Sunday, April 30, 2006

Why I Love Captain Beefheart

Here are some reasons why I love Don Van Vliet or Captain Beefheart as he was otherwise known.

His musical work was mainly conducted with a rotating assembly of musicians called the Magic Band, which was active from the mid-1960s through to the early 1980s. Van Vliet was primarily a singer, but played harmonica and very nutty saxophone.

His compositions are characterized by their odd mixtures of shifting time signatures and by their surreal lyrics, while Van Vliet himself is noted for his dictatorial approach to his musicians and for his enigmatic relationship with the public.

Here are my reasons.....

1. He Helped Get Me Into Indian Music
I think most of us under-estimate the influence of rhythms in our lives or rather the lack of variety in them.

Cap'n Beefheart used to say that all the rock and roll music and pop (4/4 rock beat or Waltz mostly) was hankering after being back in the womb and hearing the consistent thud thud of your mothers heart. He said that it was appeasement music …boom cha boom boom cha… predictable and that we were kids for feeling happy and comfortable with these simple first rhythms - we hadn’t moved on. Actually most rock, soul, funk, blues is the same too.

The Captain used to say of Frank Zappa, his alleged mentor, that

"Frank believes in time and we could never get it together. He writes all his music and gets sentimental about good old rock 'n' roll, but that's appeasement music”.

I’ve mentioned this rhythmic philosophy of the Cap'n to a lot of the musicians I’ve met and it’s some hard shit to hear for the first time. The whole appeasement thing and sucking on your mothers tit bit I mean. It’s true though, we are addicted to the head nod and the foot tap like mental patients in the corner next to the radio set. The good musicians get this revelation and others don’t wish to hear it at all. Understanding the approach and taking the approach are two different things however.

That’s not to say the Captain didn’t use simple head nod rhythms occasionally as his roots were in early Blues (2/4 rhythm) and in particluar he took alot from Howlin' Wolf. These beats are of course simple rhythms but still wonderful expressions of those rhythms. However, over time, Beefheart began to develop a new technique althoghther and developed his patterns around the words and odd phrases of piano. He didn’t truncate the sentence to fit the bar, he just pushed the bar out and that was just the length of the phrase.

Most rhythms we hear are quite predictive and we know what’s coming next. I’m sure we all know when the drum fills come in or the last chorus. Our euphoria gland has been pimped this past long while with the same patterns over and over. We all know the templates and the shapes. Often it’s the only the atmosphere of the instrumentation or the vocal that differentiates the music in any fundamental way.

With unpredictable rhythms they often appear like a cacophony to the listener at first but once you become familiar with the approach you can zone right in. This isn’t 4/4 or a rock beat or a waltz – it’s something else.

Indian rhythms and music are often thought of like Captain Beefheart in the West. Initially cacophonous and unmusical. We don’t know where the beat is or what’s going on with the melody and we can’t tap our foot so easy but with practice it comes. It’s like wine or riding a bike – you don’t give up on your first try and I’m glad that I stuck with the Captain and kept listening until I wasn’t listening on the outside of the music I was inside the music and those rhythms seemed like the most natural thing in the world.

Grooving on the strangely structured rhythms of the Captain made me accept rhythm as having a melodic route or structure and not just a backbeat in a traditional form. To be able to break away from existing patterns was the Captains genius and our lesson from him.

Ok – that’s reason number 1.

2. Great Songs
Even though Trout Mask Replica is mooted as the Capn’s best or most outlandish work and I do love it it’s not my favourite album. My favourite album is somewhat ironically one of his most mellow and accessible albums - ClearSpot Kid. A lot of Captain Beefheart albums have some tracks that stand out more than others so I prefer to look at the body of his work and luckily he was quite prolific in his time.

(Get full album list here from the Radar Station – easily the best Captain reference on the web and it’s been running for years :)

My favourite Captain Beefheart tracks:
  • Diddy Wah Diddy (A+M Sessions) – Bo Diddly cover. Raw and from prehistory.
  • Electricity (Safe As Milk) – I don’t think another song, other than maybe something by the Chemical Brothers, conveys electricity so well. The Captains voice is such a rasp here that it sounds like a dropped pilon cable.
  • Beatle Bones and Smokin Stones (Strictly Personal). Even though I love the Beatles I also love the fact the Captain was irked into having a pop at them on this song.
  • Ella Guru + the Blimp (Troutmask Replica) – proper leftfield weridness..the Blimp lead vocal was recorded down a telephone.
  • Lick My Decals Off, Baby + Space Age Couple (Lick My Decals Off Baby) – Beefheartians tend to say this is their favourite album and with good reason – even though the band using their odd-rhythms to the full this record is accessible and much fun.
  • I'm Gonna Booglarize You Baby + Blabber’N Smoke (The Spotlight Kid)
  • Nowadays a Woman's Gotta Hit a Man + Sun Zoom Spark + Big Eyed Beans from Venus (ClearSpot). Great record – Sun Zoom Spark is a great chorus and it’s like a guessing game as to when the Captain is going to drop the beat again.
  • Run Paint Run Run (Doc at the Radar Station). This is one of my all time favourtie Captain songs – A while back in Kerala India (during the Scale sessions ) I did a version of this track. I used a temple instrument called a Nadaswaram which has a reed like a clarinet. The only part that is really the same is the lyric “Run Paint Run Run” because sometimes it’s just too difficult making out what he’s saying or what the band are playing. Of course, if you cover a Beefheart track you daren’t copy it and luckily the Capn builds that right in – they are unrepeatable by anyone but him.

