“The Readable Feast—Mystery Man”
by Vic Tripp
The Mystery Man from the Magic Band
by Herb Bermann
with an Introduction by John “Drumbo” French
Interview by Derek Laskie
and Foreword by Alec Baldwin
(Brass Tacks Press, Los Angeles, 2015)
For a long time, one of Herb Bermann’s many careers was among the best kept secrets in Southern California. Bermann, a Topanga Canyon resident from most of the ’70s through 2006, has a lengthy resume. His acting credits include Don Siegel’s 1962 war drama, “Hell Is for Heroes,” a recurring role in the TV series, “Dr. Kildare” and the 1950 film noir, The Asphalt Jungle. He also appeared as George Washington in a recent pair of MasterCard commercials.
His writing runs from the screenplay for Dennis Hopper’s film, After the Gold Rush, through multiple scripts for TV shows “S.W.A.T.,” “Medical Center” and “Wonder Woman.”
Then there’s music. Aficionados of avant-garde rock and roll are well acquainted with the work of Captain Beefheart & His Magic Band. Beefheart, aka Don Van Vliet, a high-desert neighbor of Bermann’s, recorded the classic ‘60s and ‘70s albums, Safe as Milk and Trout Mask Replica, that have drawn in fans like Lennon and McCartney (who tried to sign him to their label), Leonard Bernstein, Tom Waits, Johnny Rotten, Joan Osbourne, the Black Keys and PJ Harvey.
While Beefheart is rightly regarded as a singular artist, famous for instructing his band musicians on every note they played, what is less known is that he had a lyric collaborator, whom he lauded as “the Poet”… Herb Bermann.
“The Mystery Man from the Magic Band” is Bermann’s long untold tale. It’s something more than a memoir, not quite an autobiography, but a fascinating mix of personal history, songs and poems, topped by an in-depth interview that not only fills in colorful career details but paints a masterful portrait of adventurous artists doing their unique things in the California of the ‘60s. The work is here—more than 60 lyrics to tunes that graced Beefheart albums like 1966’s Safe as Milk, 1968’s Strictly Personal and 1978’s Shiny Beast—but so are the stories behind them, and the connections between the people who inhabited Bermann’s world during that crazed creative era: actor Dean Stockwell, Dennis Hopper, Frank Zappa, Texas Blues man Lightnin’ Hopkins, Ry Cooder and others. While he received credit for his Captain Beefheart co-writes (among them “Electricity,” “Autumn’s Child,” “Zig Zag Wanderer” and “Owed T’ Alex”), Bermann kept quiet about his role in the music until 1998 (“so silent,” writes interviewer Derek Laskie in the book, “that some people said that Captain Beefheart had invented him”). That year a music researcher turned up an old Lancaster associate of Van Vliet’s, who explained that the ‘mystery man’ indeed existed and was alive and well.
Of particular interest is Bermann’s affection for Lower Topanga Canyon, where he explains, “The body of my work was produced in that special place.” In 2002, Bermann, along with 10 other poets, collaborated on the book, “Idlers of the Bamboo Grove,” which celebrated the land they were soon to be displaced from when the state commandeered it for the expansion of Topanga State Park.
For more information: Brass Tacks Press: www.lifeasapoet.com.