Ride Captain Ride

One of rock and roll's wiggiest visionaries

My first exposure to Captain Beefheart came, aptly enough, during an intensely enjoyable acid trip to which Trout Mask Replica provided the soundtrack. It was 1983, and I was seventeen years old. Though already a seasoned music dork with obsessions that encompassed punk and zydeco, Delta blues and modern jazz, contemporary soul, vintage R&B, and all kinds of rock and roll, I had yet to venture into the Captain's domain. I knew the name, mostly through his association with Frank Zappa, which was enough to keep me from giving much of a damn about whatever it was that Beefheart had done. But acid has a way of lowering your defenses and opening your mind, to say the least, so when my cotripping friend -- older than me by nearly a decade and well versed in the wonders of Beefheart -- suggested we wrap our brains around Trout Mask Replica (a double-album issued in 1969 on Zappa's ironically titled Straight Records label), I said, "Fine."

Given my, um, state of mind, the cover alone was enough to keep me occupied for the duration of that lysergic sunny Sunday afternoon, with the good Captain waving howdy to all, donning a green-felt sport coat, a bluish scarf, a crazy hat topped with what might be a badminton shuttlecock, and, naturally, a trout mask. On the back was a photo of Beefheart (sans mask, and with sunglasses and a Dickensian top hat) and his Magic Band, standing in the woods, wearing deadpan expressions and clothes that couldn't possibly have come from this planet. The same could be said for the music captured on those four sides of well-worn wax. It clomped and sputtered, wheezed and whistled, with saxophones shrieking to the heavens and guitars doing things that were both frightening and funny. The voice -- Beefheart's eight-octave voice -- was similarly terrifying and hilarious, a growl that instantly conjured a Howlin' Wolf who was tripping just like me, and spouting words that made Naked Lunch seem as reasonable and easy to grasp as a beginner's cookbook. We played the album twice, all the way through, laughing hysterically as Beefheart recited a twisted ode to a woman named Big Joan (so big that, as he points out, "her hands are too small," and that she was "too big to go out in the daylight," so she just "rolls around"), offered his best Mark Twain-as-Dadaist-naturalist on "The Dust Blows Forward and the Dust Blows Back," while the Magic Band whooped up a racket that blistered my brain in ways that the chemicals up there could never have managed. That day I was in love with all the usual stuff you suddenly notice when you're looped on the funny paper: the very existence of sunlight, the grain of a hardwood floor, the patterns of the wallpaper in the bathroom, the texture of a towel, the feel of cold beer flowing down a throat hoarse from laughter. Mostly, though, I was in love with Captain Beefheart.

And that's how it is with the music of Don Van Vliet, a.k.a. Captain Beefheart: You either love it intensely, or you hate it with equal fervor. Since that Eighties afternoon, I've yet to meet a soul who was only marginally interested in his vast body of work, which stretches back to the mid-Sixties and ended with his desert-retreating retirement in 1983. My ex-wife once deemed it "the worst bunch of garbage I've ever heard," and some friends of mine with definitely eccentric tastes in music and penchants for mind-enhancing recreational substances have confessed to being unable to make it all the way through a Beefheart album.

One of rock and roll's wiggiest visionaries: Captain Beefheart
Cal Schenkel
One of rock and roll's wiggiest visionaries: Captain Beefheart

I can't imagine, then, any of them wading through Grow Fins: Rarities 1965-1982, a five-disc box set of previously unreleased material issued by John Fahey's Revenant label. Lavishly packaged, exhaustive in its liner-notes presentation of the winding Captain Beefheart saga (chronicled oral-history style by Magic Band drummer John French), and musically sprawling and far-reaching just like you'd expect from such a collection, Grow Fins is something close to a total triumph. Containing an assortment of outtakes, live cuts, rehearsals, and airchecks, it both complements and sheds new light on the Captain's twelve-album legacy. Spend enough time with it, and you'll be transported to a place where, as the Firesign Theatre once put it, everything you know is wrong: where anticipated chord changes never happen; where sounds fly out of nowhere, descending like atom bombs from some places, and daintily drifting down from others, creating a quiet, but equally devastating, type of destruction; where accepted ideas of rhythm are demolished, rebuilt, then torn down again; and where the English language is rewritten, retooled to lend sonic illustration to a vision that was as much a part of the harrowing Delta blues of Skip James and Robert Johnson as it was the avant-garde jazz innovations of Ornette Coleman, Albert Ayler, and Roscoe Mitchell. You recognize the words, and fragments of the sounds, but the placement is skewed, the usage utterly unique and not a little bit nuts -- like the artistry of a brilliant poet, or the babble of a brilliant streetperson. Or, as the famous quote from Trout Mask goes, "fast and bulbous."

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