Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Captain Beefheart's "Bat Chain Puller"

Time changes things. Sometimes a lot.

As I get older, I find that my relationship with my some of my musical heroes is different than what it once was. Maybe as a result of knowing my sweetie and being influenced by her taste, I find I prefer Leonard Cohen's tunelessness, say, to Uncle Lou's. It seems the old Canuck has more to say that resonates on a human level than the Noo Yawk street poet (although I'll always love the third VU album, the first Lou Reed solo record, Berlin, and the sequence New York-Songs for Drella-Magic and Loss, which I think are as good as any rock music there is; happy berfday, Uncle Lou). For similar reasons, most of the time these days, I find that Tom Waits' bull roar (and Howlin' Wolf's) signifies more for me than Captain Beefheart's.

I'm not going to lie: reading the revelations in Mike Barnes' and John French's Beefheart books about the dysfunctional atmosphere surrounding the making of Trout Mask Replica has pretty much put paid to my motivation to listen to that album. Maybe it's because I've had negative band experiences, to the point where I can't stand to be in the room when certain music is played, and none of those experiences were of the severity or duration that the Magic Band members endured to help Don Van Vliet realize his vision. The unedited (or extremely lightly edited) convos between band members in French's book read like combat veterans' reunion talk, or group therapy at a battered women's shelter. And in my mind's ear, justifiably or not, that music is now irrevocably linked to those stories.

But I can and do still binge on Beefheart's earlier and later music: the psychedelic blues murk of Strictly Personal and Mirror Man, which I glommed onto early in my Beefheart fandom for their Delta referents and "Kandy Korn," which Bruce Wade very laboriously taught me to play during our extremely dissolute last semester at college; the outtakes from the '68 sessions that produced those two albums, which first appeared on CD in '92, were subsequently reissued as bonus tracks to the remastered Safe As Milk and Mirror Man CDs in '99, and are now vinyl-available via Sundazed on the double LP It Comes To You In a Plain Brown Wrapper; and the albums released during the time when I was an active fan and experienced when they were new: Shiny Beast (Bat Chain Puller), my fave Doc At the Radar Station, and Ice Cream for Crow.

The original Bat Chain Puller, just released on CD by the Zappa Family Trust on their Vaulternative label, is the legendary album that Beefheart recorded in '76, after the Bongo Fury tour and a handful of tentative live forays with a new band, on Frank Zappa's dime but without his knowledge (as liner notes by participants French and Denny Walley reveal), which got lost in the shuffle of legal recriminations between Zappa and his erstwhile manager Herb Cohen, who paid for the recording sessions with moneys obtained by renting out Zappa's backup PA system and raiding FZ's publishing account, then confiscated the tapes when he locked Zappa out of his own studio. FZ subsequently regained control of the tapes and denied Beefheart the right to include tracks from the sessions on Ice Cream for Crow, although re-recorded versions of original BCP songs wound up on all of the last three released Beefheart albums. (Whew!) BCP has been extensively bootlegged from an unfinished tape sent to Virgin Records in the UK, most recently in the 2002 release Dust Sucker, which is how I originally heard it. (Thanks, Phil.)

Bonus tracks in this edition include an alternate mix of the title track that's not significantly different, an early version of "Candle Mambo" that Zappa struck from the original running order (and which is in fact inferior to the '78 recording released on Shiny Beast, which benefited from Bruce Fowler's trombone), and "Hobo-ism," a Walley-Van Vliet duet recorded at the guitarist's home while the sessions were ongoing.

So, how's it sound?

To begin with, the sound from the two-inch master tape beats the hell out of the bootlegs mastered from the unmastered cassette; duh. More to the point, compared to Beefheart's other albums, BCP has a ruminative sound, possibly due to the fact that by '76, Don's "composer's piano" technique had improved enough to allow him to play longer melodic lines (like the ones he managed for "Peon" and "One Red Rose That I Mean" on Lick My Decals Off, Baby) rather than jagged collections of riffs which might or might not be in the same key (as on most of Trout Mask). Without that change, songs like "Seam Crooked Sam," "Flavor Bud Living" (here played by French in a much more legato manner than Gary Lucas would use on Doc At the Radar Station), "Ah Carrot Is As Close As Ah Rabbit Gets To Ah Diamond," and "Odd Jobs" wouldn't have been possible. Beyond that, Don's recitatives -- he has a gift for evocative language that sounds great, even when it doesn't make literal sense -- sound more conversational than declamatory; a big plus, to these feedback-scorched ears. And "Odd Jobs" (previously only available in inferior sound on Revenant's pricey Grow Fins box set) has a tinge of compassion that's not often heard in Beefheart music. All that said, "Brick Bats" (with its overlay of aleatory soprano sax that was dispensed with on Radar Station) echoes Trout Mask almost as if Van Vliet intended to show his fans he could still write 'em like that.

