Like the Zappa and Bowie groups, the Magic Band was a magnet for superb guitarists, and Harkleroad was only one of many gifted players who passed through its ranks. Doug Moon, Alex St. Claire and young Ry Cooder helped the band morph from a straight-ahead blues combo to daring rock outsiders. Moris Tepper, Richard Redus and Gary Lucas helped Beefheart create three extraordinary albums before his 1982 retirement. But more than any single player, it was Harkleroad - with the help from Jeff Cotton, Elliot Ingber and Mark Boston - who, between 1969 and '74 helped concoct the definitive Beefheart guitar sound.
Bill spent his adolescence in Lancaster, California, the desert town north of L.A. where both Frank Zappa and Beefheart (real name: Don Van Vliet) attended high school. "One of the first bands I remember seeing live was the Blackouts with Frank on drums," recalls Bill. "When I was 14 or 15 and Frank and Don were in their early 20s, I started meeting them at jam sessions."
Bill shared Van Vliet's enthusiasm for the blues: "The Beatles had cool hair and all, but I was more of a B.B. King guy. By the time I was 15, I was playing not-for-note Muddy Waters things in open tuning." Meanwhile, Van Vliet and his band were starting to warp the blues with increasingly surreal lyrics, ad hoc structures and startling dissonance, resulting in the group's Cooder-driven debut, Safe as Milk.
Harkleroad first ventured into the studio with Beefheart during the making of the next album, Strictly Personal. The session was overseen by producer/engineer Zappa, who apparently found the your guitarist's '63 Telecaster/Dual Showman tone insufficiently harsh: He strode into the studio and dimed every knob on the amp with a single swipe of his arm. "I had to stand to the side of it because it was so painful," remembers Bill. "It could have cut paper for sure." The day's tracks were shelved when producer Bob Krasnow wrested creative control from Zappa and Beefheart, but "Moonlight on Vermont" and "Veteran's Day Poppy" would later resurface as Trout Mask Replica highlights.
"Then Don took control," recounts Bill. "The older players like Ry were gone, and he could tell us young guys what to do." Beefheart even re-christened the musicians: Harkleroad was now Zoot Horn Rollo, and Cotton became Antennae Jimmy Semens. Van Vliet also molded Bill's musicianship, specifying not only what to play but how. The teenager was directed to use heavy strings and adopt the same combination of flatpick and metal fingerpicks that Cotton used. "Don wanted it to sound harder, harder, harder," says Bill. "My fingers would be a bloody mess, but I didn't complain. I was 19, my two favorite artists were Zappa and Beefheart, and I was just glad I didn't have to go to college or join the army and die. "Liner notes credited Rollo and Semens with "steel appendage" and "glass finger" guitar in reference to their respective slides of choice.
Arranging procedures were eccentric: Beefheart would pound out improvised tunes on the piano, which drummer John "Drumbo" French would transcribe and teach to the band. "We'd transpose or omit notes that were impossible to play," explains Bill, " but basically we kept it true to what Don played and reproduced it note for note every time. We were not given the liberty to stretch out until years later."
The band shared a house in suburban Woodland Hills, a scenario Bill recalls with bitterness: "the side of the music that most people don't want the hear about is how manipulative this older guy was with these 19-year-old kids. It was only ten yards short of a Manson situation. We would play 12 to 16 hours a day, fall on the floor, and them wake up and do it again. Our hero was a brilliant person with half his energy running on extreme paranoia. He'd talk to us for 36 hours straight, telling use that our hand position in the air wasn't artistic enough."
Beefheart once claimed that the entire Trout Mask double album was written in eight-and-a-half hours. Bill remembers differently: "Don spent days banging out the tunes - and that's not including all the ones that were written before we got to that phase." But everyone agrees that produce Frank Zappa and the band recorded it in a flash, with the bulk of the instrumental tracks captured in a single session.
