O Captain! My Captain!: The Unique Magic of Don Van Vliet (Revisited)

cb1

As Ian Anderson said, “We’re getting a bit short on heroes lately.”

And Ian, while he wasn’t speaking of Don Van Vliet, nevertheless would –and has— endorsed the man better known as Captain Beefheart. Indeed, the list of well-loved and iconoclastic artists who have cited CB as an inspiration and hero include the likes of Frank Zappa, Tom Waits, Nick Cave, P.J. Harvey and Matt Groening. When the people lots of people worship name you as someone they worship, you can safely conclude you have done influential work, even if it didn’t necessarily pay the bills.

To say Don Van Vliet was unique is rather like saying the sun radiates heat: it doesn’t quite capture the enormity and impact of the subject. To assert that he was brilliant would be almost insulting, if that is possible. A genius? Let’s just say that if he wasn’t, then no other pop musician has ever been either. Even that is not quite right, since pop refers to popular and Captain Beefheart was anything but popular. He was highly regarded, and always will be, but the circle of aficionados who gravitate to his uncanny catalog is likely to get smaller, not bigger. Also, it just doesn’t work to call what he did pop music; he was an artist. Literally. When he walked away from music, forever, in the early ‘80s, he concentrated on his painting and made far more money from that. (Calling to mind another eccentric genius, Syd Barrett, who turned his back on the scene and quietly tended to his paintings and his plants.)

So, sui generis? For sure, but even that won’t suffice. You almost have to make up words, so I will. Don Van Vliet was Chop Suey Generis. You need not hear a single note to be smitten; just consider some of the song titles: “Grown So Ugly”, “She’s Too Much For My Mirror”, “Steal Softly Thru Snow”, “Grow Fins”, “My Head Is My Only House Unless It Rains”, “Her Eyes Are A Blue Million Miles”, “Woe-is-uh-Me-Bop”, “The Clouds Are Full of Wine (not Whiskey or Rye)”, “Cardboard Cutout Sundown”, and, of course, “Zig Zag Wanderer”.

But then there is the music. And that voice. When doing his gruff, evil blues, he sounded more than a little like Howlin’ Wolf, but he wasn’t mimicking so much as channeling him (yeah, I know…), and it came out through his soul sounding like a narcotized sci-fi monster with an ashtray heart of gold. Add the lyrics (they range from simple to impenetrable but are always original and clever to the point of being intimidating) and you have a result that, love it or loathe it, could not in a billion years be imitated or even approximated by anyone. “High voltage man kisses night to bring the light to those who need to hide their shadow-deed” he wails on “Electricity” –a song that anticipates punk as much as it exhausts the possibilities of the avant-garde. Speaking of Howlin’ Wolf, this sounds like the great Chester Arthur Burnett cloned as a machine, doused in Lysergic acid and forced to stick its finger in a light socket.

Now that he’s gone, many folks will—and should—rhapsodize about the album most agree is Beefheart’s defining work (even if they’ve never actually listened to it), Trout Mask Replica. Among its many quirky and/or quixotic charms, this is possibly the first album to be so arty it became anti-art. Deliberately cacophonous, even confrontational, it seems to be searching for magic inside of the discordant chaos. The results will mean different things to different people, but Van Vliet had a method for his madness: perfectly capable musicians playing behind, beside and beneath anything that, on first (or fifteenth) listen seems to make sense. The album could be considered one extended love song to insanity, or a smirking expense report from the other side of reality. It is one of the all-time cult following rites of passage: if you are down with this, you could conceivably be down with anything –for better or worse.

Needless to say, Trout Mask Replica is not easy going or easily recommended, and in fact, one could (should) start just about anywhere else. If anyone reading this is uninitiated, it affords me an excellent opportunity to talk about the most accessible option, which happens to be my favorite Beefheart album, Safe As Milk. It is the first album, and also, in my opinion, the best one. I do not expect that many people share this perspective, but I think everyone in the know would agree this is the ideal point of entry. If there was even a modicum of justice in our plastic factory world, this would be widely considered one of rock music’s most out there yet addictive barbaric yawps.

