FTF:Everyone who had a working relationship with Don had a rough time at one stage or another and he could be a hard taskmaster. His methods were strange and he would physiologically bully and break people down to get the results he was looking for. A moderate example of this was once in a recording session, while unhappy with the band he told them to play the song ‘upside down’ until they could understand the piece properly. Eventually he allowed them to play it ‘the right way’ again. Emotionally he pulled people back and forth, sometimes to achieve musical results and sometimes just for his own amusement.
Was Don talented musically, or was it more a talent for creating art from music?
Mike: He had a primitive style to playing the piano, but he came up with some amazing stuff.
A lot of past Magic Band members haven’t been happy with the way Don took the credit for writing all the music. Their input was never credited even though many of the parts were ‘composed’ by the band. Morris Tepper (Beefheart guitarist) commented on this: ‘you would come up with parts but they would be in pre existing musical landscape that Beefheart had created’ so he had to take credit for creating the environment.
Beefheart was famous for his distaste of traditional musical structure and wanted his music to be an irritant. Or to quote him directly, like a ‘sandpaper on a shrimp’.
FTF: His composing methods were also strange, writing many songs on a piano in one take. These were then transcribed by John ‘Drumbo’ French for the band to copy exactly note for note. Strange, because in the traditional sense Don could not play the piano. It is a testament to the talent of the Magic Band that despite it’s apparently freeform structure and musical insanity, when playing live the band (excluding the more spontaneous activities of Don) reproduced the records to near perfect level.
John ‘Drumbo’ French left the Magic Band many times but was drawn back by Don’s ‘spell’, and Magic Band members found life after the band difficult to adjust to. Like a War Veteran returning to everyday life, playing in a ‘normal’ band was a big come down once you had been in the Magic Band.
Mike: One ex-member had a really uneasy feeling after leaving the group and was convinced Don had put a ‘hex’ on him. There was a mystical quality about him and he found visiting a big city an overload on his sensory perception, most of the time preferring a simple life in the Mojave dessert. He was ‘in tune’ with nature and there are many witnesses to his seemingly telepathic and spiritual powers.
FTF: Once in New York at Gary Lucas’s (manager and guitarist) apartment, Don suddenly announced that ‘something really heavy had gone down, you’ll read all about it tomorrow in the papers’. It was the day John Lennon had been shot. On many occasions he would walk up to a phone and it would ring as he was about to pick it up.