Ice Cream for Crow. On the Relationship between Music and Painting in Captain Beefheart’s Work
Those who, over the last twenty years, have loved the music of Captain Beefheart cannot forget that he decided to abandon the music scene (it would seem definitively) to devote himself full-time to painting. Specialist rock critics, who were left the sad task of a retrospective tribute to his career, each time have boldly tried to establish correlations bet-ween yesterday’s music and today’s painting, acting in a way that is markedly ‘reparative’ and which, implicitly placing diachronic continuity to his basis, has no logical or cultural justification in the Californian artist’s experience.
Beefheart, moreover, has lucidly cleared the field of equivocation by stating: “I prefer painting to music because I can spend a whole day on a canvas and then cancel it. Painting over it is a nice feeling.”
The musician, in the course of various interviews realised in these last few years, has strewn details and clues as to his way of making music which, put together into a coherent and organic picture, can suggest us indications revealing his style of approach to sound.
Considering the structures of the passages composed, even at a superficial hearing, the first impression is one of a general complexity at the limits of harmonic dissonance. The soloistic function of the two electric guitars and or the bass, definitively released from their classical accompanying role and capable of determining contrapuntal tensions; the rhythmically variable patterns of the drums (rarely set to Rock’s classic 4/4); and the use of the voice, rarely melodic, most of the time recitative, are the key ingredients of the compositional recipe, the cultural matrices of which come from Blues.
Taking immediate advantage, moreover, of the ideological and structural implications of the free-form jazz of the mid-1960’s (in particular Albert Ayler, Ornette Coleman, Eric Dolphy). Beefheart freed the musical instruments from the Rock and Blues stereotype functions to inaugurate a com-pletely new expressive form, which was only apparently free, because bound by rigidly predeterminated compositional rules.
This thesis is confirmed by Gary Lucas, a guitarist in the Magic Band’s last formation, who stated, as regards the way of composing Doc at the Radar Station: “It all comes out of his head. The musicians don’t play even one note that hasn’t been previously written”, a statement that consequently bears witness to an attitude towards composition only rarely encountered in popular music, and which specialist critics have failed to detect abandoning the listener to an approach to the music based on more ‘impressions’, without offering any interpretative key to the sound form. It is as if the listener, if I may be allowed the paradoxical analogy, found himself in front of Marcel Duchamp’s Mona Lisa with a moustache without knowing what the Mona Lisa was.
The comment of a famous American critic is emblematic. Listening to Lick My Decals Off Baby (Warner Bros., 1970) Charlie Gillet wrote: “Inside Captain Beefheart is a corny old ballad-singer crooner, aching to sing those same old songs of sorrow and devotion. But he knows that kind of stuff doesn’t have any effect any more. Once people used to feel their hearts turn when Sinatra sang, but now they just let his voice wash over them; any effects he might have are just conditioned responses … So, using a technique already familiar in film-making (Andy Warhol), jazz (Albert Ayler) and painting (Francis Bacon), Captain Beefheart has chosen to reach us through ugliness. He knows that most of us will turn him off but hopes that the few who stay to listen will get more from him than do the millions who listen to (but don’t hear, maybe) those big bold stars…”
Gillet, who certainly did not lack the competence to interpret the music semiologically, gave up on any analysis of the sound product at the start, referring to the aesthetic category of ‘ugliness’, limiting himself to the impressions obtained from a superficial hearing.
Also for this reason, with the passing of the years, the body of Beefheart’s work has assumed an ever-stronger political meaning and value. Having remained unexplained, though comprehensible, Beefheart’s music has kept its disruptive, destructive force intact as regards the consonant sound of popular music’s subgenres (Rock, Pop …). An example of ugliness, musical freakiness and nothing else, in fact, which has been denied great musicological value.
So how could one be surprised at Beefheart’s personal resentment, when on the verge of abandoning the music scene, he stated he had never been seriously understood by critics and public? “For my whole life they’ve repeated to me that I was a genius. They said the same about my sculptures, slapping me on the back … But in the meantime they’ve also taught the public that my music is too difficult to listen to…”
Painting and Cancelling
So in 1981 Beefheart abandoned music to become that Van Vliet who had lived with the musician up to that time, but in a position of clearly forced subordination (some pictures of the period are reproduced on the covers of the records, almost as if to illustrate the content).
The fracture that was established between the music of the rigorous and controlled compositional form and the new medium, now seems conceptually remarkable. When the ‘re-emerged’ Van Vliet declares he prefers painting to music for the reasons stated above, the ex-musician suggests some implicit considerations on the relations between the two media and the respective processes of signification. First of all he admits that in his experience a divergence exists between music and painting both from a technical point of view and, above all, a productive one.
Whereas music presupposed specific knowledge in the field of composition, implying the capacity to use intermediary technologies to translate musical ideas into coherent sounds – i.e. sounds equipped with an endogenous logic of their own, which was also communicative – the canvas in before him becomes, as if through a reaction, a sort of blackboard that could be endlessly wiped clean, to the point of its physical disintegration. Painting and cancelling, then, become the process through which the creation is expressed, in the very act of its being made, and which does not necessarily imply a prior design of the work. “Actually”, he states in 1988, “what I try to do is turn myself inside out on canvas, to freeze the moment so that the person seeing it can observe what I froze. I try to turn what is going on in me into a still life of that moment.”
But painting is also cancelling, because of the intrinsic potentialities offered by canvas and colours. As if the canvas became a recording tape on which to stratify sign experience. Without, however, any worry about the final, definitive form necessary predetermined in any musical passage – even one based on the most uncontrolled of free-forms.
So if the music recorded by Captain Beefheart is imposed on us critically as conceptual music, to use a definition used in the history of art painting on the other hand is retinic and instinctive, almost through direct and correlated reaction, assuming a strong chromatic and sign impact. As if those mental ideas, which were once imploded into rigid forms in music, were now left to wildly explode onto the canvas, with an incompleteness, an infinity that before was only simulated, since it was denied by the nature of the medium and the logics of a potential market of listeners. As if those sound-ideas, boxed into rigid meanings left unexplored for most people, were now the freed sign-ideas, lightened of the burdensome technical composition processes and the urgency of in any case having to be meaningful and reproducible.
With, perhaps, the regret and the wise mocking irony for the record industry of continuing to compose sounds only for oneself, maybe recording them on a cassette to cancel them with new sounds the next day. “The only thing that stops the composer from thinking about music is rigor mortis, and I still compose all the time”, as van Vliet loves to proclaim.
Unfortunately for us, who have loved and love to listen to his records; the marvellous paintings he has given us are only ‘music for our eyes’. As for our ears…..