart’s Magic Band. Dubbed Zoot Horn Rollo by the Captain himself, Don Van Vliet, Harkleroad joined the group as an eighteen year old, just in time for the grueling rehearsal sessions for what would become – arguably – the band’s most-beloved (by the fans, anyway) album, TROUT MASK REPLICA.

TROUT MASK REPLICA (Bill Harkleroad, John French, Don Van Vliet, Mark Boston, Jeff Cotton (photo: Ed Caraeff)

TROUT MASK REPLICA (Bill Harkleroad, John French, Don Van Vliet, Mark Boston, Jeff Cotton (photo: Ed Caraeff)

Like Van Vliet’s high school buddy, Frank Zappa, the Captain was a dictatorial band leader. Unlike Zappa, however, Beefheart’s musical vision was scattered and unfocused, relying on the musicians to turn his various thoughts into a close approximation of that vision. He would dub a different member of the band “the bad guy” each day, fraying nerves and causing friction. This practice led to a heavy rate of turnover, eventually leading to Harkleroad becoming the “musical director” of the Magic Band. He would be the person that Van Vliet would call in the middle of the night, whistling a melody or thematic thread into the phone. It was his job to turn those threads into musical notations and to help the rest of the band turn them into a somewhat cohesive tune. The process was exacerbated by Van Vliet’s reluctance to practice with the band (if he bothered to show up at rehearsals at all). At least, Zappa actually attended his marathon rehearsal sessions, armed with ideas and music ready to play.

Zoot Horn Rollo (Bill Harkleroad onstage, circa 1970) (uncredited photos)

Zoot Horn Rollo (Bill Harkleroad onstage, circa 1970) (uncredited photos)

So, this is a “let’s bash the eccentric frontman” type of memoir, right? Wrong! Harkleroad (and, really, just about every player who ever shared a stage – or recording session – with Don Van Vliet) did butt heads with the enigmatic Captain, but maintained a deep, heartfelt love and an emotional tie that continued, at least, until the original taped remembrances (LUNAR NOTES was originally released in 1998 and has been out of print for more than 10 years) that make up this book. In Harkleroad’s preface, he mentions his reticence to doing a book like this, primarily because he wasn’t a writer. Noted publicist, musician and biographer of several outre artists (The Mothers, Todd Rundgren, Michael Bruce among others), Billy James, took up the mantel of “co-author.” James’ involvement allowed Bill to reminisce in a rather scattered, stream-of-consciousness way, with Billy cleaning up and streamlining the stories into a chronological order that takes us through Harkleroad’s first meeting with the Captain and His Magic Band in 1967 through his departure from the group in 1974 and the formation and dissolution of the band Mallard. The final part of the book recounts his life to that point (approximately 1996 through 1998) following Mallard and his ultimately coming to terms with his history and pedigree. That final chapter is entitled “I Am Zoot Horn Rollo.”

Bill Harkleroad, 1998 (photo: MAGNUS TOREN)

Bill Harkleroad, 1998 (photo: MAGNUS TOREN)

I have long been a fan of Captain Beefheart’s music. Yes, his lyrics and vocal delivery are a large part of what I enjoy about the music, but – equally important to me – was the musical acumen of the Magic Band. The inherent groove of almost every album draws me in, something I don’t believe would have been possible with other players. Bill Harkleroad, as Zoot Horn Rollo, was a major part of those late ’60s and early ’70s albums that I love so much. This book gives me insight into those times and the imaginative and talented musicians who created that music. For that, I must say, “Thank you, Rollo, for this book.” For any Beefheart or Zappa fan, this is a must read!


NECESSITY IS (THE EARLY YEARS OF FRANK ZAPPA AND THE MOTHERS OF INVENTION)

(Billy James; 223 pages; SAF Publishing; 2001, Revised 2005) A REVIEW FROM THE VAULTS

NECESSITY IS COVER

Pieced together from various interviews with early band-mates conducted and compiled by the author, NECESSITY IS delves into the psyche of one of the true musical geniuses of the past half-century (maybe the only one, in fact): Frank Vincent Zappa. Mister James (a musician himself, who has worked with many of the Mothers quoted) is obviously a fan, and that’s alright. Really, unless an author wishes simply to vilify another person (or organization), why would he write about someone he wasn’t a fan of? It’s obvious, as well, that most of the gentlemen interviewed were/are fans of Frank and remained in contact with him until his death in 1993. That doesn’t mean that every quote or remembrance is pleasant. As is the case with many struggling bands (especially one with a dominant figure like Zappa), disagreements – and downright vicious fights – arose. The early Mothers (1964-1971) was a revolving door of jazz, rock, and avant-garde musicians, all struggling to be heard over (through?) the mayhem orchestrated by composer/arranger/guitarist Zappa.

