Fast and Bulbous

Haha I guess I’m just gonna throw some papers on here. I wrote this in March of 2009.

 

Fast and Bulbous: The Baroque Genius of Captain Beefheart

There is a mustachioed man in a Californian desert who paints the shadow of a crow flying over sand. He learned to whistle at the age of two and at three he read about the extinct auk and got so upset over the passing of the passenger pigeon that he tried to commit suicide by throwing himself into the La Brea Tar Pits but was saved by his devoted mother. As a teenager he locked himself up in his Mojave Desert bedroom and went a year and a half without sleep. This man is named Don Van Vliet, better known as Captain Beefheart. His masterpiece double-album Trout Mask Replica has as much to do with rock and blues as it has to do with sculpture and the body. Although his Magic Band was comprised of exceptionally talented and patient musicians who translated Vliet’s impossible mindscapes into music, the album’s incredibly exciting and unfamiliar sound has only Vliet and his laissez-faire producer Frank Zappa to thank. The album as a maximalist piece of work at once breaks with the landmarks of the 60s counterculture and yet remains one of the most unique and representative creations of that American era.

The details of Vliet’s real life are elastic and inflatable. He earnestly propagates lies of mythic proportions about himself in interviews, whereupon hapless journalists feel ill at ease to omit them from articles. In one severely tangent-ridden interview for New York Rocker magazine, Vliet claimed of his great distaste for urban life: “I break out in a horrible rash if I use a telephone in the city. I can’t stand it. I think it’s fascist. Very fascist odor on a telephone receiver” (Cantz 133). Vliet creates a fabulist image of himself through his own self-descriptions yet he greatly resents being categorized as a “weirdo”. This kind of self-inflicted contradiction and Dada-inflected language characterizes the brilliant manic man who would retire from the music business in 1982 to devote his life to painting. There are, however, some salvageable facts of his life that are confirmed by various sources. They are as follows:

 

  1. Vliet can imitate the voices of great blues singers down to the most essential gritty growl. In Trout Mask Replica, his voice most notably resembles that of the great Mississippi blues-man Howlin’ Wolf. Vliet attended a concert by Hubert Sumlin, the deceased old Wolf’s guitar player. “While Sumlin was sitting with his guitar across his knees to tune it up, Beefheart crept up behind him and addressed him in the voice of the dreaded Wolf. Sumlin jumped several feet in the air and begged Beefheart in a trembling voice never to do such a thing again” (17).

     

  2. Sometime before he was eighteen, Vliet appeared on a television show alongside the Portugese sculptor Augustonia Rodriguez, showcasing his talent at fashioning animals out of soap. He consequently won a six-year art scholarship that would have taken him to Europe had his parents not forbid him to go, saying that all artists were “poofs” (queers). (18).

     

  3. Vliet was born Don Glen Vliet on January 15, 1941 in Glendale, California. Although he did not attend much of his Lancaster, California high school, it was there that he met Frank Zappa. The two men go on to have a tumultuous friendship as well as a professional and creative relationship that yields some of Vliet’s best work.

     

Captain Beefheart and his Magic Band’s first album Safe as Milk was released by Buddah records in 1967. The Magic Band’s ever rotating roster features Ry Cooder on the lead and slide guitar in the R&B and soul-inflected album (Beefheart.com). John French, Alex St. Claire, and Jerry Handley were also featured. The twangy guitar sounds like general sixties rock—the Rolling Stones in particular. Vliet’s voice comes off rich and soulful like a back-country road but the lyrics are quite accessible, sometimes approaching psychedelia in songs like “Yellow Brick Road” and “Electricity”. Beefheart and the band amp up the psychedelic mood for their next album, Strictly Personal released in 1968 by Blue Thumb Records. Jeff Cotton replaces Cooder on the guitar for this realease. The instrumentation features more post-production effects and Vliet’s voice moves toward the warbling weirdness it eventually reaches in Trout Mask Replica. After Safe as Milk and Strictly Personal, Vliet “sensed that R&B had been done to perfection by his black predecessors” (Chusid 134) and thus decided to create the music that he always heard in his head, no holds barred. Although his first two albums are solid pop albums with slight hints of experimentalism, they are not in any way indicative of the newness that is to follow.

