Dancing to Captain Beefheart

In June of 2007 I read a plug for “I Wanna Find Me A Woman That’ll Hold My Big Toe Till I Have To Go” in Kyle Gann’s blog. The composer Art Jarvinen had used Don Van Vliet’s composition to illustrate an article which he had written about metametrics.

This aroused my interest because it didn’t strike me that Captain Beefheart was a normal point of reference in the contemporary new classical music or conservatoire world. My feeling was, that in that milieu, Beefheart was more of a footnote than an example. If he was used as an example, wouldn’t he exemplify a particular professor’s or composer’s youthful musical exuberance and folly rather than anything else?

I found another article by Art Jarvinen which concerned Captain Beefheart. In February 2006, also at Kyle Gann’s blog, Art wrote:

“I always wondered why I couldn’t dance. I couldn’t dance to The Twist,
or “I Wanna Make It With You.” But I could not NOT dance to Captain
Beefheart. “Lick My Decals Off Baby” is my disco record. I have to move
when I hear it, both knees going in different rhythms, one arm not
knowing what the other one is doing – until it all comes around after…a
while – or not.”

That resonated with me. I too find joy in dancing to Captain Beefheart, but inability in dancing to other music.

I invited Art to elaborate on these issues in an article for this blog, which he was very happy to do.

Dancing to Captain Beefheart

by Arthur Jarvinen
© 2007, used by permission

You might be surprised to know just how many composers of my generation (I was born in 1956) are Beefheart fans. It’s not hard to understand, really. I was in high school when Lick My Decals Off, Baby came out. Junior high and early high school. Those are the formative years for many musicians. Maybe not the ones who grew up on classical symphonies and played viola in the school orchestra. Not the precocious ones from musical families who were playing Chopin mazurkas in grade school and had the best piano teachers right from the start. I’m talking about the ones, like me, who grew up with pop music, were self-taught, and in eighth or ninth grade started playing drums or guitar or Farfisa organ in garage bands. If you’re one of those kids, and have the kind of mind and ear and imagination that eventually lead you down the path to composition, you’re going to discover and latch onto the more sophisticated and progressive manifestations of what rock music can be.

You might not yet have much of a clue how the music is made, or the skill to play it yourself. But you’re going to discover artists like King Crimson, Gentle Giant, Yes, Frank Zappa, and Captain Beefheart. You’re not going to turn your back on the Who, the Stones, or Led Zeppelin, because they’re great bands and that’s exciting music. But it’s the likes of Beefheart and Zappa that are really going to get inside your mind and change the way you think about music. And that influence doesn’t go away.

Bang-On-A Can clarinetist and composer Evan Ziporyn once said to me “It would be weird if Beefheart’s influence wasn’t apparent in your music”.

From what I have observed though, there is a difference between Beefheart fans who are musicians and composers and those who are not. The non-musicians mostly agree that Trout Mask Replica is by far the greatest Beefheart album ever made, if not the best album ever made, period. No one, Beefheart fan or not, can dispute the record’s importance in the history of rock. But musician/composers like myself will not hesitate to tell you that Decals is by far the better record. Beefheart never got better than that. Decals probably wouldn’t and couldn’t have happened without Trout Mask. But from any way you look at it – the performance, the recording and production, the song selection, the band’s instrumentation, and especially the composition – Lick My Decals Off, Baby far surpasses Trout Mask Replica in my opinion. And that is clearly the concensus among the many composers I know who are Beefheart fans.

So much for composers and influences. What about dancing?

The simple fact of the matter is that very few male musicians dance. Most of the women do, but the men tend not to. At least that has been my observation since I was in grade school. And I don’t think it’s always because we don’t want to. Most of us just don’t know how, don’t really have a feel for popular dancing.

When I was about ten or twelve I remember a friend of mine saying I really ought to learn to dance, especially if I wanted to get close to girls, which I did. So we went to his place and he put on a bunch of records and showed me some moves. I tried, but it just wasn’t working. I felt awkward and silly. So I concluded that I just can’t dance, and probably couldn’t learn. So me and most of my friends would stand on the sidelines at school dances, just listening to the music and watching the girls we were lusting after dance with each other.

