Art-rock composer, verbal prankster, growling blues vocalist and abstract painter Captain Beefheart aka Don Van Vliet put together the Magic Band back in the early 60’s and proceeded to release a series of idiosyncratic albums from 1967 – 1982. In 1968 producer Bob Krasnow released Captain Beefheart and His Magic Band’s album Strictly Personal on his own Blue Thumb label. Van Vliet, dissatisfied with the record, took his woes to old high school friend and fan, Frank Zappa. Zappa offered him a record deal on his newly formed label Straight Records and complete artistic control over the project. He also produced, engineered, and edited it for him.
The final results were the Captain’s first major work, Trout Mask Replica. To this day it is his most influential recording and in 2006 it was accepted into the United States National Recording Registry. Other than his guest appearance as gritty vocalist on Zappa’s rocker “Willie The Pimp” from FZ’s classic Hot Rats album (1969), Van Vliet and Zappa wouldn’t work together on a project until 1975 when he passed the audition to go on tour with Zappa and The Mothers. A distilled result of which is imprinted on the excellent album Bongo Fury. Though Frank and Don would have an on again, off again relationship through out their respective careers they seemed to have ended up on good terms. According to Gail Zappa, Don would initiate many phone calls to Frank and reminisce for hours shortly before Frank Zappa succumbed to cancer in 1993.
Nonetheless, Beefheart’s presence in mainstream music and global popularity still remains a pretty small niche. But in the realm of contemporary music he has influenced and inspired such well known acts as: XTC, The Ramones, Kurt Cobain, Tom Waits, The Residents, The Red Hot Chili Peppers, David Byrne of Talking Heads, Public Image Ltd, Blondie, Devo, The B-52s, The White Stripes, PJ Harvey and Simpsons cartoonist Matt Groening. Even Lennon and McCartney, filmmakers David Lynch and Woody Allen were admirers.
Though he and his wife lived in a trailer home in the Mojave Desert for decades Van Vliet had more financial success with the auctioning of his paintings than his music. He stopped recording in 1983. Sadly, Don Van Vliet died at the age of 69 of multiple sclerosis on December 17, 2010. His wife Jan Van Vliet survived him. If you would like to go into more depth about Captain Beefheart (he was real character) you might want to watch these videos: The BBC’s 1997 The Artist Formerly Known as Captain Beefheart narrated by John Peel, and the 2006 independent production Captain Beefheart: Under Review.
I was fortunate to meet Don Van Vliet backstage in 1980 after an amazing concert him and the Magic Band gave at The Beacon in NYC. At first I was introduced to his amazing drummer Robert Arthur Williams and I naturally asked him how he came up with his intricate drum parts (expertly replicated like on the record). He told me in a nonchalant tone, “The Captain sings them to me”. Well, that made me laugh and padded down the nervousness I was feeling as I edged my way to the Captain. As I drew closer to him I noticed his eyes seemed to be an alien shade of gray. I stuck out my hand to shake hello and though he was looking at the stairwell he immediately grabbed it and said in very soft-spoken voice, “You know, there are no steps made in nature”. I just awkwardly chuckled like an idiot spellbound by the fact that somehow I had the honor of meeting this musical genius. I did not see that coming when I woke up that morning.
Though only 40 years old at the time he appeared to me as a frail, ancient sage but not of this earth. I sheepishly mumbled for an autograph or something and he drew on his white pad in black ballpoint pen, a line. He then signed it and added a copyright symbol to it. I thanked him and he was suddenly escorted up the stairwell. Damn, I had so many questions to ask him but I guess a line drawn by the man himself told me everything I needed to know.
The following list (ughh!) is not a “best of” list but more a possible primer into discovering the musical universe of Don Van Vliet aka Captain Beefheart. I know, I know, I left out a lot of great tracks but I’m hoping to inspire, not alienate the uninitiated to check out the Captain’s oeuvre with these more accessible songs, (the word “accessible” being loosely used here). In order of release:
Metal Man Has Won His Wings (from The Mystery Disc by Frank Zappa)
Captain Beefheart and Frank Zappa were in a band called the Soots in 1963 and 1964. During that time, they recorded the blues shuffle “Metal Man Has Won His Wings.” The lyrics were derived from a comic book pinned to a bulletin board. The Captain just rattled them off as the band played this live in another room.
