“Captain Beefheart is the most important musician to rise in the Sixties, far more significant and far-reaching than The Beatles, who only made pretty collages with material from the public domain, when you get right down to it; as important, as I said, for all music as Ornette Coleman was for jazz ten years ago and Charlie Parker 15 years before that, as important as Leadbelly was for the blues Cap teethed on. His music is a harbinger of tomorrow, but his messages are universal and warm as the America we once dreamed of. That’s a combination that’s hard to beat.” Lester Bangs
Poetry of the Mojave Desert *(Or Nothin’ Makes Sense If You Need To Be Logical!)
This is not an introduction. You can move it to the middle or to the ending, I don’t care. Nor is it a description of what I’m about to write; that’s forbidden, Captain Beefheart wouldn’t approve of that. It is black and white, though. You can fill in the peripherals with every tonal from the rainbow color wheel; he’ll dig it! Yea, Lester’s right, Beefheart is more important to the History of Rock than even the Rock Gods themselves, The Beatles.
The problem is, not enough time has gone by yet, where Music Historians (or, if you will, Rock Historians), can meditate on Beefheart’s total opus, and give it the proper consideration, tender loving care, it so passionately deserves. If this means standing on your head while reading The Captain’s lyrics, and rotating an hour and eighteen minutes of concentrated Trout Mask Replica commotion, then that’s what you have to do. Will the double pared-down Rock Opera (Trout Mask Replica) ever go commercial and sell millions of copies?
I have faith that it will, but maybe not in my lifetime or yours. I broke it down, and dissected merely six songs, as if they were laboratory frogs in a high school biology class. I took the six songs seriously, as if they were paintings hanging in the Louvre, meant for billions of curious eyes, and for generations to come, not yet born, to pass by, ogle, then collect for a lifetime of memories and/or sacrosanct meditation, of the highest order known to man. Moreover, I never assumed I was getting it right on just one listen!
True Art has subtle shades of gray that reshape whatever interpretation we might apply to it. Art is chameleon-like, and changes hues every time we glance over at it (or hear the chimerical notes). A Carrot Is As Close is as pensive and surreal as Claude Debussey’s Sunken Cathedral, maybe more so. Run Paint Run has a massive amount of musical notes (& words) splattered on canvass with a stick, just like old Jackson Pollack use to do, just pouring paint out of a can!
Three Early Masterpieces
Abba Zaba, on Beefheart’s premiere album, Safe As Milk (released on the Buddah label in September of 1967), is the second song on side two, if you were playing it on a vinyl record back then (very few people were joining you, I might add). Apparently, the tune (written entirely by Don Van Vliet) is, on the surface, about a candy bar of the same name which a young Beefheart ate frequently when growing up in the Mohave Desert.
As close as The Captain’s going to get to commercial pop music, Abba Zaba (clocking in at 2:45) has a steady 4/4 (oddly enough, no stops and starts or sudden jerks) rhythms with some sloganeering lyrics that sounds like something out of the primitive 60s cartoon classic, The Flintstones (yabba dabba doo!). I don’t know who Babbette baboon is, but she sounds interesting!
A primordial mating call perchance? I sense the setting is the caveman days, with a very rich tropical percussion track (drummer is John French), against an expressively whimsical guitar line provided by a very young Ry Cooder. Many people especially love this early Beefheart number for its bass part, played by Jerry Handley; they appreciate a bass solo that comes after a relief section that follows some Dada-esque line:
“Run, run, mod monsoon, Indian dream, tiger moon. Yellow bird fly high, tobacco sky, two shadows at noon. Babbette baboon gonna catch her soon, Babette baboon.”
Beatle Bones and Smokin’ Stones, which appears on his second album (Strictly Personal, on Blue Thumb records, issued in October of 1968) and is 4′ 05″ in length, starts off with backwards tapes suggestive of you-know-who on you-know-what. Cap aint spoofin’ these megastars, he’s just payin’ tribute to em and givin’ his own two cents on this new psychedelic thang the Flower Children (and The Beatles) seemed to ‘ave discovered. Grindin’, plodding rhythm, accented by sparklin’ desert hallucinations…well, scratch that. Good sonic bookend to the original composition and overly rich recording (especially the mellotron played by Paul).
He’s just sayin’ he’s the same as them. He can see and love just like them. They get it in London, but he gets it just as well in the California outskirts of sand and cactus. What are soft-cracker bats? Hell, I don’t know? What are Elementary Penguins? It doesn’t matter really. Both are stringing together interesting words against strange sonic whistles, wafts of backward tapes, mind altering metaphors half-grabbed from Lewis Carroll and half-snatched from nursery rhyme childhood memories, fragments of possibly unrealized dreams, that perhaps never happened in the first place.
They are equals; both have visions that appealed to the young people of the late 1960s, who were highly vulnerable to psychotropic drugs. John took too much. Captain took too much. More people heard about what John experienced, than did Mister Beefy. Producer Bob Krasnow did a good job in making it sound like a record that would appeal to the kids of those days. The mix job of BB and SS is just as psychedelic as Strawberry Fields Forever. Only maybe now, more people can hear it and appreciate it.