Vliet’s eccentricity did not make him an easy artist to work with and consequently left him and his producers at odds, both promotionally and more importantly, creatively. They marketed him to the basement groovies and mixed his music in the general 60s “rock style”. Even Zappa realized Vliet’s commercial dilemma. He once said, “I think Don is fantastic, but he’s unmarketable” (132). Despite profit concerns, Zappa invited Vliet to make a record on his Warner Bros. distributed label Straight. He stressed that Vliet would have complete creative control over the music and mixing. Vliet accepted, and Trout Mask Replica was born, an album that Rolling Stone critic Langdon Winner claimed to be “the most astounding and most important work of art ever to appear on a phonograph record”.

While America was going through the violent growing pains of the year1968, Vliet sequestered a group of inexperienced yet talented young musicians in a cottage for almost a year to practice for the recording of his most honest album. Vliet crowned his band members with names befitting musico-anatomical superheroes. John French became “Drumbo”, Jeff Cotton was “Antennae Jimmy Semens” ,  Bill Harkleroad was “Zoot Horn Rollo”, Mark Boston rhymed with “Rockette Morton”, and Victor Hayden became “The Mascara Snake”. The musicians would later tell stories of Vliet’s appalling cruelty and megalomania. He enforced food and sleep deprivation and researched methods of brainwashing. In response to these accusations, Vliet simply stated, “People don’t like to be used as paint. If they’re going to be used by me, that is the only way they’re going to be used” (136). This is perhaps the most accurate description of Vliet’s directorial style as a self-taught musician who never learned how to read or write music. Asserting that he and his band communicated through “telepathy”, Vliet conveyed the musical topography of his mind through such non-orthodox methods as scatting, drawing, and charades. It was like inviting a Dada poet to direct the construction of a building. Fortunately, his musicians had the chops to execute his vision and Zappa had the restraint to allow Vliet’s vision to be produced unhindered by commercial worries. As inactive as Zappa’s role may appear to be, it is his lack of tampering that allowed Vliet’s vision to be manifested in all its innovative glory.

Although Trout Mask Replica sounds at times like an impromptu pastiche of haphazard noise, it is in fact “highly structured, carefully arranged, and long in rehearsal” (135). Attendees of Captain Beefheart concerts attest to the minute exactitude of the live renditions. As usual, the exception to that description is Vliet himself, who refused to listen to the instrumental playback while recording his vocal tracks. As a result, the vocals have a skipped-beat, spoken word quality that isn’t necessarily glaring due to the fact that the album sounds like each musician recorded his own part in the privacy of his own cave. This description is not as hyperbolic as it may seem. Vliet recorded his vocals for the track “The Blimp” from a telephone mouthpiece and he sang “China Pig” from behind a closed door with the microphone on the other side (Cantz 18). He is able to not only get away with such blatant experimentation but indeed benefit from it due to his best asset: a robust singing voice that spans anywhere from four-and-a-half to seven octaves. His voice reaches such vertiginous heights in “Pena” that it is nearly unrecognizable as the low growling voice of “Pachuco Cadaver”. In the interview with New York Rocker, Vliet claims to not have any influences at all: “I haven’t any idols and what I do is what I do. Anything else…doesn’t work” (134). But his singing style is instantly recognizable as being born from the Delta blues (as opposed to the Chicago blues, as was the cased for most white bluesmen at the time) from artists like Howlin’ Wolf, Lightnin’ Hopkins and John Lee Hooker. The spontaneity of the compositions can also be likened to free jazz artists like Ornette Coleman and Cecil Taylor (134). But don’t tell Vliet that.