Diddy Wah Diddy (single 1966)
This is a pretty straight but heavy distorted bass rock cover of Bo Diddley’s classic released in 1966; the recording of which still sounds quite current. A&M Records who signed The Magic Band at the time wanted to make the Captain into some sort of Mick Jagger. It didn’t work.
Selected tracks from the album Trout Mask Replica (1969):
I remember hearing this abstract song on a radio show Zappa and Beefheart syndicated in 1975. I laughed my ass off. Its rhythmic drive is so bizarrely funky and the lyrics so twisted. I was immediately a fan.
This bizarre tune with the bouncy rhythm and cartoon sounding vocals is actually pretty catchy. I don’t know who Ella is but she sure sounds young. XTC did an amazing replica of this piece in a tribute album to the Van Vliet.
Neon Meate Dream Of An Octafish
What can I say? This is what it might sound like if you lived in a pool vacuum hose. Amazing and it doesn’t have that stale after taste.
Music from the insane asylum. You need to hear it just so you can say you heard it. Somehow The Captain taught the band to pull this off. “Fast ‘n bulbous. Bulbous also tapered… That’s right.”
Hair Pie Bake 1 & 2.
One of the few instrumentals found on T.M.R. and a rewarding listen. Zoot Horn Rollo a gifted guitarist, capable bass player Rocket Morton and the virtuoso drummer Drumbo really shine here as they tackle the Captain’s intricate rhythms and microscopic melodies along with Beefheart’s Ornette Coleman type sax playing. There is a clear form here but it’s twisted. Not only that, the end part of Bake 1 has The Captain talking to some kids out in the yard as he’s recording a bush!
Moonlight On Vermont
This swampy blues with heavy distorted guitar spouts lyrics that are typical of Van Vliet’s talent for surreal imagery and non sequiturs. He sings it with the religious fervor of a mad evangelist. The phrase “Gimme dat old time religion” takes on a whole other meaning here.
From the album Lick My Decals Off Me Baby (1970):
Smithsonian Institute Blues
Clever wordplay surrounds this short piece that is a deconstruction of the blues form. In spots the marimba is reminiscent of Frank Zappa but is rendered even more idiosyncratic with Beefheart’s Howling Wolf vocals.
From the album Spotlight Kid (1972):
This is a straight-ahead blues piece that sounds like its rhythm is derived from a train. Mesmerizing. The basic intervals of the groove always remind me of Led Zeppelin’s “Misty Mountain Hop.”
I’m Gonna Booglarize You Baby
The funky echoing guitar rhythm, slide guitar stabs and sleazy hi-hat beat plod on supported by the low grumble of the electric bass. Beefheart raps and growls in a sexy low register. This is the Captain’s contribution to disco but in a good way.
Selected tracks from the album Clear Spot (1972):
Crazy Little Thing
An ultra funky number that might get you hot and up on the dance floor (your kitchen floor in this case). Imagine this in a club? Worlds have turned on such thoughts. Ex-Mother Art Tripp lays down the unstoppable groove. Easy to comprehend.
Big Eyed Beans From Venus
Almost a staple on underground 70’s FM radio. Beefheart’s growl is majestic through out. Zoot Horn Rollo plays a ripping slide guitar with sustain from hell. The build up is brilliantly supported with jangling mandolins. Esoteric declarations abound and I’m in agreement even though I don’t know why.
Her Eyes Are A Blue Million Miles
A tender, beautiful ballad with a soft American Indian feel. Yes, I said ballad. The Captain had it in him from time to time to show off his tender side lyrically and vocally. This piece was used in the movie The Big Labowski. Joan Osborne recorded a great version of this song.
My Head Is My Only House Unless It Rains
Yet another ballad, this one cuddled with mellow marimba rolls and subtle electric guitar parts. Beefheart sings of longing and loneliness. Not what you would expect from the Captain but there it is. The Tubes do a very synthetic version of this on their album 1977 album Now.
