Captain Beefheart

The Captain has risen from his beginnings in mid-60s bizarre rock to an iconic status that may well drive his fanatics to chase me with a squirrelling piece. But, but, but his music has always had a jagged, neurotic, obsessive quality to me. Nothing of the liberated fluidity of inspired performance — more the grinding of well-sabotaged gears.

The Captain always ran a chamber orchestra with every musician an extension of his own over-stressed neural network. In interview, he even insisted that every composer demands his work be played exactly according to his dictatorial desires. An auteur indeed. A regular Beethoven in temperament and felicity. He would not even consider the attitude of Mozart or Ellington, who wrote music to develop improvisation, much less that of Bird Parker.

Rock tends to be tight and exact, but still usually allows soloists some room for improvisation. Successive Magic Bands had the thrust of an express train — click-clack — but never took off aboard Jimi’s fabled eagle. Horses for courses, and Pegasus is not to everyone’s taste.

Put that aside. So, the Captain locked his band up for eight months, allowing one of them each week to go for groceries; feeding them on nothing but soy beans for weeks; gradually resoldering their brains until they would spend a mere four-and-a-half hours in Zappa’s studio recording the double album Trout Mask Replica. So, on the Safe as Milk sessions one of his long-term musicians arrived with a machine crossbow, swearing he would rid the world of the evil Captain. So, the Captain had panic attacks, and refused to let anyone else drive him to the hospital, even though he thought he was having a heart attack (every couple of days). Captain Beefheart — Don van Vliet to his relatives — is surely one of the great virtuosos, and a true original. Someone who didn’t simply polish the sounds he heard around him, but added to them.

Beefheart belongs in the great tradition of the Blues. He obviously absorbed Howlin’ Wolf through mimosis as a child, and became a soughing, spitting legend of the Blues harp, too, pushing to the limits set by Little Walter and swooping beyond (‘I’m going to grow wings, and take up with a mermaid.’). He set about transforming fragments of popular music into something far larger. Something huge, and something very personal, very recognisably his own. Take for example the trademark octave whoop that ends so many lines. Go back to his childhood, and listen to Louis Jordan singing Caldonia.

The Captain would drink in everything and anything, generating mythology as he travelled his nerve-ridden way. A four-and-a-half octave range — though Sarah Vaughan used a similar gift with more sophistication — a childhood of idling genius (‘get me another Pepsi from the Fridgidair, ma’), absent from school — and his schoolfellow, Frank Zappa — driving dad's bread truck, bringing the name of his childhood games to the adult stage. And those scarey paintings! Aaargh! His life itself has been surreal; his dreams and exhortations far from pacific.

Beefheart’s anxious inner visions purely describe the damn nightmare of all-American reality. Set them against the backdrip of LBJ, Trickie Dick, ’Nam and Coca-colonisation. Now tell me that Pet Sounds represents a real America . His lyrics are the fragile delicacy of comprehension wrapped in the burger box of contemporary culture. And sometimes the delicacies are still alive.

Take away the paranoid wretching, and dig the sliding syncopation. Even the nauseating flatness of Moonbeams is far better than any of the popcrap it apes (‘Ooh, Captain, Captain’). Trout Mask is the furthest out of far out. Clear Spotlight Kid are two of the best Blues albums ever made. Cooder was damn fine on Safe as Milk. And the last flowering, before his wheelchair retreat to the desert, such gems as Batchain Puller, Ice Cream for Crowand Harry, Irene, still glitter, and will glitter still in centuries to come. If there are any centuries to come, given that our politicians will probably continue to use us all as an ‘ashtray heart’.

All hail rigidity and complex neurosis! Don't shoot, you nutters!

March 2004