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As a spate of new reissues proves, Captain Beefheart is a true American original

By Bill Friskics-Warren

JULY 12, 1999:  Lester Bangs knew bullshit when he smelled it. Convinced that the critics who belatedly canonized the Velvet Underground were the same ones who originally dismissed them as artless frauds, he wrote: "I've long suspected...[that] none of these namedropping assholes actually sits around listening to 'Sister Ray,' for fucking pleasure, ever. I finally started checking out people's record collections, just routinely when I walked in anybody's house pulling out their copy of White Light/White Heat (of course EVERYBODY has it, because it's so hip to have) and sliding it out of the sleeve. Yep. Almost nobody I ever meet has ever much played the damn thing. In fact, nearly all the copies in folks' homes looked virgin, like they got played maybe once, right after they were purchased, maybe then not all the way through, and then filed."

Bangs' rant, penned a year before his death in 1982, could just as easily apply to Captain Beefheart's Trout Mask Replica as to White Light/White Heat. Like the Velvets' album, this 1969 double-LP is considered one of the greatest rock records of all time: In a 1987 issue of Rolling Stone that deigned to canonize the top 100 albums released in the wake of Sgt. Pepper's, Trout Mask occupied 33rd place. More telling, however, was the fact that the album had sold a mere 75,000 copies in the 18 years since its release--fewer than any of the titles that preceded it on the list.

Bangs' point extends to several of Beefheart's other albums--anarchic, unyielding records that many find cool to namecheck and own, but too demanding, even inhospitable, to listen to. A friend of mine, a John Coltrane and Sonic Youth fan who runs a record store in Minnesota, admits that he bought Trout Mask years ago but hasn't played it since. "I've hung onto it," he explains, "because I figure someday I'll be able to appreciate it." Not even after reading testimonials from such new wave icons as Pere Ubu, Devo, and PiL, nor after hearing Tom Waits' Beefheart-inspired bohemian rhapsodies of the mid-'80s, has my otherwise intrepid friend found the Captain's music less forbidding.

Part of this is due to a smug rock press bent on making Beefheart's oeuvre seem more bewilderingly inscrutable than it is. Much of it, though, has to do with the rigors of the music itself. (One record store clerk I know used to put on Trout Mask to clear out customers at closing time.) Encompassing Delta blues, free jazz, African tribal rhythms, and Nuggets-style proto-punk--yet seemingly two steps removed from each--the Captain's preternaturally intuitive music defies harmonic, rhythmic, and linguistic conventions at nearly every turn.

Revenant Records' new Beefheart box set, Grow Fins: Rarities (1965-1982), amply confirms as much, as does Rhino's forthcoming multi-disc survey of previously released material by the Captain (a.k.a. Don Van Vliet) and his Magic Band. Yet no matter how atonal, angular, or abstruse they may seem, nearly all of these recordings, even the inexorable Trout Mask, have the immediacy of the best pop singles. And many of Beefheart's mid-to-late-'60s sides are downright catchy. Such two-minute bursts as "Zig Zag Wanderer" and "Sure 'Nuff 'N Yes I Do," for example, are utterly of a piece with the garage-pop that surged from the speakers of the era's car radios. Even later, when the Captain began wielding his multi-octave range like Howlin' Wolf in excelsis, or scattering soprano sax skronk as if he were a flock of honking geese, his awe-inspiring music was never the least bit abstract. Just the opposite, Beefheart always aimed for our bowels, even as his musings on race, war, nature, sex, and God engaged our brains or tickled our funny bones.

Novices wanting to hear what all the fuss is about might start with Beefheart's late-'60s albums, Safe as Milk and Mirror Man, both of which Buddha reissued with bonus tracks in early June. Of the two, 1967's Safe as Milk, which boasts the two songs mentioned above and a 19-year-old Ry Cooder on bottleneck guitar, is a lost classic--lean blues-rock leavened with pop-wise psychedelia and an incantatory arhoolie or two. The album also contains a honey-dipped slice of Philly soul, "I'm Glad," as well as "Electricity," the first pop recording to feature a theremin; at only three minutes long, the latter track is as adventurous as any protracted prog-rock anthem you'd care to name. Mirror Man, a 1968 blues jam--originally four songs with a combined running time of nearly an hour--is more indulgent than Safe as Milk, albeit engagingly so. Compared with the bloated noodling of Cream, Canned Heat, and other blues and boogie bands of the day, "Tarotplane" (an allusion to Robert Johnson's "Terraplane Blues") and the album's title track are marvels of sustained intensity.

