Ben Edmonds – “Captain Beefheart” (1970)

September 1, 2008 at 1:28 pm (Captain Beefheart, Reviews & Articles)

Article written by Ben Edmonds for ZigZag magazine about the always enigmatic Captain – August 1970…

Beefheart is and always was a Zigzag hero; we get more letter about him than any other artists, I should think — asking for news and articles. This piece, reprinted from Creem magazine, contains a lot of information which will already be known to Zigzag readers, but there are some interesting quotes from the Captain and news of his new band and next album.
Although they appear to be fading somewhat, the rock and roll audience lines of demarcation are still very much in evidence. On one side are the bubblegum kids, with their transistor radio and Christian Youth Fellowships, stuck in the grooves of the latest B J Thomas or Archies hit. Little needs to be said about them because all of us, at one distant time or another, were inevitably part of that scene. It was phase we all passed through, an integral stage in the growth of progress.
On the other side of the fence are those of us who would like to think that our cultural tastes are a bit more mature. We are aware of our bubble-gum roots and American Bandstand heritage, but we seem to feel that we are above and beyond all that now. We pride ourselves on our open-mindedness and the supposed latitude of our cultural inclinations. We think that we (and therefore our music) represent a freedom of sorts from the insular mind rot of our juvenile counterparts.
It would seem to me, however, that we are too quick to pat our own backs, that we are giving ourselves far more credit than we actually deserve. In many respects our musical tastes are just as limited (if not more so) than the bubble-gum kids. It may be true that there exists a certain degree of technical adventurism in much of our music, but even on that plane we have severely confined ourselves. Our conception of excellence is defined with the narrow walls of technical virtuosity and often built upon riffs that were passe long before we ever got to them (see Eric Clapton for a prime example of what I’m talking about). In doing so, we lose sight of truly creative conception, of that which separates man from machine technology. Simple regurgitation of old blues riffs or country licks (no matter what the level of technical competence) is nothing more than egotistical plagiarism, and can hardly constitute creativity on any level.
In light of this, have we actually made the progressions we are so quick to credit ourselves with? I think not, and it is perhaps directly resultant from our deficiency of version; our stubborn refusal to look forward rather than simply wallowing in the eclectic overload of the present. This may help to explain how a band as consistently futuristic as the Velvet Underground could be neglected with equal consistency. Anything that does not neatly fall within our narrow boundaries we tend to ridicule or completely ignore. Captain Beefheart and His Magic Band have suffered more than their share of both.
Our music is labeled as “progressive rock”, but who among us has been more progressive that Beefheart? We refer to ourselves as the “underground”, but few can conceive of the subterranean depths in which Beefheart dwells. (In fact he has literally been kept a prisoner there.) We think of our life-style as being contemporary, but the music of Beefheart ranges far beyond that; he is one of the truly visionary figures in American music. In many ways, however, Beefheart has been the victim of his vision, and he has been crucified in ways that John Lennon can only fantasize about.
Captain Beefheart was born in Glendale, California in 1941, under the assumed name of Don Van Vliet. The youthful Captain displayed an abundance of sensitivity and talent in the fine arts, so much so that by the age of thirteen he had won a scholarship to study sculpture in Europe. But his parents refused to let him go, informing him in typical parent fashion that all artists were queers. To discourage the impressionable lad, they packed up and moved Lancaster, on the fringe of the California wasteland. It proved to be a strategically poor move, however, for it was there, in Lancaster High, that young Don struck up a friendship Frank Zappa. This was a relationship that would prove to have a profound effect on the Captain’s later career.
Zappa recalled the pattern of that teenage friendship. “Don and I used to get together after school and listen to records for three or four hours. We’d start off at my house, and then get something to eat and ride around in his old Oldsmobile looking for pussy — in Lancaster! Then we’d go to his house and raid his old man’s bread truck and eat pineapple buns and listen to records until five in the morning”. From all appearances this was nothing more than a harmless comradeship, but it was during this period that the seeds of Beefheart’s musical aspirations, and the later collaborations of the two men, were planted.
