by Todd S. Jenkins
Behind his cymbal-heavy kit an average-sized yet imposing, bearded drummer vigorously grinds out complex, jaw-dropping rhythms as if he were an octopus, in support of a rubbery band that follows his every hitch and turn. Later in the night he stalks the stagefront like a caged animal, long white duster coat trailing behind, white fedora covering his pate. His voice is a raspy howl as he blurts out arcane, blues-steeped wordstreams:
Distant cousins, there’s a limited supply
And we’re down to the dozens, and this is why
Big-Eyed Beans from Venus! Oh my, oh my!!
Drumbo is in the house, reviving the avant-garde spirit of Captain Beefheart for an ecstatic group of über-alternative music fans. The crowd came to enjoy a relentless blast of futuristic nostalgia, but almost certainly didn’t expect the Christian testimony shared by the frontman when fans asked him about his faith after shows.
In 2003, after more than two decades out of the fold, John “Drumbo” French and friends reformed the Magic Band, the rag-tag crew who played an odd hybrid of gutbucket blues, avant-garde jazz and psychotic rock and roll behind vocalist Don Van Vliet, a.k.a. Captain Beefheart. Years of bitter feelings and media pigeonholing were left behind when French, bassist Mark “Rockette Morton” Boston, and guitarists Gary “Mantis” Lucas and Denny “Feelers Reebo” Walley reunited to bring Beefheart’s bizarre musings – largely drawn from Drumbo-driven albums like the legendary Trout Mask Replica (1969, Reprise) – back into the public ear.
Born in San Bernardino, French was still a scrawny teenager when he began drumming and singing in surf, rock and blues groups around Lancaster in the mid-1960s. Inspired by skin-pounders like rock-and-roll pioneer Sandy Nelson, Joe Morello (of the Dave Brubeck Quartet) and Jack Sperling (clarinetist Pete Fountain’s drummer), and lacking a snare on his first used drumkit, French developed an unusual, tom-heavy sense of rhythm. French and his friend, guitarist Jeff Cotton, made the rounds of several bands, including Blues in a Bottle where they met Mark Boston. John mostly stuck to harmonica and vocals at the time, emulating old Delta bluesmen and younger cats, including a local white upstart named Don Van Vliet, already known as Captain Beefheart.
Above: Circa 1968, Drumbo front and center, with (L-R) Art Tripp, Zoot Horn Rollo, Captain Beefheart and Rockette Morton
At that time the Captain and his band played a raw-boned variety of electric blues, straight out of Howlin’ Wolf. Around 1963 French and Van Vliet met at a local jam session. Three years later, shortly after French graduated high school, he was singing for Blues in a Bottle when the band opened for Beefheart. On that night Van Vliet debuted some of his new, avant-garde material to decidedly negative audience response. Despite the letdown, Van Vliet perked up when a friend reminded him that French was also an excellent drummer. Thus, French came into the Beefheart fold. Jeff Cotton and Mark Boston joined the Magic Band later, becoming part of the revolving cast of players upon whom Beefheart bestowed strange nicknames to enhance the enigma. For better or worse, John French became the man forever known as Drumbo.
Although everyone in the band usually developed their own parts, Beefheart demanded center stage at all times. Recalls French, “Don would really not allow anyone else to write music in the band, nor even solo or improvise over sections of the music. This was a bit frustrating for the guitarists, who were stuck playing the same exact thing every night. For me it was a bit more fun, as I could at least create some of my parts.”
Besides playing drums, French arranged much of Trout Mask Replica, for which he failed to receive credit on the original release. He hasn’t returned to that piecemeal manner of tune-building for his own music. “I hear music in my head, like a stereo playing in the background. When I create, I attempt to write what I’m hearing. I think Don had this often. However, he always used the band as his ‘writing tool’, so to speak. It was unnerving to sit completely still and be at his beckoned call. During these sessions, he would often become extremely irritated if anyone distracted him, and absolutely livid if anyone suggested a musical idea.”
