Review: LUNAR NOTES REVIEW
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)
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)
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)
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!
Review: CAPTAIN BEEFHEART BOOK REVIEW
LUNAR NOTES; ZOOT HORN ROLLO’S CAPTAIN BEEFHEART EXPERIENCE
Bill Harkleroad with Billy James
151 pp, illustrated
SAF Publishing Ltd
1SBN 0 94671921 7
ONE OF THE GREAT MUSICAL MINDS OF THE late 20th century, Don Van Vliet was a greedy, violent, spiteful, manipulative, self-important, lazy, cowardly control freak with a taste for flashy cars, hard drugs and expensive clothes. Bill Harkleroad played guitar for him and this is his story.
It’s one thing to be ripped off by record companies – a staple part of any rock ‘n’ roll story – and Beefheart and his Magic Band suffered as much as anyone else. But worse, propelled by the imp of the perverse, Van Vliet himself ripped off his friends, repeatedly lying to them, exploiting their hopes and dedication, never giving them the credit they deserved, sucking the life out of them, spitting them out. The guy was full of shit. But he was a visionary with a coherent and radical aesthetic – a powerful singer who wrote often extraordinary lyrics and set them within some of the most vivid and exciting music of the 1960s. Above all perhaps, Beefheart was lucky to have to hand some of the most capable players rock has produced, notably drummers John French and Art Tripp, and guitarists Jeff Cotton and Bill Harkleroad. Harkleroad joined the Magic Band as a dope-smoking teenager and stayed on (under the name Zoot Horn Rollo) through his mid-20s, putting up with the bullshit because the music was so great. He eventually bailed out when the poverty had gone on too long and when maintaining the slave mentality which Beefheart expected had just become too much. His career as a professional guitarist was over before he was 30.
None of the Magic Band made any money from their music. Beefheart took the lot, then let them down by screwing up his live performances, dodging rehearsals, blaming everyone except himself for the band’s inability to get ahead. We glimpse him performing in Paris at a rare gig soon after the release of Trout Mask Replica: John French had already left the band, scandalously left off the credits of an album of which he was musical director; Jeff Cotton had quit after being beaten up in Beefheart’s house. Instead of having the tight unit that had been rehearsing 15 hours a day for the best part of a year and presenting the gig of the century, Beefheart had a shambolic outfit (with Harkleroad, Frank Zappa, a roadie and the ridiculous ‘Mascara Snake’, Victor Haden) which played five numbers – an event surely symptomatic of Beefheart’s lack of any sense of proportion in all things except his art. On other occasions he walked away from concerts, spooked by whimsical inner demons. Band members came and went, few able to put up with the mind games and abuse.
Beefheart’s eloquence, general weirdness and flair for self-promotion chimed in with record industry wishes to get hip and make money at a time when, as Harkleroad says, all you had to do to get a contract was to be able to stand up and tune your guitar. But that rock music could be ‘art’ seemed to require that artistry be presented as a sleight of hand, as divine inspiration, the operation of genius – a hodge-podge of outdated romantic notions that disguised the labour that went into the music. Beefheart played the clown, shaman and poet when it was required, then had to live up to the outlandish image he projected. Most contemporary music appears in the guise of myth and few musicians were so bathed in the aura of the mythical as Captain Beefheart. He began to believe his own baloney, even as his music deteriorated into tiresome self-parody and dedicated musicians and audience alike drifted away from the beached whale of his ambition.
After Clear Spot Beefheart dried up. In the latter half of his career his voice sounded increasingly tired and he made risible efforts to turn out ‘commercial’ albums. There was a brief (but unheard) return to form with the unreleased Bat Chain Puller, a poignant, focused record (like Trout Mask Replica, it was produced by Zappa and musically directed by French), but on his six last albums there was little that was really convincing. Harkleroad meantime formed Mallard with other Magic Band players, but their records too were interesting merely as footnotes. He retired, let down in the grand rock ‘n’ roll tradition by Virgin Records, another casualty of the music industry. He went and got a life.
