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Captain Beefheart: A Beginner's Guide

Don't buy this first
Don't buy this first

Don Van Vliet, a/k/a Captain Beefheart, died on Friday, reportedly of complications from a decades-long battle with multiple sclerosis. He was 69. Long a cult hero, with a critical fan base rivaling that of Lou Reed or the Fall's Mark E. Smith, he was naturally (and deservedly) lionized in the music press all weekend. Here, for those of you not currently steeped in Beefheartmania, is a beginner's guide to his music.

First things first: Don't run out and buy 1969's Trout Mask Replica. In almost every article on Beefheart's work, it's held up as his crowning achievement and one of the Most Important Records Ever. "Important" is very different from "enjoyable," though. Yes, it's got moments of great beauty; "The Dust Blows Forward 'n' The Dust Blows Back," a poem recited line by line (with the clicking of a portable tape recorder preserved) and "Ella Guru" are but two of the highlights. But there are as many freak-outs as songs, and overall, it's Beefheart at his most extreme, with lurching drums, squawking reeds, guitar lines that feel not only improvised but wrong, and raw-holler vocals as alienating as any in rock -- he sounds like he's trying to warn you about something, or chastise you for something, or both. If you're going to journey through Beefheart's discography, start somewhere else, unless skronk 'n' shout is your thing.

On earlier recordings -- like the early singles "Diddy Wah Diddy, "Who Do You Think You're Fooling?", "Moonchild," and "Frying Pan"; the 1967 recordings released as Safe as Milk; or follow-up albums Strictly Personal and Mirror Man (the latter released in 1970 but recorded years earlier) -- Beefheart's music is frequently built around only slightly off-kilter blues and r&b grooves, albeit with some skronky harmonica and shehnai (an oboe-like Middle Eastern instrument) on top. The stinging slide guitar and prominent bass on songs like "Safe as Milk" and "Gimme Dat Harp Boy" were elements that would linger in his work until the end of his career. "Sure 'Nuff 'n' Yes I Do," Safe as Milk's opening track, is practically straight-up, Canned Heat-style boogie. The 1999 Milk reissue is an excellent introduction; the extended jams of Mirror Man and the overly psychedelicized production on Strictly Personal make them more of an acquired taste.

Beefheart released two albums in 1972: The Spotlight Kid and Clear Spot. Both slowed the band down somewhat and verged on conventional blues-rock, even leaning toward garage punk on some tracks ("Big Eyed Beans From Venus," "Low Yo Yo Stuff"); they're currently available on a single CD. He made his most headlong (some would say desperate) run at mainstream success, though, on 1974's Unconditionally Guaranteed and 1975's Bluejeans & Moonbeams. It didn't work, and in fact, the former was the last straw for the '60s incarnation of Beefheart's Magic Band. Though he was a notoriously abusive boss -- keeping bandmembers under virtual house arrest, underpaying them, and subjecting them to what amounted to brainwashing techniques -- it seemed like the pleasure of making genuinely adventurous music kept them in the fold. To be suffering as they did for no aesthetic reward was too much.

 

The revamped lineup on Bluejeans & Moonbeams -- forever known to fans as "The Tragic Band" -- left after that record, and when Beefheart reappeared in 1978 with Shiny Beast (Bat Chain Puller), he had an entirely new crew of musicians in tow, including two who'd previously played with Frank Zappa (a childhood friend of Beefheart's -- the good Captain's vocals can be heard on 1970's Hot Rats, and the 1975's Bongo Fury). Shiny Beast brought back the lurching Beefheart rhythms of old, marrying them to some surprisingly listener-friendly songs ("Harry Irene," "Tropical Hot Dog Night"). This was followed by 1980's Doc at the Radar Station, a taut, post-punk-y masterpiece that got Beefheart a musical guest spot on Saturday Night Live and just happened to include one of his most beautiful melodies, the piano piece "A Carrot Is as Close as a Rabbit Gets to a Diamond," alongside barn-burning rock tracks like "Hot Head," "Ashtray Heart," "Sue Egypt," and "Best Batch Yet."

His final album, 1982's Ice Cream for Crow, was another strong effort, with unexpected left-turn guitar lines, choppy but fascinating rhythms, and Beefheart in full (if slightly croaky) voice, occasionally sounding more like a poet than a blues shouter. "The Host, The Ghost, The Most Holy-O" and "Hey Garland, I Dig Your Tweed Coat" are highlights, as are the stomping title track and the instrumental "Evening Bell," a showcase for guitarist Gary Lucas. The video for "Ice Cream for Crow" was too weird for MTV, but not for the Museum of Modern Art, which added a copy to its permanent collection.

There's no Beefheart best-of currently in print, but if you can find a copy of the 1999 Rhino two-CD set, The Dust Blows Forward, it's got about as good a selection of material as you could cram into only 150 minutes. If you're in an album-buying mood, here are my recommendations, in order and based on what's in print at the moment:

1. Doc at the Radar Station 2. The Spotlight Kid/Clear Spot 3. Ice Cream for Crow 4. Shiny Beast (Bat Chain Puller) 5. Safe as Milk 6. The Mirror Man Sessions 7. Trout Mask Replica

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