Music

How Nona Hendryx Captured the World of Captain Beefheart

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In 1965, Captain Beefheart and the Magic Band released their first single on A&M records. The song was a relatively faithful cover of Bo Diddley’s “Diddy Wah Diddy” — with just a bit more speed and harmonica. As usual with traditional blues, the lyrics were oblique: The Diddley–Willie Dixon composition hints at vague dangers, doomed love, and a dark sexuality verging on the pornographic. Where or what was “diddy wah diddy?” A jail? A cathouse? A backwoods ghetto?

“I got a girl in diddy-wah-diddy/It ain’t no town and it ain’t no city,” growled Don Van Vliet in his shape-shifting Captain Beefheart persona. As good as this white kid from Southern California was at mimicking black idols like Howlin’ Wolf and Muddy Waters, Van Vliet was never going to be a conventional white blues rocker. In fact, his need to play the recombinant music in his head won the Captain a lasting cult-following but routinely lost the Magic Band record deals and band members. A painter and sculptor from childhood, Captain Beefheart had an approach to making music that was synesthetic, intuitively combining disparate genres and instrumentation as much by feel, texture, and “color” as by sound. The incongruous sweetness of urban doo-wop and the volatile emotions harnessed by Delta and Chicago blues became the repurposed canvas onto which Beefheart and his various Magic Bands would hurl classical, folk rock, electronic, or post-bop elements. Sardonic lyrics on originals such as “Electricity,” “Autumn’s Child,” and “Grown So Ugly” became allusive flights of fantasy spurred by alleged use of psychedelics and an anachronistically romantic disposition. Van Vliet needed a series of gifted sidemen to help him execute his complicated arrangements, but the results were always interesting, and often influential.

Considering all the above, I like to believe Van Vliet would smile to hear his music freshly embodied by a black female funk rocker like Nona Hendryx. On The World of Captain Beefheart, out November 10 on Knitting Factory Records, it’s as if Hendryx (fronting a band put together by former Beefheart guitarist Gary Lucas) reincarnates the artist, who died in 2010, in a black female body. Lucas and Hendryx started performing Beefheart tribute shows together in 2011; these periodic performances included a 2013 show in Amsterdam featuring a full symphonic orchestra. For this new release, the duo opted for a small combo to more closely replicate the classic Beefheart ensembles.

“You’re hearing the sound of a real band of Beefheart experts who love to play this music, not a bunch of studio musicians,” says Lucas. “The foundation [of Beefheart’s music] is always the blues, though, even in its most extreme and mutated form.”

“Doing Beefheart songs in the studio was not about being true to what he did, but about being true to the music itself,” says Hendryx. “For me, that meant taking it and making it authentically my own.” Cherry-picking songs from almost every phase of Beefheart’s career, Lucas and Hendryx showcase the Sixties r&b of “I’m Glad” right alongside the progressive jazz–rock instrumental “Suction Prints” without undercutting the sonic and spiritual unity of the Beefheart aesthetic. Like his high school crony Frank Zappa, Beefheart heard conceptual connections on several levels, including tantric, subatomic, and holographic.

As many different vocal personas as Don Van Vliet channeled live and on record — from carnival barker to Robert Johnson at the crossroads — he never attempted to impersonate a legendary soul diva. But Hendryx’s own status as a visionary singer-songwriter, with a penchant for performing and recording beyond facile categories, made her a worthy vessel for the project. “Nona really brought something new to the proceedings, vocally,” says Lucas, “on her own and with her background singers.”

Hendryx began making radio hits in 1962 as a teenage member of Patti LaBelle and the Bluebelles, a classic black girl group that opened for the Rolling Stones in 1965. By the Seventies, the group had reconfigured its look and sound to become the glitter-funk trio Labelle, with Hendryx’s passionately political songwriting winning them a multiethnic crossover audience Prince would later inherit. When Labelle split in 1976, Hendryx continued writing and recording rock, soul, funk, and fusion-flavored material as a solo artist, touring with Peter Gabriel and David Bowie, and even becoming a featured member of Talking Heads.

In arranging the vocals on The World of Captain Beefheart, Hendryx used her own longtime backup singers and the results are — dare I say it? — magic. The key here was managing complexity. On the album’s twelve tracks culled from six albums, Jesse Krakow (bass), Jordan Shapiro (keyboards), Richard Dworkin (drums), and Lucas (guitar) shift between musical styles and chase moments of free improvisation and chromatic harmonies.

Newcomers to Beefheart’s music may find the Hendryx covers more immediately accessible than the originals. “We both wanted to reimagine these songs in a new light, rather than try to reproduce them as slavish cover versions,” says Lucas. Hendryx certainly prefers richer harmonies than Beefheart did, and on achingly vulnerable love songs such as “Her Eyes Are a Blue Million Miles,” she colors a nuanced interpretation with layers of descant call-and-response, deepening and extending the meaning of the lyrics. “I felt they needed that kind of harmonic information,” explains Hendryx, “because a lot of Beefheart’s music doesn’t have that, and it doesn’t allow a listener to really savor what he wrote.”

Evocative incantations such as “My Head Is My Only House Unless It Rains” compare favorably with Hendryx’s scorching “You Turn Me On,” from Labelle’s Nightbirds album. Indeed, the witchy sexuality and spirituality so integral to the Captain Beefheart persona inspires some of Hendryx’s best songs. The Captain still has a certain advantage, though, in his ultraviolet humor: Few contemporary songwriters are so provocatively funny. The playful Dada wit of “Tropical Hot Dog Night,” “The Smithsonian Institute Blues,” and “When Big Joan Sets Up” are weirdly cautionary and hilarious at the same time. It’s the jokes and poetic wordplay that seduce fans into even the most difficult Beefheart recordings.

“My favorite writer of all time, besides Shakespeare, would be Leonard Cohen,” admits Hendryx. “I’m somewhat addicted to lyrics and how people find a different way to say what we already know. People like Joni, Prince, Stevie Wonder, and Marvin Gaye can tell stories that are sociopolitical commentary as well as sexual. These are my influences, and I put Don in that category.”

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