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Date Published: 19th January 1998


The other week I was interviewing the ever fascinating Merrell Fankhauser about his forthcoming archive project, when our conversation wandered off onto more arcane subjects...

Yeah, the thing is, you know, the Captain, Don [van] Vliet, he’s passed away now, and the bass player from MU that was also in the Exiles - Larry Willey - he’s passed away so a lot of these guys aren’t even around anymore and I know they would just get the biggest kick out of hearing this stuff that we all just forgot about. I’d write three or four songs a week back then in the early sixties so we were recording them just one after another, you know, so I totally forgot about them. If I didn’t recognise my voice, you know, I wouldn’t even know that I’d written the song!

Jon: Do you have any of them that actually have got the Captain on? 

Merrell: No. He and I jammed a lot together and we jammed in his house and jammed in Woodland Hills. See, the Exiles was formed before he formed Captain Beefheart. Frank Zappa and he went to high school together in Lancaster and then Frank moved down south, down to – ooh gosh, I can’t remember the name – it was southern California. And they still, you know, communicated and he helped him produce that Trout Mask Replica album and that was the last time I saw Frank, when we were all living in Woodland Hills and they recorded some of that in his house. Don Vliet would drive over and sit in his Jaguar outside of my garage and listen to the different musicians I had playing in the band as we were rehearsing and he’d have these guys go over and say “Who’s playing that guitar?” “Is Merrell singing on this?”

[Jon laughs]

Merrell: So he would go try to recruit my musicians and he got John French first and then much later on he got Jeff Cotton. And then I don’t know if you read the story that Nigel Cross wrote – it was in Bucketfull of Brains and some other UK fanzine thing – about how when we formed MU and we were living one canyon over in Woodland Hills and Jeff left the band and they were all very angry about it and they kidnapped him one day and held him in the Beefheart house, and I had to go over there and have like a four-and-a-half-hour battle of the brains with Don to get Jeff back and take him back home with me.

[Jon laughs]

Merrell: And it was really a strange scene, Jon. This has all been written about. I think it’s in the book too, you know. You’d go over there and Don and I were friends and we’d jam and stuff together. And some of it got recorded, to answer your question, on little tape recorders and stuff but who knows where any of that went? But I’d go over there once in a while to visit them – and this was before Jeff joined me – and John French would have a splint on his finger – a broken finger. And then the bass player, Mark Boston, would walk out and he had a bloody lip. [laughs] So the Captain would decide who’s fucking up the band and he’d have the rest of the members go beat that guy up!

[Jon laughs]

Merrell: Yeah.

Jon: Jesus!

Merrell: Yeah, and he painted the whole living room red because he said “That’s the only way I can keep these guys awake and alert, Merrell.” And so you never knew who was gonna be the bad guy. And what happened at one point, Jeff Cotton turned out to be the bad guy – this was when he left the band – and they beat him up so bad they broke a couple of ribs, and he had to go to the hospital so his parents got him and took him back up to Lancaster, and he was up there for a while recuperating. And Jeff wanted to join me and his parents were afraid to let him go back down there because they were afraid the Beefheart guys would get him. And so everything was fine, you know, for about five or six months and then they found him down at a music store. He had walked down the street from my house, and it was Bill Harkleroad and Mark Boston and John French, and they kidnapped him – literally grabbed him off the street and took him up to Beefheart’s house. And I found out where he went from the music store owner so I went up there to retrieve him, and the poor guy was slumped in this bathroom, in the bath tub, whimpering and crying. Don would have a way of psychoanalysing people, you know, and really make them feel worthless and at one point Jeff was saying “Don’s right, Merrell: I gotta re-join his band.” And it took me a while to talk this out. I was in very good shape back then, Jon, and I’d been used to fighting [laughs] Mexicans in high school and those guys knew they couldn’t mess with me, you know, so I just grabbed Jeff and took him out of there. It reminded me of a book, The Devil and Daniel Webster, and several of the guys in the band, if you’ve read any of those books, they still harbour ill feelings against Don Vliet, you know. And a lot of them believed he was the devil. [Laughs] And Jeff Cotton still believes that Don was the devil.

Jon: Good God.

Merrell: And the girlfriend – I know I’m rambling on – the girlfriend –

Jon: Carry on rambling; I’m enjoying this immensely.

Merrell: The girlfriend, Lori – she would dose them with LSD in their hamburgers at night and so they would start coming onto this drug and not known that they’d been dosed, and they thought it was Don’s power; that he had some power, that he was doing this to them. And then he had Zappa put all of this portable recording equipment in the house and he had his cousin Victor, who ran it, and when these guys would get all high he would go “OK, tonight we’re going to play a strawberry,” and so you were supposed to imagine whatever a strawberry would sound like. [Laughs] And they’d all start playing and he’d say “it goes like this,” and he’d play these abstract notes on the piano. I’d been there when he was doing that. And he’d try to get the guitar players to play this melody that he was making up. That’s how some of that stuff was recorded: they were high on acid and they didn’t even know it.

Jon: Good Lord!

Merrell: [Laughs] It was sick. A lot of people said it reminded them of the Charles Manson deal but at least nobody was getting killed! [Laughs] People were getting beat up and severely psychologically damaged. And I think it still damaged Jeff because he won’t play music anymore. After MU moved to Maui he met this beautiful Hawaiian/Chinese girl who was a Christian, he then all of a sudden believed that the music, and the music business in particular, was the devil’s work.

Jon: Good God!

Merrell: Yeah. It’s a shame because he’s a talented guy and you know, he was my guitar student at age fourteen when I met him.