(Sidenote: was 1967 an all-time year for debut albums or what? In addition to Safe As Milk there were first albums by The Doors, Pink Floyd, Jimi Hendrix and The Velvet Underground. Most people, if they think about Safe As Milk at all, consider it a delightful little lark, a nice enough opening salvo. For my money, it’s more than that; a lot more. And it’s funny, because when we think about the Summer of Love (if we think about the Summer of Love), it’s all about love being all you need and how The Beatles dropped their definitive statement, Sgt. Pepper, which might happen to be the most important album ever, et cetera. Interestingly, two albums that did not get much press at the time, but have certainly found their audiences—however small—in the subsequent decades, seem to best represent the reality of what that seminal year meant, musically and culturally. I’m talking about Safe As Milk as well as Love’s Forever Changes. Maybe the ultimate reason these two albums, aside from their commercial failings, tend to not register in the facile narrative of hippie nostalgia is because both albums saw through the façade then, and in hindsight seem all the more remarkable for their refusal to pay lip service, lyrically and aesthetically, to the up-with-people ethos of the time.)


Look at the band on the back cover. They are characters from a Wes Anderson movie: all wearing coat and tie, one inexplicably sporting leather gloves, one rocking a stylish chapeau (who happens to be named Alex St. Clair Snouffer). Not pictured—and not credited—is young wunderkind Ry Cooder, who lent his considerable slide guitar skills to the proceedings. They look more like stockbrokers than songwriters, which only adds to the mystique since they, as it happened, made some of the more unsettling music on the scene.

How does music like this happen? How is Captain Beefheart even conceivable? Do you believe in magic? Well how about the Magic Band? We know that the world didn’t know what to make of this album, then. What can we make of it, now? Here are a few thoughts: it doesn’t sound of its time, or any time, and it is one of those (very) rare recordings that can be returned to constantly and somehow, someway remains unfettered and invigorating. Each song is a totally complete statement, whimsical, yet always with the air of danger: like a trip about to take a serious turn for the worse, but it never does. The creative energy and offbeat ebullience make this record approachable but indescribable; it’s all in there: blues, doo-wop, psychedelia, faux-pop and a handful of songs that sound utterly unlike anything anyone has ever done.

Listening to “Dropout Boogie” is like watching the rock and roll version of Clark Kent coming out of the phone booth for the first time: this quiet, weird dude you laughed at in gym class suddenly soaring in the air above you. You’ve never heard him speak but as soon as he opens his mouth he’s Superman. This track works as well as any (from this album, or from his entire oeuvre) in terms of epitomizing Van Vliet’s unvarnished and utterly uncompromised approach. If the Captain should be worshipped for one thing it’s that he never once pandered for the sake of critical or commercial expediency. Considering this album was recorded during the height of the “Turn on, Tune in, Drop out” hysteria, a song like “Dropout Boogie” becomes a brave turd in the punch bowl, serving to question the long-term prospects of Timothy Leary’s call to arms. “And what about after that?” he asks, a line that joins Arthur Lee’s “The news today will be the movies for tomorrow” (from Forever Changes) as two of the most enduring—and prescient—from ’67.

Then there is a song like “Yellow Brick Road” that could almost make a white guy dance, and then wonder why everyone doesn’t know this and love it.

 

Safe As Milk was the one that introduced Don Van Vliet to the world and it remains a (Korn Ring) middle finger in the face of all the lame conformist who scoff at what they can’t understand. It’s not especially sad that this album did not find a widely receptive audience; its obscurity tends to confirm many things we know about the way art is created and received, especially in America. If music like this was successful it would almost cause us to question the calibration of our planet. Besides, Beefheart had as much of a chance at being understood as Jesus Christ at the trading floor on Wall Street. The message was sent, and it’s still out there for anyone who cares to hear it. The biggest blessing is that we can listen to this magical music and be reminded that it’s real, it happened. He happened, and some of us will spend the rest of our lives trying to figure out how we managed to get so lucky.

