Ride Captain Ride
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.
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."
If that quote makes sense to you, or if it intrigues you in the least, Grow Fins will throttle you senseless in every way imaginable. If it doesn't, well, it's your loss. And for the ones who aren't sure, or are merely curious, Rhino has just released The Dust Blows Forward: An Anthology, a double-disc overview of Beefheart's career that includes highlights from his oeuvre as well as a few outtakes and a rare B-side or two. Skimpy to a fault, and dominated by the Captain's more accessible moments from 1972's Clear Spot, Rhino's compendium basically is a nice starter kit. Grow Fins, however, charts the development of Beefheart's vision and, even more important, reveals just how much the ever-changing Magic Band played a part in that development (thus shattering the long-standing belief that Beefheart composed, then taught, every line to the players).
The Beefheart saga began in 1964, when Van Vliet, a prodigy sculptor raised in the Mojave Desert, assembled the first Magic Band, following some failed collaborations with his teenage buddy Frank Zappa (who along the way gave Van Vliet his stage handle). The group debuted in 1965 on A&M Records with a crushing version of Bo Diddley's "Diddy Wah Diddy," a garage-rocker propelled by an overdriven bass and Beefheart's growling vocal. Both that tune and its followup failed to crack the charts, though, and the Magic Band was dropped. But as the first two discs of Grow Fins attest, it was a fruitful period for the group. The 1966-68 vintage demos and live material balance blues-rock swagger with vintage-punk ferocity and the trance-boogie of Howlin' Wolf, whose "Evil" receives a savage beating from the quintet. Better than the two albums released at this time (the 1967 Buddah debut Safe as Milk and Strictly Personal, issued by Blue Thumb the following year), these discs capture the mutation of a very good white blues band into a very weird band, period.
Infuriated by the abysmal mix of Strictly Personal, executed without the Captain's knowledge or approval, Beefheart left Blue Thumb and realigned himself with Zappa, who oversaw the chaotic 1969 rehearsals for Trout Mask Replica, recorded at the band's house in Woodland Hills, California, and presented in all their ragged, somewhat underwhelming glory on the third disc of Grow Fins. The sans-vocals rehearsals are staggering musically, with Beefheart's screeching reed blowing intermingling with French's mathematical percussion and the twin guitar work of Bill Harkleroad and Jeff Cotton. But without Beefheart's screams and growls and surreal, artful babble, the demos only approximate the genius and brilliance of Trout Mask Replica; imagine an Exile on Main Street without Mick Jagger's vocals and you get the picture. (As for Grow Fins' fourth disc, a brief set of vintage Trout Mask recitations and discussions with a baffled and irritated neighbor, it makes for a fun listen the first couple of times you hear it.)
Following the release of Trout Mask, Beefheart and the constantly changing Magic Band returned to a slightly more conventional approach to melody, arrangement, and instrumentation. They would produce eccentric blues (Lick My Decals Off, Baby, The Spotlight Kid), quasi-rock-and-soul boogie (Clear Spot), horrid shots at the mainstream (Unconditionally Guaranteed, Bluejeans & Moonbeams), and a triumvirate of albums that were innovatively forward-looking and infused with the brilliance of Beefheart's past: Shiny Beast (Bat Chain Puller), Doc at the Radar Station, and Ice Cream for Crow, his final release from 1982.
Grow Fins concludes with a dazzling overview of the Captain's last thirteen years in music, culled mostly from early Seventies live work that was far more wiggy than what he was releasing at the time. This is where Beefheart's eccentricities run rampant, with the Magic Band intuitively following their manic leader while cutting their own bizarre path through the riotous noise. Sure, John French's nine-minute drum piece "Spitball Scalped Uh Baby" is about eight minutes too much of a good thing, and the live take of "Click Clack" pales next to the one on The Spotlight Kid. But the version here of "When Big Joan Sets Up," taken from a 1971 concert in Detroit, is a brutal squawker that, like the bulk of Grow Fins, defines the legacy of rock's most unique visionary. It's a loud, ravaging mess, infused with passion and madness, utterly transcendent, mind-expanding, brain-rattling. No acid required.
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