Though it made me want to go back and listen to those great albums again, ultimately this is a disappointing book. Harkleroad is personable, fond of anecdote, but short on facts. His opinion of the albums he played on are judicious and useful (he has no opinions about those he didn’t play on – his break with Beefheart was evidently final). His modesty is disarming: he points out, for example, that the Trout Mask Replica version of “Moonlight on Vermont”, generally hailed as some kind of classic, wasn’t as good as another version played by Alex St Clair and Jeff Cotton which he’d heard before joining the band. He still likes the superb Lick My Decals Off Baby, which contains his finest moment in “One Red Rose That I Mean”. He dismisses The Spotlight Kid as a complete failure. He’s frank about the material that hasn’t stood the test of time. The bulk of the book is a track by track commentary on the records, with a few amusing asides about band life, but little sense of how the music was created and how it developed (or not). Somewhere lurking behind this lightweight story – which you could read in an hour or two – is something deeply poignant, which stays unstated. Harkleroad never really gets to grips with the contradictions of Beefheart’s personality, just moans a bit then puts it all behind him as an extended episode of adolescent angst. One wonders how many other musical careers have been exactly that. I admire his philosophical strength of mind, but wish he had told us more.
Dozens of critics, mostly dismal, have obscured his work ever since Beefheart turned him into a “guitar hero” on “Big Eyed Beans from Venus” (the famous “long lunar note” of which was surely a portent of Beefheart’s descent into a decadent, bombastic phase – a highly theatrical, formalised echo of the kind of thing Jeff Cotton was doing years before Harkleroad joined the Magic Band). This book does little to rescue Zoot Horn Rollo from the gradual process of ossification. I closed the page and went back to the records, trying to learn something.
- Ed Baxter
CURRENTLY AVAILABLE FROM GONZO
Review: Capt. Beefheart Guitar Legend Zoot Horn Rollo Releases Four New Digital Only Tracks!
Capt. Beefheart Guitar Legend Zoot Horn Rollo Releases Four New Digital Only Tracks!
Asheville, NC - Much to the excitement of guitarists worldwide, guitar icon Zoot Horn Rollo (Bill Harkleroad), best known for his work with Capt. Beefheart's Magic Band, has made four new tracks, 'The Mask Tracks', available for the first time since the release of his critically acclaimed CD “We Saw a Bozo Under the Sea” in 2001.
“These four pieces are the musical representation of masks that my friend Roger Evers created. Therefore, the titles are simply the images of these incredible masks.” - Zoot Horn Rollo
The other players who made this happen:
Mark Schneider: Bass
Jason Palmer: Drums
Sergei Teleshev: Accordion
Brian McWhorter: Trumpet
Check out samples of the tracks on Zoot Horn Rollo's music page. You can also purchase them in the store.
Rolling Stone Senior Editor David Fricke published a list of The 100 Greatest Guitarists of All Time, with Zoot Horn Rollo outranking Eddie Van Halen, Johnny Winter, Mick Ronson, Lightnin’ Hopkins, Link Wray, Neil Young, Danny Gatton and dozens more.
Bill Harkleroad joined Captain Beefheart's Magic Band at a time when they were changing from a straight ahead blues band into something completely different. Through the vision of Don Van Vliet (Captain Beefheart) they created a new form of music, which many at the time considered atonal and difficult, yet over the years has continued to exert a powerful influence!
Beefheart re-christened Harkleroad as Zoot Horn Rollo, and they embarked on recording one of the classic albums of all time, 'Trout Mask Replica'; produced by legendary Frank Zappa, the album remains an unparalleled work of musical inventiveness. Further LPs like 'Lick My Decals Off Baby', 'Spotlight Kid' and 'Clear Spot' highlighted what a truly innovative band they were, and what an outstanding original guitarist Bill Harkleroad had become!
Says Tom Wheeler, Former Editor in Chief, Guitar Player Magazine, “The music Bill Harkleroad has created in recent years somehow evokes the earthiness and passion that made rock and roll so sensual in, say, 1956, and made surf music so irresistibly catchy in 1963, and turned 3-chord country standards into some of the most heartbreaking poetry ever to seep out of a roadhouse jukebox. His music would never be mistaken for vintage rock or surf or country, but it shares a soul connection with those styles, even while, like the music of Jimi Hendrix, it takes us not only to new places but to places we didn’t even know existed.”