Vliet wrote all of Trout Mask Replica’s twenty-eight songs in one eight and a half hour period. When jokingly asked why it took him so long, Vliet answered: “Well, I’d never played the piano before and I had to figure out the fingering” (Winner). Indeed, Vliet does not play any instruments at all except his powerful voice and a crazy lurid pen. The lyrics on the album cannot be summed up in a neat categorical bow. One type is like romantic pastoral folk ballads on magic mushrooms. Another type is free-associative grotesqueries that bring to mind paintings by Salvador Dali or Francis Bacon. Vliet’s vast distaste for urban life shows up in songs like “Frownland” where he sings, “I cannot go back to your Frownland / My spirit’s made up of the ocean/ And the sky ‘n’ the sun ‘n’ the moon”. The more surrealist images come from songs like “Neon Meate Dream of A Octafish” with amazing verbiage like “Fack ‘n feast ‘n tubes tubs bulbs/ In jest incest ingest injust in feast incest/
’n specks ‘n speckled speckled/
Speckled speculation”. “Dachau Blues” is as close as the album comes to social activism, with the eerie warning, “The world can’t forget that misery/
’n the young ones now beggin’ the old ones please/
t’ stop bein’ madmen/
’fore they have t’ tell their children/
’bout the burnin’s back in World War Three’s”. Conversely, the song “Orange Claw Hammer” is a straightforward folk song sung, or rather recited, a capella and pulled off as well as any old coot sitting on his Mississippi front porch. The wonderful variety of lyrics and singing styles demonstrates the breadth of Vliet’s songwriting prowess.

The difficulty of constraining Trout Mask Replica into one musical genre is understandable due to its maximalist nature. Both Zappa and Vliet’s work are said to fall under the largely unexplored category of maximalism. Composer David Jaffe defines maximalist music as “ [embracing] heterogeneity and [allowing] for complex systems of juxtapositions and collisions, in which all outside influences are viewed as potential raw material” (Armand 129). Zappa’s music has been “accused of being far too noisy and of containing too many notes” (126). These accusations can be, no doubt, extended to his friend as well, prompting the comparison between their music and intricate baroque sculpture, which emphasizes volume and asymmetry. Vliet in particular admits to a three-dimensional approach to making music, claiming in fact to not like music at all: “Music gets in the way…I’m a sculptor” (Cantz 136). He does not use a musical instrument to make the sounds it is intended to make. For example, nearly the entire rhythm section of the album is comprised not of the drums or bass, but of the stop-go strumming of the electric guitar. This synesthetic approach is often experienced as a barrage of the senses—an initial feeling of being sensually overwhelmed. However, upon closer inspection, the linguistic folds of one of the most bizarre songs on the album, “Pena”, begin to resemble the marble folds of Bernini’s classical baroque masterpiece, “Ecstasy of St. Theresa”. The evocation of different textures like velvet, crystals, and felt give the song a tactile richness that is echoed in the gorgeous golden rays and swirls of fabric in the sculpture. The monstrousness of religious ecstasy can be found within the lyrics, “Soft like butter hard not to pour/
Out enjoying the sun while sitting on a turned on waffle iron/
Smoke billowing up from between her legs/
Made me vomit beautifully”. Vliet’s preoccupation with pain and the body are further indications of his place in the maximalist tradition.

The song “Old Fart at Play” describes the trout mask replica that becomes the title image of the album. In the song, an old man puts on an anthropomorphic wooden fish head that becomes part of his body. His wife’s body parts (the nose, the eyelashes, the legs) are described as a host of different animals like a cat, a rooster, a duck, and a goose. The various appendages of the body turn into nature via grotesque transformations. The functioning aspects of the body like breathing, smelling, and the sensation of pain lose their real-world connotations and become magic tricks performed by strange objects. The connection between the body, nature, and absurdity have always existed in romantic literature, notably in Nikolai Gogol’s short story “The Nose” where a man wakes up to find his nose missing and later finds it parading around town in the guise of an inspector. Likewise, the protrusions of the body in Vliet’s lyrics are “not separated from the world by clearly defined boundaries; it is blended with the world, with animals, with objects” (Armand 135).  This transformative aspect of the body is constant with maximalism’s fixation with strange juxtapositions and textures.

