January 17, 2011

Bulbous, Yes; Also, a Tin Teardrop

The Captain Beefheart memorials have been outstanding, and there's little need for me to add to them.  But I promised, didn't I?

As with most people, my entryway into the world of Captain Beefheart was through Frank Zappa.  His vocals were featured on "Willie the Pimp" (Hot Rats), and he shared billing with Zappa on a live album called Bongo Fury . . . though, as I found out after listening to Beefheart for only a short while, that was far from a collaborative effort.  As close as I could tell, he was another eccentricity in Zappa's little universe (a universe which, at the time, I found fascinating), so when I read that he had a new album out, I headed over to Sun Records by the Pizza King on 38th Street to pick it up.  That record was 1978's Shiny Beast (Bat Chain Puller).

Musically speaking, by this time Beefheart had been to the edge, back again, and was heading back out.  His masterwork Troutmaskreplica had been released in '69, followed by the earthier (but still equally out) Lick My Decals Off, Baby in '70.  1972 found Beefheart trying to win an audience by moving back towards the bluesy roots he had shown in his earliest work, without completely abandoning the "speaking in tongues" approach that had been so revolutionary on his two greatest records.  Ted Templeman (Doobie Brothers, Van Halen) was brought in to sand the rough edges off Clear Spot, the most accessible album he had released since his early days.

Unfortunately, this "sell out" didn't quite work, so he fired the Magic Band, and went all in to try to get the stardom he so desperately desired: but alas, his two efforts in '74 lacked not only his well-established avant-garde edge, but also any hint of commercial potential. Unconditionally Guaranteed and Bluejeans and Moonbeams not only failed to find a popular audience, they didn't even match the sales numbers of his previous outside work: Bluejeans in particular is generally judged to be a complete disaster.

After some abortive attempts at recording with a new Magic Band, Beefheart finally came out from the cold with 1978's Shiny Beast.  And that's where the story starts for me.

I read about Shiny Beast in some generic hi-fi mag in the Lapel Public Library.  It was a positive review, speaking of a return to the Captain's musical brilliance of years past.  By that time, I was in full-on Zappa crazy mode, and Zappa had, like, a million freaking albums to buy, but by that point I had picked up most of the titles that were available around town.  Besides, I needed to have a little variety in the record collection.  So, I headed out to Sun Records, picked up the LP, and cued it up on my turntable.  And was immediately revolted.

I knew Beefheart was supposed to be "weird", but I was expecting the kind of weird that I heard on Bongo Fury.  I was expecting Zappa weird.  Instead, I got ragged and oddly-shaped music with lots of odd space and nothing to hold on to.  Most of it sounded like goofy take offs on calliope music to me.  And, worst of all, there was no power-drill style guitar brutality that I so loved on most all of the records I was listening to at the time.  After a couple days listening to the record, "Owed T' Alex" and "Bat Chain Puller" started to slowly dawn on my consciousness (probably because of the guitars), but I still hated the album overall.  Back in the day, when I hated an album, I took it back to the store and got another one.  Besides, I knew that there would be another shipment of Zappa in soon, so maybe I could trade it in and chalk this up to experience.

Now, when I was returning records at the K-Mart, I would take a can opener, put a small but very deep gouge in the record, put it back in its sleeve, and take it back in.  They would always frown at me, but I had a receipt, and I always got another record.  I had never tried to return anything to Sun, but I figured it wouldn't be a problem, since they knew I was a regular customer and that I would be back.  I figured that, this time, instead of gouging the record before returning it, I would just be honest.  So, I roll up on the record store, take the album in, and give it to the hippie behind the counter.  "Anything wrong with it?" he asked.  "No, just not the record I expected.  I just want to trade it in for credit."  Well, that was the wrong answer.  Turns out the whole can opener charade was hardly necessary at K-Mart, but would have served me well here.  The hippie says "Nothing I can do for you man" and turned away without another word, leaving the vinyl sitting on the counter like a stinking pile of shit.  Turns out the hippie did me the biggest favor anyone in a music store has ever done for me.

I took the album back home, and it grew on me.  I never really grew to embrace it like I did the two albums that followed (Doc at the Radar Station and Ice Cream for Crow) - it didn't have the kind of attitude that really attracted me in my hormonal late-teen years - but I did like it.  "Bat Chain Puller" especially I would play over and over again.  I came to appreciate it as an interesting oddity, a nice little eccentricity that I could put on whenever I got sick of being pummeled by fuzzed-out guitars (which was pretty rare in those days).  I still hold it in pretty much that same regard.

As a year passed, I grew fond of Shiny Beast, and I was still hearing about this monstrosity called Troutmaskreplica that Zappa had produced for Beefheart.  I was still in big-time Zappa mode, and this was right around the time of the whole Lather fiasco, so that stuff was leaking out an LP at a time, but I was intrigued by the singular reputation that the Beefheart magnum opus had.  One day, on Christmas break during my freshman year at ND, I was plugging my way through the stacks at Musicland in Mounds Mall with my girlfriend Ruth*, when there it was: the glaring red cover with a trout mask covering the face of some guy wearing a stove pipe hat with a badminton birdie on top.  Troutmaskreplica.  Now, I had no inclination of getting into Beefheart like I was into Zappa, or Led Zeppelin, Deep Purple, Rush, Aerosmith, etc., before that, but I decided I wanted that album.  Short on cash, I immediately moved the LP into the country music section under Johnny Cash so no one else would buy it, but I could find it again when I came back with the money.  Two days later, I came back to buy the album; but alas, it was gone.  I searched all the way through the country section, all the way through the Beefheart, miscellaneous C, miscellaneous B, Zappa, and anywhere else I thought it would be.  I left, somewhat dejected, with yet another Zappa album.

