Counterbalance: Captain Beefheart's 'Safe As Milk'

The 498th most acclaimed album of all time was born in the desert, came on up from New Orleans. Captain Beefheart's startling 1967 debut album is this week's Counterbalance.

Captain Beefheart and His Magic Band

Safe As Milk

US Release: 1967-09
UK Release: 1967-09
Label: Buddah

Klinger: The Great List, that mathemagical compendium of the critical hive mind that has served as our Counterbalance launch pad, offers a number of challenges to those who dare traverse its terrain, but I'd wager that no album is as fraught with peril as Captain Beefheart and His Magic Band's Trout Mask Replica. Even those who now love the album often say that they found its off-key, off-beat, off-kilter ramblings to be completely impenetrable. And you and I certainly had our share of trouble wrapping our heads around it. Even so, it still sits solidly within the canon — statistically speaking, it's the 59th most acclaimed album of all time. And maybe it's my own inability to enjoy Trout Mask Replica that sent me digging into some of the Captain's other works, and what led me to his debut album, 1967's Safe As Milk. And call me a philistine, but Safe As Milk is, to my ears, vastly preferable.

Mendelsohn: I’ve never listened to Trout Mask Replica and then thought to myself, “That album was terrible. I wonder what other terrible music Captain Beefheart recorded? I should look into it post haste.” That being said, after an hour with Trout Mask Replica, I would find just about anything vastly preferable, including Safe As Milk. I’m with you, Phyllis, Safe As Milk is the better album.

Klinger: What can I tell you, Mendelsohn — I’m a patsy of the Critical Industrial Complex. Regardless, it’s pretty clear that Safe as Milk showcases the full, astonishing range of Don Van Vliet’s voice, from Howlin’ Wolf style wailing to (relatively) smooth doo wop crooner. And with the always reliable Ry Cooder on guitar, the band choogles along like a more ramshackle version of the Yardbirds. They cover a lot of ground here, from gritty blues to garage-band psych, and it all works well. I guess I'm not surprised that Trout Mask Replica ranks so much higher, what with it having been a left-field hit in the UK (Safe As Milk is a reasonable No. 489 on the Great List). Still, I hope that even people who can't get into Trout Mask Replica (and we are legion) dig deeper and find this album. Am I right, Mendelsohn, or are you still bitter about your last run-in with the Captain?

Mendelsohn: I don’t think I will ever give Captain Beefheart the respect he deserves, if he deserves it, simply because I can’t stand Trout Mask Replica and that will forever taint my perception of the man. That said, I’ve enjoyed listening to Safe As Milk. The straight Delta blues of “Sure ’Nuff ’N Yes I Do” is more than enough to tips the scales in favor of his Beefiness. Following that with the rambling rock of “Zig Zag Wanderer”, and I am full of nothing but high hopes for this record. And then I find myself wondering if I was wrong about Van Vliet. Maybe Trout Mask Replica was an elaborate ruse, a late '60s troll job on the music establishment and nobody has caught on yet. But as Safe as Milk wears on, I begin to see inklings of Van Vliet's future eccentricities sneak in at the sides. By the time I hit “Abba Zaba”, I’m sick of this record.

The main problem I have with Van Vliet's music, and it’s taken me a while to put my finger on it, is the self-indulgence. I think Frank Zappa suffered from the same delusional pretension that he and Van Vliet were making music so far out in front of their peers that it would be beneath them to try and explain it. You had mentioned it a while ago, there is an undercurrent of condescension in Zappa’s music, just as there is an undercurrent of self-indulgence in Van Vliet's approach. There is nothing wrong with it, per se, but I think there is a difference between the overbearing drive of someone like James Brown and the controlling sybaritic prattlings of Captain Beefheart. One is pursuing perfection on a professional level. The other is pursuing some interior goal that is so far out side the realm of normalcy that it borders on insanity (or inanity).

Klinger: I could agree with you if we were talking Trout Mask Replica, but I'm not hearing hardly any of what you're describing on Safe as Milk. Frank Zappa's not involved in this album, and I still maintain that has made all the difference. In fact, Safe as Milk bolsters my unprovable theory that Trout Mask Replica is in fact Zappa messing with Beefheart and everyone else involved (including, by extension, us). Hearing a song like "Plastic Factory", I'm struck by how similar to the Mothers of Invention they could sound, which then leads me to believe that Zappa might have willfully derailed the Magic Band, because there could be only one. Nothing I can prove, mind you, but I remain suspicious.

