Wisdom from a Beefheart bassist
Interview by Austin Woods
Mark Boston -- also known by his pseudonym Rockette Morton -- was 19 years old when he joined Captain Beefheart's Magic Band. A self-described "country bumpkin" raised on a diet of country and western and early rock 'n roll, the young bassist thought he would be performing the more conventional Safe as Milk material upon joining the group in 1968. Instead, he found himself thrust into the caustic, contorted world of Trout Mask Replica.
Still, Boston kept an open mind, and adjusted his approach to the bass accordingly. He quickly developed his own technique of using three metal finger picks along with a standard flat pick, in order to properly "attack" the album's chordal bass parts. In typically self-aggrandizing fashion, Don Van Vliet claimed to have taught him how to play the instrument from scratch -- but other Magic Band members insist this wasn't the case.
"Back in 1965...it was hard to find people who played bass," guitarist Bill Harkleroad remembers in his book Lunar Notes. "It was considered the 'stupid instrument' -- the guy who couldn't play guitar would play the bass. That was not the case with Mark -- he was a good bass player."
PSF recently spoke to him about recording the album, as well as his time in Mallard (a short-lived group made up of former Magic Band members), and his own solo work.
PSF: Your dad got you into music, right?
MB: Yeah. He liked country and western. I started out on a tub bass. That's an old wash tub. You attach a stick to it, and a string. You play by bending it and going up and down. It's a lot of fun. Then he got me a bass fiddle. I was so short, I had to stand on a stool to play it. Then he got me an electric bass. From then on, it was all electric.
I started playing country and western with my dad, then I went on to play in local bands when we moved from Illinois to Lancaster, California (in 1963). The desert was like going to a different planet. You know how Illinois is -- cold in the winter, wet. We were sick all the time...I just hated it. But California was great. It's not so much now. Lancaster's turned into another San Fernando Valley. Too many people have moved out there. Even going from Lancaster to L.A., it used to be a two hour trip, now sometimes it's three or four hours because of all the traffic.
Like I said, I started with country and western. Then I started playing stuff like "Alley Oop" and "Louie Louie," some of the first rock and roll songs. Then I got into the Yardbirds, and of course the Beatles. When they came out, and I saw the screaming girls fainting over them, I thought, 'that's what I want.' Of course, I never got it. But we met quite a few real nice ladies over the years just playing music. That was my main influence -- the women, I guess. But I liked music too.
PSF: Tell us about joining the Magic Band.
MB: I used to go see Captain Beefheart perform before I got in the band. They played locally. I just loved the sound. Back then, he was almost all blues -- one of the best blues bands ever. He played harmonica so well, and, of course, that growling voice. Then Safe As Milk came out, and I wore that album out, playing it every day, all night long. I had a phonograph that would play it, then start over and play it again. I slept with that music on all night long.
I wanted to play that music. That was it for me. And one day, Don called me up and said 'You got a white shirt?' Back then, that was a joke. That's a band uniform, the white shirt. He invited me down (to audition). Bill Harkleroad, Jeff Cotton, and John French, we had all played together in different bands in Lancaster before that, playing blues, rock and roll, and a little bit of country. I went down there thinking we would play the Safe As Milk kind of music. Boy, was I in for a surprise -- I walked into the middle of Trout Mask Replica.
They said, 'Just play along with this song.' They said it was in the key of G. Instead of counting it off, John always counted off the song by saying 'And!' I started trying to play along with this stuff. I think the song was "Steal Softly Thru Snow." At the end of the song, everybody laughed and said, 'You're hired. You're the first guy who's even made it through the song.'
Then I had to start learning the stuff. That was a whole different animal. It was just a different way of approaching music. Everything was structured. Sometimes it sounded like a train wreck, but when we played it, we played the same train wreck every time. It was controlled chaos. It was fun when we all got together to play it, with all the parts in the right place. But getting to that point was the hard part. And dealing with Don. He was a bit overbearing, I'll say...but he wasn't all bad. He was a very entertaining person. 24-hours a day, he would spout some of the most profound imagery and poetry you would ever want to hear.
