WITH FEATHERS OF SOLID CHROME, IN BEAKS OF SOLID BONE: CAPTAIN BEEFHEART, 1941-2010
I’ve never loved Captain Beefheart’s “Trout Mask Replica.” Or, rather, I have never loved the album the way my betters did. John Peel, the late BBC d.j. and father figure to thousands, said that “if there has been anything in the history of popular music which could be described as a work of art in the way that people who are involved in other areas of art would understand, then ‘Trout Mask Replica’ is probably that work.” “The Simpsons” creator Matt Groening called “Trout Mask” the “greatest album ever made.” My Beefheart time began with a different first date, and unraveled in a messy ampersand of love and research that might have pleased the master. He always said he hated straight lines.
Captain Beefheart—who was born Donald Glen Vliet in January of 1941 and died last Friday, December 17th, due to complications from multiple sclerosis—recorded “Trout Mask Replica” with his Magic Band in 1969. It was full of gnomic phrases (“fast and bulbous” is one of the better-known ones) and music devoid of cliché or obvious logic. It was only sort of rock and roll, and led to a great deal of other music made by people who probably liked the energy and low entry fees of rock and roll but needed more than three chords to make music, and maybe didn’t need chords at all.
Over 1968 and 1969, Beefheart’s band spent eight months in a Woodland Hills house, being drilled by Van Vliet in the material that would be later recorded and produced by his childhood friend, Frank Zappa. (In 1965, Vliet added Van to his surname, for extra theatrical zing.) There is an ongoing debate as to who wrote and arranged the songs on “Trout Mask Replica,” despite Beefheart’s full songwriting credit. A self-taught musician who could neither read nor write music, Beefheart sang out his motifs, or played them on piano, expecting them to be reproduced later on guitars and other instruments. The drummer John French transcribed what Beefheart played and gave these parts to the band. Composer and musician Peter Gordon, a teenager at the time, was a guest several times at the house. In a remembrance written several days ago, Gordon recalled, “Don would often summon musicians and demand that a particular part be performed immediately. If there was a mistake, and there usually was, the musician was ordered downstairs to a practice room to perfect the part.” Before the album’s release, French left the band. (He eventually returned.) In a radio interview conducted years later, Vliet said he also wrote all of the drum parts. Stravinsky was one of the people he compared himself to.
But it was never about “Trout Mask” for me. It is a dumb rule of allegiance, but the First One sets the pace. My first Beefheart was “Doc at the Radar Station,” bought in 1980 at the Sam Goody on Eighth Street and Sixth Avenue. I wanted the album because it had appeared on a year-end list of somebody who wrote for the New York Times. I had never heard any of Beefheart’s music, but it seemed like it was going to be harsh or weird or aggressive, and I was in an extended mood for any and all of that. (I was crushed when I was taken to a Grateful Dead show that year and discovered that the band sounded nothing like a skull split in half by a lightning bolt.)
“Doc at the Radar Station” was fierce and impossible and transfixing. It was music played by a rock band with two guitarists and a rhythm section but it sounded like it had been written by octopi on empty clam shells, sent off to Japan for transcription, lost, and mistakenly recorded by a bar band recovering from a group car accident. I owned records by a few bands that sounded like Beefheart’s—XTC and the Gang of Four spring to mind—but these turned out later to be more evidence of Beefheart’s wide and long-lasting influence. The guitarists in the 1980 Magic Band—not the ones heard on “Trout Mask,” who were long gone—played parts that sounded like they belonged in separate songs. I wondered if the people in the band could hear each other. The drum parts kept time by turning common hierarchy on its head: the kick drum, snare drum, and high-hat cymbals that anchor most rock songs were relegated to secondary status while tom-toms became foot soldiers, roped into playing oblong, unexpectedly natural patterns. Instruments didn’t enter or exit or stop or start when you expected them to. When you listened hard—and you had to—none of the parts sounded that odd: most were adorable, brief and memorable.
“Doc” was the album that got me thinking about the concept of independence, of parts being played in time, at any time, and in whatever order was necessary for them to form a whole. I had imagined sewers and buildings and vast planes when listening to music, but now I saw a room filled with points of light and balloons. The objects were part of a narrative because they were in the same room, a room Beefheart built for them. I was hearing in three dimensions, and understanding what my friends who listened to classical music were banging on about. I’d gotten a bargain, though—those orchestras were huge. Beefheart could do it all with six people.
