The psychedelic era produced a number of bands that transcended the drug-crazed cacophony of the late 1960s -- among them, the Velvet Underground and Captain Beefheart & the Magic Band. Without these two, modern rock (particularly the atrophic New Wave) simply would not exist.
Like many bohemian New Yorkers, Jim Carroll (author of "The Basketball Diaries," a collection of street visions) was a devotee of the Velvets in the late '60s. He even did some poetry readings with his hero, Lou Reed. With the help of another poet turned rocker, Patti Smith, Carroll has finally fulfilled his dream of becoming a rock star.
The Jim Carroll's Band debut, "Catholic Boy" (Atco SD 38-132), bleeds with a desire to revive the Velvets' droning decadence. But Carroll seems so awestruck by the resurrection of that ghost that he never reveals his true identity. His music is concerned with absolution and salvation, blessed with images of angels and death. In a sense, he's merely a male Patti Smith, perhaps less audacious.
On "I Want the Angel," he sings about his heroes: "those who died young." This theme is carried throughout the album -- eternal sleep as a romantic mystery. On "City Drops Into the Night," fleeting glimpses of the Big Apple at dusk become symbols of a world in decay. But it is on "People Who Died" where the album truly becomes focused. Here Carroll salutes close friends who've met their untimely demise in frustration and rage: a 12-year-old glue addict falls from the rooftop; a young man drinks Drano on his wedding night; a stoolie is killed by bikers. Appalled, Carroll eulogizes their short lifetimes, always choking on the word "died."
"You get nothing back for all you say," Carroll observes on "Nothing Is True" -- "Just eternity and a spacious grave." It's a bleak picture that, for Carroll, arises from the "curse of Catholicism."
On the title cut, he confesses to being redeemed through pain, not joy. Although he has captured the darker side of the Velvets' vision, Carroll has sadly ignored their most attractive trait -- a flair for obnoxious comedy. Only an excorcist can save him now.
Unlike the Velvet Underground's spiritual legacy, the music of Captain Beefheart has been physically present since 1965. Don Van Vliet, the Beefheart, began his career as a sculptor in the Californian desert. After assembling some musicians to play teen dances, he had a minor hit with Bo Diddley's "Diddy Wah Diddy." Since then he has recorded a dozen albums, the greatest and most difficult being 1969's "Trout Mask Replica," the vinyl equivalent of "Finnegan's Wake." This single album, more than any other, has influenced the New Wave contingent, with bands as diverse as Blondie, Devo and The Clash bowing before its monolithic authority.
Captain Beefheart's new album, "Doc At the Radar Station" (Virgin VA 13148), is not just the group's best sculpted work since 1972's "Clear Spot," it's also an unquestionable masterpiece. Beefheart's love of language and playful childishness have never seemed better suited for the times -- an elfish elixir for the current ennui.
As abrasive as his music may initially sound, the dissonance gradually becomes soothing and the chaos creates its own comforting order. Beefheart, after all, is an American poet (one not taught in English classes), devoted to liberation and the beating of the human heart. On "Ashtray Heart," for example, he bemoans mankind's denial of feelings ("Somebody's had too much to think").
Because he believes that humans overestimate their standing in the natural order, Beefheart always anthropomorphizes animals and objects. "Telephone," the album's funniest and most accessible tune, is a good example. With the phone ringing off its hook, the song's protagonist seeks revenge. "I strangled and ripped the cord, and I saw the bone -- and there was nobody home." To Beefheart, the electronic order the phone represents is synonymous with tyranny and must be overthrown. "It's like a plastic horned devil," he growls.
The free style of Beefheart's music is not unlike avant garde jazz combatting the Delta blues. On "Sheriff of Hong Kong," a delirious opus, Howlin' Wolf visits China: Oriental rhythms clash with traditional Americana, as Beefheart grunts and groans his way though the thicket separating East from West. "She always shows up when I'm up," he hollers across the ocean, "but she never shows up when I'm down." Thankfully, the magical Captain Beefheart always shows up, especially when everybody's down.