Legend has it that before he reinvented rock music, Don Van Vliet, aka Captain Beefheart, sold vacuum cleaners for a living, wandering the scattered trailer communities of the Mojave Desert in search of potential customers. Once, a trailer door opened and Aldous Huxley, author and LSD pioneer, appeared before Vliet’s disbelieving eyes. Stunned, Beefheart pointed at the vacuum cleaner and uttered the immortal words, “This machine sucks” before disappearing into the desert to pursue his true vocation.
The 78 “songs’, – and I use the word in its loosest sense – on Grow Fins are testament to both the singular quality of that vocation, and, although he has retired from music-making to paint, the enduring influence of a man was a true visionary. If you are coming to Beefheart and his extraordinary Magic Band(s) for the first time, chances are you will already have heard echoes and traces of this strange, disconnected music in other places: the broken-down songs of Tom Waits, the swamp-blues of PJ Harvey or early Nick Cave, in the disconnected mojo of The Fall or in the melodic twists and turns of early Pavement.
Like the young Van Morrison, Beefheart had his head turned at an early age by the blues music of Chicago and the Mississippi Delta. Both artists seized on Howling Wolf’s guttural vocal style and made it something new – and, in the Captain’s case, often alarming. But Beefheart went further out than Morrison, drawing on the modal experimentation of free jazzers such as Ornette Coleman and Rashaan Roland Kirk, as well as the artistic experimentation of painters like Yves Kline and Dali. Often, most notably on the critically revered Trout Mask Replica album, his music sounds like a chance meeting – although maybe collision is a better word – of all his heroes.
This extensive collection of demos, radio broadcasts, alternative takes and live cuts begins with some proto-Wolfean – that’s Howling, rather than Tom – blues work-outs: the opener, Obeah Man, is a hard-edged voodoo stomp that could have been penned by Dr John in his Night Tripper period, and there’s a restrained reading of John Lee Hooker’s Tupelo, talking blues later rewritten by Cave.
CD number two, Electricity, shifts a gear or two; the Magic Band has metamorphosed into a startling conduit for its leader’s increasingly misshapen compositions. The alternative takes from 1967’s extraordinary debut album, Safe As Milk, are both more sophisticated and more primal than anything that came out of America at that time, with the possible exception of The Velvet Underground or The Mothers of Invention. Here, songs like Sure Nuff ‘N Yes I Do and the spine tingling Electricity are rougher and looser than the album versions, with the exception of Call On Me (which finds Captain Beefheart sounding like a slightly out-to-lunch Kris Kristofferson).
By the time Strictly Personal came out in 1968, Beefheart was fronting the third version fo his Magic Band, heard in all their ragged glory on live versions of Kandy Korn and Yer Gonna Need Somebody On Your Bond. This was low down and dirty blues, with clattering drums, squawking guitars and strange bass patterns under-cutting Beefheart’s growling vocals. Then something strange occurred. Disillusioned by his lack of commercial success, he went further out releasing the double Trout Mask Replica on Frank Zappa’s Straight label in the company of yet another Magic Band.
Trout Mask Replica is one of those albums that always features in critics’ top 100 lists, and its reputation is justified. This is not music for the faint-hearted, not least because it is undiluted Beefheart, the only album he made with no outside interference. Recorded live in the studio, the 28 tracks are a personal manifesto of musical avant-gardism. Shorn of all traces of psychedelia, Beefheart’s music shimmers with a new range of possibilities as he collages spoken word interludes, songs, surreal rants, dismembered R&B, free jazz and even field recordings.
On CDs three and four, the Trout Mask House Sessions, we are afforded an extended glimpse of this surreal work in progress, at times a bewildering array of out-takes and trial runs, mostly instrumental. For Beefheart freaks, this is fascinating stuff (albeit exhausting) but without the Captain’s vocals, the whole never quite transcends the sum of the parts. Buy the original for the full ride.
In retrospect, there was no way Beefheart could have followed something as gloriously out-there and as utterly disciplined as Trout Mask, and afterwards his music came in uneven fits and starts, an altogether more commercial attitude apparent most notably on the much maligned Unconditionally Guaranteed. Disc number five, which covers the last 10 years of his recording career, from 1970’s excellent Lick My Decals Off Baby to 1982’s patchy Ice Cream For Crow, has some extraordinary highlights, most notably a propulsive live cut of Click Clack and the semi-acoustic Orange Claw Hammer, in which Beefheart sings his heart out over Zappa’s uncharacteristically stripped-down folk-blues guitar.
Toward the end of his recording career, Beefheart was at a place akin to where Lee Perry is now; he was renowned more for his eccentricity than for the genius of his music. It was not a place he liked. He retreated entirely from music 17 years ago and returned to the desert and is now a respected painter. To paraphrase another latter-day surrealist, Flann O’Brien, one thing is certain: we will not see nor hear his like again. Listen and wonder.