Captain Beefheart by Mike Barnes reviewed by Graham Johnston

In recent years it seems that every aspiring writer capable of pressing keys on a word processor has felt obliged to publish their attempt at telling the Captain Beefheart story. Many of these writers have skilfully bypassed the entire research stage and plunged headlong and brain-free into the telling of a story that they know little about, occasionally with hilariously half-baked results.

Those of us who have gained a perverse enjoyment from these humdrum handbooks should prepare themselves for a severe disappointment – Mike Barnes can not only write, but he also knows what he’s talking about.

Facetiousness aside, this is a marvellous read. Captain Beefheart tells the story of the magic bandleader from his birth (“I remember every bit of it. I remember when the jerk slapped me on the fanny….. and I thought what a hell of a way to wake somebody up”) to an overview of his present-day career as an abstract expressionist painter, closing with a consideration of the unsettlingly feasible rumours of ill health and self-imposed isolation.

In the four and a half years since Mike Barnes started writing this book, an awful lot has happened in Beefheartland. As Don has become increasingly less willing to speak on the record about his musical past (or, indeed, anything at all), his old colleagues have started to feel that the time is right to present their side of the story, often refuting Don’s claim to sole compositional credits for their music and highlighting the insufferable lifestyle that was imposed on them at certain stages of the band’s career. Consequently, this is a very different story from the one which would have appeared had it been published a couple of years ago.

This is a contentious issue for many Beefheart fans. Having been won over by the Captain’s unbounded humour, charisma and unique personality, it is very difficult for many to accept or understand accounts of the aphotic side of his character which have started to emerge. Being the playful sod that he undoubtedly is, the stories told by Beefheart in interviews (and then related verbatim by many an uncritical journalist) have often been wrapped in fantasy rather than fact, a smokescreen designed to inflate his own legend. The Beefheart story holds so many contradictions on both sides that the whole tangled mess blocking the path to the unvarnished truth has often seemed impassable.

Fortunately for us, Mike Barnes has taken a conscientiously even-handed approach to the story, bending to neither one side nor the other in his narrative. Although the book poses many unanswered questions of its own, in illustrating these hazy patches of history Barnes has skilfully enabled the reader to avoid getting bogged down in the bullshit while finding out what the bull ate (if I may paraphrase one of Van Vliet’s oft quoted aphorisms). The book does not shy away from illustrating the more negative aspects of Van Vliet’s ornery disposition, nor is it making any attempt to dish the dirt on someone no longer willing to explain or defend his actions. Instead we get a strikingly balanced and palpable attempt to tell us the truth behind the ‘legend’, while also covering the legend in all its glory, with all its gory details.

Music aside, it is the Beefheart ‘legend’ which is probably the most fascinating aspect of the whole story. How could anyone in their right mind possibly accept that Van Vliet stayed awake for a year and a half simply because he needed to use every spare moment creating his anomalous art? The astonishing fact is that people did half-believe these impossible stories which we obviously have to reject in hindsight. Don’t we? For every impossible story, it seems there is an eye-witness somewhere to confirm that actually, it probably did happen more or less as Beefheart claimed after all. In his attempt to dig out the truth and ground the whole story in some semblance of reason, Barnes has not diminished the fantastic, extravagant and other-worldly quality to Beefheart’s life and music one iota. That, for me, is the book’s greatest success.

The attention to detail throughout is immensely pleasing, with Barnes providing a fascinating analysis and supporting anecdotes of even the most trivial aspects of the band’s output. For example, as a registered arachnophobe, the infamous shot on the back of Trout Mask Replica of the Magic Band a-top a rustic bridge in their most magic garb has always troubled me. While the picture is utterly perfect, I know that had I been John French I would sooner steal softly through seven shades of snow rather than snuggle down with every resident spider housed beneath the bridge, thus destroying an important part of the album’s singular and arresting packaging. It was a revelation of biblical proportions to discover that I am not alone in this aversion. There wasn’t enough room on the bridge for the full band, so John French had to tuck himself away underneath as all the others were too scared of the eight-legged creatures lurking below to consider venturing down into the alien depths.

Having read far too many interviews and anecdotes about Captain Beefheart, tid-bits such as these made the book so very rewarding to read and Barnes consistently avoided merely re-treading old ground without bringing something new to the familiar stories. This book will undoubtedly appeal to anyone interested in the music and life of Captain Beefheart and the Magic Band, from the idly curious to the obsessive devotee; all are unconditionally guaranteed to get a big kick out of reading this superb account of one of rock and roll’s most interesting adventures.

– Graham Johnston, June 2000

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