The Mothers of Invention

The Mothers of Invention

Zappa was known as a task-master and this book confirms that estimation. Many of the quotes from original drummer Jimmy Carl Black, keyboardist/electronics genius Don Preston, multi-instrumentalist Bunk Gardner, and others relay (sometimes humorously) the love/hate relationship between the band and Zappa. Indeed, as Frank’s dominance and creative genius materialized, the original core group – the band who recorded the first album, FREAK OUT (1966) – of drummer Jimmy Carl Black, bassist Roy Estrada, vocalist Ray Collins, and guitarist Elliot Ingber were either forced to take a back seat to more “advanced” musicians (those who could read music, like Gardner, Preston and Ian Underwood) or asked to leave the group. In the case of Ingber, the first to be ousted from the band, a predilection for drugs was his downfall (highlighting Zappa’s strong anti-drug stance and no nonsense approach to his leadership role, Ray Collins remembers, “…He maybe smoked a little bit too much.” in regards to Ingber’s “drug abuse” and subsequent dismissal from the band). Ingber famously became a member of Captain Beefheart’s Magic Band, as Winged Eel Fingerling. Ray Collins seemed to wander in and out of the group, as he and Zappa butted heads or he would become disillusioned by the direction Frank was taking the band. Another problem, apparently, was money. Zappa had the group on a rigorous rehearsal schedule – several hours a day, seven days a week, holidays included – for which there was no pay. Frank and manager Herb Cohen had a habit of funneling money from paying gigs back into the organization, promising an eventual big payday for the band.

All of this information, including background and history on the individual Mothers, comes in the first chapter of the book. Rather than rewrite the book here and now, I’ll leave you to imagine, from the above capsule, the breadth and scope of NECESSITY IS as Billy James takes you through the late ’60s, the infighting and insanity of the original group, the later versions of the band with Aynsley Dunbar, Mark Vohlman and Howard Kaylan, the frightening and life-changing on-stage attack by a fan in London that crushed Zappa’s larynx and left him in a cast for a year, and, inevitably to the dissolution of the Mothers in 1971. James also goes into extensive detail regarding the lives of the principal figures after “Motherhood.” Late in the book, there is an extensive section quoting an interview with Zappa that supplies his side of the Mothers’ story, which does soften and enlighten the reader’s previous views of the dictatorial band leader. As is true in any disagreement between two (or several) people, you can probably temper both sides a bit, meet somewhere in the middle and come up with your own ideas about what really happened.

Mother Frank

Mother Frank

Mister James, while not an absolute master wordsmith, has produced a highly enjoyable and easily read book, covering the early history of one of the most infamous and influential bands of the rock era. With an extensive “Where Are They Now?” section, an exhaustive discography of everyone who was a part of the Mothers (including design artist Cal Schenkel) during the period covered in the book, a tour history through 1972, and a well-documented list of source materials, James has given us a history of Frank Zappa and the Mothers of Invention that should be read (and owned) by every music lover on the planet. (DT)


ANT-BEE: LUNAR MUZIK

(DIVINE RECORDS, UK; 1997) A REVIEW FROM THE VAULTS (UPDATE BELOW)

