Oh, the yin and yang of it all. At the exact moment the music industry is overrun with homogenized teen harmonisers, along comes a grizzled, determinedly weird voice from the deep vault, bellowing a sloppy counterattack to all that manufactured cheer.
It’s Captain Beefheart, superhero of the surreal, right on cosmic cue.
More than 35 years after Beefheart (the nom de rock of Don Van Vliet) and his Magic Band began sending psychotropic messages from the exotic outposts along rock’s fringe, his category-defying music is about to experience an unlikely rebirth, courtesy of catalogue projects on three different labels.
The recordings – a five-disc box of previously unissued work titled Grow Fins (Revenant ***), a two-disc retrospective called The Dust Blows Forward (Rhino ***.5), and expanded versions of key early works Safe as Milk (Buddha ****) and Mirror Man (Buddha ****) – don’t merely argue for a sweeping reappraisal of the criminally under-appreciated Beefheart, who in 1982 took up life as a fulltime painter in California’s Mojave Desert.
They serve as a measure of how much things have changed since the late-’60s heyday of freeform psychedelic rock. The edgy jam sessions and fractured freakouts are apparitions of a bolder era, when music wasn’t as bloodless and suffocatingly orderly as it is now. They’re the sound of flamboyant personalities delightedly cooking up a radical new stew. Thinking like John Coltrane and screaming like Howlin’ Wolf. Conjuring a realm in which a tribal chant could be enriched by meandering, noodling guitar and vaguely Eastern rhythm.
In this age of lockstep soundalikes and boardroom-assembled singing groups, Beefheart’s oeuvre stands as a monument to eccentricity. And though he has remained a shadow presence, these recordings reaffirm Beefheart as one rock’s last true kooks, a master of fanciful wordplay and oddball composition. At the very least, he was one fearless inquisitor, the rare artist who could take any tangent and sound entirely at home.
He skronked his way through an imaginative grafting of blues and rock that never mocked or condescended. He faked free jazz with glee. He sang about things such as “thunderbolts caught easily,” and believed in them. He created a free-associative vocabulary all his own. He smirked more subversively than any of the art-school types who worshiped him; his music could sound innocent on one phrase and winkingly cynical on the next.
Though his name is often dropped by those seeking to validate their kitchen-sink appropriations, Beefheart has never been fully acknowledged as a patriarch of rock’s conceptual wing. A character whose theatrical airs became part of his art, Beefheart, now 58, created a persona that helped sell – or mask – his grander experiments. He aligned himself with free-jazzers and poets, and considered what he was doing to be a literary endeavor.
One former associate, engineer and producer Gary Marker, described Beefheart’s DNA this way:
“You combine Truman Capote and Thelonious Monk and put them into rock and roll, and you get Captain Beefheart.”
That alchemy may not have sold records in massive quantifies, but his strategy for creating something at once familiar and exotic has influenced artists in every subsequent era. There’s a bit of Beefheart in the work of his friend Frank Zappa; in the geek chic that David Byrne pioneered with the Talking Heads; in the high aspirations of Devo; the breathless poetry of Pere Ubu and Tom Waits; the absurdism of Phish, and the post-modern juxtapositions of Beck.
More acidic than any acid test, Beefheart was a pied piper of the preposterous. But he also was one of the few artists of the rock era able to shake off its constricting forms (three chords, verse-chorus form, etc.) and develop music from a fresh starting point. A saxophone and harmonica player, he taught his band their parts by ear, and had specific ideas about how each piece should develop. His best works – Safe as Milk from 1967 and the extended Trout Mask Replica from 1969 – weren’t aligned with any particular style or strategy, but instead were richly detailed journeys, high-speed chases through neighborhoods his audience would never visit otherwise.
Taken together, the catalog efforts form an interesting overview of the Beefheart legacy, which spanned just over a dozen highly erratic albums and a handful of tours. The Buddha reissues, which are expanded with engrossing alternative takes, demonstrate that Beefheart and his musicians knew from the start how to push beyond the conventional.
Even the pieces that begin as straight blues shuffles don’t end there: they morph into epic-ballad narratives, or attain a blinding peak before fizzling out. Mirror Man, recorded in 1968 but unreleased until 1971, offers inspired, gloriously loose instrumental blues interpretations that shame the more reverent efforts by the British blues-rock revivalists of the day.
Rhino’s The Dust Blows Forward, a traditional career overview, starts with Beefheart’s 1966 debut single “Diddy Wah Diddy,” then surveys some of the more unglued moments from the albums, including the raucous “I Wanna Find a Woman That’ll Hold My Big Toe Till I Have to Go” (from 1970’s Lick My Decals Off Baby, Beefheart’s most accessible offering) and “My Human Gets Me Blues” and “Orange Claw Hammer” from Trout Mask Replica. The second disc is particularly interesting: It reveals an artist who, a critical success in the early ’70s, somewhat self-consciously trying exceed those high-water marks of fantastical weirdness, mostly with success.
Grow Fins devotes four of its discs to material leading up to Trout Mask, another indication that Beefheart’s later pieces – represented here by odd work tapes and radio broadcasts – lack his early fire. Some of it, like the long narrative and crude live video found on disc four, is completely dispensable. Other selections, like the wide-open live versions of “Electricity” from 1968 are stunning displays of invention that alternate between haunting modal incantations and threateningly dissonant rock-guitar abandon.
The box also confirms another aspect of Beefheart’s genius: The ability to generate highly specific moods in live performance. In the studio, his revisions of the blues could be deliriously unhinged demon chases. Live, he tried to be more balanced, honoring elements of blues tradition, blurring that thin line between tribute and parody.
His treatment of Blind Willie Johnson’s “You’re Gonna Need Somebody on Your Bond,” taken from a 1968 show, is built on droning Delta soul, but informed by his lunging, redemption-seeking vocals: Pursuing elusive notions such as pride and honor, he sounds bitterly determined, full of doubt, and just the slightest bit desperate.
It’s this willingness to go out on a limb that makes Beefheart vital to the current conversation. He did things his own way. He sent bloodthirsty moans that render an ordinary love song’s pronouncements inadequate. He caught thunderbolts and made it sound easy.