Richard Nisley

From Beefheart to Bartok
Pop Culture Released - Feb 14, 2016

The Antelope Valley always comes as a shock after driving up from Los Angeles. L. A. is cool ocean breezes, miles of beaches, palm trees, Sunset Boulevard, the Hollywood sign, freeways, smog, and endless suburbs. Fifty miles to the north, the Antelope Valley is a desert landscape of windswept tumbleweeds, sagebrush and yucca trees, a few small towns, and aircraft plants. That’s how I remember it. It’s where I grew up and, in 1967, graduated from Palmdale High School. One of my classmates was a musician named Bill Harkleroad, a.k.a., Zoot Horn Rollo.

There are two things you need to know about Bill Harkleroad. First, he was part of an incredibly dynamic music scene that was taking place in the Antelope Valley in the mid-sixties, producing the likes of Frank Zappa, Captain Beefheart, Clarence White and Gene Parsons of the Byrds, and my high school classmate. The second thing you need to know is he is a musician in the truest sense. He plays to serve the music. Music, rather than being a rock star, is his passion. Today, he teaches guitar and listens to the string quartets of Bela Bartok. From 1968 to 1975, he was Zoot Horn Rollo, guitarist extraordinaire for one of the most bizarre rock outfits on the planet—Captain Beefheart & His Magic Band. How Harkleroad got from Beefheart to Bartok is the subject of this blog.

Harkleroad’s musical talent was evident very early. In the fifth grade, playing a plastic recorder in music class, he was doing variations on a theme while everyone else was struggling to play the notes on the page. By the seventh grade he was playing drums in a surf band, and by his freshman year of high school he was playing guitar professionally in a band of 20-somethings. In his sophomore year, he saw a white blues singer named Don Van Vliet singing with the raw power of Muddy Waters, and doing astounding things on the mouth harp. Harkleroad was stunned. “Man-O-man,” he said later, “this solidified me as a blues player for life!” Going forward, blues would define his music. His prowess on electric guitar caught the attention of Don Van Vliet who by now was going by the name of Captain Beefheart. Captain Beefheart & His Magic Band were creating a sensation wherever they played, and it wasn’t long before a major record label signed them to a contract. Harkleroad couldn’t wait to graduate and somehow hookup with Beefheart & His Magic Band. In the meantime, he formed his own band of high school friends, called the Polaras. They were playing raw and gritty Mississippi Delta Blues while rival school bands were doing slick covers of the Beatles and the Beach Boys. The Polaras weren’t popular, but they had attitude. The last time I saw Harkleroad perform was in the high school gym. He was wearing shades, a floppy hat, a long trench coat, singing like Howlin’ Wolf while churning out blues chords on his guitar.

After high school, Harkleroad moved to Lake Tahoe and became involved with a cult of Timothy Leary followers, which meant taking copious amounts of LSD. About a year later, Beefheart offered him a tryout. Harkleroad hadn’t picked up his guitar in six months, but his playing, however rusty, was strong enough to get him inducted into the band. “I went from one cult to another,” is how he described it later. The band was like a family with Beefheart as the father figure, all living under one roof in a house in the San Fernando Valley. The first thing Harkleroad discovered was Beefheart’s music had changed drastically. The new material still had the blues feel, but creatively had leaped light-years forward. It was polyphonic and polyrhythmic, complex, dissonant, at once cacophonous and tuneful. In order to play the music, Harkleroad had to adapt his guitar stylings to suit the band’s spiky sound. “I was a quick learner and slide playing, tunings, and finger style playing were not all that new to me.” The band practiced up to sixteen hours a day on what would become “Trout Mask Replica.” The band was so well-rehearsed that the double album was recorded in one take. The only overdub was Van Viet’s voice, recorded the following afternoon. The buying public didn’t know what to make of the album, but the more avant-garde critics loved it. TIME magazine wrote: “The solo vocal turns sound like sea shanties; intricately ordered pieces with two guitars playing dissonant lines . . . . But its most recognizable feature is its staccato, perpetually disorienting melodic lines.” Commercially, the album flopped in the U.S. but sold well in Europe, especially in the U.K., climbing to number 24 on the British charts. Today “Trout Mask Replica” is considered a classic. ROLLING STONE magazine ranks it as number 60 on the list of 500 greatest albums of all time.

The joy of being in a big-time rock band, and of meeting and playing with the likes of Frank Zappa, Mick Jagger of the Rolling Stones, and Pete Townshend of the Who, and meeting blues legend Muddy Waters, was exhilarating. That was the upside. The downside was dealing with the unpredictable moods of Don Van Vliet, a.k.a. Captain Beefheart, and with the band’s greedy management. Van Vliet gave everyone in the band a name, possibly as a form of control. He discouraged contact with family, and friends outside the band. Harkleroad’s name was changed to Zoot Horn Rollo. For the first year or two they didn’t perform before a live audience. Instead, they stayed holed up in the house, rehearsing day and night, with Van Vliet as the demanding and increasingly disapproving father figure. “In the early stages my relationship with him was actually very good,” says Harkleroad. “It was exciting working with him. But it was increasingly clear that he was hard to get along with. He was a very creative force, but very soon I got a sense for the less positive feelings that were circulating in the band. As rehearsals went on, it got less and less exciting and more like drudgery. . . . What I came to realize was that his creativity wasn’t as clear cut as far as being very musical. He adopted more of the mentality of a sculptor. His idea was to use sound, bodies and people as the tools.”

