“I like the records I did when I was on Warner Bros. I liked Warner Bros. A lot of people there were real nice to me. Some of them even understood me.” Captain Beefheart
While he was making his new record, Captain Beefheart stayed at a San Francisco-Japanese hotel, with a steam bath right in the room. “It’s nice,” commented the Captain. “I don’t have to go down with everybody else and show my white body. I don’t like that too much.”
Glancing at the television on a recent Saturday afternoon, Beefheart spied the smooth cupola of Joe Garagiola’s head superimposed over the Midwestern typhoon that had washed out the baseball game of the week: “That reminds me of Dali, when he was on that show with Hugh Downs when he had popcorn falling through the whole show till it got right up to their necktie microphones.”
Captain Beefheart, a.k.a. Don Van Vliet, one of the most innovative, distinctive, charismatic, increasingly influential figures ever to grace the precincts of popular music, is back in action, back with the label that saw him through Trout Mask Replica and Clear Spot and Lick My Decals Off, Baby, back to take up the cudgel against various catatonic states. And he believes that the time is right:
“I think people have had too much to think and ought to flex their magic muscles. It takes a while to get oriented to what I do, but people seem to be able to hear it if they give it a chance. I’d never just want to do what everybody else did. I’d be contributing to the sameness of everything.”
Shiny Beast, the brand new manifestation of the Beefheart muse, is his first record release in some years, but the Captain hasn’t exactly been sitting around counting cactus needles in his desert hideaway (a site that still draws persistent Beefheart zealots from regions as distant as Europe like pilgrims to a shrine).
In fact, the long stretch of “inactivity” saw no decrease in productivity (he has hundreds of songs in storage now), nor did it mark any deterioration of his musical acumen – just ask anyone who witnessed some of his occasional club dates, like the Bottom Line shows in New York that found a singing-along Woody Allen in the audience, or the astonishing musical blowouts at L.A.’s Troubadour and Roxy.
Captain Beefheart even made an album, Bat Chain Puller, for an English label, but legalities and litigation thwarted its release. Gaining somewhat better distribution was the compelling Beefheart blues vocal on “Hard Workin’ Man” from the sound track of the film Blue Collar.
If this interim period held its frustrations, they had little noticeable impact on Beefheart, who produced paintings as fast as he turned out songs. His work, included in a travelling exhibition organized by Syracuse University, has been extremely well received. “I don’t think painting and sculpture are that different from music,” Beefheart noted, alluding to another of his pursuits and emphasizing the interdependence of the diverse Beefheart media.
In Shiny Beast, any pent-up impulses find triumphant release. The music is certain to bury forever the sad memory of the skullduggery-surrounded attempts to commercialize the Beefheart music a few years ago (not, it should be noted, by this sympathetic record company). It’s classic Beefheart, with all the enticing quirks, sandblasting intensity, visionary images, snarling attack and uncompromising individuality that entails.
“Finally,” the Captain commented, “I got a completely perfect picture. These people I have now are playing it better than ever before. They’re playing more of a spell, right where I want it. I was dealing with a lot of shapes, textures, releases, dissolves, all kinds of things. I’ve always tried to play spells. I don’t think music gets enough of them.”
The album’s 12 varied tracks include six songs originally designed for Bat Chain Puller (hence that’s the record’s subtitle), recorded in San Francisco, along with another half-dozen. The musicians are the band that Beefheart has employed for the last couple of years, with one late replacement: Jeff Moris Tepper, Bruce Lambourne Fowler, Eric Drew Feldman, Richard Redus and Robert Arthur Williams, along with a special appearance by the legendary Art Tripp III. The captain co-produced with Warners’ legendary Pete Johnson (Director of General Managers and longtime Beefheart fan/friend).
“The Floppy Boot Stomp” (one of the Bat Chain Puller numbers) starts things smartly, showcasing that staple of the Beefheart sound – slippery, Delta slide guitar that here leaps and licks like the fire of the song’s apocalyptic lyrics. “It’s pretty scary, actually,” said the Captain of his personalized rendition of the old “Devil and the farmer” theme. “I’ve been on some walks in the desert and seen some pretty funny things, but I don’t remember the exact inspiration for this one. I have so many things going on. I wonder if it will ever slow down.”
“Tropical Hot Dog Night,” a rollicking Beefheart calypso containing scads of his picturesque, eerie imagery, spotlights the band’s ensemble playing, which further asserts itself in the all-instrumentals: “Ice Rose” (from Bat), with its tight structures and loco motions; and the dazzling, jazzy “Suction Prints.”
“Harry Irene” (also from Bat) is a shift of gears, into a medium-tempo, brush-on-the-snare vamp backing a relaxed, narrative vocal by the Captain. “It incorporates four lesbians and a tavern,” he explained. “I get a kick out of those people – out of humans, period. I think they’re absolutely hilarious.”
In sharp contrast, the full-throttle blues-rocker “You Know You’re a Man” follows with a brutal, bellowing rock assault. The shifting, multifaceted title track from Bat Chain Puller is jerky, dissonant, haunting, prime Beefheart, complete with riveting incantation, slinky guitar, bat-radar blips and ominous lyrics. “It’s about New York and a lot of things like that,” said the Captain. “How the net comes in and grabs everybody and pulls them right along.”
The Beefheart growl and Bruce’s wailing trombone keynote “When I See Mommy I Feel Like A Mummy” (also from Bat), which also features the band vocalizing its captivating mommy mantra. Beefheart basic elements – harmonica, sax-like trombone, slide guitar – also frame the relentless, martial “Owed T’Alex,” (likewise from Bat), the story of a motorcyclist who takes a putt to Carson City. “I used to ride those damn things,” Beefheart reminisced. “I wasn’t actually a biker, but I had an old Indian with a suicide clutch and all that stuff. But I’d never ride one now – unless somebody gave me one.”
“Candle Mambo” is an utterly pleasant spell, with its melodious quality, its “Safe As Milk” click-clack rhythm, the bright ring of the marimba and its words of love. Speaking of words of love, they get a different sort of going over in the woozy, bluesy, jazzy lament of “Love Lies,” which would serve as ideal ground for a Captain Beefheart-Tom Waits duet.
“Apes-Ma” is a short, spoken, a capella piece whose simple, modest surface resonates with a dark poignance. Beefheart considers it one of the best things he’s done.
Beefheart returns to the front lines at a time when his influence has filtered down to a new generation of artists, from the Tubes to the Pere Ubu / Devo vanguard. It’s fitting that the Captain should be in the thick of things, flexing those magic muscles, as only he can, once again.