By sheer virtue of its innovation and weirdness, Trout Mask Replica gained massive critical acclaim and became something of a cult classic. Nevertheless, Vliet had many problems with the way Zappa was pushing the record, believing himself to have become “the token weirdo artist on Warner Bros., signed just to prove how sophisticated the label was” (Chusid 132). Few critics felt that the album did not live up to its hype. The (fantastically named!) journalist Peter Keepnews wrote that, “like many double albums, it probably has a single album’s worth of really prime stuff, surrounded by filler and a few tracks that sound like he’s trying too hard to be weird” (137). One critic later noted the near-complete absence of women at Beefheart’s shows, saying that the lack of a regular rhythm eliminated any potential sex appeal from the music. Despite the erroneous assumption that women are primarily interested in sexy music, the discrepancy is still rather strange. An online discussion of Beefheart’s work yielded 101 male respondents to a mere three female (133). Despite, or perhaps because of, its limited audience and record sales, Trout Mask Replica places number 58 on Rolling Stone’s “500 Greatest Albums of All Time” list.

Vliet’s next album, Lick My Decals Off, Baby (1970) is often filed alongside Trout Mask Replica as some of his best work. It was produced by Zappa again and featured a somewhat more polished style, with the introduction of a horns section that continues onto his later albums. The album climbed to the number 20 spot on the UK charts and remains Vliet’s most commercially successful project. Significantly, he also changed the name of the band from His Magic Band to The Magic Band, conceding some semblance of humanity and autonomy to his band members. The following four albums—The Spotlight Kid (1972), Clear Spot (1972), Unconditionally Guaranteed (1974), and Bluejeans and Moonbeams (1974)—were all released under Mercury Records. Most of The Magic Band members had left by then, leaving him to play with “a group of competent but uninspired hacks” (138). The albums made a move toward commercial and financial viability but instead alienated the fiercely devoted fanbase that raised Captain Beefheart to his legendary pedestal in the first place.

Realizing the creative dead-end he was in, Vliet went on tour with Zappa (despite frequent public feuds) and released their studio sessions together as Bongo Fury (1975). Vliet spent the next two years writing material for his comeback album Shiny Beast (Bat Chain Puller) (1978), put out by Warner Bros. The album featured a much more harmonic and tropical vibe than any of his previous work. His last two albums, Doc At The Radar Station (1980), and Ice Cream for Crow (1982) were put out by Virgin Records and signaled his departure from the music world. He moved to the Mojave Desert with his wife Jan and continued his painting career, which was bringing in more cash than his records anyway. His paranoid and somewhat schizoid personality was better suited to painting than working with musicians. “The paint doesn’t say anything,” he said in a 1993 interview. “It just allows me to make mistakes” (140).

Many would argue that Trout Mask Replica as an album has very little to do with the pop music of the 1960s, and they are right in many ways. It discards the common 4/4 time signature found in Western rock and uses its own ever-shifting versions of rhythm. Vliet did not just make an album, but created a new way of understanding music that employs vision and touch just as much as hearing. As new as the album was, it could not have been born in any time and space other than the United States in the 1960s. A history of blues, jazz, and R&B contributed to Vliet’s striking vocals, but most importantly, an environment of artistic freedom and social change was fertile ground for the birth of one of the strangest albums in American rock music.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Works Cited

Armand, Louis. Contemporary Poetics. Northwestern University Press. Illinois, 2007.

Cantz, Verlag Ostfildern. Stand Up to be Discontinued. Germany, 1993.Winner, Chusid, Irwin. Songs in the Key of Z: The Curious Universe of Outsider Music. A Capella Books.

Chicago, 2000.

Langdon. “The Odyssey of Captain Beefheart.” The Captain Beefheart Radar Station.

[http://www.beefheart.com/datharp/odyssey.htm].

 

 

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