Since the 1969 release of Trout Mask Replica, the artist dubbed Captain Beefheart has incarnated the gold standard by which “weirdness” in rock has been calibrated. And with a suitcase like that to lug around, no wonder Don Van Vliet put out his 12th and final album in 1982, before retiring to the high desert or coastal mountains or wherever to paint his broad-stroke nature abstractions and fade away. Nevertheless, any band with stuttered beats, hyperactively ping-ponging blues guitars, and/or inscrutable lyrics growled by a veinbusting bohunk would henceforth be described as “Beefheartian” (I once foolishly bought a James record – a James record – on the basis of this dubious comparison).
So shouldn’t the arrival of a lavishly packaged and generously annotated five – CD collection of obscure and inaccessible tracks and Quicktime footage devoted to the weirdo’s weirdo – unlike his hero Salvador Dalí, Beefheart always denied his own carefully cultivated eccentricities – provide the opportunity for a thick critical polish of the increasingly bulbous Beef heart mystique? Yes and no.
Grow Fins, packed with rarities recorded between 1965 and 1982, and released on John Fahey’s avant-primitive Revenant label, arrives in tandem with a belated, shall we say, adjustment of the myth. Contrary to the hagiography set forth in numerous Beefheart interviews and via such standard references as The Rolling Stone Encyclopedia of Rock & Roll, Trout Mask Replica did not spring wholly composed from the Captain’s piano in precisely eight and a half hours. And no, Van Vliet did not spend the following year teaching it to the Magic Band note by arduous note. John “Drumbo” French’s 80-page Grow Fins essay (“There Ain’t No Santa Claus on the Evening Stage”) and a 1998 book (Lunar Notes) by guitarist Bill “Zoot Horn Rollo” Harkleroad relate a sadder and more interesting story than that, which the music on Grow Fins puts in thoroughly revisionist perspective.
Disc one of Grow Fins is devoted to acetates and demos recorded prior to the first CB&HMB album, 1967’s Safe as Milk. Born in 1941, Beefheart steeped himself in r&b and the blues alongside high-school pal Frank Zappa. By the mid ’60s he had al ready ditched his deemed name in homage to icons like Howlin’ Wolf (né Chester Burnett), whose vocal chops Beefheart could both uncannily mimic and mutate (as demonstrated by a ’66 live version of Wolf’s “Evil Is Going On”). Beefheart appeared to desire nothing less than to wrest urban blues back from the Brit pop invaders of the day, and make it into something stranger, jazzier, more fidgety – yet accessible. But he couldn’t do it alone. Opinions differ about whether or not Ry Cooder was the first Magic Band member charged with translating Beefheart’s musically naive concepts to the rest of the band, which even then was in nearly constant flux.
Considered too “negative” by the band’s label, Safe as Milk was foisted on Buddha Records by A&M. A strange and still discomforting mixture of pop, blues, soul, and mike-shattering vocals, Milk set the stage for the angular boogie and harp-driven psychedelia of Strictly Personal and Mirror Man, whose collective tracks were recorded just a few months later in ’67 with new guitarist Jeff “Antennae Jimmy Semens” Cotton. (Out-takes and alternate tracks from those albums can be found on Buddha’s excellently remastered new reissues of Milk and The Mirror Man Sessions. For all the restored integrity, however, I still miss the freaky-deaky yet strangely appropriate “phasing” effects then-manager Bob Krasnow added to Strictly Personal.) The two long electric blues jams on Grow Fins’s second and finest disc create a majestic creative bridge between the relative safety of Milk and the Trout Mask epiphany. Except for occasional flashes of Zappa-esque derision for the hippie scene (e.g., “Trust Us”), ’67 and ’68 find Beefheart and the other acid-gobblers in his band (no, they didn’t conceive it all on the natch) thoroughly enmeshed in Northern California’s cosmic-roots zeitgeist. The 11-minute “Rollin’ and Tumblin”‘ on Fins has much the same atomic- cannon excitement of, say, the Grateful Dead’s orgasmic “Viola Lee Blues” jams of that era.
