As Ian Anderson said, “We’re getting a bit short on heroes lately”.
And Ian, while he wasn’t speaking of Don Van Vliet, nevertheless would—and has—endorsed the man better known as Captain Beefheart. Indeed, the list of well-loved and iconoclastic artists who have cited CB as an inspiration and hero include the likes of Tom Waits, Nick Cave, P.J. Harvey and Matt Groening. When the people lots of people worship name you as someone they worship, you can safely conclude you have done influential work, even if it didn’t necessarily pay the bills.
To say Don Van Vliet, who passed away on December 17th, was unique is rather like saying the sun radiates heat: it doesn’t quite capture the enormity and impact of the subject. To assert that he was brilliant would be almost insulting, if that is possible. A genius? Let’s just say that if he wasn’t, then no other pop musician has ever been either. Even that is not quite right, since pop refers to popular and Captain Beefheart was anything but popular. He was highly regarded, and always will be, but the circle of aficionados who gravitate to his uncanny catalog is likely to get smaller, not bigger. Also, it just doesn’t work to call what he did pop music; he was an artist. Literally. When he walked away from music, forever, in the early ‘80s, he concentrated on his painting and made far more money from that (calling to mind another eccentric genius, Syd Barrett, who turned his back on the scene and quietly tended to his paintings and his plants).
So, sui generis? For sure, but even that won’t suffice. You almost have to make up words, so I will. Don Van Vliet was Chop Suey Generis. You need not hear a single note to be smitten; just consider some of the song titles: “Grown So Ugly”, “She’s Too Much For My Mirror”, “Steal Softly Thru Snow”, “Grow Fins”, “My Head Is My Only House Unless It Rains”, “Her Eyes Are A Blue Million Miles”, “Woe-is-uh-Me-Bop”, “The Clouds Are Full of Wine (Not Whiskey or Rye)”, “Cardboard Cutout Sundown”, and, of course, “Zig Zag Wanderer”.
But then there is the music. And that voice. When doing his gruff, evil blues, he sounded more than a little like Howlin’ Wolf, but he wasn’t mimicking so much as channeling him (yeah, I know . . .), and it came out through his soul sounding like a narcotized sci-fi monster with an ashtray heart of gold. Add the lyrics (they range from simple to impenetrable but are always original and clever to the point of being intimidating) and you have a result that, love it or loathe it, could not in a billion years be imitated or even approximated by anyone. “High voltage man kisses night to bring the light to those who need to hide their shadow-deed” he wails on “Electricity”—a song that anticipates punk as much as it exhausts the possibilities of the avant-garde. Speaking of Howlin’ Wolf, this sounds like the great Chester Arthur Burnett cloned as a machine, doused in Lysergic acid and forced to stick its finger in a light socket.
Now that he’s gone, many folks will—and should—rhapsodize about the album most agree is Beefheart’s defining work (even if they’ve never actually listened to it), Trout Mask Replica (1969). Among its many quirky and/or quixotic charms, this is possibly the first album to be so arty it became anti-art. Deliberately cacophonous, even confrontational, it seems to be searching for magic inside of the discordant chaos. The results will mean different things to different people, but Van Vliet had a method for his madness: perfectly capable musicians playing behind, beside and beneath anything that, on first (or fifteenth) listen seems to make sense. The album could be considered one extended love song to insanity, or a smirking expense report from the other side of reality. It is one of the all-time cult following rites of passage: if you are down with this, you could conceivably be down with anything—for better or worse.
Needless to say, Trout Mask Replica is not easy going or easily recommended, and in fact, one could (should) start just about anywhere else. If anyone reading this is uninitiated, it affords me an excellent opportunity to talk about the most accessible option, which happens to be my favorite Beefheart album, Safe as Milk (1967). It is the first album, and also, in my opinion, the best one. I do not expect that many people share this perspective, but I think everyone in the know would agree this is the ideal point of entry. If there was even a modicum of justice in our plastic factory world, this would be widely considered one of rock music’s most out there yet addictive barbaric yawps.
Look at the band on the back cover. They are characters from a Wes Anderson movie: all wearing coat and tie, one inexplicably sporting leather gloves, one rocking a stylish chapeau (who happens to be named Alex St. Clair Snouffer). Not pictured—and not credited—is young wunderkind Ry Cooder, who lent his considerable slide guitar skills to the proceedings. They look more like stockbrokers than songwriters, which only adds to the mystique since they, as it happened, made some of the more unsettling music on the scene.
How does music like this happen? How is Captain Beefheart even conceivable? Do you believe in magic? Well how about the Magic Band? We know that the world didn’t know what to make of this album, then. What can we make of it, now? Here are a few thoughts: it doesn’t sound of its time, or any time, and it is one of those (very) rare recordings that can be returned to constantly and somehow, some way remains unfettered and invigorating. Each song is a totally complete statement, whimsical, yet always with the air of danger: like a trip about to take a serious turn for the worse, but it never does. The creative energy and offbeat ebullience make this record approachable but indescribable; it’s all in there: blues, doo-wop, psychedelia, faux-pop, and a handful of songs that sound utterly unlike anything anyone has ever done.
Listening to “Dropout Boogie” is like watching the rock ‘n roll version of Clark Kent coming out of the phone booth for the first time: this quiet, weird dude you laughed at in gym class suddenly soaring in the air above you. You’ve never heard him speak but as soon as he opens his mouth he’s Superman. This track works as well as any (from this album, or from his entire oeuvre) in terms of epitomizing Van Vliet’s unvarnished and utterly uncompromised approach. If the Captain should be worshiped for one thing it’s that he never once pandered for the sake of critical or commercial expediency. Considering this album was recorded during the height of the “Turn on, Tune in, Drop out” hysteria, a song like “Dropout Boogie” becomes a brave turd in the punch bowl, serving to question the long-term prospects of Timothy Leary’s call to arms. “And what about after that?” he asks, a line that joins Arthur Lee’s “The news today will be the movies for tomorrow” (from Love’s Forever Changes) as two of the most enduring—and prescient—from ’67. Then there is a song like “Yellow Brick Road” that could almost make a white guy dance, and then wonder why everyone doesn’t know this and love it.
Safe As Milk was the one that introduced Don Van Vliet to the world and it remains a (Korn Ring) middle finger in the face of all the lame conformist who scoff at what they can’t understand. It’s not especially sad that this album did not find a widely receptive audience; its obscurity tends to confirm many things we know about the way art is created and received, especially in America. If music like this was successful it would almost cause us to question the calibration of our planet. Besides, Beefheart had as much of a chance at being understood as Jesus Christ at the trading floor on Wall Street. The message was sent, and it’s still out there for anyone who cares to hear it. The biggest blessing is that we can listen to this magical music and be reminded that it’s real, it happened. He happened, and some of us will spend the rest of our lives trying to figure out how we managed to get so lucky.