Although it has been widely reported that Beefheart played briefly in high school with a black rhythm and blues outfit called the Omens, this was not exactly the case. The Captain related to me the actual story behind the story: “I bought an alto saxophone and went to rehearsal and just started playing. They told me to get out. They said that I wasn’t playing, that I was just moving my fingers. In other words, they thought I was a little too weird for them”. It wasn’t until his post-high school days that he really became interested in music, but this is a fairly accurate indication of the mythology that has been built up around the amazing Captain.
A brief encounter with higher education (Antelope Valley College) terminated his association with formal art. “I realised that sculpture was too pointed,” he says, and he began to turn increasingly to music as his chief creative outlet. His principal interests wee authentic blues and progressive jazz, “I’ve always like human noises”, he reflected, “like animal noises and things like that, natural sounds. I got a more natural feeling out of say, country blues, field hollers, and things like that and progressive stuff. I was looking for something that extended rather than caging, you know what I mean?” It is not unusual, therefore, that his first Magic Band was rooted deeply in the Delta (as opposed to slick Chicago) blues style. Even at this early stage, Beefheart had a lucid vision of the kind of music he wanted to do, but his musicians at that point would have no part of it, and Beefheart found himself trapped in the form he had hoped to use as a launching pad. Neverthless, the brand of raunchy blues rock that the Magic Band excelled at was a vanguard form in the year of our lord 1964, and they attracted the eyes of an A&M Records scout, and were soon thereafter signed to that label.
His venture with A&M was short and hardly sweet, a recurring pattern in the Beefheart career. His first single, ‘Diddy Wah Diddy’ (the old Bob Diddley tune), was a Los Angeles breakout, but failed to sustain its success in other parts of the country. When he approached the company with tapes for an album, he was told by Jerry Moss that his approach was “too negative”. It seems that the good Captain’s image was not deemed suitable for the company headed by the decidedly wholesome Herb Alpert. A&M released another single, but by that time the Captain was long gone.
Embittered by this painful rejection, Beefheart sat out a year in self-imposed retirement. It took Bob Krasnow, then of Buddah Records, to lure with Captain out of exile, and he did so with a promise to release the “negative” A&M material. It must be remembered that Buddah, at that time, had the Lovin Spoonful and the Charlatans and were not distinguished as the monarch of the bubble-gum empire. The first product of the Beefheart/Kresnow coalition was the album Safe as Milk (Buddah BDS 5001), released in 1965.
The Magic Band (as heard on that album) consisted of: Don Van Vliet (vocals and harp), Ryland Cooder (guitar), Alex Snouffer (guitar), Jerry Handley (bass) and John French (drums). The album payed obvious respects to Delta blues, but employed a broad range of diverse styles and effects. Ry Cooder was, and still is, one of the masters of bottleneck guitar, a talent he shows to full advantage on this album. His thick Delta texture is perfectly offset by the rock-based guitar of Snouffer, a wonderfully imaginative complement. The rhythmical line was carried by Snouffer, thus leaving drummer John French free to accent rather than merely occupying the bottom of the beat. But to mind, the most important instrument in the band was the voice of Vliet himself. His vocals are an ever-changing descriptive force, and his lyrics, even then, a natural flow of image response. The music was precise amalgam of musical influences, but was considerably more than the sum of its elements. Although they may start a song from within some easily recognizable framework, the course of that song is likely to see some startling never satisfied to rest protected by form, and his music is an enhancing wellspring of innovation.
Safe as Milk opened up with ‘Sure ‘Nuff ‘N Yes I Do’, an uptempo blues that featured Cooder’s fine bottleneck technique. But it was Beefheart’s lyrics (“I was born in the desert/Came on up from New Orleans/Came upon a tornado/Sun out in the sky/I went around all day/With the moon sticking in my eye”) that told us that something very magical was being done to the blues riff. ‘Dropout Boogie’ gave us an unprecedented example of the extreme plasticity of Beefheart’s voice. Accompanied by a fuzz rhythm, his voice incredibly blended and complimented the guitar, until it seemed that he was a lyrical fuzz box himself. He has often said that he was not influenced by rock an roll (“Actually, I wouldn’t say that I was innocent of it, “he told me”, “I have heard it, and I’ve shut off enough radios to not hear it”.), but the song ‘I’m Glad’ would seem to say otherwise. It’s a syrupy rock number, complete with falsetto backing, and it so essentially captures what songs of that nature were about that only a person with fastidious insights into that music could have created it. The song made perfectly clear that rock (or any form, for that matter) offered few possibilities for a man of Beefheart’s unique gifts, and it was only natural that he should grow in a very personal direction or no perceptible direction at all. People today still refuse to recognize that fact, and the refrain of ‘Plastic Factory’ was prophetic of his whole relationship with the industry: “Plastic factory ain’t no place for me/Bossman leave me be”.
