Captain Beefheart: Astralwerks Reissues

[12 October 2006]

By Stephen Haag

Though it sounds like an oxymoron, it’s no stretch to call Captain Beefheart (nee Don Vliet) the most influential cult musician of the 20th century. In the quarter-century since his final album, 1982’s Ice Cream For Crow, Beefheart’s legend has only grown, with followers like PJ Harvey and Tom Waits picking up the freak flag that Beefheart put to down concentrate on poetry, painting and general reclusiveness. Too, the past 25 years has seen a disproportionate number of Beefheart anthologies, DVDs and box sets relative to the man’s fame. It’s a rare instance of art trumping commerce… or it’s the record label tricking the same small horde of Beefheart devotees into buying music they already own, with new packaging.

But talking about Captain Beefheart always puts me in a good mood, so I’ll go with the art-over-commerce theory. And that brings us to Astralwerks’ reissues of Beefheart’s last two albums, 1980’s Doc at the Radar Station and 1982’s Ice Cream For Crow. These reissues may not earn Astralwerks piles of cash (besides, these albums are still available at most record stores; to my knowledge they’re not out of print), but they do capture an artist who left at arguably his creative peak. If a handful of new fans learn about one of music’s most original voices and personalities, then these reissues will have been worth it. Of course, if you already own these albums, an upgrade isn’t really necessary, as the two discs boast only one bonus track between them: “Light Reflected Off the Oceans of the Moon”, the b-side to the “Ice Cream For Crow” single.

But for those new to the scene, there’s plenty to recommend on both discs. Start with Doc at the Radar Station, Beefheart’s return to form after a lackluster mid-‘70s stretch. With blues vamps (“Hot Head” and “Ashtray Heart”, which has been covered to good effect by the White Stripes), dazzling spoken word pieces over guitar and horn freakouts (“Making Love to a Vampire with a Monkey on My Knee”), quasi-New Wave (“Sue Egypt”) and some pretty instrumental numbers that follow their own weird internal logic, Radar Station is, believe it or not, one of Beefheart’s most accessible records, and it’s also one of his best, rivaling the sprawling Trout Mask Replica. Too, it’s a remarkably streamlined record; there’s a focus on the record that one doesn’t always equate with Beefheart, whose music was often intentionally exploding in 10 different directions simultaneously. And, at the risk of heresy, Radar Station is much less of a chore (for lack of a better term) to digest than Replica, while being equally rewarding.

If Radar Station is direct, practically arrowlike, Ice Cream For Crow is much more expansive. After two comparatively straightforward (a comparative term in Beefheart’s universe, to be sure) tracks—the bouncy title track and “The Host the Ghost The Most Holy-O”—Beefheart shoots off into the atmosphere, riffing endlessly, cleverly over Gary Lucas’ broken-bones guitar. On “Hey Garland, I Dig Your Tweed Coat” (which began life 12 or so years earlier, as a poem in Rolling Stone), he’s up in your face like a pushy car salesman; “The Thousand and Tenth Day of the Human Totem Pole” describes exactly that (“The pole was a horrible looking thing / With all of those eyes and ears / And waving hands for balance. / There was no way to get a copter in close / So everybody was starving together.”) Where did the man come up with this stuff?

Don Van Vliet never recorded again, a fact which makes these final albums that much more special. Yes, it’s circular logic, and yes, it’s a wee bit lazy, but Captain Beefheart was a true original, and as such, it’s a fitting conclusion to say that these records are “Beefheart-esque”. When you’re a one-of-a-kind on Beefheart’s level, you earn your adjective status.

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