Some of you may have read my post about the fanzine I put out many years ago. With the recent death of one of my musical heroes, Don Van Vliet, also known as Captain Beefheart, I went back into the zine vault to find an article I’d written somewhere in the nineties about the Captain. It was inspired by a letter I’d received slamming my review of the twistedly brilliant Trout Mask Replica. The letter, written by one Gary Detroit, insisted “Beefheart sucks!” It said “that album blows!” It said “music should totally just rock. That’s why it’s called rock! This is a bunch of noise!” Finally, it said “Fuck you, art rock faggot!”
Below is my response to Gary Detroit, and also to his letter. Of course, if I were writing it now, I’d take out any number of things, edit it and smooth it over. I understand a lot more about Beefheart, and music in general, than I did back then. But it seemed somehow more in keeping with honoring Don’s passing if I just let it run the way it did originally. He was, after all, an exemplar of making the exacting sound like improvisation, embracing imperfection, and finding a way to play between the notes.
Trust me when I tell you, Gary Detroit, that Captain Beefheart does not, in fact, suck. To that end, I’ve listed a few of his albums with you, a Beefheart neophyte, in mind. I don’t intend the word “neophyte” as an insult, it’s just an assumption. One that is borne from the confidence that if you truly gave Trout Mask Replica an honest spin, we would be having a very different conversation. You still might not like the music in the end, but I think you’d at least come to respect it.
So, I’ll make you a bet.
You promise to listen to each selection on my list, in its entirety, without preconceptions. If you do, and then still stand by your comments, I promise not only to send you fifty dollars in CD fees (about what you’ll be out after you sell them back used), but I will write a column lavishly extolling the merits of any band of your choosing.
Even Pearl “Jeremy has spoken, he’s spoken” Jam.
Want to shake on it?
1. SAFE AS MILK-Screaming from the loins of 1967, it’s Beefheart’s debut. Already dropped by A&M before releasing a single record, they respond by unleashing this terrorization of sixties garage rock and Beatlesque proto pop. Notable for contributions from a very young Ry Cooder, the idea seems generally to have been: take a given blues cliche, shit on it, mangle it, add doo-wop and soul frosting, and then play it better than 99% of the people you’re making fun of. Abba Zabba and Electricity are classic barely in control breakdowns. Big Black Baby Shoes is an amazing instrumental fuck-you to Steve Stills and Keith Richards. Korn Ring Finger is the song the lost tribes of Israel would have recorded to lament their forty years of wandering, if they had only possessed an eight-track mixer and a couple of microphones. Plastic Factory is what Bo Diddley would have sounded like if he woke up every morning, wiped an enormous smear of airplane glue across his upper lip, and then took the bus downtown to work the morning shift at IHOP. In the end, re-envisioning songs by Muddy Waters and Robert Pete Johnson enables guitarist Alex St. Claire Snouffer to showcase his radical chops.
2. LICK MY DECALS OFF, BABY– My favorite Beef disc, every song a gem of Ur-text poetry, vocal brain lock, drastic time changes, brilliant minimalist guitar, truly original drums, and an utter lack of giving a shit what anyone thinks. Go ahead and try to top Bellerin’ Plaine, Japan Is A Dishpan and Woe-Is-A-Me-Bop for a combination of more intellectually curious tunes, relentlessly lyrical inventions, whip-crack tempos, and corrosive backbeats on any rock album, ever, period. Listen to the title track. Ignore the voice and concentrate on the drum/guitar interplay. Listen to the beautifully spare and totally original guitar on Peon or One Rose That I Mean. Who else plays like that? Who else bothered to completely break down the numbing 1-4-5 of every rock tune in the history of music and record like they were born listening to everything backward, stuffing tempo and key changes into every hook like they were throwing blind darts at Ornette Coleman’s sheet music? No one, that’s who. On the other hand, I agree that some music should “just rock,” regardless of content, and there are thousands of rock tunes I enjoy and admire, but that doesn’t mean they’re worthy of dissection or comment really in any regard except as they relate to teen groping and dance nostalgia, and, since they are built in such a way that most people are guaranteed to like them, there’s little or nothing to actually argue about.