Moonlight On Vermont, the 6th and last track of side one of the double vinyl record, Trout Mask Replica, has nothing to do with the beautiful lounge song, covered by Sinatra, Sarah Vaughan, Ella Fitzgerald, and Jo Stafford, Moonlight In Vermont (composed by John Blackburn and Karl Suessdorf, and published in 1943). Nevertheless, Beefheart might have seen a connection when penning it, but he’s deceased now, so we’ll probably never get to know what the tie-in is.
I hope I don’t get it wrong, but this odd, one-off ditty is more about deep, swampy Mississippi Delta Blues, fused with spiritual rants and raves, by a Rock-inspired free-form street poet (obviously possessed), who wants to summarize the entire history of rural folk music, with carnally inflected Howlin’ Wolf gutturals, interpreted through the rose-tinted-lenses of lily-white, Antebellum polite Southern art forms, such as expressed prodigiously and politely by William Faulkner. *(Stephen Foster’s sultry lullabies are buried in there somewhere also!)
Not to cut short the musicianship, but if these Magic Band cats rehearsed this piece for 8 months straight, and under the strictest rigmarole and stewardship of Mister Beefheart, then we otta hand it to em for running with the baton (of artfulness). Hope the food stamps, bowls of plain rice, and twelve hour rehearsals paid off? Cap was a tyrant, a Bluebeard or a Blackbeard, all wrapped up in one bundle of confusion, a conundrum in a puzzle, a mystery inside an enigma within the sphinx’s riddle. Dumb, but obviously appertains to my themes touched on throughout.
The structure of the song is rigorous and solid; this is no extemporaneous, free-form jazz. A piercingly sharp lead guitar (is that Bill Harkelroad or Jeff Cotton?) lick (on the uppermost string register) plows like a Mac truck, a relentless hook (wrapped around) bathed in rapturous lyric lines laced with Spanish moss and Bar-B-Que sauce. His own Maypole ritual dance.
Who’s the Real Thing, The Beatles Or Captain Beefheart?
Good grief! If Beefheart’s Observatory Crest from Bluejeans and Moonbeams is the commercial period, then does that make Strawberry Fields Forever the experimental period for the Fab Four? At what point are the forms used by the Foursome Most outside the public domain? I Wanna Hold Your Hand? Please Please Me is Roy Orbison all over again, isn’t it?
Electricity is Muddy & Howlin’ on top of the new psychedelia burstin’ out of its seams in The Haight! The reinvention of the Blues is consummate, and it’s fresh & new. Time signature is newly realized against visions of strange natural phenomenon in the Mojave Desert. Only Beefheart sees these subtle sub-textures, a new realization that he can call his very own!
Trout Mask Replica is Beefheart’s White Album, but it’s even better. It’s his Tommy (by the Who) or his Jesus Christ Superstar. It just takes longer for you to process it, to break it down, and make the connections between the odd array of characters who walk across the stage of his mind. The White Album has barroom cabaret, easy listening, folk, rock, metal, snippets of cinematic soundtrack, etc. Trout has all of this, plus more, with sea shanties, beat poetry, and abstract expressionist, free form jazz jams (all carefully charted out).
A Credible Crescendo!
Tropical Hot Dog Night is a rainbow-hued Caribbean hook, with island images, abstract expressionist libido, tooting horns, hard as granite, maracas, castanets, undulating free form poetry reading, cruising for the young girls, voice turns beastly. No stops and starts, just chug-a-lug (treble clef & bass clef) Caribbean chant or rant. Hula-Hula girls sway under shakin’ palm trees of ambrosial delight. A ritual dance, snappy drums, Hawaiian shirts radiate the color wheels of happiness and ritual primeval forest mating. Better freshin’ my cup of java before it’s too late, my friend!
“Tropical Hot Dog Night, Like two flamingoes in a fruit fight. Ev’ry colour of day, Whirlin’ around at night. I’m playin’ this music, So the young girls will come out, To meet the monster tonight, Tropical Hot Dog Night, Like two flamingoes in a fruit fight, I don’t wanna know ’bout wrong or right. I don’t want to know – I’m anywhere tonight. Tropical Hot Dog Night, Like two flamingoes in a fruit fight. Like steppin’ out of a triangle Into striped light. Tropical Hot Dog Night – Everything’s wrong, at the same time it’s right.” Don Van Vliet.
Cue up Tropical again! Will squeeze more tantalizing fruit juice out of a marvelous afterthought to the resurrected project of Shiny Beast (Bat Chain Puller). Is Bangs right in saying Zappa’s Straight Records was a bust without Beefheart’s Trout Mask Replica (1969)? Has anybody seen Bloodshot’s Rollin’ Red’s thousands of sketches of Frank done on the Bongo Fury tour? Was I at the Armadillo on the 20th or the 21st (of May, 1975) for the live Bongo Fury taping? Must have been the first night!
