A man on a porcupine fence
Used me for an ashtray heart
Hit me where the lover hangs out
Stood behind the curtain
While they crushed me out
This is how I felt yesterday when I heard that Don Van Vliet had passed away. Captain Beefheart hadn’t conjured up any music since 1982, and we all knew there would be no more coming. He had MS and didn’t want to deal with the music industry anymore anyway. Still it was somehow reassuring to know that he was still up there somewhere in northern California painting and writing poetry. The news was crushing.
Later last night while driving home I heard a BBC World News segment announcing that “experimental musician” Captain Beefheart had died. The report went on to describe him (not once providing his real name) as one of the most original musical artists of his generation. Anger began to well up inside me. Experimental???!!! Original!!!??? Of his generation!!!??? What understatements! Those descriptions just don’t cut it. Obituaries will rightly point to Trout Mask Replica (1969) as his magnum opus. But I wonder how many will adequately convey what this album achieved? Trout Mask picked avant-garde jazz up by the heels, swirled it around like a dead cat (which by that time, it was), and slung it through the cement wall separating blues-rock from high modernism. It did so without ironically announcing its own radicalism or sacrificing the earthiness of the blues–a feat I feel Van Vliet’s good friend (and Trout Mask producer) Frank Zappa never quite pulled off (not that he wanted to).
But Trout Mask is also damned difficult to listen to all the way through. I pity the young musical explorer who downloads it or buys it on CD. You need to get up, take a deep breath, and flip the vinyl every 20 minutes. Otherwise, it may cause brain damage. Repeated listens–no matter the format–will undoubtedly leave clear marks and irreversible mutation. If you’re a musician, those marks will dramatically increase your chances of being loved by music geeks and ignored by everyone else. Lazy music critics (and DJs and bloggers like me) will categorize your music as “post-punk”. The Fall, Minutemen, Pere Ubu, The Ex, Sun City Girls, and U.S. Maple are simply inconceivable without Beefheart. And I can’t imagine my life without them–and many more of their kin whose records line the walls and fill the crates around me now. “I’m into C.B.!”–yes, Mark E. Smith, you clearly are. And so am I.
But the first record I picked up today was not Trout Mask. It was Doc at the Radar Station (1980)–hands down my favorite of the later Beefheart albums. It’s more personal and direct, accessible yet still wickedly weird. “Ashtray Heart” is easily a finalist for my World’s Most Wrought Break-Up Song list, but “Sue Egypt” may be my favorite Beefheart song of all. I rarely listen to songs on repeat, but this one never fails to trap me.
The song is about memory and oblivion, as the narrator tries to make sense of the enormous distance between Sue Egypt’s life and her mummified remains:
I think of all of those people that ride on my bones–
That nobody hears
That nobody sees
That nobody knows.
But it’s in the middle break that things get truly wonderful and frightening. The guitars fade out suddenly, overtaken by first a flute and then a demonic pump pedal organ (well, it’s all probably a Mellotron)–while Beefheart dives throat-first into that cloudless night on the ancient Nile when Sue Egypt drinks her poison:
Big smoke fingers wave
Come here, come hear:
“Bring me my scissors”
And those on waters.”
The moon was a
A pitcher of red hot juice
A picture of red garnet juice.
This flat-out creepy dream is over as abruptly as it begins. The guitars break in and snap us back to the present, where the narrator ends screaming desperately after Sue Egypt as she floats off into the afterlife:
Boats to forever
Creep the ether feather
At least that’s how I read it today. I think I have good reason.
Click on the image to go to WFMU’s blog post on Captain Beefheart’s 10 Commandments of Guitar Playing. You owe it to yourself. And if you know any guitar players, you owe it to the rest of us to send them the link.
The Captain Beefheart Radar Station website has been around for years but is a treasure trove of links to interviews, videos, rare audio, images, etc.–and it seems to get updated.
Below are some videos. The first is the 1980 appearance on Saturday Night Live by Beefheart and the Magic Band. They play “Hot Head” and “Ashtray Heart”. The video quality is not good, but for the love of humanity, just click play. Be sure watch to the end of “Ashtray Heart”–at about 5:30 it goes beyond brutal. Eric Drew Feldman (bass), Jeff Morris Tepper (guitar), and Robert Williams (drums) pound on mostly one note for over a minute, and then Beefheart breaks out the soprano sax for the finale. It’s so intense that someone in the audience reflexively yells “Shit!” right after it’s over and before they cut to host Malcolm McDowell.
Next we have Don Van Vliet’s two appearances on Letterman (together in one video). They made me smile.
Here we have the 1968 video of the band playing “Electricity” on the beach at Cannes:
And then the BBC special on Beefheart (45 minutes in 3 parts), narrated by John Peel. There are several clips I’d never heard–and others with much better sound quality than anything available (legit or bootleg). Wonder where they got them? One in particular is at 2:50 in part 1, a studio demo version of Howlin’ Wolf’s “Somebody in My Home”–not on the Grow Fins box set (and in much better shape than in any of the bootlegs that do have it).