Monday, January 3, 2011
On a vacation road trip about 6 years ago, I took along at least 24 CDs that I felt no one would actively dislike (this was before each family member had their own IPod). We were about three hours into the drive, and everyone else was either asleep or reading, so I figured no one would mind if I slipped in Captain Beefheart & his Magic Band's most innocuous disc--the complete "Mirror Man Sessions. " It's basically a few long blues jams with some early versions of classics that would later wind up on "Strictly Personal."
After the disc ended, my daughter Amy said, "that was awful." Her response was just a microcosm of the antipathy that Captain Beefheart can generate. And I recall hearing a somewhat infamous observation that nothing can clear a room like "Trout Mask Replica."
Captain Beefheart (aka Don Van Vliet), who died December 17th, was an artist in every sense of the word. Talk about staying true to your vision and producing what you want rather than what's popular--it's hard to think of anyone in rock music who comes close. No one sounds like Beefheart.
He came from the high desert town of Lancaster, just north of LA, and was part of the local music scene in the early sixties along with Frank Zappa. It's hard to believe that Lancaster had a thriving music scene, but apparently there was one-- made up mostly of blues bands. Beefheart was an outstanding harmonica player and developed a singing voice similar to Howlin' Wolf's.
After following Zappa to LA, Beefheart gathered his Lancaster bandmates and some rising LA hot shots such as Ry Cooder. After some failed singles on A&M, came the first classic recording--the relatively pop "Safe As Milk" in 1967. "Safe As Milk" was a mixture of blues, pyschedelia, and pop mixed with Beefheart's lyrical gift and crazed vocal stylings. It was followed by the previously mentioned "Mirror Man," which on vinyl WAS just a series of blues jams.
With "Strictly Personal" in 1968, the band started to develop some of the concepts that would show up on one of his best known albums, "Trout Mask Replica." On "Kandy Korn" and "Trust Us," the band showed that they could stretch out and really rock when they wanted. Beefheart, though, was unhappy with the production by A&M label head Bob Krasnow and was looking for more artistic freedom.
Fortunately Zappa had recently formed a subsidiary of his own Bizarre Records (Straight Records) and offered Beefheart pretty much carte blanche, with Zappa producing. The result was "Trout Mask Replica."
I remember buying "Trout Mask" and bringing it home and listening to all four sides consecutively. My god, I thought, what is this? But I kept playing it, and eventually it started to creep into my consciousness--first, words like "merkmont clair" (it's actually Merc Montclair, a car, but what did I know?), and then whole verses such as "Well it's alright God dug your dance and would have you young and in his harem. Dress you the way he wants 'cause he never had a doll 'cause everyone made him a boy and God didn't think to ask him his preference."
Then it started to sync with the music, and eventually it all made sense. The whole album is an adventure. Certain songs become prominent, then fade, then become prominent again.
Then there's Beefheart's vocal approach: how am I going to sing this song? There's the growling, Howlin' Wolf style on "Wildlife." The deliberately atonal "Hobo (pronounced hooboo) Chang Ba." The talking, field hollar type songs. The fierce roar of "Moonlight on Vermont." The crazy scatting on "Sugar and Spikes." And then the truly demented songs sung by others, "Pena" and "The Blimp." There's also free jazz blowing, instrumentals, studio chatter, silly puns, laughing, joking among band members, and gross sound effects. And it rocks. I still believe that anyone who really loves music and is willing to actually sit down and listen to it will wind up loving "Trout Mask Replica."
One of the other strange things about "Trout Mask" and almost all the other Beefheart releases is that record companies thought that they had hit potential. Singles were released, with hope for airplay. It was ridiculous. Zappa used to whine about the same thing. I can't believe that anybody really thought that these were in any way commercial releases.
After "Trout Mask" came the more focused "Lick My Decals Off, Baby." The songs were shorter and tighter, but still just as crazy. Try the whacked out "I Love You, You Big Dummy" or "Flash Gordon's Ape" with saxophones playing continuously in one channel and vocals in the other. The band added Art Tripp to play percussion and marimba. So instead of two guitars intertwined, the band had a guitar and a marimba, which made for a more exotic sound. The album also has the Bach-like instrumentals "One Red Rose That I Mean" and "Peon."