Revenant's Grow Fins is a fish of a different color. A sort of holy grail for Beefheart collectors, this career-spanning 5-CD box (issued without the Captain's blessing) contains demos, work tapes, radio transcriptions, audio and video footage from live shows, and the complete (and mostly instrumental) home demo sessions for Trout Mask Replica. Sporting a prohibitive price tag and packaging geared to the most epicurean of tastes, Grow Fins is hardly for neophytes. Yet given its scope, plus the snippets of impromptu music and high jinks sprinkled among its 78 tracks, the set in some ways offers a more telling portrait of the artist than any of the 12 studio albums issued before Beefheart put down his horn in 1982.

Perhaps most striking is the sense of wonder that pervades the collection. Take the id-driven live recording of "When Big Joan Sets Up": The interplay between Beefheart's squalling sax and drummer John "Drumbo" French's arrhythmic flailing is the sound of sheer abandon. It's as if two toddlers, one squealing, the other banging on a can, are exploring and pushing the limits of their bodies and surroundings. Here and elsewhere on Grow Fins, but chiefly on disc 5, the Captain and his alchemical accomplices conjure convergences of harmony, melody, and movement as extralinear as those later achieved by Ornette Coleman and his band on the epochal Dancing in Your Head LP.

Even so, as Drumbo's liner notes reveal, the Magic Band's frenetic workouts are far more exacting than they at first might seem. The Captain, allegedly a mammoth control freak, composed all of his material on piano or guitar, then taught it--note for painstaking note--to each member of the group. The result is spontaneous-sounding playing that's as tightly arranged and executed as "Sex Machine"-era JBs--arguably more so.

Much the same intentionality is evident in Beefheart's lyrics, which, however well they work as music, don't always make dictionary sense. At times, as on the live version of "Woe Is Uh Me Bop" included on Grow Fins, they sound like gibberish. But when Beefheart, half-scatting, intones the mantra, "Woe is uh me bop, Oh drop uh re bop," he nevertheless conveys the barest essence of the blues in a way that conventional language rarely fathoms.

"Orange Claw Hammer" subverts the notion of narrative itself: Here, assuming the voice of a grizzled mariner, the Captain recounts a surreal odyssey, complete with immaculate conceptions and scrapes with pirate ships, to a young girl whom he mistakes for his long-lost daughter. Apart from that, the story--which is set, appropriately enough, to a woozy sea chantey--affords listeners few moorings. Yet as critic-cum-political theorist Langdon Winner observes, the song "achieves an effect that goes far beyond anything specifically identifiable in the content of its lyrics. What we experience is a marvelous sense of comedy and compassion that derives from a resonance with myths and memories deeply buried in America's past. The song works for us not for what it says to us but for the way it joggles out an inherited store of fantasies about drifters, pirates, and the separation of fathers and children."

Many of the Captain's primitivist yarns work in much the same way, evoking something akin to "the old weird America" that Greil Marcus hears in Harry Smith's Anthology of American Folk Music. Yet it isn't so much a longing for some antediluvian moment in U.S. history--or in civilization, period--that animates Beefheart's strange but compelling genius. Rather, as the primordial yawp and clatter of his records suggest, it's as if Beefheart is straining, at every turn, to re-establish his ties with nature as a part of nature. It's as if he's swimming against the current of evolution in hopes, well, of growing fins.

Beefheart's identification with the fish-faced protagonist of "Old Fart at Play"--a wonder of nature worthy of Mutual of Omaha's Wild Kingdom--confirms as much. As does "Wild Life," a song from Trout Mask that finds the Captain beating a retreat to a cave to live with the bats and the bears, something that he and his wife in effect did 20 years ago when they retired to a trailer in the Mojave Desert. Heard in this manner--that is, as one man's response to the call of the wild--it's almost impossible not to view Beefheart's feral music in a more friendly light.


Beefing up

For those interested in rounding out their Captain Beefheart education, check out Lunar Notes (Helter Skelter Pub, $17.95) by Bill Harkleroad, a.k.a. Zoot Horn Rollo. This short, insightful memoir lays to rest Magic Band myths fast and bulbous. Though Harkleroad doesn't hide any of his dislikes--Van Vliet's affected public personas, music biz networking, the Archies--his book never gets bogged down in its antipathies.

Meanwhile, Mark Richard's Fishboy (Doubleday, $11.95) stands as the world's only Beefheart-inspired novel. In last year's annual music edition of the monthly Oxford American, Richard divulged that the inspiration for his book about a boy abandoned in a Florida swamp came right out of the lyrics to "Grow Fins." Read this one just to admire the translation of the lyric "eggs on the drain-board" into plot.

--Charles Wyrick


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