3. Nutty Composition Process and Great Guitarists
For some reason the Captain used to attract all kinds of hot and avante garde guitarists who would float around the whole Zappa and Bowie kingdom. These names included : Doug Moon, Alex St. Claire, Ry Cooder, Moris Tepper, Richard Redus and Gary Lucas and more.

The guitarist that stuck with the Captain for the longest time was a fella called Bill Harkleroad who joined the band first for the album Strictly Personal. The Captain used to christen every body in his band with a new name and low and behold Bill became Zoot Horn Rollo, which is easily better than Bill. See the liner notes for Trout Mask Replica :

ZOOT HORN ROLLO: glass finger guitar, flute
ANTENNAE JIMMY SEMENS: steel-appendage guitar
CAPTAIN BEEFHEART: bass clarinet, tenor sax, soprano sax, vocal
THE MASCARA SNAKE: bass clarinet & vocal
ROCKETTE MORTON: bass & narration
DRUMBO: drums

The Captain preferred younger guitarists because they could be moulded more easily. Upstream would be Beefheart hammering a piano and the drummer (John French or Drumbo) transcribing parts for the other musicians. The parts weren’t all playable but for the most part the guys kept to this ‘score’. Initially that might seem cruel but it undoubtedly made the music unique.

The sound of twisted, spiky and angular guitar was pioneered very heavily by Harkleroad and as his relationship with Beefheart developed he was given increasingly more freedom. Bill said of those crazy early years with the Captain.

“I was 19, my two favorite artists were Zappa and Beefheart, and I was just glad I didn't have to go to college or join the army and die.”

John Peel said of Beefheart :
"If there has ever been such a thing as a genius in the history of popular music, it's Beefheart…I heard echoes of his music in some of the records I listened to last week and I'll hear more echoes in records that I listen to this week"

During the rise of Punk many of it’s leading lights praised Beefheart and claimed influence including John Lydon, The Sex Pistols and the Clash. Many popular modern groups also draw heavily from his well including Tom Waits, PJ Harvey, dEUS, the Pixies and The White Stripes to name a few.

4. Don’s Philosophy
Here are a few of the great quotes from the Captain

  • "I think nutrition is very important. If you eat bad, you feel bad. If you feel bad, you do bad things. Most of modern rock and roll is a product of guilt. People cop licks off of dead people, like stealing pennies off a dead man's eyes. The movement needs a bowel movement."
  • "I don't believe in time, you know, 4/4 and all that stuff," Beefheart says.
  • "I guess the reason I use lyrics is because I'm a singer and the record companies and everybody would think I was ridiculous if I didn't use the English language."
  • “Don't wipe the sweat off your instrument. You need that stink on there. Then you have to get that stink onto your music.”
  • "A carrot is as close as a rabbit gets to a diamond."
  • "Everybody's colored or else you wouldn't be able to see them."
  • "I'm not really here, I just stick around for my friends."
  • "Old Delta blues players referred to guitar amplifiers as the "devil box." And they were right. You have to be an equal opportunity employerin terms of who you're brining over from the other side. Electricity attracts devils and demons. Other instruments attract other spirits. An acoustic guitar attracts Casper. A mandolin attracts Wendy. But an electric guitar attracts Beelzebub."
  • If you're guilty of thinking, you're out. If your brain is part of the process, you're missing it. You should play like a drowning man, struggling to reach shore. If you can trap that feeling, then you have something that is fur bearing.
5. Recording Lore
The story of recording Trout Mask Replica is fantastic ….

For the rehearsals of Trout Mask Replica, the captains most famous album, the Magic band were holed up in a house in the the Woodland Hills. Only one of them was allowed out once a week to get the basic supplies of lentils and such and then back onto the rehearsals. This lock-in lasted a month.

Bill the guitarist for Troutmask replica recalls his memories of the time:

"the side of the music that most people don't want the hear about is how manipulative this older guy was with these 19-year-old kids. It was only ten yards short of a Manson situation. We would play 12 to 16 hours a day, fall on the floor, and them wake up and do it again. Our hero was a brilliant person with half his energy running on extreme paranoia. He'd talk to us for 36 hours straight, telling use that our hand position in the air wasn't artistic enough."

The band played the whole record until they knew it inside out. They went to the studio, ran by Frank Zappa, set up and got a sound. Frank hit the record button and the band played it to the end. Frank said “great rehearsal” guys let’s do some more takes. The Captain said “that’s the record Frank” and then they packed up and left.

6. He Also Painted

Now Beefheart lives out in the Arizona desert. He retired from music after the album Ice Cream for Crow and lives with his wife and cat. He paints a lot of the time and although there is nothing officially released about his current health he is suffering from a long term illness.

The Captains paitings come at the right time in his life….no running around the music business madness and time to be private in the desert that he loves. The paintings contain the same spirit that the music. Beefheart was a real artist and not a Xerox copy like so many others.

See this link for an index of his paintings

So that’s why I love Captain Beefheart.


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