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A Week of Americana. Part Two: Captain Beefheart

usa

Don Van Vliet (R.I.P.), with his idiosyncracies, individuality and iconoclasm, represents virtually everything that is profoundly beautiful about America both as a concept and actuality. Like his compatriots Syd Barrett and Arthur Lee (to name only two, both of whom figured prominently in the summer of ’67), he was possibly driven to –or past– the point of insanity by…what, exactly? His genius? Reality? The impossibility of adapting, much less conforming, to a society that has rules men like Van Vliet are genetically predisposed to circumvent? Never fully appreciated during his time, it’s painful to contemplate his ongoing legacy in a world of free downloads and celebrity-anointed idols. Captain Beefheart is an original American Idol, and an ideal American: artist, inspiration, human. He bypassed convention by becoming the possibility of what his impossible brain imagined. And we should all be grateful to have had him.

(From my December 2010 tribute O Captain! My Captain!: The Unique Magic of Don Van Vliet)

As Ian Anderson said, “We’re getting a bit short on heroes lately.”

And Ian, while he wasn’t speaking of Don Van Vliet, nevertheless would –and did— endorse the man better known as Captain Beefheart. Indeed, the list of well-loved and iconoclastic artists who have cited CB as an inspiration and hero include the likes of Frank Zappa, Tom Waits, Nick Cave, P.J. Harvey and Matt Groening. When the people lots of people worship name you as someone they worship, you can safely conclude you have done influential work, even if it didn’t necessarily pay the bills.

To say Don Van Vliet was unique is rather like saying the sun radiates heat: it doesn’t quite capture the enormity and impact of the subject. To assert that he was brilliant would be almost insulting, if that is possible. A genius? Let’s just say that if he wasn’t, then no other pop musician has ever been either. Even that is not quite right, since pop refers to popular and Captain Beefheart was anything but popular. He was highly regarded, and always will be, but the circle of aficionados who gravitate to his uncanny catalog is likely to get smaller, not bigger. Also, it just doesn’t work to call what he did pop music; he was an artist. Literally. When he walked away from music, forever, in the early ‘80s, he concentrated on his painting and made far more money from that. (Calling to mind another eccentric genius, Syd Barrett, who turned his back on the scene and quietly tended to his paintings and his plants.)

So, sui generis? For sure, but even that won’t suffice. You almost have to make up words, so I will. Don Van Vliet was Chop Suey Generis. You need not hear a single note to be smitten; just consider some of the song titles: “Grown So Ugly”, “She’s Too Much For My Mirror”, “Steal Softly Thru Snow”, “Grow Fins”, “My Head Is My Only House Unless It Rains”, “Her Eyes Are A Blue Million Miles”, “Woe-is-uh-Me-Bop”, “The Clouds Are Full of Wine (not Whiskey or Rye)”, “Cardboard Cutout Sundown”, and, of course, “Zig Zag Wanderer”.

But then there is the music. And that voice. When doing his gruff, evil blues, he sounded more than a little like Howlin’ Wolf, but he wasn’t mimicking so much as channeling him (yeah, I know…), and it came out through his soul sounding like a narcotized sci-fi monster with an ashtray heart of gold. Add the lyrics (they range from simple to impenetrable but are always original and clever to the point of being intimidating) and you have a result that, love it or loathe it, could not in a billion years be imitated or even approximated by anyone. “High voltage man kisses night to bring the light to those who need to hide their shadow-deed” he wails on “Electricity” –a song that anticipates punk as much as it exhausts the possibilities of the avant-garde. Speaking of Howlin’ Wolf, this sounds like the great Chester Arthur Burnett cloned as a machine, doused in Lysergic acid and forced to stick its finger in a light socket.