Too Much Time
A happy, straightforward tune with a conventional hook orchestrated with soulful female background singers and R&B horns. The pop lyrics are clearly understandable on first listen. Out of character for the Captain but who cares? A good song is a good song.
From the album Bluejeans and Moonbeams (1974):
Party Of Special Things To Do
A relatively easy tune to groove to; Beefheart’s bluesy vocals carry the sly lyrical content. Though this album and its sister disc Unconditionally Guaranteed are considered Beefheart’s weakest in his catalog there resides a few fairly accessible bluesy tunes lurking therein that seemed to be geared for commercial mainstream. Dubious A&R decisions no doubt.
From the album Bongo Fury (1975):
Sam Was A Showing Scalp Flat Top
Zappa and the Mothers riffing off of surreal beat poetry recited live at the Armadillo in Austin Texas by the Captain. Spontaneous, angular music executed to perfection and sung with conviction. Throw in a little Louie Louie for good measure and you have something highly original.
Selected tracks from the album Shiny Beast (Bat Chain Puller) (1978):
The Floppy Boot Stomp
The Devil went down to bizarro Georgia. A foot stomping morality tale hoedown that kicks ass!
A melancholy work that would fit nicely in a 30’s playlist except for the absurdly humorous lyrics. Memorable nonetheless, enough so that even my 90 year old mother from time to time sings the chorus. Beefheart’s skill as a whistler shines.
Tropical Hot Dog Night
“Like stepping out of a triangle into striped light”! Well, that sort of sums it up. In another reality (mainly mine) this blushing, uplifting piece would have been a hit. The guitar parts and the trombone riff are definite ear worms.
There are two instrumentals on this album. Both are great. This one in particular rages on like a wild elephant. Ex-Zappa alumni Bruce Fowler wails on trombone. The form is clear enough to easily assimilate if you’re in the mood for Jurassic abandonment.
A sweet mambo love letter to that someone special. Beefheart’s sincere crooning highlights this catchy, tender piece supported by Latin rhythms, tasty marimba and air trombone.
Selected tracks from the album Doc at The Radar Station (1980):
Run Paint Run
A bouncy, tribal number that is bizarrely hooky. I’m not sure what the Captain is singing about here but I’m in! Again, Bruce Fowler’s trombone excels.
This rhythmically contorted number (Devo fans unite) is perfect for that abusive relationship you might find yourself in. Delivered with pathos and swagger, it was performed live on Saturday Night Live in 1980.
Dirty Blue Gene
The song opens up with an exciting mess of funky guitar rhythms and slick jerky drum patterns. A bit of stop and go and then the expert musicians sustain the sweaty craziness through out as the Captain screams about a girl who is not bad but genetically mean. Serious stuff.
A Carrot Is As Close As A Rabbit Ever Gets To A Diamond
Long title for a 1:38 instrumental featuring only electric guitar and keyboard. Speech inflected rhythms (Beefheart obviously sang it to the musicians) in this innocent, child like work. The major seventh ending will melt your heart. The Meridian Arts Ensemble recorded a nice brass arrangement of this on their album Prime Meridian.
The Captain delivers a feverishly insane vocal on this piece written about the plastic horn devil: The telephone. Sort of like Pena part two but more accessible if such a thing is possible.
From the album Ice Cream For Crow (1982):
The title track Ice Cream For Crow. This bluesy-based number is pretty straightforward but anything that Beefheart puts his voice on takes it to an alternate level of comprehension. A video of this song was made and I think was even played on MTV back in 1982. Imagine that?
The Past Sure Is Tense
More clever word play from Beefheart. This manic number is delivered with the Captain’s passionate understanding of something he thinks we should understand. Though what that something is, is not particularly clear but somehow it makes sense subconsciously. It doesn’t have much of melody but the groove is infectious.
81 Poop Hatch
Don Van Vliet reads one of his most inventive, surreal observations acapella. The man had a way with words that produced vivid landscape images (like his paintings) that seemed to be viewed from an adult child’s perspective. They could often leave an indelible stain in our minds and a resigned cautiousness in our hearts. Though his singular voice is missed he still sounds fresh in the 21st century.
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