The Spotlight Kid review by Lester Bangs

This review of The Spotlight Kid (Reprise) was originally published in the 30th March, 1972 edition of Rolling Stone. Kindly sent to me by Jim Flannery.

“Said the Mama to the baby in the corn/’You are my first-born/That shall hereon in be known/As the Spotlight Kid.'” That’s how the title song of this album begins, and one glance at the picture on the cover — Cap natty in Las Vegas jacket, with a knowing almost-smile on his face — reveals a man with the self-understanding and self-confidence to bill himself as a new-generational hero with no false pride.

And make no mistake, it is definitely to the new audience, the ones that teethed on feedback and boogie, that Captain Beefheart belongs. He has been called everything in the past from a man wasting the clear ability to be the world’s greatest white blues singer, to an impossibly complex musician who may or may not be the real avant-garde, but is certainly an elitist taste. While I have always held to the opinion that there’s been nothing playing on the face of the earth as far out as Beefheart for about 3 or 4 years now, I also recognize that his former style was a bit beyond the attention span or interest of the average listener. Which is certainly not to slight mass tastes, either; after all, why should things have to be as far out as possible all the time?

This album is Captain Beefheart’s answer to that question. It is the most accessible thing he’s recorded since Safe as Milk (remember the single of “Diddy Wah Diddy”? Captain Beefheart makes hits!), and goes back to his most primal roots for much of its inspiration, proving once and for all that not only is Captain Beefheart almost certainly the supreme white blues singer of our era, but he knows how to take that gift and combine it with his supra-blues musical vision sliced down to bone basics, and come up with vital, immediate, funky rock ‘n’ roll.

Its originality is almost complete, although the Captain is treading waters these days adjacent to those where some of his mightiest contemporaries strut. For instance, for verbal and vocal mysterioso effects, he sounds in some parts of this album even more like Doctor John than Sly Stone does on There’s a Riot Goin’ On. Throughout, however, the Beefheart wit and genius manifest themselves. “I’m Gonna Booglarize Ya, Baby” is a song riding in on a tense, edgy riff, telling a story about Vital Willy and Weepin’ Milly driving around and around in Will’s car in the night (the first line is “The moon was a drip on a dark hood”), looking for a secluded place to park. Finally, in desperation, Milly tells Willy that they can go to her house, and Beefheart comments: “Tush! Tush! You lose your push/When you beat around the bush!”

While hints of eclecticism creep in at odd moments, it is blues and the raunchier forms of R&B which lie at the heart of this album. “White Jam” opens with a Chinese-sounding marimba riff, like porcelain raindrops breaking on a sill, then drifts with perfect organic logic into a sawing boogie with great understated harp and high Beefheart falsetto. “When It Blows Its Stacks” is an ominous song built on a basic guitar riff worthy of Mark Farner. With each chorus, the guitar builds from its initial simple advance to wirier, more complex backups for Beefheart’s stark, threatening vocal that seems to be about some angry god: “When it blows its stacks/He don’t pussyfoot around/Hide all the women…”

On side two Beefheart gets more deeply into something akin to traditional blues, especially with the last three songs; the Captain has never sounded more like Howlin’ Wolf than he does here, and he’s always had Wolf’s growls and howls down to a point of virtual transcendence. The best thing on the album, wisely chosen for a single b/w “Booglarize You,” is “Click Clack.” This is real train music, with trestles in the drums and whistles in the guitar and harp: “One [train] goin’/And the other one comin’ back,” as Cap sings. The rhythm is insistent and propulsive, in the great tradition of such songs as “Train Kept a-Rollin'” and Lou Reed’s “Train Round the Bend.” The mutated Chicago South Side harp heard throughout much of the album enters, the guitars begin pushing at the riffs’ edges, and “Train was goin’ up the track/You was leavin’/I could see you wavin’ yer handkerchief” is described in a hypnotically redundant guitar riff like the obsessive replay of an old memory.

There comes a time in the career of every pop musician who also happens to be a serious artist when he realizes the need for a balance between the most intensely personal type of statement and music of mass appeal. If he can strike that balance without compromising his integrity, he is probably a greater artist than even his staunchest fans previously suspected, and with any exposure at all the public would pick up immediately on the truth and beauty of what he is doing. With this album, Captain Beefheart has struck that balance with total success, and I wouldn’t be surprised if he were a major star a year from now. Though you may have been a great shadow hovering over our music for half a decade now, Don, it can be said that in 1972 you’ve really arrived.

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