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The entity known far and wide (and just around the corner) as Ant-Bee is actually a mad genius named Billy James, who has managed to cozy up to an unimaginable group of rock stars, including Gong’s Daevid Allen, every member of the original Alice Cooper with a name other than Alice Cooper (including the late Glen Buxton), and a slue of ex-Zappa sidemen who occasionally go by the name “Grandmothers” (Bunk Gardner, Motorhead Sherwood, Jimmy Carl Black, Roy Estrada, and Don Preston, among others). James himself is sort of a rock everyman: He plays drums, guitar, keyboards, bass; he writes… music and books (he’s written or co-written books about/with Peter Banks, Michael Bruce, Grand Funk Railroad, and – his latest – Todd Rundgren); he produces and, occasionally, he slices and dices (just like Sean “P. Doh-Wah Diddy-Daddy” Combs, only with talent); he promotes other musician’s releases. And, regardless of the involvement of the ex-Mothers, he has a definite Frank Zappa sensibility toward songwriting, production, and arrangement. Listen, for instance, to the album’s opener, “Snorks and Wheezes,” with its bizarre time changes, obtuse vocals in a psuedo-doo-wop middle section, and Ruth Underwood-style percussion, and tell me that you are not having a late ’60s-early ’70s Mothers flashback.

“Child of the Moon” is a pretty straight take on the old Jagger-Richard B-side, with some nice orchestration and vocals. It also features some nice acoustic work. Later, James and his uber-minions give the same treatment to Mike Nesmith’s amazing psychedelic country hit, “Love Is Only Sleeping.” There’s a wicked guitar solo – performed by Roy Herman – that weaves its way throughout “Love Is Only Sleeping,” adding to the overall psychedelic feel of the tune. Again, like Zappa, compositions/ideas tend to run together. The triptych nestled between “Child of the Moon” and “Love Is Only Sleeping” wanders between lunatic rave-ups (with a couple of wild backward guitar solos – which always seem to sound more impressive than they probably are – and a percussive coda repeated from “Snorks and Wheezes” on “Blew a Banana Thru the Sun”) and introspective balladry (complete with harpsicord, gongs, and lilting vocals on “The One Who Is Gold”) and back again (“Silicone Hump,” an ancient Don Preston piece of Turtles-esque lunacy). The album’s centerpiece, “By-and-By I Touch the Sky,” is a composition in four parts, encompassing Harvey Bainbridge’s (he of Hawkwind fame) “The Swan and the Horseshoe” and Neal Smith’s (he of Alice Cooper fame) “The Platinum God” sandwiched between original James music. The nearly ten minute piece continues LUNAR MUZIK’s thematic make-up: Pretty, almost pastoral vocals interspersed with manic percussion and noisy rock guitar. Bainbridge’s part is an almost ambient synthesizer wash, leading back to the main theme before giving way to “The Platinum God,” which features the four ex-Coopers – Neal Smith, Michael Bruce, Dennis Dunaway, and some trippy guitar from Glen Buxton, undoubtedly one of the last things he recorded before his death.

Ant-Bee/Billy James (publicity photo)

Ant-Bee/Billy James (publicity photo)

The album ends – much as it began – with songs running together, themes repeated and overlapping into each other. “Diva Gliss (Are You Sirius?),” which flows out of the final movement of “By-and-By I Touch the Sky,” is by Daevid Allen and features him on guitar; the tune leads – seamlessly – into “Tears That Fall Unto the Sky,” a return, as it were, to “By-and-By… ,” which leads into a Michael Bruce/Billy James composition called “Return of the Titanic Overture.” The piece features themes and pieces of music culled from the very first Alice Cooper album, PRETTIES FOR YOU. It, like “Tears That Fall Unto the Sky,” features Bruce’s guitar work. “Son of Snorks and Wheezes” closes the proceedings with an even more bizarre take on the opening track. It features most of the Grandmothers, with Jimmy Carl Black’s prominent Indian chants and attempts to extort money and beer from the producer. Boys and girls, this is the type of inspired lunacy that one could regularly expect to find in the record bins as the 1960s phased into the 1970s: Nearly virtuoso performances coupled with adventurous arrangements, melding rock with jazz, doo-wop, classical instrumentation, and big-band phrasing. Though the album has been out for awhile, it’s so hard to come by that I only recently acquired this CD-R copy from James himself and I just had to tell you about it. Oh, yeah… the album artwork is by some guy named Syd Barrett! (Check out Billy James’ “Web Bizarre” at www.ant-bee.com and, if you’re really nice to him, you may be able to pick up your very own copy of LUNAR MUZIK… before it’s too late!)

(UPDATE) Gonzo Multimedia’s reissue of LUNAR MUZIK was released in June 2014. For ordering information, check Billy’s site.