Getting Closer To The Captain: Clear Spot review by Lester Bangs

Taken from the January 1973 edition of Creem.

“And that pantalooned duck / white goose neck / quacked, ‘Webcor, Webcor.’” Those are the last lines on Clear Spot, from a song called “Golden Birdies.” Not exactly “I Can See Clearly Now,” I know, but if you find it hard to make sense out of lyrics like that, or feel that you must, rest easy. Captain Beefheart has come out of the haze.

Even though his music has always been solidly rooted in the blues, Beefheart has remained a sort of cult figure: to his followers, a supreme genius; to many others, inaccessible both musically and verbally. Starting from Delta blues, which was never too rhythmically stable to begin with, Beefheart worked his way through rock and free jazz to build a totally original form of music. He handpicked and slowly trained the members of the Magic Band in the disciplines of a style which seemed to move from every angle at once, ricocheting back at you from the ceiling, feeling rhythmically askew yet never out of control. It took awhile, but once you got behind it, it could be breathtakingly powerful music, never sacrificing emotion for its avant-garde stance.

The words to his songs fell all around the music in a similarly coherent clatter. Beefheart’s mind works in a unique way: you can’t always get to what he’s talking about, but it’s almost always been effective as impressionistic imagery. Besides, you know what a line like “Yella jackets and red devils / Buzz around ‘er hair hive hole” means. Many of the songs set Beefheart up as a sort of off the wall oracle relating oblique fairy tales and parables that were diffuse enough to mean whatever you wanted them to but seldom pretentious. And anybody who sings about “Mama flattenin’ lard with her red enamel rollin’ pin” can’t be too strange.

The only trouble with all this was that most people didn’t have the time, or the musical exposure, or the attention span, or whatever was required to get into this music fully. And Captain Beefheart, just like every other stout hearted American, has always wanted to be a star. A rock’n’roll star. No matter how brilliant you and your limited circle of fans know you are, it’s never going to matter as much as it should if it’s not universal enough to be relatable to people who don’t want to be bothered with something that doesn’t hit them over the head and get their gonads right away.

Beefheart made a strong step in this direction with his last album, The Spotlight Kid. It was the easiest listening since his early pre-Trout Mask Replica work, but somehow it missed. There was a certain tentative quality to it that disappointed some of his old fans and didn’t really win that many new ones. With Clear Spot, though, he’s gained his ground and looks to hold it for awhile. Which is just another way of saying that the Captain may have a hit on this deck, folks.

It’s ironic in a way, because one thing this album proves is that the ascendance of Boogie has merely brought the masses that much closer to Beefheart and Beefheart’s roots. Meanwhile the man himself has tightened and directed his music for a new kind of concise fury. The words are as rangy as ever (except for some love ballads and specific sex grope chants) but their splintered refractions hit home more often than not. They’re the perfect crest for the dominant mode of Clear Spot, which is a surging tide of sound: rusty, demonic guitar flailing, raspy voice choking, punching, roaring and pounding drums underneath it all. Everything is pouring in and it’s all instantly relatable. You can still hear meshes of Bo Diddley, square dance, bebop, African drum and maybe European folk dance in Beefheart’s chunky loping rhythms, but somehow you never lose the heartbeat of rock’n’roll.

“Nowadays A Woman’s Gotta Hit A Man” is a perfect example of how Beefheart mates musical culture: old blues, Stax horns doing a New Orleans boogie, slashing amped-up bottleneck guitar. Beefheart’s incredible growls gouging and rambling all over the place. “Low Yo Yo Stuff” is hypnotically compelling, with deep booming rhythms and upfront guitar. His old stuff showed a thorough absorption of free jazz masters like Ornette Coleman; here it’s used as seasoning, because the basic impetus is funk all the way, gravel ‘n’ greasy, with a bit of juju out of (though not derivative of) Dr. John. And the words are a total gas – in an effete era Beefheart slides on with the universal joy of good old fashioned non-ambivalent lust.

“Too Much Time” and the ballads “My Head Is My Only House Unless It Rains” and “Her Eyes Are A Blue Million Miles” are all ventures into more or less new ground for Beefheart. “Too Much Time” seems rather strained – Otis he ain’t (which is no denigration; he can do things Otis couldn’t), and the horns seem rather perfunctory, lacking the edge and fullness that Stax gives the same cliches. The female vocal backup, as elsewhere on the album, is pleasant but seems almost like an afterthought or an attempt to give this album a marketable trendiness it doesn’t really need.

“Head” and “Eyes” are both delivered with enormous tenderness, yet somehow Beefheart’s gruff voice sounds out of character with material like this, as if it’s just about to rant through the walls of the cut and start thrashing in the brambles once again. Still, both songs wear well, and “Eyes” is especially fine for some low, lovely mandolin work.

The main thing to he said about this album is that, even at its most violent, it’s comfortable. Its scope becomes endless by limiting itself (how’s that for rock critic bullshit?) and you can throw it on anytime. It feels good to listen to Clear Spot. and it feels good to know that Beefheart has finally become a bit less of a phantasmal, somewhat arcane father figure and come into his own as a flat-out, full-throttle rock ‘n’ roller. If this LP jives your buns the way it should, though, you should waste no time in securing a copy of the earlier, two record Trout Mask Replica. That’s one of the most overwhelming pieces of music ever recorded.

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