Captain Beefheart

Captain Beefheart’s Failed Bid for Mainstream Success

John Morthland

By John Morthland

on 02.09.15 in Features

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.

The next two albums feature slower and simpler compositions and more overtly bluesy music, with the spirit of Bo Diddley hovering over everything. On The Spotlight Kid, Beefheart’s harp comes to the fore. “I’m Gonna Burglarize You Baby” takes off from John Lee Hooker-type boogie menace, and shows off Beefheart’s stunning vocal range, which moves back and forth from low and mixed close to the purring bass to a horny falsetto. Though his voice is most often likened rightfully to Howlin’ Wolf’s, when he employs his falsetto on “White Jam” it’s hard not to think you’re hearing the ghost of J. B. Lenoir. Several more of the album’s most popular songs, such as “Grow Fins,” are likewise based on boogie, and fueled by the snarling guitar interplay between Zoot Horn Rollo and Winged Eel Fingerling (Elliot Ingber). “Click Clack” is the train blues to end all train blues, and “When It Blows Its Stacks” is a classic riff-rocker; “There Ain’t No Santa Claus on the Evenin’ Stage is dark and Howlin’ Wolf-like. On Clear Spot, Beefheart goes farther than ever with his commercial moves, resulting in the Stax soul of “Too Much Time,” complete with background singers and horn section. This album was produced by Ted Templeman, who’d made his name with the Doobie Brothers and moved on to Montrose and Van Halen, but it still couldn’t have been by anyone except Beefheart and the Magic Band. There were love songs like “My Head Is My Only House Unless It Rains,” sex songs like “Crazy Little Thing” and feminist rallying cries like “Nowadays a Woman’s Gotta Hit a Man.” The twin guitar battles grew even more epic, while the feel on tracks like “Low Yo Yo,” “Long Neck Bottles” and the title song grew swampier. Then there’s the marauding “Big Eyed Beans from Venus,” with its thundering rhythm section and Zoot Horn Rollo’s “long, lunar note.”

Alas, the aftermath was not pretty for Beefheart. None of these three albums, despite solid record company support, sold much better than Trout Mask Replica, so Beefheart took the Big Plunge. His 1974 Unconditionally Guaranteed, was a straightforward blues-rock album; it has its charms, especially when he’s commenting on his dilemma in songs like “Upon the My-O-My,”but it doesn’t really stand out like his other work. And not only did it fail to sell, but it tore apart the Magic Band; much as his musicians had bridled against and their “starving artist” status, they also didn’t want to play music like this, and he wound up touring behind it with a new band. The follow-up, Bluejeans and Moonbeams, was a lackluster stiff, and Beefheart retreated to the California desert where he’d grown up. He eventually regrouped using a mix of old and new musicians, but the 1976 Bat Chain Puller was not released intact until nearly four decades later. A different version, called Shiny Beast (Bat Chain Puller), came out in 1978, followed by Doc at the Radar Station and Ice Cream for Crow in ’80 and ’82. All three were uncompromising Beefheart, unconcerned with commerciality or lack thereof, and had no impact on the marketplace.

Beefheart gave up on music in 1982, moving to the Northern California coast to concentrate on a painting career. And there, wouldn’t you know it, he found success that lasted right up until his death from multiple sclerosis on December 17, 2010. But nearly all his music, including that documenting this transitional period sounds as startling and visionary today as it did when it was first released.