On Captain Beefheart

Old Fart At Play

A few months back, Eastern Ontario and Western Quebec radio celebrity and noted cougar prey Eric the Intern blogged about how, no matter how many people demand it, he is unable to get Captain Beefheart on to the radio, so quit askin’.  Unfortunately, it seems, the good Captain’s music does not exactly cater to mainstream tastes.  And of course, once again, the mainstream tastes miss out on some good tunes.

After having heard about him for a while, my first direct experience of Captain Beefheart was seeing a vintage clip of him performing “I’m Gonna Booglarize You, Baby” on the ol’ MuchMoreMusic many years ago.  It was, and still remains, the coolest thing I’d ever seen.

Everything – I said everything – in this video screams awesomic fantasticality: the pounding rhythms; the swirling waves of slide guitar; Beefheart’s menacing growl; the zoot suits and hats; the abrupt high squeals of gibberish towards the end; Rockette Morton’s (or is that Winged Eel Fingerling’s?) deployment of the slide glide around the three-and-a-half minute mark; etc, etc.  Indeed, Captain Beefheart & His Magic Band represent everything that I love about music.

For those unfamiliar with Beefheart and said Magic Band, it is the nom-de-plume (nom-de-mic?) of one Don Van Vliet, a high school pal of Frank Zappa.  Recognized as an artistic prodigy at an early age, Van Vliet fell in love with the blues during his teenage years in the deserts of southern California.  Taking his stage name from a description of his uncle’s genitalia, Beefheart took on a persona built from equal parts Howlin’ Wolf, Man Ray, and Rasputin.  His music sounds like something Stravinsky might have created had he grown up on the Southside of Chicago.  After issuing the comparatively tame psychedelic blues of Safe As Milk (1967) and its slightly more psychedelicized follow-up, Strictly Personal (1968), Beefheart temporarily left the music business until cajoled back by Frank Zappa the next year.

After holing up the Magic Band in a small house in a Los Angeles suburb to work out the strange new sounds the Captain had thought up, Beefheart, with Zappa as producer, issued the visionary double album Trout Mask Replica.

Here’s some audio-visual evidence taken from a 1969 concert in Belgium:

Despite Trout Mask‘s difficulty, its gonzoid brilliance has led to it becoming by far the best known Beefheart record.  As a result, his more generally palatable work gets overshadowed and tarnished with the tangled brush of assumed unlistenability.  Nonetheless, nothing comes close to being quite like it.  Perhaps Miles Davis’ electric period is the closest if not in terms of sonic resemblance, but more metaphysical aspects such as “feel” or “tone”.  However, Davis’ early 70s work had a streak of anger and bitterness, whereas Beefheart’s music, though equally atonal and dissonant, carries with it a spirit of joy and fun.

There is no better illustration of his modus operandi than an exchange which occurs immediately before the track “Pena”.  Apparently rehearsing a vocal skit from “Ella Guru”, we hear the Captain relishing in his absurd word play with his cousin and Magic Band bass clarinettist, The Mascara Snake.  The exchange is transcribed thusly:

Beefheart: [snickers]

Engineer: Fast ‘n bulbous!

The Mascara Snake: Fast ‘n bulbous!

Beefheart: That’s right… [snickers]

Engineer: Okay, do it again.

Beefheart: [aside] I just … I love those words…

The Mascara Snake: Fast ‘n bulbous!

Beefheart: That’s right, The Mascara Snake, fast ‘n bulbous!

The Mascara Snake: Bulbous, also tapered.

Beefheart: Yeah, but you’ve got to wait until I say, “Also, a tin teardrop.”

The Mascara Snake: Oh, Christ…

Engineer: Again, beginning.

The Mascara Snake: Fast ‘n bulbous!

Beefheart: That’s right, The Mascara Snake, fast ‘n bulbous!  Also, a tin teardrop.

The Mascara Snake: Bulbous, also tapered.

Beefheart: That’s right!

The actual dialogue itself (as opposed to the very lucid stage directions) is, of course, pure gibberish, arbitrary and nonsensical. Before the track “Pachuco Cadaver” (the inexplicable single off the record), however, he does try to offer somewhat of an explanation of the phrase “fast ‘n bulbous” with the statement: “A squid eating dough out of a polyethylene bag is fast ‘n bulbous. Got me?”  Strangely, this is actually quite helpful.  It’s not so much that an actual squid eating dough out of a polyethylene bag is really fast and/or bulbous (though it does present a wonderful, grotesque image); rather, the phrase itself is fast ‘n bulbous.

For Beefheart’s purposes, however, this is beside the point: he just enjoys the phrase itself as an acoustic-semantic phenomenon: “I love those words.” Each pronunciation of the phrase is attended with salivatory relish; Beefheart seems to swill the words around his mouth like a shot of fine whiskey, savouring with cunnilingual glee the physical utterance of the words.  Except, of course, these aren’t delicious morsels to be swallowed, but rather regurgitations being enjoyed on their way out.  As “steel-appendage guitar” player Antennae Jimmy Semens reports in “Pena” itself: “Smoke billowing up from between her legs / Made me vomit beautifully.”  A perfect description of Beefheart’s lyrics: beautiful vomit .