Now that he’s gone, many folks will—and should—rhapsodize about the album most agree is Beefheart’s defining work (even if they’ve never actually listened to it), Trout Mask Replica. Among its many quirky and/or quixotic charms, this is possibly the first album to be so arty it became anti-art. Deliberately cacophonous, even confrontational, it seems to be searching for magic inside of the discordant chaos. The results will mean different things to different people, but Van Vliet had a method for his madness: perfectly capable musicians playing behind, beside and beneath anything that, on first (or fifteenth) listen seems to make sense. The album could be considered one extended love song to insanity, or a smirking expense report from the other side of reality. It is one of the all-time cult following rites of passage: if you are down with this, you could conceivably be down with anything –for better or worse.

Needless to say, Trout Mask Replica is not easy going or easily recommended, and in fact, one could (should) start just about anywhere else. If anyone reading this is uninitiated, it affords me an excellent opportunity to talk about the most accessible option, which happens to be my favorite Beefheart album, Safe As Milk. It is the first album, and also, in my opinion, the best one. I do not expect that many people share this perspective, but I think everyone in the know would agree this is the ideal point of entry. If there was even a modicum of justice in our plastic factory world, this would be widely considered one of rock music’s most out there yet addictive barbaric yawps.

(Sidenote: was 1967 an all-time year for debut albums or what? In addition to Safe As Milk there were first albums by The Doors, Pink Floyd, Jimi Hendrix and The Velvet Underground. Most people, if they think about Safe As Milk at all, consider it a delightful little lark, a nice enough opening salvo. For my money, it’s more than that; a lot more. And it’s funny, because when we think about the Summer of Love (if we think about the Summer of Love), it’s all about love being all you need and how The Beatles dropped their definitive statement, Sgt. Pepper, which might happen to be the most important album ever, et cetera. Interestingly, two albums that did not get much press at the time, but have certainly found their audiences—however small—in the subsequent decades, seem to best represent the reality of what that seminal year meant, musically and culturally. I’m talking about Safe As Milk as well as Love’s Forever Changes. Maybe the ultimate reason these two albums, aside from their commercial failings, tend to not register in the facile narrative of hippie nostalgia is because both albums saw through the façade then, and in hindsight seem all the more remarkable for their refusal to pay lip service, lyrically and aesthetically, to the up-with-people ethos of the time.)


Look at the band on the back cover. They are characters from a Wes Anderson movie: all wearing coat and tie, one inexplicably sporting leather gloves, one rocking a stylish chapeau (who happens to be named Alex St. Clair Snouffer). Not pictured—and not credited—is young wunderkind Ry Cooder, who lent his considerable slide guitar skills to the proceedings. They look more like stockbrokers than songwriters, which only adds to the mystique since they, as it happened, made some of the more unsettling music on the scene.

How does music like this happen? How is Captain Beefheart even conceivable? Do you believe in magic? Well how about the Magic Band? We know that the world didn’t know what to make of this album, then. What can we make of it, now? Here are a few thoughts: it doesn’t sound of its time, or any time, and it is one of those (very) rare recordings that can be returned to constantly and somehow, someway remains unfettered and invigorating. Each song is a totally complete statement, whimsical, yet always with the air of danger: like a trip about to take a serious turn for the worse, but it never does. The creative energy and offbeat ebullience make this record approachable but indescribable; it’s all in there: blues, doo-wop, psychedelia, faux-pop and a handful of songs that sound utterly unlike anything anyone has ever done.

Listening to “Dropout Boogie” is like watching the rock and roll version of Clark Kent coming out of the phone booth for the first time: this quiet, weird dude you laughed at in gym class suddenly soaring in the air above you. You’ve never heard him speak but as soon as he opens his mouth he’s Superman. This track works as well as any (from this album, or from his entire oeuvre) in terms of epitomizing Van Vliet’s unvarnished and utterly uncompromised approach. If the Captain should be worshipped for one thing it’s that he never once pandered for the sake of critical or commercial expediency. Considering this album was recorded during the height of the “Turn on, Tune in, Drop out” hysteria, a song like “Dropout Boogie” becomes a brave turd in the punch bowl, serving to question the long-term prospects of Timothy Leary’s call to arms. “And what about after that?” he asks, a line that joins Arthur Lee’s “The news today will be the movies for tomorrow” (from Forever Changes) as two of the most enduring—and prescient—from ’67.

