For my English speaking friends out there, here’s the translation of my blog article on Captain Beefheart, at the occasion of his death. Incidentally, I feel hardly any remorse on his departure. When a 69 year old man, who has been sick with a degenerating disease since many years, dies, we can feel sorry for his illness, or remain unsettled by the pounding beat of the universe upon our own mortality if even our immortal heroes fade out one day, or we can commemorate his life and work, in great amazement, which is what I want to do here. The captain has long ceased to enjoy us with new outbursts of his creative powers, at least in their musical embodiment. So long that even if I had discovered him when I started out to actively listen to and purchase music, I would still not have witnessed a single concert or record release. When “Ice cream for crow” became the epilogue to his oeuvre, I was only eleven, in hindsight proud to have “Looking for clues” by Robert Palmer among my favourite songs, but enough of a child to have it followed up by “Words don’t come easy” by F.R. David.
These days, when a novice wants to have a decent introduction to the mythical figure of Captain Beefheart, we must surely not direct them to an article in what was once a leading magazine of rock’n roll but point straight to the Wikipedia lemma about the man. A more authoritative and pleasureable introduction, is the BBC documentary by the incomparable John Peel, published on Youtube in 6 parts. It would be ludicrous to make any attempt of improving on this, so I’ll concentrate on my acquaintance with “The Captain” as Beefies allow themselves to call him, rather than “Don Van Vliet” which is more of a show off to know his real name, which allegedly is Don Vliet anyway, dust suckers.
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4M5YE_a4B1U – debut years, with John French and Frank Zappa
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WXxH8shHd9I – with Ry Cooder
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=soNg-RSv6nY – with Matt Groening
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9msDItyYvxo – about the making of Trout Mask Replica and the return to sanity
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LunCzAf6Z5o – artistic decline and love/hate for Zappa
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=L_Prs_W5ffs – comeback and adieu from the scene
In the late eighties, my musical odyssey was substantially boosted by getting in touch with a friend of friends, who was a little bit older, sufficient to be aware of lots of things I wasn’t. He lend me a couple of records, one of which I remember to be “Horses”, Patti Smith’s masterpiece. The one that really blew me away was “Clear spot”, Captain Beefhearts 7th official release, dated 1973. Today I still go mellow upon hearing the toms rolled in “Big eyed beans from Venus”.
The shock resulted in a long and marvelous trip through the repertoire of this genius composer and performer. I started out with the logical debut of “Safe as milk”, deeply embedded in the raw blues of earlier centuries, but already showing signs of the psychedlica to come, and probably still the record that you can genuinely enjoy most at any time of the day, in any season. At the other end of the time spectrum, I acquired “Shiny beast”, featuring the wonderful trombone parts by Bruce Fowler, who leaves a distinctive mark on this record. This release in 1978 marked a comeback after a couple of years of treading the footsteps of Frank Zappa, in recovery from a failed commercial attempt. With “Clear Spot”, this record achieves the best balance between originality and consumability. I would recommend these three records to anyone wanting to be acquainted with his repertoire. Here are the opening tracks of it:
From there I went on to explore the more avant-garde and definitely less accessible aspects of his legacy, starting with the relatively rocky but rather amelodic “Doc at the radar station”, plus a collection item called “Another chapter in the lives and times of …” recollecting numerous fragments and outtakes of songs that date from the era when Beefheart transformed his unconventional blues heard on “Safe as milk” into the psychedelic music first featured on the “Strictly personal”. More of such compilations and live recordings reminisce these prolific years between ’68-’70, such as “Mirror man” and “I may be hungry but sure ain’ weird”, a cd I purchased only much later, but which exemplifies the extra-terrestrial genius, still tamed by a production aiming at a human audience. The tracks on this release are almost identical to those on “Strictly personal”, but rendered without the fashionable bells and whistles of those years. My favourtie album, but that’s strictly personal (oh, no).
Somehow I managed to postpone the three least accessible albums to later subjection to my phonograph. The widely acclaimed “Trout mask replica” almost serves as a criterium for being a real fan. I will not put its significance in doubt, nor the mastery required to produce it. It is moreover absolutely unfathomable for an artist to have made three records between ’67 and ’69 which are that fundamentally different, while being all three of them masterpieces in their genre. However, frankly I can hardly listen to this record. Every year I’ll give it another try, but the changing rhythms, the free melodic structure and the raw production make it very hard to go with the flow. Some will say that its having no flow is precisely the point of it. Undoubtably there will be people out there who can honestly listen to TMR without feeling the urge to open the windows and suck up the oxygen that had been needed to consume the first few notes of it, but … not me. Whenever fans and music critics start loathing this record equivocally, I cannot help but sensing a scent of snobism in the air.
It’s the same snobism that forces people to take no fresh look at the more commercial material he released with, in particular, “Bluejeans & moonbeams”. Admitted, it was the soundtrack with the recovery of my long lost love. A more unaffected listening of its predecessor “Unconditionally guaranteed” made me understand why this era was considered not worthy of his stature. The last official release I purchased, “Lick my decalls off, baby” almost as difficult to access as TMR, but without the emotional tightness of the latter, induced by a diet of soja beans.
I still cannot say what I find most remarkable with Captain Beefheart. His having made three masterpiece records in a span of three years, in different styles? That he reinvented himself at least twice, once as a blues singer with “The spotlight kid” and once with “Shiny beast” as a psychedelic? The fact that he, allegedly untutored, directed several squads of highly skilled intstrumentalists, only awkwardly mastering the harmonica and the saxofone? That he made 12 records in 15 years and quit at one of his peaks, presumably in favour of a more respected reputation as an undistracted painter?
When I listen to Nick Drake, Joni Mitchell or Bach, I can hear human beings with a touch of divinity, to spread heavenly music over the masses. Captain Beefheart on the contrary, got kicked by the devil and gave us a hint of what music may sound like on Mars, and what beans look like on Venus.