Back in the early 1970s, when Captain Beefheart was at the decidedly sub-stratospheric pinnacle of his fame, there was no faster way to clear out a party than to put on one of his records and turn it up.
It was a little like throwing a bomb. The rugged old Garrard turntable (widely favored in those days because it was less than $100 from the college stereo shop) was traditionally stacked with chug-a-lugging paeans to Southern laxity from the Allman Brothers, excruciatingly sensitive analyses of Love Amongst the Famous from Joni Mitchell and Jackson Browne or--if the crowd happened to be unusually hip--explosive early disco from the Hues Corporation or Shirley & Company.
From the moment the phonograph needle settled into a Beefheart groove, however, everything changed. A crunching dissonance rent the air. Complicated time signatures and opaque poetry upset polite conversation and rattled the Mateus rose. Beefheart's roar of purest gravel and the untrammeled violence of his rhythms sent resident hippies into bummers; lovers could find no slow dances; young professors would sniff around the turntable, scrutinize the spinning disc, pronounce the music "um . . . interesting" and then move as far away from the loudspeakers as possible. Meanwhile, a small but significant counterforce of Beefheart fans would surround the captured stereo, beaming with anarchic triumph.
More than a quarter-century later, it is still a good bet that slapping on a Beefheart CD in the middle of most Washington parties would raise a few eyebrows. But the gesture might be greeted warmly at other gatherings--especially by those young artists and musicians who have found a wonderfully weird father figure in the good Captain, with his long-ago experiments. Over the years, edgy bands from Pere Ubu through Sonic Youth and songwriters as diverse as Tom Waits and PJ Harvey have all paid their own distinctive homages to Beefheart--and there is undoubtedly more to come.
Fortunately, most of the Beefheart canon is available on CD, so that his influence may continue to spread. Last summer saw the release of two ambitious retrospectives, "The Dust Blows Forward" (two discs, Warner Archives-Rhino) and "Grow Fins" (five discs, distributed by Koch International), complete with rare photographs and unusually extensive and intelligent documentation. Ezra Pound once described a classic as "something that remains news," and whatever else may be said of Captain Beefheart and His Magic Band, this music is not about to fade quietly into the background.
If you want to be a different fish, jump out of school.
--Captain Beefheart, 1982 Don Vliet--later Don Van Vliet and, still later, Captain Beefheart--was born in Glendale, Calif., on Jan. 15, 1941. His father was a truck driver; his mother, a part-time "Avon lady" and homemaker. Young Don's eager imagination was apparent from the start; he was drawing and sculpting from earliest childhood and, having grown up near the La Brea tar pits, he reportedly once threw himself into the primordial ooze with the hopes of an encounter with some mastodon or saber-toothed tiger.
In the mid-1950s, Vliet's family moved to Lancaster, Calif., a small city on the edge of the Mojave Desert. There, one legendary day at Lancaster High School, he met a musical soul mate in Frank Zappa, an equally eccentric and free-thinking fellow student. The two became inseparable and spent much of their time listening to wrenching old blues recordings by Sonny Boy Williamson, Howlin' Wolf and Muddy Waters, as well as shards and squalls from avant-garde jazz musicians like Cecil Taylor and Ornette Coleman.
Zappa and Vliet stayed in touch--they would remain friends until Zappa's death in 1993--and collaborated on several quixotic projects in and around the Los Angeles area during the early 1960s. These included the formation of a band called the Soots and the plotting of an independent film titled "Captain Beefheart vs. the Grunt People." It was at this time that Vliet adopted his professional moniker. He later said that it referred to the "beef" (meaning complaint, of course, not meat) that he carried in his heart against the world.
Captain Beefheart and His Magic Band made their first recording in 1966, a catchy, bluesy cover version of an old Bo Diddley song, "Diddy Wah Diddy." Beefheart's rendition became a minor hit in California and will likely remind latter-day listeners of the seminal English blues-rock group the Yardbirds. In early 1967, the Magic Band cut its debut LP, "Safe as Milk," for Buddah, a label that specialized in bubble-gum music--squeaky clean pop singles aimed directly at children and early adolescents.
It was an odd place for the dada Captain to begin, but "Safe as Milk" remains a terrific album--spirited, fanciful, brimming with ideas and intelligence. It is also a relatively easy album: The songs are brief, tuneful and consonant, with irresistible hooks that keep you coming back to play them again. Today "Safe as Milk" sounds predictably dated but still engaging, distinguished by its reflection of a long immersion in rhythm and blues and certain foreshadowings of psychedelia.