3. TROUT MASK REPLICA-True, Gary Detroit, this album is the holy grail of difficulty, and thus not all that surprising you had an initially negative reaction. It’s like walking into an Albert Ayler concert when you thought you were there to see The Spin Doctors. Sure, it’s jarring. But are you willing to hunker down and weather the initial shock? Trout Mask is an obscure, obtuse puzzle which takes no easy route, panders to no notion of form, consistently hits the opposite note we are trained to hear, and almost BEGS you to hate it. Hey, just about anyone can play Brown Sugar or Norwegian Wood on the guitar, and to their detriment, frequently do. It takes some serious hang-lows to play any of the tunes on this album. Or record them. Or release them. The musicianship is astonishingly good and original. The human brain is geared to fear and revile that which it cannot immediately process. What greater calling is there than to strive for an expression that triggers that reaction? What more worm-like calling is there than to salve that fear with what is safe and quickly understood? Any great work in any medium; literature, painting, dance, or sculpture, had to spend decades– or even generations– girding against public notions of propriety and the general malaise of the easily satisfied. It’s not unlikely, in forty years, that this album will be burned in the streets by hysterical mobs responding to a decree by the still-living but grimly calcified President Rumsfeld. Or possibly not. At any rate, supposedly the entire double album was recorded in one week of non-stop hysteria.
4. CLEAR SPOT– A number of excellent songs on this disc, one derided a bit by purists, but tempered with a pleasing new level of production value and accessibility. A mellower Beef, more melodic and less aggressive, pulling the strings at the soundboard, pretending he’s Phil Spector. Zoot Horn Rollo blows minds and lesser guitar players away with his un-slide slide playing, anti-licks, and diminished scale rambling. Sun Zoom Spark and Big Eyed Beans From Venus are highlights. Her Eyes Are A Blue Million Miles is one of the great song titles of all time, and almost elementally marks the transition from avant/outside Beef to a lush but slightly pandering avant/inside.
5. DOC AT THE RADAR STATION-The second to last album, with a new and younger lineup. The dynamic is very different, but also fascinating. More polished and listener-friendly, but the dementia still lurks tensely beneath the surface. Worth it just for Run Paint, Run Run and Dirty Blue Gene. A couple of other great numbers, but also sort of an anti-climax. After years of critical panning and general abuse, the Captain quit music and moved to Germany to become (it’s true) a painter. This was 20 years ago. His paintings are relentlessly and beautifully awful, unadulterated expression, and he’s still doing them. In Germany. Amongst the Germans. Is that not a sacrifice to top all others in the annals of history, or at least rock music? To say blow me to all the groupies and agents and magazine covers and retreat to the land of Hasselhoff to sell canvases to art dealers with rectangular glasses and leather pants named Hermann? My God, it’s incredible the cross this man has carried for all of us!
AN ABBREVIATED LIST OF MAJOR BEEFHEART/GARY DETROIT FALLACIES:
All Us Art Rock Faggots Love Beefheart, and Generally Know a Lot About Him:
It does seem to be currency in certain circles to toss around the Captain’s name while probably rarely or ever listening to him. Pretending to as a matter of style or supposed cache is a tired move, but really no different than pretending really uncomfortable shoes fit ’cause they make your calves look great. We all have our affectations, and we all need to be called on them.
It’s All Just A Bunch Of Noise:
Sure, there are a number of bad songs, toss-offs and near-misses on the above listed albums, but there are precious few that are not highly regimented and constructed pieces of music. It’s like when your dad listens to half a progression of atonal jazz and goes “they’re just playing random notes….even I could play that.” Well, no, Dad, they’re not, and no, Dad, you couldn’t. Some out-jazz really is bullshit, but the majority is played by guys who know the accepted licks, chops, scales, and progressions so completely that they are literally forced to push beyond them. I mean, you can be like Tom Jones or Rod Stewart and sing or play the same dozen songs year after year and just rake in cash and panties, but who, besides menopausal housewives and casino managers, gives a shit? The reason Beefheart or avant-jazz or atonal composition sounds to a lot of people like “noise” is that those listeners have not taken the time to learn the basic vocabulary of the music, so of course, pieces that push that vocabulary to extremes sound completely foreign and confusing. Have you ever looked at early Picasso paintings? They are simple, straight-forward portraits and landscapes. He had to learn to paint “normally” before the third-eyes and bent-heads and screaming-mouths could be introduced. You don’t start with Guernica, you work up to it. Most of us have been in an art class where some tool splashes sixty-dollars worth of acrylic onto his canvas in an uncomprehending approximation of Pollock or Diebenkorn and thinks they’re doing something new. It’s the same with Beefheart. They could have made a billion dollars sounding like The Lovin’ Spoonful or even Zeppelin, but they were playing the rock idiom backward before they even started. It was either make money, or try something else. Just trying should be enough to make you weep with gratitude.
