Space Blues
The musical career of Jeff Cotton

Jeff Cotton, The Exiles, The Magic Band & MU

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Captain Beefheart & The Magic Band

Jeff joined the Magic Band on 'heavy guitar' early in November 1967 to fill a position that Don was having trouble keeping stable. After ousting Doug Moon during the recording of SAM, then having Ry Cooder walk out on him in July, Don had hired session player Jerry McGee to play that vital second lead role alongside Alex St Claire. But when this didn't work out (although Don appropriated Jerry's style of playing with steel picks on his fingers) he called on the younger man from Lancaster who already knew, and had played with, Magic Band drummer John French.

Whatever Jeff was expecting when he joined the Magic Band it is unlikely he was prepared for what was to come. Almost as soon as he joined he was involved in the acid-fuelled recording sessions at TTG Studios on Los Angeles' Sunset Boulevard which were the preparation for an ambitious double album package to be called It comes to you in a plain brown wrapper marked personal. Rehearsing and recording for this project carried on until May 1968 interrupted by a short European tour during January which included the legendary Cannes beach performance. With recording finished the band set off again for Europe, this time showcasing songs from Strictly Personal on John Peel's BBC radio show.

Jeff on the beach at Cannes 1968Whether or not Jeff had actually been brought into the band for his 'heavy guitar' playing as the magazine article suggests it certainly showed on Strictly Personal where the twin lead duelling and interplaying of Alex and Jeff is at the same time heavy and subtle. The longer meandering workouts on the Mirror Man album are less heavy (due to the lack of production more than anything) but are no less mesmeric and fascinating. Jeff also supplied backing vocals on a number of tracks on Strictly Personal. The few fragments of film showing the Magic Band playing live reveal Jeff as an intense and strongly focussed player with a great line in headgear.

The Magic Band returned from the 1968 European tour during June and almost immediately fell apart. Alex St Claire left after a bust-up in San Francisco and Jerry Handley left because Don's new songs were no longer particularly blues-based, plus he had a family to support. The replacement lead guitarist seems to have been almost inevitably Bill Harkleroad; he'd hung around rehearsals and knew Jeff and John. It now fell to Jeff, who knew both lead guitar parts, to teach Bill all the necessary parts for the re-recording of Strictly Personal. Although some recording took place, with Gary Marker on bass, the whole album was never redone. As Gary had no intention of staying full time under Don's obsessive leadership the call went out to Mark Boston to fill in on bass. Don now holed the band up in the house at Woodland Hills and began work on what was to become Trout Mask Replica.

Jeff in dress. Aquarius Theatre 1969

When Bill joined the Magic Band he noticed that his friend Jeff had changed, had become more 'hyper' as he described it. This was probably inevitable having been under Don's influence for a while and having been touring and living hand to mouth for too long. But with hindsight it was a hint of more changes to come as the next few months were to have a devastating effect, mentally and physically, on him.

The end of 1968 and beginning of 1969 were an intense period within the Magic Band house rehearsing the Trout Mask Replica material with Don wielding an almost Svengali-like control over the younger men who looked up to him as a creative genius. There was a lack of money and food, an arrest for shoplifting (which Frank Zappa had to bail them out of), neighbours complaining about the noise, the mind games played by Beefheart... For more detail about these strange few months see Bill Harkleroad's book Lunar Notes, John French's book Through The Eyes Of Magic and Mike Barnes' biography of Beefheart.

Jeff's role in the band, apart from guitar of course, was as scribe, to take down Don's lyrics. He also had to learn many of them and would have to recite them as and when Don requested. This would happen far too often according to John French. As he recounts in his interview on the BBC documentary:

"Jeff's role was to read the poetry ... our role was kind of to be excited about hearing it, you know, hearing it dozens of times sometimes, you know,

"Pena
Her little head clinking
Like a barrel full uh red velvet balls
Full past noise
Treats filled 'er eyes ... "

just on and on you know, [puts hands over ears] I can't hear this anymore"

Storytime in the Magic Band gardenThere is the classic photograph from this time which shows all the band in the house garden with Jeff holding a large piece of paper (or is it a book?) and he appears to be reciting while Don beams benignly upon him.