"Strictly Personal" (1968) is a different animal. Among the most controversial of Beefheart's recordings, it began as a series of long, murky, freewheeling and drum-heavy jam sessions. After the basic tracks had been laid down by the group, producer Bob Krasnow added whooshes, phasing, heartbeats and other then-fashionable sound effects that, in the opinion of some listeners, all but ruined the record.
I disagree. Although Beefheart would later attack Krasnow for the elaborate production on "Strictly Personal" (after the record had been released and had sunk out of sight), there is internal evidence that he not only approved but even encouraged the experimentation. Some of the original, undoctored recordings have been made available on a disc called "Mirror Man," and they make for stark, hypnotic listening. But "Strictly Personal"--that fractured, elliptical mixture of power chords, bluesy howling, muddy sound and wildly over-indulgent dial-twiddling--maintains its own fascination. After all, it was 1968.
Beefheart's most radical creation was yet to come. "Trout Mask Replica" (1969) must be counted one of the densest, strangest and most immediately off-putting records ever made; as the composer Charles Wuorinen once said of Schoenberg's "Pierrot Lunaire," listening to this music, even after decades of experience, is still rather like trying to befriend a porcupine. Spectacularly dissonant, embellished with surrealist lyrics that lend themselves to multiple meanings or none at all, "Trout Mask Replica" remains the apogee of Beefheart's modernism.
Here you will find (among other curiosities) a bizarre gloss on the famous newscast of the Hindenburg explosion as it might have been heard through a fly's ear; long unaccompanied narratives that sound like sea chanteys from an acidhead Ahab; titles like "Neon Meate Dream of a Octafish," "Bill's Corpse" and "Hobo Chang Ba." In the same spirit, Beefheart's musicians were given new names: For example, guitars are credited to "Zoot Horn Rollo" and "Antennae Jimmy Semens" (and, man, do those guys look weird, with hair longer than hair grows and a fashion sense that would have seemed outre in Haight Ashbury). There is laughing-gas silliness aplenty throughout the album, so it is all the more startling and effective when Beefheart bursts into a dead-serious denunciation of human cruelty in a song like "Steal Softly Thru Snow."
By its very design, "Trout Mask Replica" could have no sequel, and Captain Beefheart would never again venture quite so far off into the ether. But his next three albums--"Lick My Decals Off Baby" (1970), "The Spotlight Kid" (1971) and "Clear Spot" (1972)--continued to explore the interface of two aesthetics that had never before been mated: namely, the heartfelt emotionalism of rhythm and blues and the cool cerebration of high surrealism.
These are all vital and exciting discs, much more immediately attractive than "Trout Mask Replica." "Decals," for example, contains three magnificently tangled lute songs for solo guitar, while there are songs on "Spotlight Kid" and "Clear Spot" that really ought to have become hits. (And, indeed, "Click Clack" became a progressive FM staple for a couple of years.) "White Jam" is as pulsing, primal and sexual as any of the old Victor "race" records, while "Crazy Little Thing" contains the irresistible (and likely irrefutable) lines:
Crazy little thing has just gone crazy;
Girl, how'd you get a name like Crazy Little Thing?
Probably the name that drove you crazy all along . . .
During this period, Beefheart and the Magic Band toured regularly, offering note-perfect re-creations of the supposed "chaos" to be found on their records. Still, like many avant-garde artists--who seem to win critical plaudits and cult audiences more easily than they do financial security--Beefheart was hungry for some commercial success, and he seems to have reexamined his objectives in the mid-1970s.
"Unconditionally Guaranteed," released in the fall of 1973, is generally considered Beefheart's all-time worst album, a judgment with which I shall not quarrel. It is a combination of indifferent pop melodies, timid arrangements, generic lyrics and a Vegas sort of "star" recording mix that gives the singer infinitely greater prominence than the band. Critic Rhodri Marsden has called the disc "nasty and thoroughly sickly," and there can be no doubt that Beefheart's fans felt betrayed. All told, "Unconditionally Guaranteed" is shocking in its normality--and it is a tepid and uninteresting normality at that.
