Who’s the greatest white blues singer in America today? Shame on you if you said John Hammond or Dave Van Ronk or maybe Kate Taylor. If you said Van Morrison, you get half credit ’cause he used to be (or maybe quarter credit since he’s only an honorary American). Half credit for Ry Cooder too, cause he’s working on it. If you said David Clayton-Thomas, bite your tongue. Hard. If you got really weird and came up with somebody like Bernie Pearl, kindly stop reading this publication at once. And no, it’s not Sammy Davis, Jr., and if somebody out there is clinging to the hope that it might be Mark Farner, please mail us your name and address so we can send out The Archies to stomp your ass.
The correct answer, of course, is Don Van Vliet, who, despite his name, is not the forgotten man of the Flemish Renaissance, but who is in fact stout-hearted, trout-hearted old Captain Beefheart himself, the Madman of Musical Melancholy, the Sultan of Street Sorrow, the Robber Baron of the Blues. I mean, I love Mose Allison and Dr. John and all those other fine people, but only Captain B. has really been able to take all the essential elements of the black blues idiom and synthesise them into a musical style that has absolutely nothing to do with its sources (except in the most obvious, simplistic way) and that, now that I stop to think about it, has absolutely nothing to do, with anything else at all. A Dialectic of the Dirty Boogie. Or of the Dirty Booglarize, since, of course, “Vital Willy tol’ Weepin’ Milly / I’m gonna booglarize you baby”. And since the Captain, My Captain, has one of the dirtiest voices in the entire history of verbalisation. I mean, he could get arrested for reciting The Lord’s Prayer in public. And when, far from that, he goes around singing “I’m gonna grow fins / ‘N go back in the water again..… I’m gonna take up with ah mermaid / ‘N leave you land-lubbin’ women alone”; when he soulfully informs us that: “Down in hominy’s grotto there’s ah soul diein’ ‘n leavin’ / Every second on the evenin’ stage”; you know that he’s not just whistling Dixie.
Which brings up the matter of the fact that, in addition to the lovely, smutty surrealism, the street-corner pseudo-reference that studs his lyric style like pecans in a Georgia praline, in addition to all that, there’s the music. His own harmonica (which sounds like Clifton Chenier’s accordion on “White Jam”), Zoot Horn Rollo’s “glass finger and steel appendage guitar”; which is more wry than Ry, Ed Marimba’s marimba, piano, and harpsichord, Rockette Morton’s “bassus ophelius”, Winged Eel Fingerling’s guitar, and drums by Drumbo, Ted Cactus, Ed Marimba, and Rhys Clark (how did that weird name get in there?). A nice, nasty band which is certainly a tasty adjunct to the greatest white blues singing in America that is going on simultaneously. The orchestration, the veritable chorus of percussion at the start of “When It Blows Its Stacks”, then the Ornette-goes-to-carnival-type break in the middle of the song. The neo-bop riff under the raunchy blues riff on “The Spotlight Kid”. The whiz-bang choo-choo sounds on “Click Clack” (certainly a classic blues theme if ever there was one – it even has two trains on two railroad tracks and a woman who’s “always threatenin’ t’ go down t’ N’ Orleans”). And the grand fragmentations of line on “Blabber ‘n Smoke”, which is thoroughly extraordinary throughout. Zowie. And Captain Beefheart singing like he looks and looking like the kind of guy who “…takes um out / Out on an iceberg / Hand ’em ah Ronson ‘n says I’ll see you around.”