Don Van Vliet, who is better known as Captain Beefheart, is still in the forefront of rock’s avant-garde, more than 15 years after the release of his first album. Although he has polished his music and changed the personnel of his Magic Band a number of times since the mid-1960’s, the broad outlines of his style were already in place the first time he entered a recording studio. They include fractured rhythms; dislocated country blues riffs; disjunct melodies and passages of counterpoint that sometimes recall Stravinsky; extravagantly gruff singing and croaking, and occasional bursts of clattering noise.
”Ice Cream for Crow” (Virgin/ Epic), the 12th album by Captain Beefheart and the Magic Band, represents a return to Beefheart basics after the expansive use of synthesized orchestral effects and borrowings from Chinese opera on ”Doc at the Radar Station” (1981).
The title tune is being released as a single, Mr. Van Vliet’s first since the mid-60’s – and could actually get some airplay. It is a Beefheart blues, with whining slide guitars and a hoarse, urgent vocal. The lyrics, which sound like a Carlos Castaneda/ Don Juan adventure and are spotted with cryptic instructions like ”light the fire piano,” aren’t exactly typical blues fare. But here, and on the rest of the album, Mr. Van Vliet proves once again that when it comes to capturing the feeling of archaic, Delta-style blues, he is the only white performer who really gets it right.
Don Van Vliet was born in Glendale, Calif., in 1941. As a teenager in Lancaster, Calif., he had his own local television show and was recognized locally as a painter and a sculptor. One of his best friends was his fellow student, Frank Zappa.
The first appearances by Captain Beefheart and his Magic Band coincided with the widespread use of LSD in Southern California, and drugs may have ”led” a number of his early fans to ”get into” the music. But Mr. Van Vliet insisted that his singular music was not drug-inspired.
Sitting in the Manhattan living room of the guitarist Gary Lucas, who is the Magic Band’s newest member, Don Van Vliet shut his eyes, squinted, and said, ”It’s going to ring.” The telephone rang as if on cue. Mr. Lucas laughed nervously and said that sort of thing happens all the time.
Mr. Van Vliet said his family was from Louisiana, and various relatives went West to visit the Van Vliet household when he was growing up. In particular, he remembered an uncle who was a kind of singing evangelist, a free spirit who had spent a number of years roaming the countryside, preaching the gospel and accompanying himself by playing guitar with a slider.
Could that uncle have been a musical influence? ”Oh, absolutely,” Mr. Van Vliet said. It certainly made sense; that natural, unforced feeling for rural blues had to come from somewhere, and it came from rural gospel music, which is musically identical to blues.
After talking at some length about C.S. Lewis, one of his favorite authors, Mr. Van Vliet mentioned his admiration for Stravinsky. That was no surprise. His complex rhythms and difficult melodic intervals are evidence of a Stravinsky influence, and that influence is particularly evident on the new album.
In the past, Mr. Van Vliet’s complex, brittle arrangements and the splashy playing of his various drummers tended to disguise the classical severity of his original ideas. On ”Ice Cream for Crow,” the stripped-down instrumentation and the absense of decoration in Cliff R. Martinez’s sparse drumming serve to emphasize the classicism of the melodies and rhythmic patterns.
Until recently, nobody sounded anything like Captain Beefheart and the Magic Band. But during the last few years, avant-garde rock units as disparate as Pere Ubu and Public Image Ltd. have been making music that sounds something like the Magic Band. Perhaps that’s why the music on ”Ice Cream for Crow” sounds a little more familiar on first listening than any previous Captain Beefheart album. But it probably isn’t the only reason.
The Magic Band’s new guitarist, Gary Lucas, doesn’t sound as thoroughly self-taught as his predecessors. He brings a certain polish to his playing of Mr. Van Vliet’s finger-flexing compositions (especially on the solo guitar showpiece ”Evening Bell”) that connects it, however tenuously, to more conventional music. And Mr. Van Vliet has chosen to work with some familiar musical components this time out, like the ringing, major-triad consonance of the guitar parts on the instrumental ”Semi-Multicolored Caucasian.”
This relatively melodious side of Mr. Van Vliet’s music has rarely been displayed so winningly. It contrasts provocatively with the squabbling saxophones and all-out noise attack of compositions like ”The Thousandth and Tenth Day of the Human Totem Pole,” making ”Ice Cream for Crow” the most varied and, on the whole, the most accessible of the hard-core Captain Beefheart albums. (Some early attempts to make the Captain’s music more palatable to the masses have not been granted a place in the Beefheart canon.)
It may not sell in impressive quantities; Captain Beefheart albums never have. But anyone who is interested in rock’s limits and possibilities, and in where the music might be going, will want to hear it.
c. 1982 New York Times Company