Moreover, his insistence that The Mascara Snake get the absurd dialogue exactly right shows that this isn’t just random nonsense.  Like The Magic Band’s music, it is precisely crafted non-sense; the vomit is arranged.  “Bulbous, also tapered” simply cannot come without having before it “Also, a tin teardrop”.  Perhaps “bulbous” is such a powerfully humourous word that its instances must be spread out.

A gifted painter (as a child, he was recognized as a prodigy by famed Portuguese sculpter Augustino Rodriguez; however, all Internet searches for Mr. Rodriguez only reference the Beefheart connection, so this claim is spurious), Beefheart uses words like pigments, playing with the sounds they produce and the tones they evoke.  Lyrically, he paints largely in shades of grotesque and bodily on Trout Mask Replica with vaguely organic hues (elsewhere his lyrics can range from Dadaist environmentalist sloganeering to skewed blues pastiches to sincere, almost ordinary, love songs).  Perhaps this is most typically atypically displayed in the beautifully titled “Neon Meate Dream Of A Octafish”:

Lucid tentacles test ‘n sleeved ‘n joined ‘n jointed jade pointed diamond back patterns

Neon meate dream of a octafish

In jest incest ingest injust in feast incessed

‘n specks ‘spreckled spreckled

Speckled speculation

The images he presents combine into some horrifying, and possibly psilocybin induced, malacalogical nightmare where “archaic faces frenzy” at the “fedlocks waddlin’ feast”, but this only heightens the acoustic beauty of the vocal phrasing (and, man, Beefheart’s got a pretty good flow, not dissimilar to the work of one Ol’ Dirty Bastard).  It’s as if he’s making fun of [or with…?] the differance between the word-as-sound and the concept to which it refers; playing in the referential gap, as it were. If it is true that poetry is language that aspires to be music, then Captain Beefheart’s work is the apotheosis of poetry.  Just say this comparatively mundane line from “Safe As Milk” out loud: “Cheese in the corner with a mile long beard / Bacon blue, bread dog-eared.”  Beautiful, isn’t it?  And, more to the point, fun to say.

Of course, Beefheart’s words are inseparable from his singular vocal abilities; allegedly, and possibly apocryphally, he possessed a five and a half octave range.  “Her Eyes Are A Blue Million Miles”, from 1972’s Clear Spot and featured in The Big Lebowski, is perhaps the closest thing to a conventional song in his catalogue.  The dissonant guitar lines of the Trout Mask era are brought into harmonic focus and the Captain opts to use his seldom-used soft croon voice.  With the vocal volume turned down from eleven, Beefheart brings incredible subtlety to the repetitive lyrics.

In the first repeat of the verse, he sings “I don’t know what she sees in a man like me, but she says she loves me”.  The second half of the line is delivered abruptly, with a defiance that belies a certain insecurity which is revealed when the same line is delivered in the second repeat: here, Beefheart trails off into a mumbled whisper, quieted and resigned to the fact that he may not be deserving of requitance for his love and that she only says she loves him.

Elsewhere, the different musical shadings given to each repeat of the song’s title colour the phrase with an evershifting and kaleidoscopic polyphony of different meanings as the girl in question’s eyes oscillate (not unlike a particle in quantum mechanics) between depth and distance.  Is the singer falling deep into the caring wells of his beloved’s eyes, or is her gaze a million miles away from the self-declared object of her affection?

Ultimately, however, like the Lovecraft-on-shrooms material of his earlier work, the semantic meaning of the words is shorn off; its repetition here turns the words into a mantra, fulfilling the same role as the nonsensical phrases of Trout Mask Replica. The aesthetic of Beefheart’s songs derives from this agonistic struggle between the sounds of the words themselves as musical objects and the, for lack of a better term, literal meaning they produce in reception: a civil war in the Sign Republic.

And this play of words is one facet of a larger impulse that flows throughout Beefheart’s work.  Though by his own admission, he often creates “opaque melodies that would bug most people”, Beefheart’s delight in the beauty of the vocal deliverance of strangely grotesque, vaguely biological imagery goes hand in hand with the tight weaving of dissonant guitar lines and interlocking drum patterns  that characterises his music (drummer John “Drumbo” French cannot be praised enough for both his drumming and arranging work).  The strange, angular melodies, often in different modes or keys, and the various clattering percussive riffs are mixed together in the same paintlike manner as his stream of consciousness lyrics.

Moreover, they only “bug” us because, like the strange verbal images of his lyrics, they are unfamiliar to us.  Like the musical avant-garde so beloved by Zappa, Beefheart has produced “original” music by eschewing convention.  However, while much avant-garde music is a calculated effort to avoid various rules and conventions at all costs (thereby inadvertently affirming the very rules it asserts to ignore), Beefheart, by all reports, is the real deal: a child in a sandbox dreaming up games to which he can set his own rules. Though Beefheart is certainly a skilled and deft musician as a vocalist and composer (to say nothing of the virtuosity of the various Magic Bands), he also has a naive freedom to his music and manages to come across as the Romantic ideal of the artist naïf.

