Gazing across pop music’s stale horizons, past all the cynical ineptitude, pseudo-intellectual solemnity, neurotic regression and dismal deadends for great bands, there is one figure who stands above the murk forging an art at once adventurous and human: Don Van Vliet, known to a culture he’s making anachronistic as Captain Beefheart.
Though there are still lots of people around who just don’t read the Cap at all, who think his music is some kind of private joke or failed experiment (or as a local teen band told me, “Most of that’s the kind of stuff musicians do when they’re just fucking around”) or merely a porridge of noise, the appearance of Trout Mask Replica last year was a real musical event, a signal that there was finally something new in the air. And even people averse to contemporary “avant-garde” music might find in Beefheart a continuation of traditions they loved and a sensibility refreshingly healthy in these days, when so many experimental artists feel compelled to shroud their innovations in manifestations of madness and destruction.
Beefheart may be verbally obtuse and look like a trasher of everything “beautiful” (or euphonious) in centuries of Western musical tradition, but what he’s really doing, along with people like Cecil Taylor and Albert Ayler and the early Velvet Underground and the Tony Williams Lifetime, is creating a whole new musical vocabulary out of the ashes and dead air left by a crumbling empire of exhausted styles. Instead of destroying, Cap is taking forms with no seeming mileage left and reworking them into prophesies of tomorrow which will be as far-reaching for rock and the new free post-idiomatic music as Ornette Coleman’s radical divergence was for jazz a decade ago.
The comparison with Coleman is apt on more than one level: both ushered in new decades with conceptions of ensemble improvisation so unheard of as to raise wide controversy; both have concerned their music with the rising spirit of man, the unforced compassion and insight that led Coleman to write songs like “Lonely Woman” and “Beauty is a Rare Thing,” Beefheart to “Frownland” and “I Love You, You Big Dummy”; and most significantly, no matter how far out both have gotten, the primitive American blues heritage has always been implicit in everything they’ve done. The essential cry of joy/anguish that courses through Coleman’s plaintive birdlike squawks is merely genius echoing the earliest changing moans in an age of atonality and distortion. And the more you listen to it, the more you realize that for all the rambunctious waywardness of Beefheart’s woolly excursions, the seeming cacophony always swings as surely as the finest in the jazz and rock traditions it draws on. The rhythms may be shifting a lot, and the players all jutting off at squiggly angles, but that heartbeat always rocks on as surely as an old up-and-down boogie.
People who want to hear some music that breaks through the sound barrier without tromping on their sensibilities, who shy from Archie Shepp’s black rage, from Sun Ra conducting his Arkestra through the Nova galleries like a Babylonian priest from some old Hollywood epic, from Alice Cooper’s geek-feast and Iggy Stooge’s torpedo microphone (“Here’s your throat back/Thanks for the loan”), should find a more congenial spirit in Beefheart. Which is not to say that he’s more nor less valid than any of the aforementioned, but simply that in an age of pervasive artistic negativism, we have in Cap a new-old man refusing to discard the heart and humanity and essential innocence that Western culture has at least pretended to cultivate for three thousand years and which our electrified, relativistic generation seems all too willing to scrap as irrelevant sentimental bullshit. When Cap beams: “My smile is stuck/I cannot go back to your frownland/My spirit’s made up of the ocean/And the sky/And the sun and the moon/And all my eyes can see…Take my hand/And come with me/It is not too late for you/It is not too late for me….” he stands at a point of pristine enlightenment that acid can’t confer.