The band’s living situation was equally difficult. They resided communally for a time and often subsisted on a small ration of soybeans each day. Van Vliet was subject to violence, once shoving French down a flight of stairs during an argument. French’s burgeoning Christian beliefs became an added source of ridicule for the drummer. “I think we were basically considered minions,” says French, who came and went from the Magic Band. He finally left for good in 1980, after playing guitar on Doc at the Radar Station (EMI). Following 1982’s Ice Cream for Crow (Virgin), Van Vliet went into seclusion, abandoning music to focus on a more lucrative career in painting. His bandmates have rarely heard from the Captain since.
Above: Beefheart, with Drumbo over his shoulder, 1980
Freed from Beefheart’s sway, French found time for a number of activities, including writing songs for the Magic Band side project, called Mallard. From 1987 to 1991 he work with bassist Fred Frith and guitarists Richard Thompson and Henry Kaiser on two albums, now cult classics, and a mere handful of concerts. Kaiser and French have remained occasional partners on recordings like Crazy Backwards Alphabet (1992, SST), which married free jazz and alternative rock.
By the mid-1990s French had written a number of songs inspired by his Christian walk, and decided it was time to cut an album under his own name. Waiting on the Flame (1995, on the unfortunately named Demon Records) featured friends like Kaiser, Magic Band guitarist Bill “Zoot Horn Rollo” Harkleroad, and Dregs bassist Andy West, performing French’s well-crafted, spiritually grounded tunes. French’s clean, strong baritone voice was the primary feature, though he left plenty of room for his legendary drum skills and excellent sidemen.
Sadly, the disc tanked on the market due to poor label promotion. It also seemed that too many people were still expecting French to fit the Beefheart mold. “I do wish that the world was such that I could do my own material without being compared to Don. I felt Waiting on the Flame had some decent material and was certainly as good as a lot of stuff in a similar vein. One review I read actually stated that I was making a conscious effort to portray myself as totally different than Don. I don’t know if it ever occurred to this fellow that I am totally different than Don. I suppose that, to the public, I was viewed as an apple attempting to pass itself off as an orange.”
In 1998, the London Musicians Collective invited French to perform a solo set at their festival. The drummer turned around and recorded O Solo Drumbo (Avant), a one-man disc presenting new material and some of the most fascinating constructions from the Beefheart era, enthralling longtime fans with his undiminished skills. Ironically, by then French’s fortunes had taken a poor turn and he was forced to borrow drums from friends. It took some effort to put together enough of a kit for him to actually play the melody of Beefheart’s “The Thousand and Tenth Day of the Human Totem Pole” on the drums, highlighting his immense technical skills.
The Magic Band reunion arose during this severe downturn in French’s career. “Right after I took computer classes (around 1999), I was looking for work in that field when I was contacted to do the liner notes for the Revenant set (Grow Fins: Rarities (1965-1982), a five-disc boxed set of Beefheart’s scarcer music issued in 1999). I called about eighteen people and transcribed three hundred pages of interviews with former Magic Band members, friends of Don, and just people who were around and recalled certain instances. The Revenant set was a bigger success than anticipated. Not only was it well received, but the liner notes were actually considered for a Grammy nomination! Then BBC producer Elaine Shepherd, for whose documentary ‘The Artist Formerly Known as Captain Beefheart’ I was interviewed, encouraged me to write a book.
“Since the royalties for the set were substantial, I took some time and began to write. I took questions from Graham Johnston’s website, ‘The Captain Beefheart Radar Station’, to find out what fans were interested in. Many seemed to want track notes of the music, something I really didn’t plan to do. As I listened to the tracks, I found myself reacquainted with the music from the unique perspective of having not heard most of it for years. Although I am a gigantic fan of Don’s singing, I also thought much of the music could stand on its own. This gave me the vision of a reunion in which my friends and perhaps (percussionist) Art Tripp were onstage doing instrumental versions of this material.”
As the project developed, some musicians whom French wanted to approach were unavailable, so the band finally boiled down to French, Walley, Boston and Lucas. The concept took a slight turn when they opted to do their first sets instrumentally, but add vocals for the second sets. When it was decided that French would handle vocals, fellow alumnus Robert Williams was chosen to fill the drum chair for the second sets.
