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Memphis Flyer Turn Up That Noise!

Fans of Captain Beefheart finally have cause to rejoice

By David H. Duncan

JULY 5, 1999: 

Captain Beefheart & His Magic Band Grow Fins: Rarities (1965-1982) (Revenant)

Fans of Captain Beefheart & His Magic Band finally have cause to rejoice (and if you don't know whom I'm talking about, then you should take a remedial course in Rock 101: The Freaky Years). John Fahey's Revenant Records has just released the ultimate bittersweet valentine to the good Captain and his aptly named Magic Band(s) and called it Grow Fins: Rarities (1965-1982), a five-CD deluxe boxed set that includes the kitchen sink, but unfortunately, not the main ingredient.

Although the Captain's entire checkered career in music is aptly encapsulated within its fuchsia-hued slipcase (wisely skipping the better-forgotten Mercury albums Blue Jeans And Moonbeams and Unconditionally Guaranteed), the treasured original recordings scattered across eight different record labels are conspicuously absent from Grow Fins.

Due to the contractual impossibility of clearing rights for the vintage material, "rarities" compose the entirety of Grow Fins. And these previously unissued demos, radio call-in show solo performances, live cuts, and work tapes are rare indeed, providing a sobering glimpse into the turmoil-filled creative world of Don Van Vliet, aka Captain Beefheart -- although the lead figure himself chose not to participate in crafting this retrospective. Despite this notable omission, Grow Fins is a class act all the way, and the half-hour of live footage on the enhanced CD alone is worth the hundred-bucks price of admission.

While a small portion of Grow Fins has appeared on a number of bootlegs over the years, the bulk of its contents serves as an alternate history of the various Magic Band lineups. Through the exhaustive booklet essay by John "Drumbo" French, Grow Fins also proposes that the band members were just as responsible as the Captain for the musical mayhem that transpired, although his individual manipulative power is never denied.

Following a progressive chronological arrangement, Grow Fins traces the group's development from a mutant blues band into an unstoppable punk-jazz juggernaut. In his transmogrification from Don Vliet (the Van came later) to Captain Beefheart, one can spot the tortured soul of Howlin' Wolf reincarnated into a honky (and honkin') Sun Ra, with a dash of Ornette Coleman thrown in for good measure. The listener will also encounter Mother of Invention Frank Zappa along the way, as well as an ever-changing roster of Magic Band members.

The true Rosetta Stone here for Beefheart acolytes is discs three and four, where the "Trout Mask House Sessions" dispel the myth once and for all that the landmark album, Trout Mask Replica, was both written and recorded in the space of a single day. These rehearsal tapes are fascinating for their relentless inventiveness and sheer momentum. There was always a wry humor lurking within the best of each Magic Band, on display here in ever-changing permutations of the songs in their formative stages and giving a fresh meaning to the idea of "accidental" music.

Trout Mask Replica itself has always been the record that separates the poseurs from the kindred spirits. With Magic Band members actually playing rings around melodies without getting too close and the Captain sticking out at all angles at once, Trout Mask Replica still stands as the avant-garde music masterpiece of the psychedelic era. It conveys a cumulative effect of being on the verge of falling apart, and has been known to clear a room of the faint-hearted, much to the amusement of the Beefhearted.

In the end, Grow Fins reveals that the Magic Band(s) were the Shiny Beast and Captain Beefheart was the Bat Chain Puller who walked away from making his unmistakable music to dedicate his talents exclusively to painting (isolation preventing painful collaboration). Even with a steady rotation of corporate record companies pulling his chain, Beefheart still managed to deliver an audacious body of challenging work in an atmosphere of chaotic circumstance.

Since his own opinion about the Grow Fins box remains unavailable, the Captain might as well have the last word via a sound bite taken from the enhanced-CD exit screen: "If you want to be a different fish, you've got to jump out of the school."

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