Book cover, Lunar Notes

by Bill Harkleroad, with Billy James

SAF Publishing, 1998
160 pp. Ł11.95

reviewed by Dada Jyotirupananda

 

 

Bill Harkleroad is arguably the best unknown guitarist in rock ‘n’ roll. Bill, a/k/a Zoot Horn Rollo, played lead guitar for Captain Beefheart and the Magic Band. The book cover, quoting Matt Groening, says they were the best rock band of the 20th century. Though that’s debatable, none would doubt that they were more controversial, and probably more innovative, than other candidates, such as The Beatles, or the Magic Band’s cross town rivals, and mirror opposites, The Beach Boys.

While Beefheart’s colleague and mentor, Frank Zappa, could joke that his own band had no commercial potential, for The Magic Band, it was no joke. There lyrics were at best, odd. There were also the various time signatures and keys within the same tune, the unusual voice of Captain Beefheart and songs with titles such as "I Love You, You Big Dummy", "Flash Gordon’s Ape" and "Woe is-a-Me-Bop," all of which could make the average listener hesitate to buy their albums. Small wonder they often had to live off money borrowed from their parents.

Though little known to the public, Zoot was very influential among rock guitarist. One of his solos is rated as the fifth best guitar piece in rock history. Some of his guitar parts have been described as ‘unprecedented in rock music’ and ‘surpassed by nothing since.’

Don Van Vliet, a/k/a Captain Beefheart (CB), the leader of this most curious of bands, also has a distinctive place in rock history. His voice, with a range of five and a half octaves, may well be described as provocative, intriguing, challenging or expressive. Easy listening? Not on your life. ‘Musical sculpting’ has been used to describe his singing, his lyrics and his arrangements.

This book purports to be an autobiography, but it would be little or no interest except for his interlude of six years with the Magic Band. Of course many famous people also require ‘outside help’ to make an interesting life story. Who would read about George Harrison’s life sans the Beatles? Ann Sullivan without Helen Keller? Prince Charles without Diana?

Though the Magic Band were blues based, their Space Age Blues was constantly innovative, not at all traditional. Henry Kaiser, in his introduction, notes that rock performers from Paul McCartney to Kurt Cobain have acknowledged the influence of the Magic Band.

Only the popular media, perhaps, has been silent on their contributions to rock.

Harkleroad, here, does much to inform the public of the band behind the scenes. The popular image of rock bands is that they can play a few chords and maybe keep in time. The Magic Band, on the contrary, practiced day and night, week after week, to get their complex music perfected. Bill gives us a good feel for this. He also spends several chapters analyzing each album and song, commenting on the vocals, the arrangements, the guitar parts, etc. It’s hard to grok his comments without the albums on hand. To the uninitiated, it can’t be very interesting.

What is missing most is much of substance about the Captain. We read about the difficulties of working with Beefheart, about his tendency to take all credit (one classic story, which Zoot disputes, says that CB wrote all the music and lyrics for the legendary Trout Mask Replica double-album in 24 hours, but it took a year for the band to learn this complex material), and about how he was both kind-hearted and humorous, on one hand, but abusive and manipulative, on the other.

Bill recounts one curious story where he and CB had gone to see Muddy Waters, the father of electric blues. After his set, Muddy came to talk to them, and, feeling intimidated by the 28 year old CB, apologized for his poor singing that night.

But though Zoot talks about the Captain considerably, there is not much of the Captain: a lot to think about, not much I could touch. The book is also handicapped by poor editing and production, with a good amount of typos.

With no prior knowledge of the band it may be hard to appreciate Lunar Notes; somewhat like hearing about the taste of a mango, though you’ve never eaten one. However, for CB fans (whom, Zoot wryly claims, tended to be ‘brainiac nerds’: PhD students with horn-rimmed glasses) or those curious about this little known but significant aspect of rock history, this book provides material and observations probably found nowhere else. For those who were there, this book confirms that it really happened. If you weren’t, still, Lunar Notes helps you guess what it was like.