Above: Rockette Morton and Drumbo today
A set of twenty tunes was assembled, including the blues “China Pig”, “Abba Zaba”, “Veteran’s Day Poppy” and “Sun Zoom Spark”. Some selections took more work than others, said French. “’Floppy Boot Stomp’ (from the unreleased album Bat Chain Puller) caused me some problems because of the poor quality of the tape. Many of the others I could play the first time through. Also, not being able to hear the vocals, which are strong cues, during recording made this difficult. The easiest things were the Trout Mask tunes, because I had revisited those pieces during my drum solo rehearsals. Even then, I didn’t actually listen to the songs but played them from memory.”
The band felt that French’s clear, admirable voice wouldn’t cut the mustard for die-hard fans who loved the Captain’s synthesis of Howlin’ Wolf through the space-jazz of Sun Ra. French made the decision to sound as close as he could come to the original article. “Absolutely, I have tried to emulate Don. This is even the word I use to describe what I do. My singing is a tribute to him in the context of the Magic Band. I don’t think any other vocal style would do justice to the pieces.” French also made the conscious decision to share his Christian faith after each performance when people asked him about his beliefs. He didn’t turn the last set into an altar call, simply taking a moment now and then to share the difference that Jesus has made in his life.
French says, “The difficulty in the dual role of drummer and front man makes it a lot more work than if I were to do either one or the other singularly. Also, I handle a lot of the business. The reason I wanted to do this was primarily for the musical experience.” Their first shows were at the All Tomorrow’s Parties festival in Camber Sands, U.K., and the performances were widely acclaimed. In 2004 ATP Records released the album Back to the Front, a chronicle of the band’s rehearsal process. It was followed in 2005 by 21st Century Mirror Men on Proper Records.
All this activity delayed work on French’s much-anticipated book, Beefheart: Through the Eyes of Magic, Volume 1. It will finally hit the stands in early 2009, and he is presently editing the second volume. In 2008 he released a new album, City of Refuge, recorded with Harkleroad, Boston, guitarist Greg “Ella Guru” Davidson, and keyboardist John Thomas. The disc continues the evolution of the Magic Band vibe, with French replicating Beefheart’s vocal style and wearing the now-iconic white fedora and trenchcoat on the cover. He has also assembled a touring band of sharp young players who learned the difficult music quickly.
City of Refuge was inspired by the description of the New Jerusalem in Revelation. French says in his blog, “I know some people are really offended by any mention of religion, but I can't help but be blown out of the water by that last line: ‘There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.’ I just turned 60 a few days ago, and I realize that even though I am in good shape for my age, have taken care of myself, stayed away from alcohol, drugs, cigarettes, bad food, etc., the inevitable is that we all eventually come to the end of our lives. So, when facing that reality, I read these words written thousands of years ago and wonder at both the sheer simplicity of the statement and the profoundness of it possibility as a reality. The song, ‘City of Refuge’, was inspired by this possibility.
“Other groups use Biblical themes – one is Avenged Sevenfold, whose very name comes from a reference in the Bible. So, it's not just the old farts like me looking at this stuff. I remember Bobby Kennedy who said, ‘Other people look at things as they are and say 'why?' – I look at things as they could be and say 'why not?'’ There's a lot of bad going on in the world – terrorism, murder, economic disasters, natural disasters, explosive human conflict – and they all promote fear in our lives. My way of coping with this has been to believe that there is a higher power that watches over me and protects me. Most of the people I know have spent their whole lives planning their retirement rather than living their lives. many people in recent years have lost their retirement and are desperate about what to do. I may be wrong, but I wanted to live my life and enjoy the world while I was young and had the energy and health. I still feel young enough to want to tour, and so tour I shall.”
French finds time to nurture his Christian faith in various ways, even playing with the worship band at Lancaster First Assembly of God between his global jaunts. His walk with God has helped him to stay focused as he reevaluates life as Drumbo. “I have definitely been pigeonholed as ‘Beefheart’s weird drummer’ and it has been exasperatingly limiting at times. I suppose I’m sort of like Leonard Nimoy; they’re all expecting the ears… A few years back, I resigned myself to just accept who the public saw and put on that hat musically… If one facet of my musical character is recognized, I suppose that’s something to be very grateful to have achieved.”
Above: The Magic Band in concert, Stockholm, Sweden, 2006
(NOTE: Portions of this article were previously published in Signal To Noise Magazine.)