Captain's Mighty Rockette!
By Patrick Moore
For Captain Beefheart, a maverick-artist-musician, who was not just a complicated man but highly demanding and by most accounts very difficult to deal with. It was appropriate that Beefheart's Magic Band was to prominently feature a bassist as accomplished, bold and adventurous as Mark Boston, a.k.a Rockette Morton.
Born on July 14, 1949, Mark began life in the small town of Salem, Illinois before his family moved out to Lancaster, California when he was 13. With a bassist and steel player for a father, Mark gained a great appreciation for country and bluegrass along with the R&B and rock’n’roll that was on the rise. Within a year of the Boston clan moving out to Lancaster, Mark befriended a young guitarist by the name of Bill Harkleroad.
At a time when the bass guitar was seen as the dummy’s instrument, Mark left quite an impression on Bill with his talent and equipment, leading to the two joining forces to form BC And The Cavemen. With Mark’s mother sewing some outfits for them, the band developed a decent reputation, and the two would also play in a band with Jeff Cotton and John French known as Blues In A Bottle. And then a local hero came calling. Or perhaps screaming and howling!
In that same Lancaster scene, Captain Beefheart And His Magic Band were making a big splash as a top flight blues rock outfit, with 'Safe As Milk' having made a strong impression and 'Strictly Personal' being a strong record as well. But even with a sound that was speaking to people, one that perhaps would have been a more pragmatic one as far as a career goes, Don Van Vliet just wasn’t meant for conventional norms.
The Captain had all these ideas, ideas far too out for many, including early members. He needed new musicians, younger and more impressionable ones that wouldn’t object to his ideas. Already having John and Jeff in the band, now 'Drumbo' and Antennae Jimmy Semens, he then recruited Bill, dubbed Zoot Horn Rollo. And on bass, he found Mark Boston, who took the name Rockette Morton due to his love of outer space. And the classic Magic Band was born.
Trout Mask Replica (TMR) wasn’t an easy album to make. Yet even with all the bizarre ideas and the difficulty in preparing those ideas into music, Mark was a total champ through it all. The Beefheart sound is one of great dichotomy, and Mark can capture all of it. He’s so tight and precise, and yet there’s this raw grit and dirt. He’s highly intelligent and sophisticated in his playing, and yet there remains this childlike sense of wonder and curiosity.
He takes after all the great traditional American music, yet out into a whole other realm of time and space. The bass traditionally serves the role of grounding the harmony while locking in with the drums to provide a foundation, yet Mark’s playing often serves as another melody line in the music. In a lot of ways, he’s like a third guitarist that just happens to be playing bass.
The TMR on its own is a legacy few can compete with, and yet Mark contributed to more classic records like "Lick My Decals Off, Baby", "The Spotlight Kid", and "Clear Spot". There on Decals, you get the equivalent of Godfather II. With Mother Art Tripp on marimba and drums rather Jeff on guitar, you get an album that captures a great deal of TMR's brilliance while being brilliant in its own unique way.
Then you get to 'The Spotlight Kid', with bass godliness on cuts like “When It Blows Its Stack”, resulting in a bass solo that often opened shows, yet Mark proves himself just as talented on traditional in-the-pocket styles as demonstrated on cuts like “I’m Gonna Booglarize You Baby”. And that thing about bassists being failed guitarists? In the 'Clear Spot', with Mark taking guitar and the rhythm section now being a mini Mothers reunion of Art and Roy Estrada, yet nobody missed a beat. Throughout the record, Bill and Mark’s kinship really shines, their weaving right there with what Bill and Jeff had done, or what was done with Alex St Clair early on.
Of course, dealing with Don was quite a task of its own, so it’s inevitable that Mark and the others would all end up departing by 1974. He and Bill soon formed a group of their own called Mallard. For two albums, the first with Art and having some writing help from John French 'Drumbo', Mallard showed itself a pretty decent blues rock outfit. And giving that it was Mark who finally had a chance to create something that was truly his own rather than helping some achieve their vision, it’s understandably the work that he takes pride in. And over time, he’d end up making a solo record and create some cool artwork of his own, as well as performing with 'Drumbo' in the reformed Magic Band, allowing the music to live and breathe on stage again.
If you’re a Beefheart fan, how can you not love Rockette Morton? Not only a uniquely talented bass player but such a great stage presence full of joy, along with a lovably quirky personality and such a sweet guy. Easily one of my favorites from Magic Band members, you can’t help but smile when thinking about Mark. He’s been through some rough weather, including his health scares, and yet he’s still the same Mark we’ve known and loved all the years.
Happy birthday Mark! Thank you for all you have given us and look forward to more.
Patrick Moore is a freehand drawing artist and freelance music writer.