The hard amalgam of blues and rock, the distinctive use of the theremin, and the emergence of Beefheart himself, all made Safe as Milk a revolutionary album in the truest sense of the word. The harbinger’s lot, however, is often a very suicidal one; and the album died almost immediately upon release. People who pass it by in the discount racks of this nation’s supermarkets will possibly never know what they have missed. Perhaps the listening public has finally gotten to the point where they can begin to relate to what was going on in Safe as Milk, but subsequent events took Beefheart and his Magic Band forever out and far beyond the dull mainstream contemporary American music.
The departure of Ry Cooder (who refused, and still refuses, to tour) was the decisive factor in the breakup of the first Magic Band. Beefheart assembled a second Magic Band in Los Angeles and headed for England, where response to Safe as Milk had been considerably better. In the interim, some questionable dealing on the part of Bob Krasnow resulted in the release of a second Beefheart album. The album (allegedly recorded for two separate record companies) was titled Strictly Personal, and released on Blue Thumb, Krasnow’s own fledgling label.
Held over from the first Magic Band were Jerry Handley and John French, but guitarists Alex St. Claire and Jeff Cotton were both new additions. But despite the holdovers, the sound of the new Magic Bond was a cosmic departure from Safe as Milk. They were slowly beginning to overcome the senseless restrictions of conventional form, and their playing was refreshingly liberated and adventurous. The Delta still imposed itself (due in part to St. Claire’s blues background), but eclecticism meant less and less as the band found themselves. The transitional process was not an easy one for these professional musicians but Beefheart was always there to help with the de-contamination process. “The way I did it was, I went note for note with them”, the Captain recalled. “It was a really difficult thing”. The effort was well worth it, however, for Strictly Personal was a monumental step toward the realization of the Beefheart genius.
The centerfold was an incredibly bizarre photograph of the band, and made a direct reference to the music on the album. The black and white photo was a darkly magnetic portrait of the Magic Band in metallic masks and space helmets, galactic guides for a cosmic excursion. Given more room to work here than on Safe as Milk, the band began to assume a more cosmic outlook themselves; or at least this time around they didn’t restrain Beefheart to quite the same degree. The guitars successfully broke the old lead/rhythm pattern and explored the possibilities of strongly disjoined relationships, fighting each other and at times themselves in a wonderfully nonsensical battle. But, an usual, it is the overpower presence of the Captain that makes this record go. The band had advanced, but Beefheart was still far ahead of them egging them on and begging them to catch up. His lyrics and vocals both intensely reflected the release quality of the album, as is evidenced by the extreme urgency of his vocal on ‘Trust Us’ (“You gotta trust us/Before you turn to dust”). He meant it.
Strictly Personal begins in much the same way as Safe as Milk, with a blues number (‘Ah Feel Like Ahcid’), but vividly draws the line of distinction between the two albums. And by the time the voyage has ended, with the chaotic ‘Kandy Korn’, any comparisons one might have been tempted to make have been utterly obliterated.
Yet despite the excellent music, it appears that before the album was released, Krasnow got his hand son the tapes and added a few touches of his own. Many parts of the album were phased and otherwise electronically reprocessed, a cheap device to try and capitalize on the Captain’s supposed freakiness. The bare honesty of the original sessions was gone, and although, in the Captain’s words, the music “shines through like a diamond in the mud”, the damage was done. Krasnow’s butchery and Beefheart’s innovation added up to no sales and little recognition, and the Captain had been burned again.
To top things off, his second band quit in the middle of a European tour, and Beefheart was once more on his own. This was not an unusual occurrence in the Beefheart scheme of things, and he explained it this way: “They went up to a certain point, and then when the money didn’t keep coming they split. It’s sure a shame, but I guess they got that damn ruler in there somewhere. That old golden rule”. He had no alternative but to retire to Lancaster and try to regroup his forces.
