Paying tribute to his
“terrorist’s concoction of gut-shot blues, free jazz idealism, true folk purism
and psychedelic delirium.”
joke, there were two things that reminded me of Captain Beefheart this week
before his passing.
old tomato red suit in my back closet reminded me of when I met the Captain
outside of a New Jersey club named Emerald City before a 1980 show. There for a
sound check, he liked what I was wearing (a red suit, but not the red suit I
recently found), called me “the red devil” asked me to come backstage and drew
my image on a cocktail napkin with a red ink marker.
next reminder of Beefheart was hearing that Tom Waits had been inducted in to
the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and thinking to myself, not only was Waits’
latterday sound usually a brazen but beautiful Beefheart appropriation, if
Waits had gotten in, why hadn’t Captain Beefheart ever been named or nominated
along with other solidly solitary musical avatars? It wasn’t as if Beefheart
needed what William S. Burroughs had called the paltry medals of societal
accolades, but it was just a thought – how is it that the man whose work so
deeply influenced so many (at least as many as had been influenced by the
Velvet Underground or the Stooges) not be worthy of a Waldorf salad at the
Waldorf Hotel (to crib a Tom Waits joke regarding his nomination)?
way my thoughts were with him last week, not far from where they usually are.
The clutter of “Dachau Blues,” “Electricity,” “Tropical Hot Dog Night,” the
gentle and stark “Evening Bell,” the haunted “Vampire
Suite,” the old time-y “The Dust Blows Forward ‘N the Dust Blows Back” –
these songs are always in my head like the clicking of computer keys or my
That Captain Beefheart – Don Van Vliet – passed away December 17 at age 69 from
complications from MS was just that, a passage, a final slip behind the curtain.
Captain Beefheart’s musical manifesto was a terrorist’s concoction of gut-shot
blues, free jazz idealism, true folk purism and psychedelic delirium. His
squirrelly noise and Dadaist prose and muzzy avant-everything predated all
alternative music by 30 years, yet his influence is easily indelible. DEVO,
Public Image Limited., Half Japanese, Pere Ubu, The Fiery Furnaces, PJ Harvey
and other less abled acts have made his mad act theirs. Eric Drew Feldman,
Frank Zappa, Gary Lucas and Ry Cooder interacted with him. Yet, Beefheart was simply – is simply – a
Beefheart’s mangled field recordings of 1969’s Trout Mask Replica is, as many
say, the bible of avant-rock, then Grow Fins 1965-1982 (a multi-disc box
set of rarities on Revenant) is its preface, outline and epilogue, with two
early, angular blues bombs – Safe As Milk and The Mirror Man – a sort-of pre-creation
mud swamp soundtrack. There’s also the blue-horror gem Clear Spot. This
leaves a mewing, coughing Beefheart crawling through the wreckage of stuttering
and silly latterday works 1978’s #Shiny
Beast (Bat Chain Puller), 1980’s Doc
at the Radar Station and 1982’s Ice
Cream for Crow to complete the overall rustic masterwork.
hard to deny that Beefheart can, at first, be repellent – the host of a
difficult listening hour. Sinister and grotesque, dragging the blues tradition
to the precipice of psychedelic skronk, his scarred Delta epics are unhinged
live wires looking for muddy waters to settle in. But his primal scream, whether
animalistic and artfully mannered – the sounds of whistling balloons with the
spittle part of the honk – becomes part of you like standing in the wind of a
beach on a sunny sandy day.
understand how the 69-year-old Beefheart went from being a blues baby to an avant
dandy, listen to Grow Fins‘ riotous outtakes and live tracks, made more vivid
with CD-ROM video clips and taped discussions between Captain and Magic Band
members like John “Drumbo” French, who contributes plenty of
background information in the accompanying hardcover book. Beefheart created a
commune-like setting in order for the Magic Band to breathe life into songs per
his strict instructions, going over and over details carefully, and the process
is as enveloping as the music. Listening to Fins is like watching Michelangelo
sketch the Sistine Chapel with a broken pencil and a head cold. Notorious for
not notating music, Beefheart moved musicians like crusty brushes onto a quickly
moving cracked canvas of blue barn-burners like “Just Got Back From The
City” and instrumentals like “Hair Pie Bake.”
tracks come off as fluid with sweet tonality. That’s the shock of Beefheart. He
and his sound is as jarring as he is beautiful. This is not an ad for the Fins box. I say find and buy out the
collection. But if Fins does nothing else, it displays Beefheart’s ferocious
verbal acuity with songs that barely existed before its existence as well as
offer kind words from friends and contributors.
like it was recorded in a phone booth somewhere between Haight-Ashbury
and Hades, Captain rips items like “Black Snake Moan” from his heart
onto vinyl. His traditional hellhound howl, peaked with a desert’s swirling
brand of adrenaline (found only there that energy -in the desert), is
near-religious, a tongue-speaking preacher looking for the right words and
coming up with those that came straight from his soul and his cryptic thought
the liner notes, scribe David Fricke
and Drumbo say Beefheart was nervous when it came to recording, holding back
his voice as if he was holding onto his soul. In my mind though, Beefheart let
in death, it’s all gone in the breezes of the Mohave.
Rock and Roll Hall of Fame could never contain that weird spirit.
Read the Beefheart obituary here. Meanwhile, watch:
(1) Captain Beefheart “on” American Bandstand, 1966; (2) Live w/the Magic Band
1969; (3) BBC-TV; and (4) David Letterman show 1982