There it goes again! Looks like Art Tripp III on marimba and all that busy percussion that makes this the Captain’s most magical song of his entire career. Alright, after a hundred spins, maybe more, I’m hearing Tripp’s guiro overdub. This is what makes it, along with the woodblocks! Bruce Lambourne Fowler blowing that trombone that makes you feel like you’re in Tahiti takin’ a spring vacation. Robert Arthur Williams does a superb job on the main drums. Heavy breathing, the monster’s alive!
A Carrot Is As Close As A Rabbit Gets to a Diamond, is the 3rd cut on Doc at the Radar Station (released in June of 1980), and is an guitar oriented instrumental that is short, clocking in at only 1: 38. The timbre is what I would describe as bucolic/nostalgic, with some very angular, if not geometric passages, that are comic and cartoon-like.
As far as I can tell, there’s only an electric guitar and an acoustic piano playing. A Carrot is a reflective, anthemic afterthought, that provides a good sedge-way to the metaphoric romp dripping (colors) forth from Run Paint Run!
Light Reflected Off The Oceans of The Moon is track 13 of Ice Cream for Crow, and is a bonus cut if you get the record today, say on iTunes for example. You didn’t get this experimental jazzy, 4:47 instrumental, if you had the vinyl record from the original September 1983 release. How might one characterize the musical frenzy and bitumen-esque flourishes on this song?
The guitars, rhythm, and bass lay the hay on which, primarily Don’s soprano sax (I swear I hear a tenor sax in there too) can blow the spokes off the wagon! The build is gradual and systematic, while Don gets steamier and steamier, music passages longer and longer, more kinetic (for god’s sakes, he blows harder into the horn).
References here must be John Coltraine and/or Ornette Coleman, but my familiarity with their work is, at best, slipshod. But yea, the cacophonous rippling, curling lines charged with kinetic electricity is definitely Coltraine 100 %. I wonder why Cap didn’t think to include this amazing track on the original release of Crow?
The Captain Is Gone Now, But Thirteen Records and Hundreds of Painting Tell His Unheard (& Unseen) Tale!
John the Baptist in the desert? Well, maybe not that melodramatic. “Somebody’s had too much to think. Case of the Punks!” Sculpting in kindergarten, alienated from school. Looking for dinosaurs, looking for gila monsters, and finding em. Don’t summarize Lester’s article, but paint is alive! Trees are alive, stones and cactus, Brick Bats! Notes ricochet, snap and pop, stop and start, rip your gut out, shack it, shake it! Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring over the top of Coltraine cool blow, snaking stardust addiction and childhood memories haunt, cathartic primal screams, desert steam and scorpions sting. Charts mapped out on a scrap of paper. “You play this and the bass goes like this.”
I took a gut-shot of merely six songs, and didn’t come close to scratchin’ the surface of rambunctious intellectual and musical vocabulary craftily employed by Beefheart in every bar or limerick that’s permanently waxed into the grooves of these songs. I mainly chose ditties from his early period and late period, since these career bookends were both high-points. I’m not as familiar with his middle period, which is sometimes referred to as his commercial period, but I’m startin’ to give it more serious consideration.
This is not a comparison of Captain Beefheart and The Beatles. I love both of them, but Don Van Vliet has gotten the short end of the stick. Even if what I’m saying is just BULLSHIT, I hope I am makin’ a good point in urging you to give his work more of a proper listening to. The final chord of A Day In A Life will resound and echo through time for all eternity. You know that, but why won’t we hear the frolicking, bouncing, geometric strains of a Cardboard-Cut-Out Sundown joining along (with A Day) in this Heavenly Pantheon we call Platonic Art Forms?
This is not a conclusion! You can just as well cut and paste it back to the beginning, which isn’t an introduction, after all. With Captain Beefheart, there is no linear time or space, only cactus, sand, lizards, Pepsi, Frank, paint, soundbites, & buckets of absurdity. Not a bad job, Mister Beefy, for someone who didn’t even graduate from kindergarten. I’ll come by again sometime soon, & we can listen to old R & B records together.
Beatle Bones “N’ Smokin’ Stones Don Van Vliet
Beatle bones and smokin’ Stones
The dry sands fall
The strawberry mouth; strawberry moth; strawberry caterpillar
Strawberry butterfly; strawberry fields
The winged eel slither on the heels of today’s children
Strawberry feels forever
Yeah, roosters, ol’ glass roosters, stick to your race
In a drag-queen, live-wood farmhouse
Tractors are clawin’; the folks are crawlin’
Trees in a row climbing a coach and I blow rich
Red, blue, yellow sunset
Where I set and you set; and I’ve loved and you’ve loved
And I’ve seen and you’ve seen
Salt Man has just made his mark – and crumbled
The dark – the light – the dark – the day
Porcelain children see through white lights
Soft-cracker bats, Cheshire cats named
The Dark – the Light – the Dark – the Day
Blue veins through gray-felt tomorrows
Cellular sail-boat – ye ole feathered kind
Blow it into a pond swayin’ in circles
Red, blue, yellow sunset.
Where I’ve set and you’ve set; and I’ve loved and you’ve loved
What I saw and you saw
Strawberry feels forever
Captain Beefheart Full Documentary – YouTube