Then there is a song like “Yellow Brick Road” that could almost make a white guy dance, and then wonder why everyone doesn’t know this and love it.

Safe As Milk was the one that introduced Don Van Vliet to the world and it remains a (Korn Ring) middle finger in the face of all the lame conformists who scoff at what they can’t understand. It’s not especially sad that this album did not find a widely receptive audience; its obscurity tends to confirm many things we know about the way art is created and received, especially in America. If music like this was successful it would almost cause us to question the calibration of our planet. Besides, Beefheart had as much of a chance at being understood as Jesus Christ at the trading floor on Wall Street. The message was sent, and it’s still out there for anyone who cares to hear it. The biggest blessing is that we can listen to this magical music and be reminded that it’s real, it happened. He happened, and some of us will spend the rest of our lives trying to figure out how we managed to get so lucky.

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1967 and the Prog-Rock Progenitors* (Revisited)

Progressive rock reached its full potential in the ‘70s, but its roots trace back to the previous decade. While an attempt to determine when and with whom prog-rock formally originated is impossible (not to mention pointless), it is instructive to consider which artists pointed the way.

The official or at least easiest story is that when they released Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, The Beatles ushered in a new era wherein rock music could be appreciated—and appraised—as Art. Of course there is considerable truth to this account, but there were plenty of other bands, circa 1967, edging things in a direction that was at once more evolved, complicated and unclassifiable.

For starters, The Beatles themselves had already made significant strides: Rubber Soul and especially Revolver showcased a facility for experimentation (sitar, string quartets, enriched lyrical import) and restlessness with regard to convention. “Tomorrow Never Knows” could be considered the true opening salvo that foresaw the future; after this song nothing was off the table, and opportunistic acts followed suit.

If 1967 characterizes a high point (famously, if a bit unfairly exemplified solely by Sgt. Pepper), it also initiated an explicit realignment of what was possible in rock music—for better or worse. Two albums that, in their way, illustrate where the art form would go are The Who’s The Who Sell Out and Love’s Forever Changes. In fact, if you combine the various concepts and approaches of both, a rough formula can be gleaned, previewing much of what was to come.

Indeed, both Love and The Who (led by Arthur Lee and Pete Townshend, respectively) had already made advancements on previous albums. The Who’s cheeky mini-opera, “A Quick One, While He’s Away” provided a template that Townshend—and many subsequent imitators—would utilize to greater effect. Love is notable for creating, alongside Dylan, Zappa and The Rolling Stones, one of the first songs to fill an entire album side. Love is not extolled nearly enough for the subtle ways they augmented the possibilities of a standard pop song: incorporating strings, flutes and harpsichords are all elements that make Side One of Da Capo a ceaselessly colorful and engaging listening experience.

Neil Young, not long for Buffalo Springfield, employed strings (with Jack Nitzsche’s supervision) for his elaborate miniature epics “Broken Arrow” and “Expecting to Fly”. The Moody Blues took a definitive leap forward, collaborating with Decca’s house orchestra to embellish their conceptual song-cycle Days of Future Passed. The Moody Blues were also one of the first bands to make prominent use of the mellotron (courtesy of Mike Pinder who, incidentally, is credited with turning John Lennon, pre “Strawberry Fields Forever”, onto the instrument), which would become a fixture in the prog-rock sound.