Enter Frank Zappa. The two teenage chums ran into one another, somehow appropriately enough, at a Colonel Sanders chicken shop. Zappa had been doing well with his Mothers, and was in the process of laying the groundwork for Straight Records. Things being as they were, an agreement was reached and Beefheart was back for another go at it. “He told me that he would give me complete freedom, as far as freedom goes,” Vliet recollected. “When another man tells me that he’ll give me complete freedom, all I can think is that he’s in a cage. But since he was in a cage, I thought maybe I could run around the outside and play a little bit.” That “little bit” turned out to be Trout Mask Replica, a monster achievement and Beefheart’s most representative work to date.
The Magic Band on Trout Mask was an entirely new assemblage, made up of artist friends of Vliet’s, all non-musicians. The band was comprised of Vliet (bass clarinet, tenor sax, soprano sax, vocal), Zoot Horn Rollo (glass finger guitar, flute), Antennae Jimmy Semens (steel appendage guitar), The Mascara Snake (bass clarinet, vocal), Rockette Morton (bass, narration) and Drumbo (percussion). Being non-musicians, Beefheart had to teach them all from scratch. “The thing is that I found out that I couldn’t use anybody that was a musician”, he says. “I tried to school them in sculpting, you see, by letting them school themselves as far as I could without going over into that form. In other words, they didn’t leave the house for two years”. As a result, this Magic Band gave the Captain the most empathetic and innocent support he’s yet had.
The entire Trout Mask production (a double album) was begun and completed within an eight hour period, due largely to Straight’s lack of finances. It was engineered by Dick Kunc, and they both turned in outstanding performances under the existing conditions. “Dick Kunc wasn’t happy with the fact that we weren’t given enough time”, said Beefheart in reference to that session. “He did the majority of the producing and everything. I think that Frank was actually trying to stay out of my way, actually. The band played straight through on all the cuts in one night. It took them four hours to do the entire album. We didn’t use over dubs or anything”. In many ways this one-take performance was an asset, in that it gives us a clear, untampered picture of exactly what went down that historic night.
On Trout Mask, Beefheart severs all ties with narrow contemporary concepts of music. That people are still trying to categorize the Magic Band’s music (“Wasn’t that an Ornette Coleman lick?”) is beyond me. Even those who term the music “dada-rock” are hiding behind a classification, and totally miss the point. The band is actually playing (p-l-a-y-i-n-g) for once, a delightful practice that defies categorization. What seems like chaos is merely non-structure, what seems like no direction is no direction. The bass and drums are not relegated to simple beatkeeping apparatus, but are free to make their own distinctive contributions. The guitars construct, and then harshly bend and rupture, rhythms and progressions seemingly without design. The music works as a whole, yet each band member is allowed to express himself in a very individual manner. And because the Magic Band is not composed of professional musicians, there is always that marvelous factor of discovery involved.
Of the twenty-eight-cuts on Trout Mask Replica, Beefheart’s voice will invariably never be the same on any two (take your pick), leading one to suspect that he is rooted as much in cosmic vaudeville as the blues. His range is almost beyond human conception, and I still have the feeling that he has yet to really let loose (something that goes for the Magic Band as well). His lyrics, like the music, are beyond definition and not subject to earthly law: (“Pappy with the Khaki sweatband/Bowed goat potbellied barn-yard/The old fart was smart/The old gold cloth madonna/Dancin’ t’the fiddle ‘n saw”). Words can be as powerful an instrument to be played as the guitar, and that is precisely the way in which Captain Beefheart uses them.
Zappa made good on his promise of complete freedom, and as a result, Trout Mask Replica is an unparalleled work of musical art. Its importance reaches far beyond rock, and it is doubtful that as paramount an achievement has been equalled in any genre. But, in leaving the musical public so far behind, Beefheart has once again victimized himself; a full appreciation of Trout Mask will undoubtedly be a long time coming.
It appears, however, that Beefheart’s troubles with the industry did not end with Trout Mask. He now claims that Straight (Frank Zappa) have promoted his album in an unethical manner. “I was told by Frank Zappa,” he states, “that I would not be a categorized with anybody else. I was told by Frank that I would have, if you want to call it, special treatment, that I would not be advertised or promoted with any of the other groups on the label. But somehow In guess he got hard-pressed for cash, and decided that he’d round me up and sell me as one of the animal crackers. I didn’t like the idea of being labeled and put aside as just another freak”. The fact does remain, though, that were it not for Zappa and Straight, Trout Mask Replica would probably not exist; and it is a non-statement of such magnitude that no promotional campaign could ever detract from its worth.