Jon: It’s interesting you said that people – ‘cause I thought that what you were saying about the way that Don did this sort of psychic mind control of his –

Merrell: Yeah.

Jon: I was thinking that sounded very Charles Manson.

Merrell: Yeah. Very much so.

Jon: And of course they were both in the desert at roughly the same sort of time, weren’t they?

Merrell: Well, let’s see. No, Manson went up in the desert later. The odd thing about that, if you read my book, when we formed MU Randy had a house on the outskirts of Los Angeles that went into this like deserty area, where there was this Spahn movie ranch, where the Mason gang was living and you can see this ranch, Jon. It’s in old late-1940s and early-fifties movies. A cowboy’ll ride by this rock with some Indians chasing him and that’s right on the outskirts of L.A. Well, Randy ran into two of the Mason girls once when he was hiking in this stream, and that’s in my book. Manson then fled out to the desert when he did those murders so that was later that Manson lived in the desert but yeah, they did both end up out in the desert. Don Vliet later moved way up to northern California and bought an old boy-scout camp, and that’s where he tried to keep the band going and then he ended up getting M.S. and died. He was a creative guy but he was just, I would say, the ultimate control freak. He could definitely captivate an audience just by talking and he had this scary air about him that reminded me of Lon Chaney Jr that played the wolf man in the werewolf movie.

Jon: Oh, yeah, I know him.

Merrell: In a way. People were – they were afraid of him. I could see how they would be afraid of him. When I had this battle of the brains with him, with Jeff Cotton stuck in the bath tub, he had a screen cage and he would catch these various spiders in the house, and sometimes a black widow and he would put them in this cage and watch them fight. And one time he said to me, Jon, when we were talking and he goes “Isnt’ that heavy? What would you think if I could make one of those spiders smoke a cigarette?” I said, “Well, that’d be a good trick, Don.” But, yeah, he was really something. He could’ve been a great actor, I think. He really had that way of commanding an audience.

Jon: I so wish that the tape recordings of you two jamming hadn’t got lost.

Merrell: Yeah. You know there was just so much bizarre stuff going on and bizarre behaviour. I am playing bottleneck slide on ‘China Pig’,– if it’s the same take ?– I think they gave the credit to Doug Moon on that because they didn’t know who had played that. But I listened to all of those recordings to see if I was on anything and several people thought it was me playing slide on this song called ‘China pig.’

Jon: Oh, that’s fantastic.

Merrell: Yeah. I’m on a few Spirit songs too that Mick Skidmore had something to do with putting out and they didn’t give me credit for playing on that either. I played slide and bass and acoustic twelve-string on a couple of songs that were on that. I think Evangeline label; California Blues; one of the last  Spirit albums that came out.

Jon: Good Lord.

Merrell: Yeah.

Jon: I’ll tell you one thing that surprised me as well, when you were just talking about Manson, I didn’t realise that Spahn ranch was right on the outskirts of Los Angeles; I’d always assumed it was right back, deep in the desert somewhere.
Merrell: No, it wasn’t, Jon. It was out, actually just past Woodland Hills in Chatsworth. Woodland Hills is where I lived and I’d moved there with HMS Bounty, and Beefheart had moved down from the desert and he lived just one canyon over. And we bumped into each other at the music store, and he’d say “Oh, come on up and jam,” and he’d come over to my house and jam once in a while. Chatsworth was going just sort of towards the desert foothills and it was just out of the San Fernando Valley, actually. They used those areas a lot for cowboy movies and stuff because it looked very rugged. There was a lot of interesting rock formations, things like that.

Jon: Oh, that changes my whole sort of mental picture.

Merrell: Yeah.

Jon: Because I’d assumed it was miles away.

Merrell: No, he ran off to the desert after he had murdered all those people and he was afraid that they were gonna find him there. Dennis Wilson, the drummer of the Beach Boys, met him, and went up there and hung out with him, and was even trying to help record some of Charles Manson’s songs. They weren’t very good but somehow he got interested in them.

Jon: I’m glad you’Jon
I corrected a few wrong words and repeats in a few sections, it flows nicely now. If you copy and paste it as Ive corrected it then you can use it. 
Let me know when its online? Please let me know you've been getting all the photos Ive been sending for the book ? There are more coming.
Best Always,
Merrell say that because I’ve heard them and I didn’t think they were any good either.

Merrell: Yeah.

Jon: But you know, I don’t know what it was about them that people – ‘cause Neil Young thought he was a very good song writer but I always thought they were terrible.

Merrell: Yeah, yeah. Most of the people I knew too didn’t think they were very good. I mean, I think Dennis Wilson is probably lucky he didn’t get murdered because Charles Manson got mad and upset because he couldn’t get a record deal.

Jon: Golly!

Merrell: Yeah!

Jon: Was he a sort of fixture on the outskirts of the music scene, then?

Merrell: Well, I guess he was trying to break in any way he could and Terry Melcher, I know, had met him and he was trying to get Terry Melcher to get him a deal, and when he couldn’t do that, and Terry Melcher and lived in that house where he had –

Jon: Cielo drive

Merrell: Yeah, and so I think he thought he was getting back at Terry Melcher when he killed all of those people and Sharon Tate.

Jon: Wow.

Merrell: Yeah. Yeah, that was a very strange time and the odd thing was we were watching TV, Randy Weimer the drummer from MU, and I, and they announced this thing: that they’d zeroed in on these people from Spahn Ranch, that they thought had something to do with the murders, and they mentioned Charles Manson because he was on probation or something, and Randy went “Oh, my God! Those two girls I met up the creek when I was hiking were two of Charles Manson’s girls!” And he just realised that and figured it out when we got this news over the television. 


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