In 1980, Captain Beefheart and his Magic Band also appeared on “Saturday Night Live.” I had only seen a handful of live shows and was still unclear on who played what in a band, and what it looked like. It never occurred to me that the old guy on the back cover of “Doc at the Radar Station” was Beefheart. (I assumed he was the keyboardist.) No—there was Beefheart on my television, leading an aggressive, young band through the first song on “Doc,” “Hot Head.” Wearing a fedora and a red scarf, looking close to my father’s age, Van Vliet growled, “Burn you up in bed, just like she said, ‘cause she’s a hot head, hot head, hot head.“ The song is a chant, a warning, a confessional, and a rueful joke. It had many parts and just one, free of clear demarcations between verse and chorus. It started and, three minutes later, stopped. Though Beefheart didn’t move much, the band did, and the two guitarists played parts that mimicked their movements, soaring without collision. Van Vliet swung his scarf above his head like a lasso, and sometimes held up a hand to conjure a little, but he didn’t do what most front men do: tie a song together and present a band to the world. Beefheart seemed to be unaware that there was a band on stage with him. This wasn’t just an appearance; when recording the vocals for “Trout Mask Replica,” Beefheart chose to sing without headphones, meaning he couldn’t hear his own voice being recorded or anything the band had recorded (namely, the music they had been rehearsing under his boot for months).
If “Hot Head” was distantly linked to the blues that inspired young Van Vliet, the second song played on “Saturday Night Live” wasn’t even linked to a single time signature. “Ashtray Heart” began with a chug that could have appeared on a Bo Diddley record, and then proceeded through a series of sections taped together unpredictably: one centers around a loud Mellotron keyboard; another sounds like an improvised breakdown; and another sounds like a funeral march lumbering along beneath Van Vliet’s granular rasping. (After the “Saturday Night Live” performance, there was a very long pause between the end of the song and the audience’s applause.)
Who that granular rasp recalled, almost exactly, was Howlin’ Wolf. When Zappa and Van Vliet were teenagers, they lived in a California town called Lancaster, eighty miles northeast of Los Angeles and close to the Mojave Desert. In a 1997 BBC documentary, Zappa recalled afternoons spent with Van Vliet at his parents’ house, listening to Howlin’ Wolf and eating stale pineapple buns rescued from the bread truck that Van Vliet’s father drove.
It’s odd to think of Beefheart as young. Even in films made during the sixties, Beefheart never appears to be young. He comes from the well of archetypes, where the person is smaller than the idea. Jagger never seems old, Sly Stone never seems sad, and James Brown is always light as a feather. When he began making records, Van Vliet was pushed by record labels to capitalize on the emerging white blues market being built by young Brits. This was not illogical, considering what Van Vliet listened to, but even the very early Beefheart cover of “Diddy Wah Diddy” sounded upside down. It wasn’t long before Beefheart’s music pushed aside the blues and started etching itself on the earth.
Van Vliet trucked in aphorisms, punch lines, and tall tales. You get all three in this delightful 1980 appearance on David Letterman’s show. Beefheart is good-natured but immovable, and Letterman ends up as another of his band members, unable to divert Van Vliet from his path or force him to own up to a whopper about his education. (It isn’t true, but it provides a great line.) Even after multiple sclerosis had started pulling Van Vliet away from his body, he was a better storyteller in one paragraph than you could be in a whole night. In 1994, Corbijn made “Some YoYo Stuff,” the last filmed record of Beefheart. The film shows him sitting in front of a projection on a wall, perhaps to spare Van Vliet the indignity of speaking on camera. The halting voiceover provides evidence of Van Vliet in his diminished state, though. At half-mast, he still had his patter down.
In one scene, Beefheart sits still and smokes a cigar as images of the Mojave desert flicker behind him. The voiceover begins, slowly, “Roland Kirk was playing down in Hermosa beach and he came up to me on the last set and said”—laughter—“ ‘Where can I get some ribs?’ and I said ‘The only place in Los Angeles you can get ribs this time of night, Roland, is in the Bible.’ ”
I loved “Doc at the Radar Station” because it was so brutal and cramped: Beefheart and his minions angried up with a stick, stuffed in a Lucite box and left under fluorescent lighting. The album never sleeps. It is not really worth the bother to approach Beefheart’s music the way most music is now, as the backdrop for another activity. To this point, Gordon wrote, “Don did not respect music as background. Before a concert in Pasadena, he came onstage and demanded that the music being played on the P.A. be turned off. ‘Turn that off! It’s bowling music! I didn’t come here to lose weight, I came here to make music!’ Music was something rare, to be valued.”
Start with Beefheart wherever you like, and leave yourself ample time. Now—right now—I love “Trout Mask Replica,” all of it. For some reason, it was the only album I wanted to hear after his death. Don would probably take credit for that, too.
[December 20, 2010. This essay by Sasha Frere-Jones originally appeared at The New Yorker website: http://www.newyorker.com/online/blogs/sashafrerejones/2010/12/captain-beefheart.html#entry-more]