This is primal instinct rather than mutant flash, and showers its wisdom on us from the ingenuous eagerness to share what he’s found, sans false pride. Because even if he has The Answer, Cap is not Mr. Natural. His humor is lusty, Rabelaisian and perennial: “Mama was flattenin’ lard with her red enameled rollin’ pin….” Anybody who ever dug Looney Tunes or W.C. Fields should be able to relate to that, as surely as any Luther Burbank of bush and snatch should pick up on “Sweet sweet bulbs grow/All in my lady’s garden,” and the whole state of mind that was the 1950s becomes surrealistically animated in lines like:
“When she drives her Chevy/Sissies don’t dare tuh glance…/Her two pied pipes hummin’ carbon cum…”
Vast scholarly dissertations could be written on Beefheart’s brilliant new approach to song lyric. Leaving in the dust both post-Dylan “poetic” pretensions and the primitive approach which too often mistakes simplemindedness for simplicity, Cap’s lines are magic flashfloods of free-association that somehow never get murky, strange jewel-like clusters of images, hilarious little vignettes from the lives of raffish louts and juicy mamas, half-muddled mamma’s in coveralls and zoot suits. Robert Crumb could draw them, though in his vision they’d be vaguely threatened or threatening. This scene is simultaneously Beefheart’s own inner world which blooms as wildly as a Van Gogh landscape, and something very like America, from “bowed goat potbellied barnyard” Pappy to Mrs. Wooten and Little Nitty cutting revival capers under the Vermont moon to the Ishmael homecoming after being “shanghaied by a high-hat beaver mustached man” -persona in various chapters of an American dream revealed as richly affectionate even though the Captain sang, in his own sort of crunching “Tears of Rage”: “I cry/But I can’t buy/Yer Veteran’s Day poppy…”
In Lick My Decals Off, Baby (Straight Rs-6420) this vision is extended, and even though the sonic textures are sometimes even more complex and angular than on Trout Mask, the lyrics have taken an added universality, many of them stepping back a stride from the kaleidoscopic image-clusters of last year’s songs. “Lick My Decals Off, Baby” is just great bawdy music, as sanguinely sexual as a tale out of Boccaccio: “Rather than I wanna hold your hand/I wanna swallow you whole/’n’ I wanna lick you everywhere it’s pink/’n’ everywhere you think/Whole kit ‘n’ kaboodle ‘n’ the kitchen sink…”
The spirit behind that proposition is one of primal orgasmic joy, sung with all the sly tongue-slithering glee of an old Delta bluesman at a backyard barbecue. Despite the possible “kinkiness” of what he’s asking her for, the sex is celebratory, affirmative, in the dying tradition of seduction through laughter, Tom Jones and Moll Flanders. The sense of desperation which runs like a bruised nerve through modern art’s handling of sex, from Couples, and Naked Lunch, to the downtown skin flicks, never shows in Beefheart’s universe.
The new album radiates the Beefheart wit all the way: “I Love You, You Big Dummy”; “Woe-is-a-me-bop”; “I Wanna Find a Woman That’ll Hold My Big Toe Till I Have to Go.” Who has titles like that? Who else would think of them, when they’re so obvious they’re classic, real rock ‘n’ roll song titles that tell you that the music behind them no matter if it aims for the stratosphere, has that gutbucket little Richard/Chuck Berry ethos running through its veins. “Big Dummy” spotlights some of Cap’s ripping harp and ecstatic falsetto counter-whoops, while “Woe” is an amazing little progression that crinkles along mechanically like walking Tinkertoys, making good use of the marimba introduced on this album to underscore a [words lost] whose syllables hook together and twist like “the-legbone’s connected-to-the-knee-bone.” Again, it seems to hearken to the jive talk stanzas of some early 50s R&B and farther back into Mezz Mezzrow’s “Really The Blues” Harlem streetcorner jargon and the Joycean word-stew of Black folklore.
But this album hardly finds the Beefheartian vistas curtained by levity. It also shows an organic maturation of the environmental concern which was only hinted at in songs like “Bill’s Corpse” on Trout Mask. “Petrified Forest” compresses an outraged indictment of the polluters and a hair-raising picture of an Armageddon-like natural revolt, all in 1:40: “Suck the ground!/Breathe life into the dead dinosaurs/Let the past demons rear up ‘n’ belch fire into the air of now/The rug’s wearing out that we walk on/Soon h will fray ‘n’ we’ll drop….If the dinosaur cries with blood in his eyes/’n’ eats our babies for our lies/Belches fire in our skies/Maybe I’ll die but he’ll be rumblin’ through/Your petrified forest..”