The following year, however, brought Altamont, Charles Manson, Nixon’s inauguration, and Trout Mask Replica. This reinvention of the wheel must have been a blast to record, right? Wrong. “My three best friends and I became ensnared in an atmosphere of fear, dread, and misery,” recalled John French in an interview in the British psychzine Ptolemaic Terrascope. Over the course of a year, between marathon sessions of brain washing, emotional abuse, and even beatings, French translated his guru-bandleader’s whistled, piano-plinked, and sung ideas into musical notation, added his own input, and subsequently taught the result to the rest of the group. Fourteen-hour rehearsal days of “drudgery and grinding poverty” (French) were the norm, with the Captain making only intermittent appearances to offer executive opinion. “I may be hungry, but I sure ain’t weird,” he sang in “Safe as Milk.” His band, however, was both.
Grow Fins’s third disc contains the 1969 “house sessions” that tarnish the virgin-birth version of Trout Mask’s conception. Improvisation was shunned, except for the Captain’s neolithic soprano saxophone and mighty blues harp. But the players translated their own substantial talents into highly complex yet rigorously reproduced constructs of overlapping time and key signatures that burst into existence like one brief sun zoom spark after another. Minus the Captain’s ecopoetry and larger-than-life presence, you get a strong feel for the antlike devotion and almost fascistic sense of freedom he instilled.
Trout Mask, from packaging to musical content, is the focus of Grow Fins. But while Trout Mask was indeed revolutionary, the following year’s Lick My Decals Off, Baby became one of my hallmarks of sonic utopia the moment I first applied needle to groove. Cotton had quit the band after an intraband altercation left him with broken ribs, and percussionist Art “Ed Marimba” Tripp had replaced French, who quit the band after being shoved down a flight of stairs by Van Vliet. French, however, returned, and the group resolved its double-drummer dilemma by letting Tripp learn the second guitar parts on marimba. It’s as though after having reinvented the wheel, CB&HMB had slapped a set on a Lamborghini and taken it out for a spin.
Except for its historical footage (e.g., the Milk band flailing wildly on the Cannes seashore), disc four is something of a dud, consisting other wise of 12 minutes of Beefheart, Zappa, and a lady from down the street shooting the breeze. Disc five is an intermittently dazzling hodgepodge that touches down only briefly on the post–Trout Mask years. The highlight is a remarkably Dylanesque radio rendition of “Orange Claw Hammer,” with Zappa providing his on-again-off-again friend with straightforward chordal accompaniment. Sellouts.
Rhino’s imminent double-disc hits anthology, The Dust Blows Forward, extends a more democratic overview than the Trout-centric Fins – the sexy, swampy goodness of 1972’s The Spotlight Kid and Clear Spot should have made CB&HMB the rock stars they coulda-woulda been, but Fins whittles those albums down to just one live track. The Magic Band quit in a huff in 1973, following the strained sugar-binge pop of Unconditionally Guaranteed. Maybe they couldn’t have pulled off the sly warmth of “Tropical Hot Dog Night,” but several other later songs, including “Sue Egypt” and “Ice Cream for Crow,” are fairly obvious knockoffs of early-’70s material. The Trout Mask lineup provided the dynamic template from which such otherwise worthwhile albums as Shiny Beast (Bat Chain Puller) and Doc at the Radar Station sandpapered and developed. Beefheart’s post-’73 combos included such able musicians as Eric Drew Feldman, Gary Lucas, and Jeff Tepper, whose youth and fandom undoubtedly tempered Beefheart’s temper. If the music they made retained the spirit but not the shock of the Captain’s classic crew, no big whoop. By 1977, weirdness had virtually been institutionalised.
– Richard Gehr, The Village Voice, 1999