Talking to Van Vliet is not unlike taking a rainbow shower. He is a very honest and open man, with a contagious warmth and humour that makes you feel immediately at ease. He talks in a very personal and unique way, and I sometimes found myself answering his queries in the affirmative, while at the same time thinking that I really had no idea what he was talking about. In listening to the tapes of our conversation, however, I realized the inherent simplicity of the man, and that I had actually understood the things he was saying all along.
His deep sensitivity was made readily apparent throughout our conversation. Apparently he has had this since his youth, and his life may be seen as the fight for an effective artistic outlet for these feelings. Sculpture was his original outlet, and strong sculptural traces can still be seen in his music. The way the instrumental aspect constantly moulds and shapes the rhythm, the way his voice is kneaded to fit each individual song and the tonally textured qualify of his lyrics, are all suggestive of his early sculptural training.
In light of this sensitivity, it is easy to see how his music could have taken its base root in the blues. Authentic blues is perhaps the most human musical form in existence, and would be logical vent for a humanist such as Beefheart. The problem was that he found himself trapped in this form. In the Safe as Milk period, blues was becoming a culturally acceptable and commercially viable product, and Beefheart had a way with the blues that literally reeked with dollar signs in the eyes of the industry. To allow him personal growth would be a potential liability, and it was deemed much easier (and much more profitable as well) to keep him in a place where he could be readily understood and manipulated. People seem to fear anything that challenges them to relate outside their limited sphere of reference, and the Captain was decidedly moving away from anybody’s sphere (though he is much more direct and inside than most people are willing to give him credit for).
An understandable outgrowth of the Captain’s sensitivity is his concern for nature and what man is so thoughtlessly doing to the earth mother. No trendy ecologist he, for his concern has been a lifelong occupation from the time he made his first sculpture of God’s little creatures. It is evident in his music, in songs like ‘Wild Life’ (“Wild Life is a man’s best friend…”) and ‘Ant Man Bee’ (“Now the bee takes his honey then he sets the flower free/But in Gods garden only/Man ‘n the ants/They won’t let each other be”). It is also evident in the course of normal (?) conversation. “Everybody has to start cleaning up their own garden”, he remarked. “The thing is, is that if they could and if it is themselves I guess it is their own garden. I really think that it’s pointless, or maybe it’s a point, to run our in front of a speeding car. You know, and expect not to be struck down”. It is indicative of his god nature that he possesses the essential optimism that man can and will take steps to correct the situation.
We got talking about speed, the pace of man. He believes that things are moving at a senseless and insensitive rate, that we aren’t allowed the time or the means to really learn now how to play. He brought up a rather distressing situation: “I have been noticing recently that there aren’t any more kites, and there aren’t any more jacks, Remember the Jacks? They’ve all just disappeared from the market, all of those nonsensical things that somebody could do by themselves. I mean, I enjoy playing jacks myself. I have a couple of sets. What about cooties? That was a nice sculpture. I think that outdoes Warhol”. Children seem to have a marvelous capacity for pure and innocent creation, and in many respects this is what Beefheart is aiming for.
Speed creates distortion, and it is not unusual that the situation here in the United States has reached the grotesque proportions that it has. The solution at this point becomes fairly obvious “I think that they’re going to have to get more kites”, declared Van Vliet. “I think that immediately the kite-makers should be sought out, and I think that they should definitely start handling out kites. Perhaps kites should be handed out in school, in high school and college. If they would have a kite class I think that it would be a real help. We’d get them out in the fresh air. I think maybe they’d discover electricity”. With all the overblown rhetoric and counter-rhetoric that we’ve suffered, Beefheart’s solution is refreshingly simple and logical. Think about it.