Another problem was a decided lack of money. Album sales were weak, the band wasn’t touring (Van Vliet passed up an invitation to play Woodstock), and every month the rent was due. At first, Don’s mother pitched in, then Harkleroad’s mother began sending money as well, money saved for her son’s college tuition (several thousand dollars, according to Harkleroad). At one point, the band took to stealing from the local super market in order to eat—and got caught in the act. Frank Zappa put up the money to bail them out. Such an existence took its toll. Some band members left, and the job of arranging the music fell to Harkleroad, as well as hiring replacement musicians. The song arrangements of the next album, “Lick My Decals Off Baby” were all Harkleroad. He was now the one interpreting Van Vliet’s muddled and often half-baked vision and turning it into music the band could play.

There was still no money from record sales, but once the band began touring things changed—somewhat. On the road, the band was eating regularly and staying in decent hotels—and wearing outrageous outfits that Van Vliet had picked out for each of them. Despite poor records sales, the crowds were good, especially on college campuses up and down the East Coast, and more so in concert halls throughout Europe where the band had it’s biggest following. The funny thing about Beefheart fans, especially in the U.S., was they were mostly guys, often techies who would show up looking like robots or wearing headgear that resembled a computer. Apart from groupies, girls were a rarity at Captain Beefheart concerts. The band’s biggest fan base was in England, which led to a performance at London’s Royal Albert Hall, before an audience that included the Beatles. But at the close of each tour management would issue the same report—travel expenses, hotels, limos, new clothes, equipment repairs, had eaten up much of the profits. After management deducted for personal service fees and taxes, the band was paid virtually nothing. Meanwhile, Van Vliet would show up in yet another expensive car.

Harkleroad was disenchanted, but he couldn’t work up the nerve to leave. Van Vliet’s charismatic presence had too great a hold on him. And always there were promises of “next time”—next time there would be more money. Besides, wasn’t it really about the music and not about the money? “For six years, I couldn’t say no to the man,” says Harkleroad. Around 1972 management changed, and with it new promises from Van Vliet that Harkleroad would be paid song royalties for what was now clearly a team effort, like Lennon-McCartney, with Van Vliet writing the words and providing a general direction on how the music should go, and Harkleroad making the songs work—arranging and often composing. The next album, “The Spotlight Kid” was more commercial but like the previous two efforts didn’t sell in the U.S. Song royalties and publishing, however thin, were paid to Van Vliet and to management; Harkleroad didn’t see a penny.

More time and more money was spent on the next album. “Clear Spot” was not only their most commercial effort to date, but their biggest seller. Harkleroad was working harder than ever. With “Clear Spot,” as always, he transcribed Van Vliet’s barely comprehensible ideas into music for the band to play, and did as many as a dozen overdubs on various tracks. Some tracks, such as the guitar instrumental, “One Red Rose That I Mean,” are clearly Harkleroad’s creation. Van Vliet tossed him a bone (of sorts) with a tune entitled “Big Eyed Beans From Venus” (Van Vliet’s description of skinny-as-a-beanpole Harkleroad) with the line, “Don’t let anything get in between us/Big Eyed Beans From Venus,” and another line, “Mr. Zoot Horn Rollo, hit that long lunar note, and let it float” followed by one of Harkleroad’s rare solos, a sustained glissando that ends in a frenzy of quivering guitar strings. “Clear Spot” proved to be the band’s biggest seller, but again Harkleroad didn’t see a penny in royalties. One more album, the lackluster “Unconditionally Guaranteed,” and Harkleroad finally had enough. On the eve of another tour, all four members of the Magic Band walked out. Van Vliet’s spell was broken. Six years of verbal abuse and empty promises, five albums, no money, and it was over.

Harkleroad returned to the Antelope Valley absolutely broke, but with a sizable reputation. Ian Anderson of Jethro Tull arrived at his house one morning, and after a day of riding dirt bikes in the desert, offered him a contract to make records for his new label, Virgin Records. Harkleroad’s signing bonus would be his first and only significant paycheck. His band was made up of Magic Band refugees, under the new name of Mallard. But the desire was no longer there. After recording two albums, Harkleroad tired of being a rock ’n’ roll star. He never enjoyed the spotlight, and decided his talents would be better spent teaching guitar, which is what he has been doing for the past 35 years. During that time, his musical horizons have broadened considerably. For seven years he played nothing but classical guitar.

“I’ve moved toward classical because in my study, that’s where I’m going,” he says today. “Mainstream jazz—I marvel at their technique, but underneath it’s not my favorite thing.” These days Harkleroad’s favorite thing is the string quartet, especially the six composed by Bela Bartok. Why the string quartet? “Because it’s naked; you can hear the parts so easily.” Listening to Bartok’s string quartets can be a jarring experience, a move away from tonality toward sharply dissonant sounds, of haunting glissandos, dramatic mutings, and extended passages in multiple stops—yes, music that feels not too dissimilar from the music of Captain Beefheart & His Magic Band, which is to say the music of the man who played and arranged much of it—Zoot Horn Rollo. Harkleroad also listens to the music of Beethoven, Mozart, Chopin, Bach, Alban Berg, and Schoenberg, among others. He listens not to be entertained, but to learn and grow musically.

These days, Harkleroad makes his home in Eugene, Oregon. He’s happily married, has a dog but no children. “Children should not have children,” he says. He’s more proud than bitter of his days in the Magic Band. If anything, he blames himself for not getting paid. Lots of musicians were taken advantage of, he says, then and now. A part of him hates the music business. Music, however, still drives him. It keeps him from being complacent and remains his great passion. He plays guitar eight hours a day and teaches. And he’s branched out. With Skype, he can teach anyone in the world. He can be reached at:

Final note: ROLLING STONE magazine critic David Fricke ranks him as number 62 on the list of the world’s 100 greatest guitarists. Harkleroad has recorded two CDs featuring his scintillating playing, available from and iTunes: “We Saw a Bozo Under the Sea” (2000), and “Mask Tracks #1#2#3#4” (2014), both listed under Zoot Horn Rollo.

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