Remembering Captain Beefheart

Kevin Whitehead

By Kevin Whitehead

on 01.21.11 in Spotlights

The Spotlight Kid

Captain Beefheart & The Magic Band

In 1982, painter Don Van Vliet stopped performing as Captain Beefheart. The two sides of the artist had always been linked: his paintings and drawings graced several of his album covers, and a few paintings took titles from his songs: “Japan in a Dishpan,” “Golden Birdies,” and “China Pig,” a Delta-style blues about a piggy bank facing the hammer.

His paintings suggest ways to read his records. My initial impression, walking into a Van Vliet exhibition at his New York gallery in 1992, was that some works on view were abstracts. Only gradually did representational elements pop out. The stark dark bold strokes bespoke admiration for Franz Kline, and there were echoes of 1950s COBRA painters like Karel Appel, seeking the spontaneity of kid’s art. But the fanciful animals, floating in pictorial space, suggest a cave-wall decorator; he paints less like a kid than your great-great-great � 5000 grandfather. So it goes with the music: avant-garde, with deceptively primitive overtones.
Beefheart was always in touch with the old, weird America. The song “Grown So Ugly” – “so ugly, I don’t even know myself” – from his 1967 debut Safe as Milk is so profoundly weird, few suspected it was actually lifted from blues weirdo Robert Pete Williams.

But Beefheart was more inclined to abstract from blues roots. He played authoritative mouth harp, which contrasted with his free-jazzy, automatic-writing soprano sax. His sandpaper & gravel voice and werewolf falsetto owed much to blues titan Howlin ‘Wolf – they had the same woofers-to-tweeters, octaves-spanning thunder. But Beefheart discovered his own voice there, the way jazz trumpeters found distinctive styles in Louis Armstrong’s shadow. Beefheart’s words were a dramatic departure: blues obscurantism gone psychedelic.

The floppy boot stomped down into the ground

The farmer screamed and blew the sky off the mountains

Eye sockets looked down on the chest-bone meadows

And the sun dropped down

And the moon ran off
–”The Floppy Boot Stomp”

His best music likewise took the blues ‘spiny slide guitars and momentary metric clashes between voice and accompaniment and blew them up to billboard-size. For rhythmic counterpoint this aggressive, you’d have to go back to the weirder works of roots-transcending maverick Charles Ives.

That said, hearing Beefheart for the first time, you may wonder what the fuss is about. The first time I heard it, his 1969 magnum opus Trout Mask Replica sounded like ashcan bashing. But it fascinated me – how do they do that? – and before long it was all I wanted to hear. (Cartoonist Matt Groening has a similar tale). But its more concise sequel, Lick My Decals Off, Baby, is even better, partly due to the addition of Art Tripp’s marimba, its low wood tones offsetting the whine of vibrating wires.

The 1972 albums that follow – the mega-bluesy The Spotlight Kid and the joyous Clear Spot – are more accessible without diluting the brand. That’s more than you can say for the two ill-conceived duds that came next, including the wretched Bluejeans & Moonbeams, a clumsy bid for commercial success. (When here, though, there were echoes of Howlin ‘Wolf, whose 1963 “Hidden Charms” anticipates Unconditionally Guaranteed.)

We know from the writings of drummer John “Drumbo” French how hellish the nine months were that it took Beefheart and the Magic Band to whip Trout Mask into shape, transforming it from Don’s musical sketches to fiendishly multi-vectored realizations: tub-thumping electric bass, trebly guitars playing past each other, Drumbo’s broken-field sprints and stairwell tumbles, the quick changes of texture and beat, and odd drops into Chicago blues shuffle (“Hobo Chang Ba”) and swing rhythms (“Steal Softly Through Snow”) (both on Grown Fins: Rarities (1965-1982)) The layering is out of Jackson Pollock as much as West African log drumming.

You know the old saw about the visual arts being more advanced than music? (Think how Picasso went over, versus Schoenberg.) Don Van Vliet used his sculptural sense to jumpstart Beefheart’s sound. He had a way of turning the familiar into semi-abstracts. On Spotlight Kid’s “Click Clack” his harp blows both train-whistle and pure melody in the same phrase. “Bat Chain Puller”‘s squeaky riff is a portrait of a windshield wiper.

The vocal-free instrumental tracks from a final Trout Mask rehearsal are contained on disc 3 of Revenant’s rich retrospective Grow Fins. Hearing those alternates, or live versions of classic Beefheart on bootlegs like Railroadism, or the radio recording Amsterdam ’80 (where he’s great with hecklers) confirm that once tunes were worked into shape, the arrangements hardly changed.

You can hear the same fidelity to the initial arrangements when you compare tunes from the mid ’70s ‘lost ‘album Bat Chain Puller (bootlegged on Dust Sucker and elsewhere) to the remakes scattered over Beefheart’s final triumphs, Shiny Beast, Doc at the Radar Station and Ice Cream for Crow. By then, he’d attracted disciples who’d learned his tunes and aesthetic from records, including guitarists (Jeff) Moris Tepper and Gary Lucas. The albums were very much a return to classic form. Part of the tension in Beefheart’s music had been in the little hesitations, as guitarists knotted their fingers to recreate the dense chords he’d demonstrate on piano. The last editions of the Magic Band exuberantly swung the music – one reason those rough-sounding bootlegs are worth hearing. The players rush the tempos on the old finger-busters.

Since Beefheart withdrew from music umpteen bands have paid homage, but precious few come close; hear the tribute album Neon Meate Dream of a Octafish for sad evidence. The classical virtuosi of the Meridian Arts Ensemble comically simplified his music when they tackled it. (Those drums! Arggh!) Moris Tepper and Gary Lucas still evoke that Magic feeling when they want to, but it’s largely folded into their own concepts. In 2003 four Magic Band vets came together to breathe new life into the old music on Back to the Front, with Drumbo disarmingly convincing on vocals.

Of musicians outside his circle, maybe the most elegant at adapting Beefheart’s sound to his own strengths – he used Beefheart as his Howlin ‘Wolf – was mid-period Tom Waits. The spiky guitars, chain-gang gait and urban-jungle marimba that complement Waits ‘gravel pipes on much of 1983′s Swordfishtrombones make it an indirect homage. They became friends, later; Waits would call him from time to time, when Don was living in the desert, passing his days painting. The way I’d heard it, Van Vliet wasn’t so enamored of that album at first. He’d threatened to jump up on stage one night and yell “Tom! Wait!”