Ever since Dylan wrote “The Times They Are A Changin’,” minstrels, poets and pretenders by the truckloads have failed in a thousand righteous songs to make the crucial distinction between art commenting on society and flat polemics. That song is art.
And lest you think that only the defoliating captains of American industry (villains as handy to the self-righteous myths of the 70s as the Prejudiced White Southern Redneck was the to the Brotherhood liberals of the late 60s) fall into the sights of Cap’s topical pen, dig “Space-Age Couple”: “Space-age couple/Why don’t you flex your magic muscle7 Why don’t you drop your cool tomfoolery/And shed your nasty jewelry?/Cultivate the grounds/They’re the only ones around….Hold a drinkin’ glass up to your eye after you’ve/scooped up a little of the sky/’n’ it ain’t blue no more/What’s on the leaves ain’t dew no more…”
If all the propaganda of the counter culture is true and there really is a New Man, perhaps enlightened by acid or Esalen and mutated by these and the beneficent proximity of millions of freaks just like him past the materialism, waste and cannibalistic selfishness of the old world; if all of that is true, it seems that the Movement should be finding some alternative to the desperation and romanticized rage which now prevail, and “our” People relating to something beside each cabal’s separate pocket of fantasy. Beefheart will challenge the myths and lies of the counter culture as unflinchingly as he spurned that “Veterans Day Poppy” and paid the dues down to “Dachau Blues”; it’s up to us to find the difference between a Space Age Couple and Maggie and Jiggs with long hair and sweet smoke. The song ends with a terse twist that sums it all up and seems to comment in passing on our increasing chemical alienation from our bodies: “Space-age couple/Why don’t you do just that?”
The Beefheart sound moves trough Lick My Decals Off in two main streams: relatively mainstream songs like “I Love You, You Big Dummy” and the strange, ominous “The Buggy Boogie Woogie” tone down the baroque structures of Trout Mask, but on the other hand many of the songs, especially on Side Two, leave at least an initial impression of diffused energies that make Trout Mask’s wildest excursions seem relatively tame. “Japan in a Dishpan,” for instance, is a crashing jam built on an obsessively repeated sax riff that sounds sort off like some “Aooh-gah!” horn from an old auto. Subsequent listenings, however, clarify songs that hit you like a tidal wave at first, sorting out the brilliant comers of collective improvisation and revealing all those incredible lyrics.
Captain Beefheart takes some getting used to at first, just like Ornette and Ayler and the Velvets and even the Stooges (and didn’t Dylan sound pretty strange the first time we heard him?). But if it does sometimes require some patience and close attention, is also one of the most rewarding musical experiences available today. The fact is that this man’s music, probably more than that of anybody else working in rock now, is breaking ground for an awesome superhighway leading us away from the decadent era of Superstars into a future where every man shall have ears to hear music beyond our wildest dreams, music like nobody’s heard on earth before. I don’t want to get into apocalyptic statements, but I think the time is rapidly approaching when almost all styles but free music, music encompassing everything in our traditions (even harmony and lush lyricism – dig Pharoah Sanders’ new stuff) and transcending it, will begin to exhaust themselves. The same old song can keep grinding outa the AM tubes and FM tuners from here to Alhaville, but more people are getting restless to move on all the time. So I’m gonna go not so very far at all out on a limb and say that Captain Beefheart is the most important musician to rise in the Sixties, far more significant and far-reaching than the Beatles, who only made pretty collages with material from the public domain, when you get right down to it; as important, as I said, for all music as Ornette Coleman was for jazz ten years ago and Charlie Parker 15 years before that, as important as Leadbelly was for the blues Cap teethed on. His music is a harbinger of tomorrow, but his messages are universal and warm as the hearth of the America we once dreamed of. That’s a combination that’s hard to beat.