Traffic’s “Dear Mr. Fantasy” and Jefferson Airplane’s “White Rabbit” remain ubiquitous psychedelic anthems from 1967, but it was arguably two lesser known and celebrated (at the time) acts that provided crucial direction for more ambitious artists. The Velvet Underground and Captain Beefheart dropped albums that inspired and influenced the way modern music could connect. By turns surreal and cynical, Lou Reed and Don Van Vliet turned a mordant eye upon society and extended the lyrical possibilities Bob Dylan pioneered. Tracks like “Venus in Furs”, “Heroin”, “Drop Out Boogie” and “Electricity” (theremin!) are uncanny blueprints of a kitchen sink sensibility that quickly became commonplace.

Special mention must be made of the inimitable Brian Wilson. Even though his magnum opus SMiLE never saw the light of day (much more on that, here, “The Once and Future King: ‘SMiLE’ and Brian Wilson’s Very American Dream”) he can be—and has been, by none other than Paul McCartney—credited with inspiring if not intimidating the Fab Four to raise their game. Although the world would not hear the ideas and innovations Wilson began to assemble in 1966(!), enough material was salvaged to ultimately surface on 1967’s Smiley Smile, and “Heroes and Villains” could be considered the yin to “A Day in the Life’s” yang.

Two other debuts, both released prior to Sgt. Pepper, contain multiple elements that would be mined throughout the ensuing decade. We will never know what direction(s) Jimi Hendrix may have headed in, but the sources of a very different rock sound are sprinkled liberally throughout Are You Experienced?. His virtuosity alone served notice and opened the floodgates of imitation and indulgence; arguably no one has yet caught up to what Hendrix was achieving between 1967 and 1970. Whatever his merits as a lyricist (never mind poet), there is no question that Jim Morrison introduced a modus operandi that was at once more literate and dark than most of the rock albums that preceded The Doors.

Morrison’s two extended album closers, “The End” and “When The Music’s Over” (from Strange Days, also released in 1967) brought a dramatic, cathartic aspect to songwriting that translated to more theatric live performances: every arena act learned a trick or two from the Lizard King. However effectively (or farcically, depending upon your preference) the organ and guitar solos on “Light My Fire” approximate jazz improvisation, Robbie Krieger and Ray Manzarek did the near-impossible (or unthinkable, depending upon your preference) on the song that helped define the Summer of Love: they turned attention from the singer’s looks (and vocals) to the band mates’ sounds, if even for a few minutes.

Finally, enough can never be said (and much more will be said, before long) about Pink Floyd. Another 1967 debut, The Piper at the Gates of Dawn, recorded at the same time in the same studio as Sgt. Pepper, is a fully realized burst of sui generis psychedelic perfection. Lyrically, it ranges from the obligatory astral imagery of the era (“Astronomy Domine”) to the obligatory shout-out to I Ching (“Chapter 24”) to the brain salad surgery of “Bike”, revealing the unique and astonishing mind of a 21-year-old Syd Barrett.

Captivating as Barrett’s words (and voice) is throughout; the real revelation is his songwriting. The tunes, with one notable exception (“Interstellar Overdrive”), are exercises in precision, packing maximal sound and feeling into bite-sized bits. Eccentric, erudite and ebullient, The Piper at the Gates of Dawn is a happy explosion of creative potential, a template Floyd would expand upon in a stretch of possibly unrivaled masterpieces throughout the ‘70s.

By 1968 it was apparent many artists were paying attention, and a trio of songs signifies some of the ways the prog-rock aesthetic was already in full effect. Perhaps most notoriously, Iron Butterfly went all in, crafting a side-long song that strained for profundity, intensity and inscrutability. “In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida” (In The Garden of Eden?) super-sized the instrumental passages from “Light My Fire” (including a drum solo!), and incorporated earnest if overbearing explorations that drew from Country Joe and the Fish’s acid-drenched “Section 43”: over the course of 18 minutes it is psychedelia unbound or pretentious noodling personified (perhaps both).

Eric Burdon, who had found fame mining blues motifs with The Animals, threw his hat into the ring and crafted one of the more successful anti-war ballads, “Sky Pilot”. The band is focused and at just over seven minutes the song still seems just right: neither noodling (musically) or preaching (lyrically), the inclusion of sound effects and bagpipes are novel strategies, albeit ones that would become familiar—and somewhat stale in the next decade.