Don Van Vliet is truly the twenty first century renaissance man. Although his music tends to keep him occupied, his creative spirit literally bursts into many other artistic areas. He still sculpts, and has recently devoted much time to painting. His house in then San Fernando Valley (that outgrowth of Los Angeles that seems to exist only in the eyes of Ralph Williams and a few other car dealerships) acts as a receptacle for his literary endeavours, and is strewn with his prose and poetry (and five novels somewhere among them). Many publishers are reportedly very interested in his writings, so the chances look good that he will be available in hard cover and paperback very soon. It seems that there is no field that he cannot master if he puts his mind to it. And, like your proverbial iceberg, I think that the bulk of his genius still lies submerged, waiting for an effective outlet.
It is easy to see how a man with Beefheart’s previous experience could be wary of business and industry dealings, and that it is essential for such a man to be in hands that he trusts and has confidence in. At long last Beefheart appears to have found those hands. They belong to his present manager, Grant Gibbs, of whom Beefheart says: “He’s a very nice person. He has integrity”. The feeling is mutual. Gibbs treats his client not like a client at all, but more as a close friend and advisor. The delicacy and protectiveness with which he handles Beefheart springs from a genuine concern for, and understanding of, the man’s needs. His contractual and financial problems have been cleared up, and by the time you read this article, he should have signed a new contract with Warner Bros. Rumour has it that the Warners people have a tendency to regard Straight artists (whom they distribute) as little more than freaks, but this is apparently not the case with Beefheart. The Captain has every confidence in the Warners people, and feels that they will handle him in an appropriate manner. His first album for Warner Bros, Lick My Decals Off, Baby, is now in the works.
He is extremely anxious to get on the road and bring once again his music to the people. Offers have been pouring in from all parts of the globe, and it is expected that his first appearance will be at the Santa Monica Civic Auditorium in the very near future.
Wh
en he does hit the road, he will have a slightly altered Magic Band with him. It will include Zoot Horn Rollo on guitar, Rockette Morton on bass, and Art Tripp on drums. Tripp was formerly a percussionist with Frank Zappa’s now defunct Mothers (although Beefheart says, “I don’t think he was ever with Frank, because I don’t think Frank could have kept with him, frankly”.)
The music of Zappa in no way relates to the non-linear Beefheart approach, so how did Art Tripp make the necessary transition? “Well, I took an erector set, you know”, the Captain told me. “I put the erector set on the floor and I proceeded to have him bend it, and then after he got through bending it and he got tired and his hands got sore, I said that’s it. You see, Art Tripp was in music college for eight years. And when he gout out and found out that he was just cutting up cadavers, when he realized that he was just being an Igor for Frank Zappa, I guess it was quite a shock to him. To come from music college and realize that all they’re doing is paying homage to people that aren’t living. I’m interested in who’s living”. Van Vliet has, it seems, been able to infuse his Magic Band with this same vitality and life projection. He considers them to be his best Magic Band yet, and that’s saying something.
All systems appear to be go in the career of Van Vliet. He recently married a girl named Jan, and while this is pure speculation, I think that she has had more than a little to do with his health optimism. But whatever the reason, Beefheart is out to make it his way this time, and when he sets his mind on something, you might as well consider it accomplished.
It appears that the public, as well, is now ready (or in the process of getting there) to receive the Captain and his friends in somewhat the proper perspective. I have the feeling that seeing Beefheart in person will tell you more about him than any record or any words that I could come up with. There will undoubtedly still be many who will view him in freaky terms (thinking that it’s groovy because it’s so far out), but this has always been the fate of men of vision. They are either crucified or camped out of existence. Those of us who treasure Beefheart because he is a warmly real human being are still in the minority, but at the very least I hope that he will be appreciated for the depth and range of his artistry.
I could never hope to put down on paper the intensity of this men’s presence; the accuracy and humour of his insights can only be fully revealed through personal contract. For those who have long over-looked his recorded legacy, I can only say you would do well to start making up for lost time. Time will prove Don Van Vliet to be one of the most gifted artistes and remarkable figures that our culture has produced, Trout Mask Replica is already ample testimony to that. His vision, always clear, is finally being given its long deserved attention — he will no longer be forced to frequent the underground freak sideshow, and it’s about time. Don said to me “If there is an end, then you’ve already lost”, so instead of attempting to end this, I’ll merely suggest that you find a kite and go out and begin things for yourself. It just might prove to be worth it.

Ben Edmonds

1 Comment

  1. oledapra said,

    Reblogged this on Oledapra's Blog.

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