PSF: You mentioned you were the first person to make it to the end of that audition. Why do you think you were able to do that?
MB: I had an open mind...it wasn't easy. From the get-go, I had to start learning that really complicated, bizarre music. But I recognized it as a true art form. And I really wanted to be a part of it. That's why I stuck with it, even though it could get unbearable, some of the crap we had to go through with Don. I wouldn't call it mind control. He was just domineering, and everything had to be his way.
But he was right-on. Everything he did was creative. I even helped him with some of his paintings -- mixing the paints, keeping the brushes clean, and changing the easel. He would go out to the yard and do a bunch of new ones.
When we were practicing, John (French) took over as musical director. Don would ramble on the piano for hours, and John would stand over him with a notepad. Don always came up with interesting patterns and rhythms, and John would sit there and jot it down, because he was good at music notation. He had to sit down and teach the parts to each one of us. Then we would practice on our own. We had a little shed out back for a laundry room, and we would take turns going there to practice. Then we would all come together and try to play the songs.
PSF: How did you develop your technique of using three metal finger picks along with a flat pick?
MB: Some of that stuff, to play it right, I had to attack it, and articulate different movements. I just had to do it. That was the only way I could play the songs right. They were full chords, some of them, and trying to do that without finger picks is difficult. Fingerpicks give you more clarity. It rings the notes out.
I enjoyed playing with fingerpicks on that Trout Mask stuff...one of the high points was when Jethro Tull took us on tour for a few weeks. That was fun. 30,000 people every night -- that blew me away. I started off the whole show with a bass solo. Before we went on stage, I was scared to death. There were 30,000 people all stomping their feet and chanting 'We want Tull!' I walked on stage with my bass on, and people looked at me like, 'What's this idiot doing?' Then I just went into the bass solo. I was playing the parts for "Hair Pie"...and people started getting into it.
Trout Mask Replica album sleeve with Boston on the right
PSF: Do you have a favorite Beefheart project that you worked on?
MB: Even though I didn't play bass that much on it, Clear Spot. I enjoyed that because it was very professionally done. Ted Templeman, the producer, kept Don in line... Lick My Decals Off, Baby was cool. We were with Warner Brothers at that point. That was exciting. When they sent us on tour, they would send a representative out to the airport to act as our guide and make sure we had everything we needed.
They took us to a restaurant in New York. I remember eating a lobster that was hanging over the plate. It was huge. We got done eating, and I said, 'That was so good, I could eat another one of those.' The Warner Brothers guy said (to the waiter), 'Alright, bring him another lobster.' And I ate the whole thing, it was so good. They took good care of us. They even took us to the department where they made costumes for movies. They measured me, and made me a nice cobalt blue suit...I wore that to quite a few concerts.
I loved being at Warner Brothers, but unfortunately, Don had a meeting with (label president) Mo Ostin. I don't know what he said to him, but after that day, we were no longer with Warner Brothers. That really floored me and pissed me off, that Don would do that.
PSF: Tell me about your time in Mallard. When we left the band with Beefheart (in 1974), we started putting something together, but it never happened. A couple of the guys had to go get jobs, because they had wives to support. So it just kind of fell apart. That's when I wrote to Ian Anderson, and told him that I wanted to do something. I had to go down to meet him in L.A. a couple months after I talked to him. I had no way to get out there, but this friend of mine had a '55 Ford pickup sitting in his yard, and it needed a bunch of engine work. He said, 'if you can get that running, you can have it.' I was out there in the rain working on it...I got it together, and I drove up to the hills in Hollywood, where (Jethro Tull) were staying.