But then Lick My Decals Off Baby came out. That was 1971, but I don’t think I got it right away. Spotlight Kid came out after Decals, and a friend of mine already had Spotlight. He was way into that record, so he ordered Decals from his record club. But he hated Decals, just couldn’t get into it AT ALL, so he gave it to me. It was my “Damascus Road”, if you will, my Enlightenment. Decals instantly became my favorite record, and it still is. My “desert island with only one record” record. And one of the things I discovered with Decals was that I actually can dance, if it’s music that “moves me”, as it were.

I have a way of explaining this for myself. It might not stand up to scientific scrutiny, but it’s an interesting model to think about.

In the acoustics of music there is a phenomenon called “difference tones”. Every pitch has a frequency, the number of cycles-per-second at which it vibrates. When any two pitches are played together a third pitch is produced which vibrates at the difference between the other two frequencies. That’s the difference tone.

Difference tones are weird. You don’t usually hear them, but under certain conditions you can. In fact, they don’t really exist, which is to say they’re not actually producing sound waves in the air. They are illusions manufactured in your inner ear. Your brain does the math.

Church organists have a neat trick. They will sometimes play the lowest note on the pedal board, C, and the G above that. That produces a C an octave below the lowest pedal. By exploiting difference tones they can make you hear a note that isn’t even on the organ! Personally, I think that is very cool, like the fact that the stars we see now disappeared eons ago, and the light is just getting to us now.

On many of the tunes on Lick My Decals Off, Baby Beefheart sets up different patterns, rhythmic cycles of different lengths, licks played in different tempos. John French (Drumbo) has talked a lot about his approach to constructing his drum parts. He was trying to reinforce with his four limbs as many of the other parts as he could. You can hear this on Trout Mask. But on Decals you also had Art Tripp (Ed Marimba) playing drums. So the rhythmic textures, the layering of the different patterns and tempos, is much more complex.

I think it’s possible that those overlapping rhythms behave like pitches, their combinations and interaction producing what we might call “difference rhythms”, different pulses in the brain. My body picks up on those things in the brain, and I find myself moving in complex ways, not just moving my whole body to one beat or tempo, but different limbs going almost independently, trying to account for and respond to everything that is being generated in the music.

Like I said, this is just how I think about it. It might not be valid from any scientific perspective,
but who cares? I didn’t think I could dance, but Decals got me moving, and always does. And it feels good.

Probably wouldn’t impress girls much, but I’m way past needing to do that anymore.

Arthur Jarvinen is a composer/musician based in Los Angeles, currently on the composition faculty at the California Institute of the Arts.


  1. I love the description ‘difference rhythms’. I don’t think anyone has put it so succinctly.

  2. I wholly concur with the article and find this very much to be the case for me when I am dancing (which I view, probably quite pretentiously, as ‘performance art’ rather than a dance as such). When it is pointed out that I am not ‘in time’ to the music, I usually claim that that’s because I was dancing to the melody…

  3. so that’s what it is.

  4. Thank you for articulating all that. Interesting contructs. I too have usually felt awkward and clumsy in most dance environments but skip and hop along the street with Beefheart ringing in my earphones.



    PS: RE: Decals, et al. My first Beefheart was Trout Mask, having been turned on to Zappa by a friend a few months before that. Although totally intrigued from the first listen it took several listens before I was hearing more than an intrigueing surface. I was discovering 60s avant garde jazz at the same time.

    By the time Decals came out I was ready and to date I often hum and dance to a tune from Decals as the mood suits. I too feel that to be the best realized recording of that side of Beefheart’s work.

    My classification? Played in couple of rock bands and dabbled in improvizational music in my youth (early 20s). Now playing of music is limited to scratchy records and mp3s.

  5. Nice to know I’m not alone !

  6. My mother, who was from north east hungary, chained me to an accordian at age 7. This was 1955. I wanted a high top fade, and gold teeth, looking like Clifton Chenier. Listening to C.Rouse; C. Parker, A. Ayler, L.Thompson…Led me to Mantras like Diddy Wah Diddy – 66′. I only play the radio. Unfortunately Capt. B snot der.

  7. I’m a fat bloke, and I once noticed that I can dance to the stuff Beefheart recorded when he was fat, but not to the later stuff. Or to anything else at all.

    The “difference rhythms” reminds me of the poet/composer Ezra Pound’s “The Treatise on Harmony” (in his Selected Prose from Faber) — he talks about the relationship between rhythm and pitch, and the “beats” that happen when two notes or rhythms interfere. Worth also checking out the CD of Pound’s music, “Ego Scriptor Cantilenae”: not quite Beefheartian, but very weird, and good.


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