Saturday, December 18, 2010

Goodbye Captain

The music of the 20th century has many unique talents, but Don Van Vliet, aka Captain Beefheart, who has just passed away after complications from M.S., seems sure to endure. If Miles Davis took jazz into different places, Beefheart did the same for the blues. His music, at its best, was a glorious hybrid, but unclassifiable in many ways. If at the start of his career there was a certain awkward psychedelia, and at the end, a difficult attempt to commercialise this least biddable of artists, at his music's core wasd something consistently unique. When you heard Beefheart, surprise and shock quickly turned into amazement and love. I do think that he's one of the few artists, and certainly one of very few in the "rock" sphere, who actually makes you listen differently. To appreciate Beefheart is surprisingly easy - the building blocks are the much-loved blues, his songwriting is subtle and strong - but in doing so he changes how you think about music.

Like many people of my age I first heard Beefheart at the end of his productive career. His final album "Ice Cream for Crow" came out as I was first listening to music and seeing him perform from it on Whistle Test, I think it was, was revelatory. Who was this strange man with the odd name who the rock encyclopedias talked about as an irrelevant curiousity? Visiting record shops I'd pick up the frankly bizarre cover of "Trout Mask Replica" and wonder what on earth it might contain. An artist who had had fans in the sixties and seventies, came to have a whole new generation as his productive recording career finished, partly because of illness, and partly as he began another career, as a painter. There were to be no reformations with Beefheart, no comebacks, simply a growing understanding of the remarkable trajectory of his music.

"Trout Mask Replica" is the weirdest album to make "best albums of all time" charts. I bought the double at University, drawn in by the lovely (and untypical) "Moonlight on Vermont" and the avant-guitar instrumental "Dali's Car." As a fan of the Fall, the Birthday Party and Bogshed it wasn't that difficult a record to get inot - but I think it was five years before I could listen to side 3! I loved the spoken word intervals, the mad skit-songs, the jazz tinctures of the way the Magic Band played, clearly in control, but to the ears, all over the place. The songs as well are fantastic. Investigating further, Beefheart's a puzzle - the cheaply available "Unconditionally Guaranteed" is a bland soft rock album, enlivened by the beautiful "This is the Day", his later Virgin albums are patchworks, sometimes successful, sometimes not, debut "Safe as Milk" sometimes feels like a period piece, whilst with "Mirror Man" it seems incomprehensible that it was ever released, so earthy and raw is it.

It is only in those passing years that the real Beefheart legacy came clear. Seen as a whole, everything he did is of interest, and like a painter, you feel there's a yearning for change, for perfection that the earlier works are striving towards, and the later ones are trying to recapture, or to pull in another direction. In "Trout Mask Replica", the frequently unavailable "Lick My Decals Off Baby" and the relatively mainstream "Clear Spot" and "The Spotlight Kid" you have the essence of the man. Yet its not the whole story. If the removal of Beefheart from the remarkable musicians of the Magic Band was an issue on "Unconditionally" and "Blue Jeans and Moonbeams", live recordings from the early seventies both with the Magic Band and the band that followed, showed the Captain was still a fantastic artist. The "album" - that shibboleth of post Sgt.Pepper rock music - was a struggle for such an instinctive artists. Later records revisited old sketches and left his critical stock high, whilst the more successful old friend Frank Zappa, could occasionally be relied up on to give Beefheart a commercial boost.

Listening to him now, and death inevitably draws you back to such a loved artist, the distinctions between the different records seem less obvious. "Mirror Man" seems one of the greatest albums of the sixties, particularly in its extended form - with additional tracks that weren't on the original, whilst a compilation of the Virgin years, "A Carrot's as Close to a Diamond as a Rabbit Gets" does a great job of filleting his later material. Over the last few years the Magic Band have toured successfully on their own, playing tracks from the impossible "Trout Mask Replica", and a number of other recordings - live and demos - have surfaced. In Beefheart I think we are doing him a disfavour to have hoped for another album; there's a certainty of vision to his recording career that goes beyond any one single album - great as some of them are. Exploited by a wide range of different record labels over the years, his catalogue remains a bit of a mess - one hopes a Rhino or Rykodisk will give it the due care and attention of Zappa - and it took me years to find a copy of the remarkable "Lick My Decals Off Baby". It feels personally sad to think of his passing, as my late friend Dan was the biggest of Beefheart fans. If there's a heaven he'll be playing Beefheart sides as I write. I am the generation for whom the Captain was already virtually in the past, yet hearing him on Peel for the first time, was like finding yourself in an inhospitable landscape, with a rotting wooden hut at the end of a stinking road, and inside, finding the greatest jewel you'd ever seen. RIP Don.

1 comment:

Jim H. said...

Well done.