I’m fairly certain that I’m not the best person to write anything eloquent on the subject of Don Van Vliet, also known as Captain Beefheart, who passed away yesterday morning due to complications from multiple sclerosis. But what I can do is tell you how I found out about this strange, wonderful artist, how I tried several times to enjoy his music, how it all finally clicked with me a few short years ago, and how it can happen to you, too.
Like a lot of people, I discovered Beefheart through his affiliation with Frank Zappa. Frank and Don were high school friends in Lancaster, California, in the 1950’s. Frank went on to become one of rock’s most infamous figures, and Don became “Captain Beefheart” (some say Frank coined the name, but it appears to be up for debate). He formed a blues outfit called the Magic Band, and made some vaguely psychotic blues rock.
Zappa was recruited to produce Beefheart’s 1969 opus, Trout Mask Replica, giving Beefheart something he’d never had before – the ability to make whatever kind of music he wanted, however he wanted. The result is 28 tracks of hollering, dissonant, avant-garde experimental free jazz and raw swampy blues. There is literally nothing like it in the history of recorded music. Like most of Beefheart’s music, it can be a tough listen, much more so than previous or subsequent albums.
This is reading like a Wikipedia entry, and that’s totally not what I wanted to do. Let me back up.
In 1982, I was 13 and my brother Gary was 17. I usually just listened to whatever he was listening to. The first (or second, I’m not sure) Zappa album he ever bought was Bongo Fury, a 1975 mostly-live collaboration between Zappa and Beefheart. Honestly, the songs that initially stuck with me were the ones where Beefheart played a minimal role (like just playing blues harp). Songs like “Carolina Hardcore Ecstasy,” “Advance Romance,” and “Muffin Man.” There were two Beefheart-penned songs, “Sam With the Showing Scalp Flat-Top” and “Man With the Woman Head,” but I usually skipped over those. Same for the songs that were written by Zappa and sung by Beefheart. I went on to become (and still am) quite the hardcore Zappa fan, but Beefheart’s appeal eluded me, even after hearing Zappa’s 1969 album Hot Rats, which featured a stellar Beefheart lead vocal on the song “Willie the Pimp.”
When I was a junior in high school, I checked out a copy of Beefheart’s 1982 album Ice Cream for Crow from the school library. Playing it on the living room turntable (moving my stepmother’s copy of some Barry Manilow album out of the way, I’m sure), I still didn’t get it. “Dinner Bell,” one of the album’s instrumental tracks, was pretty nice, but that was about it. I should add that another album I checked out at the same time was a Johnny “Guitar” Watson compilation – Watson was another unusual musician with a Zappa connection, and this one I really dug. But I digress.
I think it was about six years later when I tried again. I was the navy, stationed overseas (in Iceland) and a friend of mine was heading back to the States and I asked him if he could pick up a few CDs and send them to me (not an uncommon occurrence in those innocent days before the interwebs). I asked for a couple of Tanita Tikaram discs (I was just getting into her) and, what the hell, Trout Mask Replica.
Soon I finally had my own copy of this legendary album! I hit “play” on the CD player, and…yeah. It’s just noise! Why does he have to yell and scream like that? Why can’t that damn band stay in tune? Trout Mask Replica stayed in my collection, but didn’t get played a whole lot. I can’t tell you how many times it almost made it into my dreaded, periodic pile of Discs to Send to the Used Record Store. Almost.
Fast-forwarding about a decade and a half now. In March 2007, my brother sent me a package of CDs from Florida, each of them chock-full of MP3 files from his gargantuan music collection. Among them was a disc with an enticing title in my brother’s familiar scrawl:
By this time, my musical tastes had grown exponentially in size and variety. I’d gone on to appreciate not just the strange and unusual in rock, but also free jazz artists like Albert Ayler and Ornette Coleman and avant-garde classical works by the likes of Anton Webern, John Cage and Karlheinz Stockhausen. Beefheart should be a piece of cake.
The music – more than a dozen albums worth – was a challenge, but one I was only too happy to jump in and enjoy. To me, discovering strange music is always fun. Even if I don’t like what I’m hearing, I can always appreciate uniqueness. And a lot of the Beefheart catalog now in my possession was strange and different, but also beautiful and amazing and full of wide-eyed innocence. Beefheart was a strange guy and often (by many accounts) a stern taskmaster. But he often came off – to me, anyway – as possessing a sort of childlike attitude towards norms both social and musical. It showed in interviews. It showed in his impenetrable lyrics which he was normally at a loss to explain coherently. Like an idiot savant with a five-octave vocal range and an affinity for the blues.
