Saturday, 14 February 2015

Captain Beefheart’s Failed Bid for Mainstream Success

Captain Beefheart

The first time I met Captain Beefheart, he pulled up his pant legs to show me his socks. “I knew you were coming,” he said. “These are the socks I always wear when I’m meeting new people.” This was in mid 1970 in his home in the L.A. suburb of Woodland Hills, and I thought it was a rather unlikely greeting: After all, nobody had told Beefheart I was coming that evening. At the time, I was an associate editor at Rolling Stone, which had just run a landmark cover story on Beefheart by my onetime roommate, Langdon Winner. Langdon and Don Van Vliet — that was the Captain’s non-stage name — had become friends in the process, and Langdon, flying down from the Bay Area to visit him for the weekend, had invited me along.

As it turned out, 1970 was a pivotal year for Captain Beefheart and His Magic Band. The year before, he had released Trout Mask Replica, a cacophonous, hard-edged and unprecedented fusing of bedrock blues, free jazz and stream-of-consciousness lyrics that most listeners found unbearable; it was widely perceived as a bad joke by a man who could have, if he’d only put his mind to it, been America’s greatest white blues singer (which at that time was something to aspire to). It sold almost nothing, and still hasn’t sold much to this day. Yet it had also received nearly unanimous, glowing reviews from a rock intelligentsia that considered Beefheart a visionary whose jagged music had an internal logic and cohesiveness to it that was undeniable, and whose harsh voice was an amazing vehicle. That was enough positive feedback to leave Beefheart believing that he could sell records, and even achieve mainstream appeal. That notion may seem ludicrous to anyone who’s heard Trout Mask Replica, but remember, this was 1970, when the laws were looser in popular music, and some mighty unusual stuff was winning airplay on then-new FM radio “freeform” stations; this often translated into sales. Beefheart had certainly taken his lumps in the music biz, but his certainty that he could actually earn a living from such difficult music wasn’t all that preposterous.

The result was the three albums recently reissued, along with a fourth disc of outtakes and alternate versions, as the box set Sun Zoom Spark: 1970 to 1972. Trout Mask Replica will always be Beefheart’s calling card, but these three albums were equally extraordinary in their own way. They successfully married his singular music and lyrics to more conventional forms in a way that compromised neither, and left his integrity fully intact.

Lick My Decals Off, Baby does that so well that it rivals Trout Mask as the definitive Beefheart statement. Where most Beefheart “songs” were basically quick outbursts of sound and free-associative imagery, these are a bit more conventional, and even expansive. That isn’t to say he has suddenly discovered the verse-chorus-verse format, but something like “I Love You, You Big Dummy” has rise-and-fall dynamics more suitable for radio, and lyrics that are more-or-less linear and easily comprehended. Yet the rich visuals are still there in the lyrics of, say, “The Buggy Boogie Woogie” (with its creepy spider imagery), and Beefheart is as hysterically raunchy as ever in the title song. His environmental themes also poke their way to the surface, but that’s not all that’s on his mind; “The Smithsonian Institute Blues (Or, the Big Dig)” takes on the inevitability of the generation gap, while “Space Age Couple” scorns hippie pretensions. At the same time, the music is more textured than Beefheart listeners were then accustomed to. Whether locking straight into Rockette Morton’s (Mark Boston’s) bass or playing off it, Zoot Horn Rollo’s (Bill Harkleroad’s) guitar dominates more than usual. The addition of marimbas (by drummer Ed Marimba, Art Tripp) gives the music something of a Latin/Caribbean feel — check out the drums/marimba interplay on “Peon.” “Flash Gordon’s Ape” just builds and builds, a cross between a manic cartoon and a roller coaster ride, with the damndest, darkest marimba solo ever. Despite the shifting rhythms, this music has such a solid core that it swings, while Beefheart’s rhythmic soprano sax romps confirm his allegiance to Ornette Coleman.


Don Van Vliet (born Don Glen Vliet; January 15, 1941 – December 17, 2010) was an American musician, singer-songwriter, artist and poet known by the stage name Captain Beefheart. His musical work..

Don Van Vliet (born Don Glen Vliet; January 15, 1941 – December 17, 2010) was an American musician, singer-songwriter, artist and poet known by the stage name Captain Beefheart. His musical work..

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