Anyway, I'm more interested in judging Safe as Milk on its own merits, which are many. Including, incidentally "Abba Zaba", in which the Captain sounds like a deranged kiddie show host as the band weaves an intricate, yet threadbare magic carpet underneath him. Like I said, Captain Beefheart had a surprising range as a vocalist, and I think that's what keeps me from getting bored. Now you, early said you enjoyed Safe as Milk, although you can't shake your misgivings. What was it that you enjoyed, and do you think you could follow through with that if you spent more time with the album?

Mendelsohn: I have a really conflicted view of this record. The thing that I like immediately is the ramshackle that provides the foundation for the album. Van Vliet has a great vocal range, and I appreciate that, but it is the Magic Band’s reworking of the blues genre and its subsequent meddling with 1960s psychedelic and garage rock that keeps me returning to songs like “Electricity”, “Zig Zag Wanderer”, and “Plastic Factory”. But then they offer up the middling cover of “Grown So Ugly”. I’ve heard your standard issue bar band butcher blues ballads better than the Magic Band. The same goes for songs like “Call on Me” and “Drop Out Boogie” — they are just missing that spark. Maybe they needed a to inject a little weirdness.

On the flip side, it’s the weirdness of this record that originally turned me off. I hear the future of Beefheart in “Yellow Brick Road”, “Abba Zaba”, and “Autumn’s Child”, and I’m not thrilled. But I also understand that the weirdness and self-indulgence that pushes me away from these songs is what takes the standard blues and rock on the rest of the record to the next level. It’s a fine line, Klinger, maybe one that Beefheart was never able to tread, or worse, one I’ll never be able to hear.

Klinger: And maybe this gets to the whole notion of what the Counterbalance project is really trying to achieve, which is coming to an understanding of how people come to like what they like, and what stands in our way when it comes to coming around to liking something. I drank the critical Kool-Aid and thought that this Beefheart character must be worth investigating even if I wasn't grasping his magnum opus. In the process I turned up what I think is a really enjoyable record. Maybe somewhere in the deep recesses of my brain I made myself like this record right away because I wanted to see the merit in an artist that I’ve always understood to be eminently worthy.

On the other hand (if I may be so bold), your relationship with music comes from a more personal place, and Trout Mask Replica was such an unpleasant experience for you that you can’t approach this album without that burden, and so you’ll likely never be able to give yourself over to it. I get it. Maybe if you had heard Safe as Milk first, we'd be having a different conversation. Maybe if you'd been sitting with some enthusiastic listeners, or just spent more time with it. Maybe if you were really hammered. There are countless factors that come into play when we're processing music, and Safe as Milk seems to an interesting Rorschach test as far as how that all happens. Whether you hear a slightly skewed take on the blues or a somewhat bluesier version of crazy-pants psychedelia is somewhere in the ear of the beholder.

Mendelsohn: Why is Beefheart worthy? Because the critical industrial complex tells us he is worthy? Or because we hear the worthiness without outside influence? Music is a subjective experience. No matter how hard we try to quantify the results, the fact is there are only two points on this linear equation — the music and our ears. All listeners are going to interpret the music on a personal level. If you choose to let your subjective perception be swayed by the critical Kool-Aid, so be it, but you are still experiencing the music within the vacuum of your own head. That is the nature of humanity. We are all singular beings, trapped within ourselves, unable to truly connect with our fellow humans until we start to communicate. But communication is a tricky medium — be it spoken words or lyrics and music, there is no way to know that the intended point was ever sent and received.

What you said of my perception of Beefheart is all true. If I had come to his music through Safe as Milk maybe I would be a champion of Trout Mask Replica. Or maybe I would still think it was an atonal, offbeat, self-indulgent mess spawned from the mind of two music geniuses who couldn’t communicate clearly. I might be devastated that Beefheart had left the rambling blues behind in favor of a less coherent sound. I might be thrilled that he was able to transcend the rudimentary rock of his peers to create a masterpiece. I’ll never know. But that won’t stop me from listening to Safe as Milk, because there are some great songs on this record. And maybe one day I will crack the Beefheart code.

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