But there’s something – I don’t know how to describe it – areas of Beefheart’s music that contain a sort of otherworldly quality. A sort of holy mess that somehow clicks. I notice it in a lot of his instrumental songs, like “A Carrot is as Close as a Rabbit Gets to a Diamond.” It’s a simple, choppy, awkward melody for piano and electric guitar. There’s a sort of innocent beauty to it. when Beefheart introduced the song to his bandmates, this is what he said:
I want you to play this as if you were a soldier in the civil war, and the troops abandoned you out in the forest, and you’ve been walking for days and you’re hungry. And then you find a shack where there’s an old dirty cot, and you just need to lie down and sleep, and you get to the cot and there’s a little teddy bear doll. And you’re clutching the teddy bear, and it’s that emotion you feel as you’re clutching the doll…that’s the way i want you to play this song.
I’ve never done drugs, but I imagine that the feeling you get from ingesting psychedelics is not unlike listening to Beefheart tracks like “Kandy Korn” or “Alice in Blunderland.”
As you can imagine, Beefheart’s music is tough to pin down. If you like dirty, dirty blues delivered sloppily and with a lot of shouting (Howlin’ Wolf meets Jon Spencer Blues Explosion at a Tom Waits concert, if you will), lots of psychedelic strangeness (Syd Barrett comes to mind) with a punk rock attitude, this might be for you. Keep in mind that Beefheart’s work can be divided into different levels of accessibility, which is both a good and bad thing. Clear Spot and The Spotlight Kid are both accessible, well-written, well-performed, and even – dare I say it – hummable. Those two albums (now conveniently available on one CD) are the best place to start. Beefheart’s bluesy 1967 debut, Safe as Milk, is definitely one for the blues fans, and is fairly easy to digest (given the psychedelic underpinnings). In spite of its Herculean reputation, Trout Mask Replica should not be avoided, but save it until after you’ve got a couple more Beefheart albums under your belt.
Lick My Decals Off, Baby is a fan favorite that, as far as I know, is not available on CD unless you want to plunk down lots of cash for a rare import. I saw a brand new vinyl reissue in Newbury Comics a few years ago. The follow-up to Trout Mask Replica, Decals is a self-produced effort that has a lot of the same feel as its predecessor, but is a lot less sonically dense. The album really breathes, if that makes sense, and is aided greatly by the lush marimba playing of former Zappa percussionist Arthur Tripp.
Beefheart faltered in the mid-70s with some ill-advised attempts to break through commercially. Blue Jeans and Moonbeams and Unconditionally Guaranteed each have a couple of tracks that are worthwhile, but overall these are pretty severe missteps. An artist this exciting should not be making bland music, and that’s exactly what happened here. Beefheart redeemed himself with Shiny Beast (Bat Chain Puller), with the infamous Van Vliet shout back in full effect and lively arrangements (with lots of horns). If there was any doubt that Beefheart is some kind of godfather of punk and new wave, 1980’s Doc at the Radar Station puts those doubts to rest. I mean, just look at this Magic Band publicity shot of the era:
That is some serious Talking Heads/Television/CBGBs vibe going on there. But it’s not just in the “look.” The immediacy and abrasive nature of punk rock is all over this album (this is a good time to remind you that John Lydon, PJ Harvey, Billy Bragg, John Frusciante, Joe Strummer and Mark E. Smith are/were among Beefheart’s fans). Doc is full of noisy synthesizers and a general youthful, wide-eyed energy. Anyone who has the Black Keys or White Stripes in heavy rotation needs to give this album a shot. And stick with it. Chances are, you’ll come around to embracing it. The same goes for 1982’s Ice Cream for Crow, another highly caffeinated effort bolstered by young, hungry musicians. The loud, fast stuff contrasts nicely with more sedate (but no less stunning) instrumentals like “Semi-Multicolored Caucasian” and the aforementioned “Evening Bell.” There’s also a music video for the title track (search for it on YouTube), but MTV, in their ultimate narrow-minded stupidity, wouldn’t air it because it was too “weird.”
Sadly, Ice Cream for Crow was Beefheart’s adieu to the music business. He retreated to the California desert to concentrate full time on his critically acclaimed painting, which has been described as modernist, primitivist, and abstract expressionist, not to mention lucrative (reportedly, one of his paintings recently sold for $40K). Beefheart’s more recent connections to the art world – rather than the music business – became more apparent than ever when is death was officially announced by the Michael Werner Art Gallery. There have been rumblings about Beefheart’s multiple sclerosis for years, and his strict aversion to the press have led fans to wonder as to the extent of the illness. Until yesterday.
I continue to stress that Beefheart’s music is not for everyone. But if you have a sense of musical adventure and you don’t mind strangeness and noise in your collection, dive right in (if you’re on a budget, there’s an excellent two-disc set on Rhino called “The Dust Blows Forward”). Even if it’s not your thing, Beefheart’s stuff is still unforgettable. Tom Waits, a musician who drastically and forever altered his musical style in the early 80s after his wife turned him on to Beefheart’s music, said the following:
“Once you’ve heard Beefheart, it’s hard to wash him out of your clothes. It stains, like coffee or blood.”