The mystery man from the magic band

The L.A. Times calls it one of the best rock ‘n’ roll albums ever produced. Newsweek magazine said the group’s music set an unmatched standard. Rolling Stone talks about the myth and legend of the great American outsider band, and, MOJO, a top music magazine of Great Britain, claims that Captain Beefheart and His Magic Band’s re-released “Safe as Milk” album from the ’60s remains “a towering achievement, an avant-garde pop masterpiece.”

These comments come 30 something years after the tracks had been recorded during a cult resurgence of the album that introduced the songwriting talent of Malibu writer/actor Herb Bermann to the world. Four record labels, among them BMG, are distributing the re-release of what is now a rock ‘n’ roll classic CD.

“Captain Beefheart and I hooked up in 1966,” recalls Bermann. “I was a poet. I was an actor on the run. I had done Kildare and Asphalt Jungle, the TV series, and I decided I could write.

“I lived on the Sunset strip where the best music was happening,” he continued. “As all writers do, I had a trunk of fragments of work and poems and inspirational whatever.”

Bermann describes the writers of that time in a direct line with the beat poets of the ’50s, breaking all the rules. He is quick to point out that during that time they were not writing for the fun of it.

“We weren’t recreational writers,” he said. “We were politically involved in a difficult time. We were in an unjust war in Vietnam and we wanted to comment on it. We wanted to make a difference–we did.”

Bermann is passionate in his belief that the greatest songwriting in this country occurred during the late sixties.

“I’ve collaborated with a lot of other artists and bands since then,” he said. “It’s been satisfying but we never reached this level.”

Bermann’s success with Beefheart put him on the map as a writer. He then drew on contacts from his decade of work as a television actor and moved into a new form of writing, the screenplay.

“The first job I did won me a Writers’ Guild Award in the early ’70s,” Bermann said. “It was for a Sunday night mystery movie on NBC for Universal.”

Even more important to Bermann was the fact that the script, about a terminally ill golfer struggling with breaking the news to his family, influenced public awareness.

“When an artist does something, he has no idea what kind of life of its own that piece or work is going to have,” he said. “You just do it and they pay you and you go home and hope that you’ll work again. Portions of that script were recorded into the Library of Congress, influencing a pilot program in oncology to help terminal patients and their families.”

Bermann has lived in Topanga Canyon for more than half his life, for 35 years. A New Jersey native, he was strictly pavement before he found his home in Malibu.

“I wake up and there’s deer gazing out my bedroom window,” he said. “The birds start singing at about two-thirty in the morning. I didn’t get that off Columbus Circle in New York.”

Bermann’s creative life is as natural as his surroundings.

“For me it was never a business,” he explains. “The problem is you have to write about something. In order to write about something you must be moved or touched to touch others. You pick a form, there are boundaries within that form.”

For Bermann, there is delight in the recent attention around his resurrected artistic achievements of the past. There is reverence for the opportunity to write in any form. His direction is clear.

“If you’re really a seeker and a spiritual survivor, if you really recognize your own self as a work in progress, it’s the journey and not the destination,” he said. “Where I’m going is, if there’s a story to tell, I’ll tell it to the best of my ability. The human experience is so full of magic, mystery and wonderment that a writer worth his or her salt will never run out of stories.”

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The Malibu Times is the first newspaper in Malibu, serving the community since 1946.

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