Those same fans were equally displeased with the album that followed, "Bluejeans and Moonbeams" (1974), which Beefheart cut with a group of session musicians (the Magic Band having all but dissolved after the debacle of "Unconditionally Guaranteed"). But "Bluejeans and Moonbeams" is a much better record, albeit one that has virtually nothing to do with the rest of the Beefheart canon. Here, the Captain's dominant influence seems to have been Frank Sinatra rather than some vanished bluesman: This is a set of slightly oddball love ballads, some of them very beautiful indeed (especially the title track), set to restrained but symbiotic accompaniment. "Bluejeans and Moonbeams" is a "one-off," to be sure, but it is strangely lovable and deserves wider recognition than it has so far received.
It was four long, fallow years before the release of "Shiny Beast (Bat Chain Puller)" (1978) but, from the first note, it should have been obvious that, wherever he'd been, Beefheart was now definitely back--and at top form. Released at the height of the New Wave movement, "Shiny Beast" fit right in with the taut, herky-jerky sounds of the Talking Heads and Devo. "Tropical Hot Dog Night" is one of the group's best songs ever--a steamy, urgent and exuberant call to party, complete with raucous trombone slides that would sound just great at Carnaval. (Young children love the continuing reference to a mysterious "monster" that will be coming out of hiding when the sun goes down.) "Shiny Beast" rocked as hard as anything Beefheart had ever recorded and, if it still didn't sell, it nevertheless brought him an excited new audience.
"Doc at the Radar Station" (1980) and "Ice Cream for Crow" (1982) continued along the same general path as "Shiny Beast"--both albums were filled with strong, quirky songs, tight playing, straight-ahead rhythms and headlong energy. But Beefheart was growing tired and he refused to undertake a promotional tour for "Ice Cream for Crow," a tour that might have meant the difference for what should have been an eminently salable record. Shortly thereafter came the announcement that Beefheart was abandoning music altogether and returning to painting and sculpture, his first loves.
Since 1982, there has been only silence. Today, Don Van Vliet, the former Captain Beefheart, lives as a near-recluse north of San Francisco, where he firmly refuses any and all efforts to pull him back into making music. His paintings sell for thousands of dollars apiece, and he is said to be financially well off at last. There have been occasional rumors of ill health, rumors Van Vliet denied in a rare interview in 1993. Still, he seems to live a decidedly cloistered life; when asked what he was up to these days, Van Vliet responded: "Just paint. No people. Just painting."
THE BEEFHEART ART: TWO SAMPLERS
Both of the new retrospective collections may be recommended, although they are aimed at separate audiences. "The Dust Blows Forward" (the title comes from an a cappella song on "Trout Mask Replica") is a sort of Beefheart primer and includes songs from most of the albums ("Mirror Man" is excluded), as well as "Diddy Wah Diddy" and some previously unreleased rarities. I confess a certain disappointment in Rhino's selection of tracks: Most of Beefheart's albums are represented by from four to seven songs and, in every case, I would have chosen a markedly different lineup. But this is, as the Captain himself might have said, a "strictly personal" judgment, and there can be no doubt that "The Dust Blows Forward" will give the curious listener a generous and representative sampling of Beefheart through the years.
"Grow Fins," on the other hand, is a vast, glorious appendix--the set to buy last, not only because of its (approximately) $85 price tag, but because it is aimed especially at obsessive fans, who want every extant bit of Beefheartiana they can lay their hands on. The first disc is devoted to early demonstration tapes from the "Diddy Wah Diddy" era. Disc 2 is a churning, chugging live concert from 1968; Disc 3 is a sort of alternate "Trout Mask Replica," 72 minutes of excerpts from the recording sessions (including a few tracks that later made it to the album); Disc 4 contains an enhanced CD-ROM with handsome visuals and information about the band. The final disc contains everything from a 1980 improvisation on the Mellotron (an obsolete keyboard-and-tape monstrosity that might be considered the "eight-track" player of electronic instruments) through some late live performances.
The producers of "Grow Fins" have it right when they refer to this set as "a compilation of outstanding ephemera--the stuff that secretly squeezed out the other end of the tube while the main globs of paint were being applied." The booklet that accompanies "Grow Fins" is both scholarly and entertaining, surely the best history of Beefheart's work to date, complete with extended (and sometimes delightfully contrarian) interviews with many of the artists who played with the Captain throughout his long--but never long enough--musical voyage.