Bill used a Gibson ES-125 for several songs but says the Tele remained his principal guitar. "It had been reworked by Dick Kunc, Zappa's engineer. It had a Grentsch pickup in the neck position - I don't remember which one - plus separate volume and tone controls for each pickup, and an out-of-phase switch, which was awful but sure seemed high-tech at the time. I usually played both pickups so I could get something besides a squeal from the bridge pickup. We had to rent amps for the session, because our practice amp was a 6x10 Sears Silvertone. I used the Silvertone on some things and a rented Fender Twin for others."
John French and Jeff Cotton left the band before the next album, 1079's Lick My Decals Off, Baby, and sole guitarist Harkleroad became Beefheart's transcriber. Even the album's gorgeous solo guitar piece, "The One Red Rose That I mean," was created by stringing together chunks of Van Vliet's free-form piano playing. "I recorded it with a Gibson ES-330," notes Bill. "I played that and the Tele through Ampeg's version of a Twin Reverb, an awful amp that I used from then on. If I could do it over, I'd prefer an old, warm Princeton, something less shrapnel-like."
By this point, says Harkleroad, the musicians were listening almost exclusively to avant-garde jazz, even though they rarely improvised themselves. There were starstruck when Ornette Coleman, Pharoah Sanders, Joe Henderson and Charles Mingus all attended one memorable New York City gig. Bill played that night on a borrowed guitar - earlier that day a cab driver had driven off with many of the band's instruments, including the never recovered Trout Mask Tele. "I tried to talk to Mingus," recalls bill, "but he wouldn't even look me in the eye, though his wife leaned across his belly and said, 'He liked it a lot.'"
So far the band had enjoyed little financial success, a situation the ensuing albums tried in vain to remedy. Amazingly, the music didn't suffer at first: 1972's The Spotlight Kid reclaimed some of the band's blues roots and added fret-scrabbling wild man Elliot Ingber (a.k.a. Winged Eel Fingerling) as a foil for solid-grooving Harkleroad. "Elliot played with the Mothers and hung out with Little Feat, who were sometimes playing our opening act," says Bill. "His playing could be inspirational at moments, but you never knew when one of those moment would happen."
Meanwhile, Harkleroad was miserable. "I realize that Spotlight is the favorite album for many people," he sighs, "but the playing is so lethargic. Don shines and so do the tunes, but the tempos are like Night of the Living Dead. Between that and all the emotional things that were going on in the band, I was devastated, just beaten."
But Clear Spot, released the same year proved to be Harkleroad's favorite Beefheart album. The band had a decent budget and worked with producer Ted Templeman, then midway between his roles as a member of fey pop act Harper's Bizarre and Van Halen's sonic overseer. The slick but subversive Clear Spot is the highlight of Beefheart's middle period, but the group's personal dynamics were worse than ever. "It opened my eyes to be around someone who could say, 'Don, shut up!'" says Bill. "Ted had to leave the room so many times because of Don's crap. It was the beginning of the end." The band's last gasp was the uninspired Unconditionally Guaranteed. Beefheart want on to record even blander stuff with session musicians and join the Zappa band for 1975's Bongo Fury before reclaiming his edge on his final albums.
Bill and several other Magic Band refugees recorded two albums as Mallard, after which Harkleroad relocated to Coos Bay, Oregon. There he spent five years practicing classical guitar, doing drugs and jamming frequently with the retired Al Hendrickson, one of Hollywood's greatest session guitarists. In '812 he cleaned up and moved to Eugene.
Now Harkleroad hopes to become Zoot Horn Rollo again. He's completing Sun Zoom Spark, a memoir of his Beefheart years, and is planning the first Rollo solo album. Meanwhile, he manages a record store and coaches all those students. "Maybe one in 20 of them knows my history," he says. "Sometimes when they read something someone says about me in a guitar magazine, they get all weird and give me a strange 'whatever you say' look. They'll ask, 'What was it like?' but I just say," Come on - what's the IV chord in the key of A?'" Bill Harkleroad welcomes email at email@example.com.