The two most well known recorded Jeff recitations are, of course, Pena and The Blimp. However, there does exist on a tape of Beefheart's interview with Fulton Meatball in 1969 Jeff reciting another of Don's poems dopedinstunnedimages.

The story of The Blimp seems to be that Don wanted Zappa to hear the lyrics so he told Jeff to phone Frank at his studio and recite them to him. Zappa had the foresight to record this 'through a fly's ear' while Don played sax in the background and used it as it was for the album backed with a rhythm piece (called Charles Ives) that Mothers' Art Tripp and Roy Estrada had been working on at the time. Pena is a more straightforward song but why did Don allow Jeff to sing it? This could be construed as a great honour as Don hasn't let anyone else sing his songs. Maybe he wanted it done in this strange garbled falsetto way and couldn't do the voice himself. Jeff managed it but he suffered with throat pains every time he did. Don did try a similar manic Pena-like voice on the song Telephone from Doc At The Radar Station.

The intensity of the work plus the (over?) use of acid seems to have played a part in Jeff becoming unraveled. There is the story of him sitting in the bushes of the Woodland Hills house holding breadcrumbs in the palm of his hand and making bird noises. Nothing sinister in this and it was probably a respite from the daily grind of rehearsals but it does help to show his gentle side and affinity for nature. Although Don would applaud this attitude and has more than once said what a fine guitarist Jeff was it did not stop him from inflicting the same sort of mind games on him as he did on the rest of the band. Jeff would have his abilities ridiculed and his self-confidence totally undermined to the point where he felt he had to stay because he would not be able to function outside in the real world. He tried to leave but Don would always succeed in changing his mind.

He had to take his turn as 'bad' band member and have the rest of the band, his friends, turn on him. Unfortunately it became ugly and after one particular physical assault (probably by 'roadie' Jeff Bruchell) Jeff was left with broken ribs. This was the last straw, he was hospitalised. But it gave him the chance to recoup his depleted mental and physical reserves away from Don's influence. Understandably, Don didn't want to lose a player of Jeff's quality, not to mention all the time invested in rehearsing the 'Trout' songs and the possibility of playing them live, so he sent the rest of the Magic Band to Jeff's house to get him to return. But Jeff's father kept them from seeing him and had no intention of letting his son return, enlisting the help of Merrell Fankhauser to support Jeff in his recovery. See Merrell's story about The Magic Bathroom

Although Jeff had to leave because of being physically and mentally abused this wasn't how Don saw it. When asked about Jeff by Melody Maker magazine in 1972 he said:

"Oh, Antennae I really like him...he sure was funny. I mean, funny.... on nights when there was a full moon, he used to go out and eat a loaf of bread in the bushes. And he used to make noises like a bird. He didn't talk much, just...(brings out his hand to his mouth and whistles like a curlew) - scary stuff. But he was authentically that way, and I thought: 'That's fine, I've seen worse things than people talking like birds'. I enjoyed him. He didn't hurt anybody. He was a nice cat. but he didn't want to wait until I got the group together. Some people don't think they have very long. Some people are ruled by the watch: that's terrible....'

Bill Harkleroad has fond memories of being with Jeff in the Magic Band. He recently sent me this after reading the Space Blues pages:

I was just reading the Jeff Cotton stuff and was moved to say that I would like to post somehow what a good friend and great player and influence he was on me. We were all so beat to shit by the environment, but I loved the guy and on reflection realize how much I learned from him.

We were both doing the same thing trying to play good as high schoolers. We were in different schools and maybe a bit competitive as young guitarists can be but just before Jeff joined the “Beef Band” he and I became friends. It was so easy I think because we had so much in common and without the competitiveness guitar was not how we connected. It was personal and yes some drug use, it was 1967.

The work we did together when I joined the band was very influential. The right hand technique was new to me. I believe it was a combination of Ry Cooder and Jerry Mcgee's that through learning the Strictly Personal tunes it moved me forward in a giant leap. I had a great respect for Jeff's playing and always felt it was mutual, that was the only time in that band that the two guitars were in such a close tandem. I really believe had Jeff stayed in the band another level of playing would have been achieved.

Magic Bathroom

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© Text copyright Steve Froy 2001-2017