Neil Pert Is The Greatest Drummer In Rock And Roll:
I heard this all though high school, usually expressed as “Pert Rules!” Other people voted for the hairbag from Motley Crue that flips around in a cage, and still others threw their hat in the ring for Ringo, Charlie Watts, Peter Criss, blah, blah, blah. None of them have a fraction of the talent, inventiveness or skill of John French. Even a casual listen of most Beefheart discs reveals insanely difficult rhythmic underlay, without bombast or Lars/Metallica reliance on showy double bass-pedal tricks. Unlike most rock drumming, French doesn’t simply follow the chords or bass line, he makes up his own entirely different, symbiotic and percussive patina, and it is a thing of rare beauty and worthy of repeated listenings. I once saw Max Roach give a lecture that maybe twelve people showed up for, and he set up his kit and played a while, and since he’s one of the greatest drummers that ever lived, it was pretty amazing. He was about seventy-five at the time, and then in the middle of it, he just stands up and says “Enough of this shit.” He takes his hi hat to the front of the stage, puts his stool behind it, and goes to town on the fucker. Playing only that one piece, a hi-hat and two sticks, and he sounded like he had a full set in front of him, bappa-pitta-rappa-ditty-bapa-doo-whap, unBELIEVABLE. All I could think of was the overloaded shitcan of sorry ass rock drummers that I at one time admired, with their thousand piece kits, their roto toms and cow bells and extra snares and electronics and every other weak toy imaginable, and they couldn’t play a tenth of what this tired old man coaxed out of one hi-hat on a lazy Sunday afternoon. Genuinely complex rhythm is inarguable, definitive, essential, what “Rock,” if it were to truly “Just Rock,” should always strive for, yet rarely achieves. Being able to produce rhythmic patterns that are unusual and varied is a skill that is bestowed upon an extremely small subset of mankind. Everything else is playing with yourself in the tub.
Finally, Captain Beefheart Sucks:
Really, on its face, this is a foolish statement, and reveals, at the very least, a cursory listening of his music prior to what remains a flimsy denunciation. Hey, if you don’t like his music, that’s fine, don’t listen to it. I am happy, comfortable, and possibly unhealthily obsessed with being in the minority. Clearly, Beefheart is an acquired taste, and like a lot of complex or unusual music, can be a difficult and even grating listen at times. Small early doses may need to be taken on a stringent yet gradually increasing schedule, allowing time and auditory scaling to set in before you develop a Beefheart immunity/craving. Yup, it may require a little work. If, however, after all this, you still don’t want to make the effort to investigate a band that I promise you is more musically inventive, creative, original, forward-thinking, truly hardcore, absolutely unrelenting, and (the clincher) almost universally admired by people who play, then don’t. But don’t say they “suck.” Or do say they suck, but in doing so be prepared to reveal the thinness of the urine-colored ice upon which you skate. Maybe just say “I don’t like them.” That is entirely defensible, and certainly your right, and while it may not impress PJ Harvey while you’re chatting her up backstage, it at least implies you listened and then made a decision based on (questionable) taste. Saying “It sucks” is, by almost any objective standard of musical accomplishment, dead wrong. It’s the equivalent of saying “I speak of that of which I have limited conception.” You can then follow it up with, “Now pass me the crank, let me stick a feather in my ass, put some software-derived rave-samples on the boombox, AND LET’S DANCE TIL DAWN!”
Postscript: Gary Detroit didn’t take me up on my bet. I figured I’d never hear from him again, but then I received a letter almost a year later. It hemmed and hawed, cursed me out a bit, but in the end did more or less sheepishly admit that Beefheart was, after all, “pretty cool.”