After Beefheart moved to Reprise Records in 1972 came the more commercial approaches of "The Spotlight Kid" (listed as just Captain Beefheart, no Magic Band) and "Clear Spot." "Clear Spot" was by far the more successful of the two. "Clear Spot" used an outside producer (Ted Templeman) who streamlined the sound without losing the soul of the band. It also had a stronger collection of songs than "Spotlight Kid." But of course, they still weren't making any money, so most of the band up and quit.
In '74, Mercury released the awful "Tragic Band" albums, "Unconditionally Guaranteed" (which is really not that bad), and "Bluejeans & Moonbeams" (which really is bad). I finally saw Beefheart around this time at the Whisky in LA, but it was one of the most disappointing shows I've ever seen...tragic indeed. He was dropped from the label. Then silence.
Four years later (February 16, 1978 to be precise), Captain Beefheart & The Magic Band appeared at The Back Door at San Diego State. He had no new album out, nor were they any rumors about his return--he was just there. Of course I went to see him, along with one of my friends.
There were maybe sixty people that night, and we all saw one of the best shows ever. Because of the small crowd, we got to stay for both sets. He did songs from all his albums going back to "Safe As Milk." He did new songs, some of the talking songs, he played the saxophone, he played the harmonica, he whistled and he had the band do fadeouts like you'd hear on the records. I couldn't believe how good they were.
We even met drummer Robert Arthur Williams in the bathroom. At the end of the final song "Golden Birdies," he sang the line "and the pantaloon duck, white gooseneck quacked . . ." and held out his arm to the audience and we all responded "Webcor, Webcor." And he said, "see how I get my work done?" and was off.
The rise of punk and the mention of Beefheart as an influence by artists such as Johnny Rotten, Pere Ubu and the New York "No Wave" bands enabled Beefheart to record again, this time for Virgin.
Later in '78 came the "Shiny Beast (Bat Chain Puller)" album, an almost complete return to form. The new band members were mostly kids who grew up idolizing Beefheart. They could play Beefheart and were prepared for his eccentricities. This was the band I saw at The Back Door. I saw them again about a year later in Orange County, and while they were still great, they were not as transcendent as they were at The Back Door show.
With complete artistic control and a sympathetic band, Beefheart released the late period masterpiece, "Doc at the Radar Station" in 1980. This WAS a complete return to form. He was back doing all the crazy things he had done on "Trout Mask:" talking songs, instrumentals, screaming his head off--it was great!
Then came yet another album, '82's "Ice Cream for Crow." It was a bit of a comedown after "Doc" but still good enough. He sounded tired though, and the cover showed a very burned-out looking Captain Beefheart.
He then abruptly retired from the music business and moved to northern California to draw and paint, becoming far more successful financially than he had ever been. There were rumors about him having multiple sclerosis, and a random interview in MOJO magazine...and then nothing.
Lately there has been some controversy about who actually created Beefheart's music. John "Drumbo" French's recent biography of Beefheart "Through the Eyes of Magic," states that Beefheart, who was not a musician, would sing, hum, whistle or play rudimentary piano parts to indicate the sounds he wanted. It was up to French and the rest of the Magic Band to blend all the different strands into a coherent whole.
And yet when the same musicians were on their own (as the band Mallard) and tried to create a similar sound, the results were truly abysmal. There were also complaints that Beefheart would never show up for rehearsals, forget the words to songs, and try to control band members in a cult-like environment. While some of Beefheart's behavior is questionable, a leader essentially does have to control his band to get certain results. And the results, the output, the art, which is what really matters, stands up against that of anyone else.
As a rookie listener, where do you start? "Clear Spot" is probably the best entry point. The CD is paired with "The Spotlight Kid," so you get two for one. Or you could listen to the albums chronologically, which will show how their sound changed over time (avoid the Mercury albums though). Avoid any "best of" compilations. Beefheart's albums really are of a piece and don't lend themselves well to that kind of listening.