Friday, December 17, 2010

Remembering Beefheart

I don't think I'd actually heard any of Don Van Vliet's music before I went off to college when I was 17. I'd read a review of The Spotlight Kid in Creem, and St. Lester on Mirror Man in Rolling Stone, but I never heard a Captain Beefheart record until I found a copy of The Spotlight Kid in the cutout bin of Just A Song on Central Avenue in Albany.

Around that time, I met Bruce Wade, whose band at home actually played some Beefheart music (as well as some Zappa), and he introduced me to a lot more, teaching me how to play "Kandy Korn" off Mirror Man (where it was longer and the parts were easier to hear than amid Strictly Personal's psychedelic murk) and spoon-feeding me Trout Mask Replica a song at a time. At the time, we were both obsessed with hobos, and Don seemed to fit right in alongside Harry Partch, whose music Wade introduced me to via a copy of the Columbia album with "Barstow" on it that they had in the university library downtown. We saw Beefheart with Zappa when the Bongo Fury tour came to Albany -- was it the Palace Theater, or the RPI fieldhouse in Troy? -- early in '75. Don sang "Willie the Pimp," and blew a wild solo on soprano sax until Frank cut it off. There seemed to be some _tension_ there.

The magnitude of Beefheart's achievement didn't really kick in for me until I'd dropped out of college and was back living at my parents' house, working in the record store, and talking a lot about music with the slightly older cat who'd been our local Jim Morrison simulacrum when I was in middle school and high school and had subsequently done a lot of acid and gotten obsessed with music "without time, without notes," which was what he thought Beefheart represented. But listening to audience tapes of Beefheart shows that we passed around, and a rehearsal tape of a couple of guitarists we knew who played Beefheart music (one of them, Kenny Duvall, even went out to California to audition for the Magic Band), it finally struck me: this music wasn't complete chaos. In fact, it was through-composed (although I didn't know that bit of jargon back then). On the shitty illicit cassette recordings we shared, I could hear ensembles of musicians completely different from the ones who'd played on the records, playing the same arrangements note-for-note.

Back then we pretty much bought into the mythology, which probably originated with a couple of credulous Rolling Stone articles by Langdon Winner, that depicted Don as a kind of cuddly surrealist. In the fullness of time, other writings -- Mike Barnes' fact-dense but dry bio, Bill Harkleroad's diffident little memoir, John French's sprawling reminiscence -- painted a less flattering portrait. The truth, as always, lies somewhere in between. But while Don might have been a tyrannical, manipulative bully to his band boys (my theory is that as he started garnering critical acclaim as an Artiste, he wanted some payback for the shit he'd had to take when he was the terrible tyro fronting a locally popular desert blues band), and French and Harkleroad, in particular, might have been instrumental in helping to realize his ideas, there'd have been no project absent Don's creativity, however primitive his means of musical communication.

I was fortunate to see him twice in 1976, at My Father's Place in the village of Old Roslyn on Long Island and at the Bottom Line in Manhattan. His band included Denny Walley, who'd played slide in the Zappa Bongo Fury band, and three musicians who'd form the core unit for the next couple of Beefheart albums: Eric Drew Feldman, Jeff Moris Tepper, and Robert Williams III. They played songs from every released album (except for the two crappy "Tragic Band" ones on Mercury that Don disowned), as well as a lot of material that'd show up later on Shiny Beast and Doc At the Radar Station. They knew enough repertoire to play different sets both times I saw 'em, unlike the Zappa band of the time, which played identical sets on three different occasions. I had tickets to see Beefheart in Dallas in '78, but I had to miss the show because I was supervising the unloading of container trucks at the record store I'd come to Fort Worth to open while the wheels were inside having a party with the label reps, back when such things existed in Dallas.

Doc At the Radar Station was one of the four or five records I listened to relentlessly (on a turntable I'd bought from a guy for five bucks that needed a nickel on its tone arm to track, run through my tweed Fender Deluxe) when I was living on Las Vegas Trail in the winter of '80-'81. I still think it's among his best works, a little angrier and less whimsical. I had Ice Cream for Crow on cassette when I was stationed in Korea, '82-'83, and I thought Don just sounded tired. Only years later did I realize that some of the songs on that album were almost 15 years old by the time he got around to recording them. It wasn't long afterward that Don retired from music for a career as a painter. At the time, I heard that his art agent told him he'd always be considered a dilettante as long as he continued playing music. Considering the lack of financial success he'd had in music, you can hardly blame him.

Regardless of all the bizarre cult-stories, Trout Mask Replica remains one of the most unique and enduring musical statements to come out of American rock in the '60s -- as undeniable as Pet Sounds and The Velvet Underground and Nico. Lick My Decals Off, Baby is even more sublime -- the band and Beefheart at the height of their creative powers, Artie Tripp's marimbas replacing the second guitar and adding a whole new range of intriguing textures. The Spotlight Kid is a great, if enervated, slab of swamp blooze murk, and Strictly Personal, superfluous flanging F/X and all, remains a psychedelic masterpiece -- Son House on psilocybin. The most accessible items in the catalog remain Safe As Milk, which sounds to these feedback-scorched ears like a perfectly acceptable slice of blues-based Nuggets-era garage psychedelia, and Clear Spot, produced by Ted Templeman of Doobie Bros./Van Halen fame, a crisply-recorded example of '70s L.A. funk-rock a la Little Feat or one of those.

Perhaps most importantly, Don stayed married to Jan for over 40 years. Tonight we share her sorrow for her loss.


Blogger vollsticks said...

What a lovely little remembrance, you have done The Captain's memory a great service in your own way. I never got to see Don perform (I'm 28) although I got to see the re-formed Magic Band at All Tomorrows Parties in 2003 and they just blew me away, best gig I've ever been to. Thanks for a great post, gonna check out some more of your should be okay at the very LEAST coming as it does from the keyboard of a Beefheart fan! All the best from the UK!


10:24 AM  

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