The title track and "Floppy Boot Stomp" have folkloric sources -- the former's a mutant train song with a rhythm that Van Vliet copied from the sound of his car's windshield wipers in the rain, while the latter's a tribal stomp in the manner of "The Devil Went Down to Georgia" -- and the songs recall the most interesting moments on Beefheart's most accessible albums (that'd be Safe As Milk and Clear Spot), which perhaps accounts for their retention on Shiny Beast. Safe As Milk lyricist Herb Bermann gets a co-writing credit on "Owed T'Alex," the biker anthem dedicated to Magic Band founder, guitarist Alex Snouffer (another Shiny Beast highlight).

While ten out of 12 tracks on BCP were recut for subsequent albums (or appeared in the same form, in the case of the poems "81 Poop Hatch" and "Apes-Ma"), they're worth hearing in this form for the unique contributions of this lineup of the Magic Band. Each of Beefheart's albums has a unique sound, often due to some anomaly of instrumentation. BCP features an ensemble that substitutes Mini-Moog for electric bass, and the guitar interplay between bluesy Zappa veteran Walley and neophyte Jeff Moris Tepper. Zappaphiles know Walley as the second guitarist on the Bongo Fury album, where he played the feelthy slide solo on "Advance Romance." Post-BCP, he went back with Frank, served as the subject of the mean-spirited "Jumbo Go Away" on You Are What You Is, and married one of the audience members who appeared in the Baby Snakes movie. In the Millennial decade, he performed alongside French in a reunited Magic Band. Walley's personality shines through on BCP in the same way as Ry Cooder's did on Safe As Milk, Elliot Ingber's did on The Spotlight Kid, and Bill Harkleroad's did on Clear Spot.

French is one of my very favorite drummers, even though he modestly claims his distinctively polyrhythmic Magic Band style came about from insufficient practice and Van Vliet's restrictions (not using cymbals; playing drums with cardboard cutouts over the heads). The interminable blues jams on Mirror Man are listenable primarily as vehicles for his highly idiosyncratic trap-kicking -- like a tom-heavy extrapolation on what Howlin' Wolf's drummers were doing (although French says his approach around that time was influenced by Indian tabla players). He was the musical director on Trout Mask, an album on which he isn't even credited as drummer, but where he transcribed Van Vliet's piano bangings, then followed the leader's vague instructions to massage them into arrangements and taught them to the other musicians. On BCP (on which he finally gets a musical director credit -- thanks, Gail Zappa), he serves as "utility musician" for the first time, playing guitar parts that Tepper was unable to master quickly enough to satisfy Herb Cohen's timeline. (French would return to perform the same function on Radar Station, playing guitar, bass, and marimba as well as drums.) And he's _the_ Beefheart drummer: Tripp might have been more of a detail guy, but he couldn't match French's power, and subsequent Magic Band tub thumpers Robert Williams and Cliff Martinez were merely copping French's style.

Don Van Vliet passed the same year that John French published his book, and as a reader of the drummer's voluminous writings on his former bandleader, their complex relationship, and the struggles he's had to make sense of his experiences, it's gratifying to read in French's liner notes to BCP that he seems to have made his peace with Don, post mortem. And Gail Zappa's brief and unsigned reminiscence sheds a tiny beam of light on her husband's friendship with his high school buddy "Donnie" -- which in the end, as the good Captain said, was private.

Whatever secrets Don Van Vliet had, he took with him. His music and art remain, and are sufficient. Maybe one day, who knows, I'll be able to listen to Trout Mask Replica again.

ADDENDUM: I was fortunate to see Denny Walley with Captain Beefheart twice in 1977 (My Father's Place on Long Island and the Bottom Line in Manhattan). My disappointment at missing Beefheart in Dallas the following year is mitigated somewhat by the knowledge that by that time, Walley was out of the band.


Anonymous thejohnisjohn said...

Nice post about "Bat Chain Puller". Plenty of stuff on the web from a few months ago heralding the then upcoming release, but this is the first I've read about it since people have been able to listen. Got mine today and I am thrilled at how great it is. Just wish the cover didn't suck so hard...

3:11 PM  

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