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Published: 2011/01/09
by Tom Volk

45 Minutes Towards A Better Understanding Of Captain Beefheart

In the wake of the recent passing of Don Van Vliet, better known, if at all, as Captain Beefheart, I was met with a cryptic glances and pained expressions of confusion with basically anyone with whom I tried to engage in conversation with regarding his passing. To the uninitiated his music is as accessible as running through a brick wall, and often as dense. However, if you put in the time you will discover that buried in the off kilter time signatures, stream of consciousness poetry, and ashtray soaked vocals are track upon track of endlessly compelling music. Steeped in the blues and filtered through his eccentric worldview his recorded legacy has had a subtle influence in almost every genre of music produced in America over the last 40 years. Anyone who has enjoyed a White Stripes record, who has turned a friend onto Animal Collective’s Sung Tongs, who digs the deconstructivist jams so prevalent in Phish’s jamming in 1994-1995, or who is of the opinion that Tom Waits is a genius owes a debt of gratitude to Captain Beefheart. The following playlist is meant to serve as a primer to his music and reduce the cryptic looks on the faces of music fans everywhere when his name comes up in casual conversation.

“Her Eyes Are A Blue Million Miles” Clear Spot, (1973)
There are many songs in his catalogue that dispel the notion that Captain Beefheart couldn’t put together a conventional or commercially viable song, none more compelling as this cut from seventh album. Based around a simple guitar riff that bends in and out of dissonance “Her eyes…” is, at its heart, a love song.
“I look at her and she looks at me, in her eyes I can see the sea. I don’t see what she sees in a man like me, she says she loves me”
Joan Osborne covered this song early in her career, reinterpreting it by flipping the gender and paying a nod to the jagged nature of Beefheart’s music by rearranging it into a crashing and dramatic piece. It can be found on her 1996 release simple titled Early Callings.

“The Floppy Boot Stomp” Shiny Beast (Bat Chain Puller), (1978)
Growling, almost spoken word vocals, mutating riffs and bizarre time signatures punctuate the opening track from Beefheart’s second most well known album. The depth of his song construction is such that, what on the surface appears to be a disjointed series of riffs that sound almost spliced together, really form a cohesive track that never relents in the end. There is no better witness to this than “The Floppy Boot Stomp, it might just be the ultimate summation of all things Beefheart.
“Safe As Milk (Take 5)” Safe As Milk, (1968)
Take a listen to the Captain’s vocals on this track and then go listen to any of track from the Kings Of Leon debut album Aha Shake Heartbreak and compare with Caleb Followill’s, the similarities are eerie. Capt. Beefheart was a vocal chameleon, alternating from howling blues to obnoxious snarls to aggressive, proto punk incantations. Also notable on this track and throughout his first album is the slide guitar playing of a young Ry Cooder. Intricate slide riffs would be a hallmark of Beefheart’s career even though this would be the only album the two would record together.

“Making Love to a Vampire With A Monkey On My Knee” Doc At The Radar Station, (1980)
When he pleads, three quarters of a way through the track “God please fuck my mind for good” you wonder if this was just the honest howl of a tortured genius who was edging closer to the seclusion that would mark his final 30 years. Dropping all pretenses of conventional musical structure this is a three minute poem set to yet more jangled guitar and synthesizer riffs that seem almost overtly cinematic.

“Rollin and Tumblin” Grow Fins: Rarities 1965-1982 (1999)
Beefheart’s musical foundation was in the blues and it is instructive to go back to this early career rave up from this collection of outtakes and live tracks released in 1999. Clocking in at little over eleven minutes this would be right at home next to some early Grateful Dead takes on “Viola Lee Blues.”

“Grow Fins” The Spotlight Kid (1972)
If Beefheart had been born on planet earth and in the mid 70’s he would have been Jack White. A delta bluesman at heart this straightforward-for-the-captain track features a good example of his harmonica stylings that pop up from time to time throughout his discography. It’s a raw blues that grooves thanks to the doubled up bass and marimba shuffle performed by sometimes magic band drummer Art Tripp aka “Ted Cactus.” The Spotlight Kid was cut during a time when Capt. Beefheart felt the need to record more accessible material and most of the album ends up being a really misguided attempt to pander to that notion but “Grow Fins” sticks out as a highlight.

“Orange Claw Hammer” Trout Mask Replica (1969)
I don’t think it’s fair to the genre to call this a cappella but it’s not quite a spoken word track either. What it is though is the best example of Van Vilet sans instruments, half singing, half growling his scatter shot poetry in a lonesome howl.

“When Big Joan Sets Up” Trout Mask Replica (1969)
Frank Zappa was the producer on the most well known of all the Beefheart albums, 1969’s Trout Mask Replica. A whole article could be written about the stylistic similarities between the two artists but “When Big Joan Sets Up” might just sum that analysis a lot better than 2000 words would. Rolling slide riffs and disjointed Ornette Coleman style saxophone skronks punctuate one of the best tracks on an album that is studded with them. A caution for the uninitiated, while Trout Mask Replica is certainly his most well know album it is far from being his most accessible.

“Bat Chain Puller” Shiny Beast (Bat Chain Puller), (1978)
While his reputation for having a somewhat fractured sense of time signatures is well deserved one of the pleasures in discovering Captain Beefheart’s music is that there are a lot of tracks that have a steady infectious groove too. A tribal drumbeat pulsates straight through this gem from his comeback of sorts album released in 1978 after four years off and some legal wrangling with Frank Zappa’s management. Nonsensical lines like “This train with grey tubes that houses peoples thoughts” and “A chain with yellow lights that glisten like boiled beads” dot the track and are shining examples of his avant garde poetry cum lyrics.

“Party Of Special Things To Do” Bluejeans & Moonbeams (1974)
We’ll end the playlist with a rocker, maybe the only listenable track from an album recorded without his usual cohorts in his magic band. The rhythm section gets it right on this one though, it’s a track that is well worth the effort it would take to find it as, alas, almost none of his original albums are available on iTunes. Also of note is The White Stripes cover version of this song which fell into my hands through a fan compilation of b-sides and rarities. It’s a straightforward reading and a good example of Beefheart’s influence in something that resembles mainstream music.
There it is, use at your own peril. My wife is fond of reminding me that I am the only person she knows who likes Captain Beefheart (she is unequivocal in her distaste for the Captain). I won’t let that deter me though, I know there are fans out there just like me who appreciate his work and if, with this article, I can convert a couple more than I’ve done my job.

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