Turns out my girlfriend Ruth, crafty gal that she was, noted how excited I was when I found the album, and thought it would be a good Christmas prank/present to buy it out from underneath me and give it to me for Christmas.  So, the next day, I was at her parent's house with her, my best pal John, and her twin sister Mavis, and she springs it on me.  I am thrilled to have it, as she is thrilled to have the Kansas album that I gave her for Christmas.  Curious about what I was so excited about, she told me to go ahead and put it on the stereo.  I demurred, knowing that she probably wouldn't like it, but she thought I was just being polite and insisted that I play it.  I unfortunately replied "you won't like it", which she decided was an insult to her open mindedness, musically speaking.  She was right, of course.  And so was I.

Now, Ruth was a very sweet girl with a romantic soul who stayed up late at night listening to Billy Joel records and dreaming of blowing out of her one-horse town for the bright lights of her beloved New York City.  I never questioned her affection for me, but she did think me somewhat the bumpkin and backward in the ways of the world.  She was right, but as the Billy Joel fixation indicates, she wasn't too far ahead of me in that regard.  She also found my arrogance about music somewhat annoying (as it was, is, and probably always will be!), since she considered herself more sophisticated musically . . . which, once again, her love of Billy Joel gives the lie to.

So, she was annoyed.  She told me to put the record on, which I did.  From the very first note, I was transfixed.  Ruth, on the other hand, was furious: "This is the worst music I've ever heard in my life.  This is terrible.  I can't believe I actually paid for this record".  My pal John only said "Holy shit."

And, I've never been the same.

Beefheart also figures in some of my other musical adventures with friends, but this post is already getting long, so I'll let you go to the other site to read about that.

I'm obsessed with music, and I've had all kinds of serious fixations over the years.  They've come and gone and sometimes returned again: for instance, about five years ago, I went on a mini Led Zeppelin kick and realized it may have been almost twenty years since I had put on a Led Zeppelin record.  Or, like my jazz favorites (Coltrane, Ornette, Cecil Taylor, Albert Ayler, Charles Mingus), there's a lot of music I will go for long periods of time without listening to much, then go on little mini-binges where I'll listen to little else for days.  There are bands like Rush and Aerosmith, who evolved into horrible bands even though I still like their early stuff.  Then there's Frank Zappa: he went from being almost my entire daily playlist to being someone whose music I hated.  I'm now back to the point where I like the Mothers and his jazz fusion stuff, but I still hate his "social commentary" from about 1972 on.

Beefheart, on the other hand, has never been far away from my turntable, tape deck, CD player, mp3 player, whatever.  From that very first needle drop on Troutmask at Ruth's house, I have been deeply hooked.  To me, he had it all: soul, poetry, edge, vision.  His output is easily my "desert island" music, no question.  He is simply the best of his era; and I contend his music will outlast everything done in the rock era, including the Rolling Stones and The Beatles.

Goodbye, Captain.

*  Names changed to protect those who don't necessarily want their shit up on the interwebs.

All artwork by Don Van Vliet, a.k.a. Captain Beefheart.  If you are new to the Beefheart phenomenon, check out The Radar Station, an absolutely first-rate fansite, on of the best of its kind on the web.


Frangipan said...

This is a great story and a lovely tribute. How does the artwork relate? I like it. Also thank you for the Ernst recommendation, I'm going to do a little research.

Bill Zink said...

Captain Beefheart, whose real name was Don Van Vliet (actually it was Don Glen Vliet, but that's another story), retired from music in '83. From that point on he made his living as an artist. Ironically, though probably better known as a musician than an artist, his paintings sold for enough money for him to live comfortably, while he never was able to make a serious living off his music. The paintings are his.

He started painting seriously in the mid-70's, after some strong encouragement from his fans: the process was kick-started when he sold a painting to Julian Schnabel, who warmly encouraged him to keep painting.

Some members of the Magic Band, most notably Eric Drew Feldman, accuse his art-world agent, Michael Werner, of convincing him that the only way to be taken seriously as an artist is to quit music permanently. This seems questionable to me, however, since the notoriously mercurial Beefheart would certainly have returned to music had he the inclination. He was never good at listening to others.

I strongly recommend visiting The Radar Station website (click on the link at the bottom of the post). They have over 100 paintings by Van Vliet cataloged there.

Anonymous said...

Very well said, my Shiny Man-Beast!

(As a tedious obsessive, who relishes in English prose, and who lives in deepest darkest Olde England, (No! THE proper Olde England... Quite near to Francais!!), this Cap'n B'Fart chappie could 'turn a phrase or two' better than any since Dickens!... I swear t'is true!! God Bless America and ALL who sail in her! (the nice ones, naturally).