In a piece on the Stooges, rock critic Lester Bangs retells free-jazz pianist Cecil Taylor’s story of an unknown and “freaked out” man who, having just walked in off the street, asked to sit in on double-bass with the band at some New York jazz club.  It quickly became apparent that the man had no prior musical experience: “He didn’t even know how to hold the instrument, so he just explored as a child would, pursuing songs or evocative sounds through the tangles of his ignorance.” Though certainly not musically ignorant (the Captain can also effortlessly slip into more conventional modes such as the above cited “Her Eyes Are A Blue Million Miles”), Beefheart’s music still has the same “unschooled innocence which cuts across known systems” Cecil Taylor saw in that enigmatic un-bassist.

One of the characteristics of avant-garde music (or, indeed, avant-garde art in general) is that it makes a point of flaunting convention by “breaking the rules” of established ideas of harmony and rhythm.  By deliberately setting out to break the rules, however, this still ultimately asserts the rules as rules (albethey rules to be broken).

Unlike the self-conscious avant-garde, Beefheart doesn’t simply invert systems by turning their prohibitions into proscriptions and vice versa; he ignores them, and instead of seeing music as a puzzle, he approaches it as pure free play.   This avoidance of systems becomes a metaphoric leitmotif throughout the record which represents itself, in content and form, an abandonment of order in favour of anarchic fun.

On Trout Mask Replica’s opening track, he declares: “My smile is stuck / I cannot go back t’ yer Frownland.”  Frownland is the grim meathook reality of the human world built on sensible language and purported order.  This is the horrible place of “Dachau Blues” and the “Veteran’s Day Poppy” (unlike the opium poppy, the Veteran’s Day poppy “don’t get me high / It can only make me cry”), and is abandoned in favour of an assortment of opiated invertebrate reveries.

The various musical and semantic rules and regulations are just as much products of Frownland as war and pollution.  It’s not that Trout Mask Replica is about retreating from (or advancing beyond?) imposed order; rather, its creation is the withdrawal (or liberation) itself.  And if there is a message to the record, it’s that all of us can follow along by literally playing along.  As he tells us in “My Human Gets Me Blues”:

I see you baby in yer x-ray gingham dress

I knew you were under duress

I knew you under yer dress

I could see the fear in yer windows

Under yer furry crawlin’ brow

Uh silver bow rings up in inches

You were afraid to be the devils’ red wife

But its alright God dug yer dance

‘n would have you young ‘n in his harem

In his own way, Beefheart is like James Joyce’s idealization of the artist: flying high above the various nets of society, albeit in the mousetrapreplica blimp (“The blimp! The blimp! / The drazy hoops! The drazy hoops!”).  Unlike the woman in “My Human Gets Me Blues”, he has not bought into a dualist metaphysics that through imposed rules demonizes pleasure.  Hmm, seems like the Captain’s been reading William Blake, or perhaps some Neecher.  Either way, he has traded “fear” and “duress” for joy and ecstasy and calls all of us to join him in his — our — dance.

Not chaotic (Beefheart’s music still makes use of traditional forms, it just twists them), he transcends order, whether it be diatonic harmony or keeping one’s clothes on.  To wit, “The Dust Blows Forward ‘N The Dust Blows Back”: “Well I put down my bush / ‘n took off my pants ‘n felt free / The breeze blowin’ up me / ‘n up the canyon far as I could see.”  Disrobed of conventions, Beefheart is able to turn what would otherwise be a solipsistic retreat from the ugliness of the human world into a glorious and utterly mad flight of fancy.

But it’s important to stress that this is not a challenge to order which itself would be a game based on Order’s rules; it’s a side-game altogether apart from order in which the rules of the main game can be adopted, mutated, and discarded at will.  I’m reminded of a brief moment from the Internet cartoon Homestar Runner, where noted non-sequiturist Homsar is playing Connect 4 and responds to another character’s move with: “Oh no! You shanked my jengaship.”  Like Beefheart, Homsar disregards the rules of the game he is playing in favour of his own cobbled-together mash-up of various other games. Just as in any good game of Calvinball, Order is trumped by creativity and freedom.

All in all, Beefheart’s music embodies what the great Roland Barthes calls jouissance: the joyous pleasure entailing the highest appreciation for a work of art.  Captain Beefheart & His Magic Band are great because their music is created with that same jouissant principle as its driving impulse.  We can hear that in the outtake aside, “I just love those words”; in the smirking snort at the end of the fifteen minute free-blues jam “Mirror Man”; in the huckster-like reception the Captain gives two bewildered hippies who stumbled upon the band “recording bush”; in every goddamn gonzo line of Trout Mask Replica.

During the course of a concert recorded in 1978 (and released as a live album in 2000), Beefheart responds to the audience’s constant demands for various songs by telling them “I’m going to do what I wanna do”, a pretty apt summation of his whole oeuvre.*  If only more artists would approach their art in this manner. Forget about working to please the audience; feel free to pleasure yourself.

*Except the two middle-period records Unconditionally Guaranteed and Bluejeans & Moonbeams; pretty much everything  I’ve stated in this piece doesn’t apply to them.


~ by Isaac Bickerstaff on August 2, 2009.

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