We got Bill [Harkleroad] and Art Tripp, and we auditioned a bunch of singers. Somehow we found Sam (Galpin). He was a singer out of Las Vegas. He had that gravely voice... I liked Sam. He was always really fun. But he was hard in the studio. He gave Bill a really hard time. Bill kind of took over, being the coordinator who put the album together. He was so much more advanced than me with music...but Sam was kind of arrogant, and he even told me later, in the last few years, while he was still alive, that he wished he hadn't been so arrogant. He did give Bill a really hard time in the studio about singing a certain way, or not wanting to sing a certain way. But it all came together, and I was really happy with our sound on both albums.
Ian Anderson and the band paid for our first album. They flew us to England, and set us up in a little chalet... We got an album out of the deal, and a free trip to England. To me, that was the next step up from being with Beefheart. That was the highlight of my career. The next year, Virgin Records flew us back to England for the second Mallard album. That was great too, because they put us up in this castle called Clearwell Castle, right on the border of Wales. We spent a couple of weeks there, and to me, it was a whole 'nother world. I loved it.
I enjoyed that music, because it was us. It was our music, that we developed.
PSF: Your solo album, Love Space, turns 20 this year. How did that project come about?
MB: When I was living (in South Carolina), I met this fellow named Les Kitchings... he and his wife, Linda, taught me the full meaning of 'Southern hospitality.' They took me in like family. Most of my family was back in the West, so out there, I was by myself. But at Christmas time and Thanksgiving, they always had me over so I wouldn't be alone. He had a building right next to his office, and I helped him build a really nice recording studio. That's when I was touring with the Magic Band, when we re-formed it. I made a lot of money from that, so I came back and bought equipment.
I recorded mostly gospel down there -- black gospel, white gospel. Country bands, a few rock bands. Unfortunately, a lot of rap. I didn't care for rap at all, but it paid my bills. We had a really nice studio, and in my downtime, I would work on my stuff. I did most of the music myself. I would get the songs arranged, and I did all the drums myself with a sequencer.
I did it for me. I didn't care if I sold it. I just enjoyed doing it. I enjoyed working on the harmonies... I'm not a good singer, but I love singing. I love harmonizing. When I was done, I played it for a friend of mine. I gave him a copy of the CD, and he took it home to listen to it. Later I talked to him about it, and I said, 'How did you like it?' He said, 'It's got a really good sound, but you need to fire the singer.'
PSF: What have you been up to since?
MB: I ended up moving to Oregon with my friend, because his folks bought some land up here... Then in 2015, I had to get a five-way heart bypass. I was about ready to check out. It was getting hard to breathe, and of course, I had no energy. I went and saw a heart doctor. After that visit, his assistant called me the next day and said, "The doctor wants to see you in his office, now." So I went in there, and two days later, I was under the knife.
I lost interest (in music) after the heart bypass. I just didn't touch my bass or guitar for three or four years. I didn't listen to music. I did a lot of watching TV -- too much. But my interest is coming back...I started working on songs again. I'm gonna try to finish an album. Plus artwork. I started a thing called "Rockette Morton Art." It's just doodling, because when I was in the hospital, I was sitting there, bored, trying to nurture a pen and some paper...I started selling some of my stuff. I've got a stack of drawings, and I'm still working on some.
Myself, Bill Harkleroad, Jeff Cotton, and John French -- that's the four of us remaining from Trout Mask. Trout Mask is the (album) that's gotten the most acclaim out of any of them... It's being studied by jazz conservatories at different music colleges. They're still trying to figure out how we did it. And I couldn't sit down and explain how we did it. We just did it. It was a lot of hard work and determination, but we did it. And I'm proud of that.
PSF: Is there anything else you want to add?
MB: Anybody that's got a chance to do something different from everybody else -- do it. Work at it. It takes a lot of work, and you've got to be determined. But I think music is a good thing. The gift of humanity is art... (Art) is the universe expressing itself. That's the way I see it.
Austin Woods can be found on X/Twitter at @austinwds64
Also see our coverage of Beefheart's entire album catalog