Lastly, another overlooked artist who deserves more, Arthur Brown, reached incisively into the recent past and did much to predict the future. The Crazy World of Arthur Brown is an early concept album, incorporating mythology, religion and astute sociological insight. Best known for the one-and-done hit single “Fire”, the rest of Brown’s debut holds up well even as it’s unmistakably of its time.

His flair for the dramatic (bounding onto the stage with his metal helmet aflame) and painted face anticipated acts as diverse as Kiss, Alice Cooper and Peter Gabriel. The remarkable “Spontaneous Apple Creation”, which sounds like a mash-up of Sun Ra and Ennio Morricone, with vocals (and lyrics) that undeniably influenced Jethro Tull’s Ian Anderson, remains a signpost of how far rock music had come in only a couple of years.

*Second installment of new monthly PopMatters column, “The Amazing Pudding” (First installment HERE).

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A Week of Americana. Part Two: Captain Beefheart

Don Van Vliet (R.I.P.), with his idiosyncracies, individuality and iconoclasm, represents virtually everything that is profoundly beautiful about America both as a concept and actuality. Like his compatriots Syd Barrett and Arthur Lee (to name only two, both of whom figured prominently in the summer of ’67), he was possibly driven to –or past– the point of insanity by…what, exactly? His genius? Reality? The impossibility of adapting, much less conforming, to a society that has rules men like Van Vliet are genetically predisposed to circumvent? Never fully appreciated during his time, it’s painful to contemplate his ongoing legacy in a world of free downloads and celebrity-anointed idols. Captain Beefheart is an original American Idol, and an ideal American: artist, inspiration, human. He bypassed convention by becoming the possibility of what his impossible brain imagined. And we should all be grateful to have had him.

(From my December 2010 tribute O Captain! My Captain!: The Unique Magic of Don Van Vliet)

As Ian Anderson said, “We’re getting a bit short on heroes lately.”

And Ian, while he wasn’t speaking of Don Van Vliet, nevertheless would –and did— endorse the man better known as Captain Beefheart. Indeed, the list of well-loved and iconoclastic artists who have cited CB as an inspiration and hero include the likes of Frank Zappa, Tom Waits, Nick Cave, P.J. Harvey and Matt Groening. When the people lots of people worship name you as someone they worship, you can safely conclude you have done influential work, even if it didn’t necessarily pay the bills.

To say Don Van Vliet was unique is rather like saying the sun radiates heat: it doesn’t quite capture the enormity and impact of the subject. To assert that he was brilliant would be almost insulting, if that is possible. A genius? Let’s just say that if he wasn’t, then no other pop musician has ever been either. Even that is not quite right, since pop refers to popular and Captain Beefheart was anything but popular. He was highly regarded, and always will be, but the circle of aficionados who gravitate to his uncanny catalog is likely to get smaller, not bigger. Also, it just doesn’t work to call what he did pop music; he was an artist. Literally. When he walked away from music, forever, in the early ‘80s, he concentrated on his painting and made far more money from that. (Calling to mind another eccentric genius, Syd Barrett, who turned his back on the scene and quietly tended to his paintings and his plants.)

So, sui generis? For sure, but even that won’t suffice. You almost have to make up words, so I will. Don Van Vliet was Chop Suey Generis. You need not hear a single note to be smitten; just consider some of the song titles: “Grown So Ugly”, “She’s Too Much For My Mirror”, “Steal Softly Thru Snow”, “Grow Fins”, “My Head Is My Only House Unless It Rains”, “Her Eyes Are A Blue Million Miles”, “Woe-is-uh-Me-Bop”, “The Clouds Are Full of Wine (not Whiskey or Rye)”, “Cardboard Cutout Sundown”, and, of course, “Zig Zag Wanderer”.

But then there is the music. And that voice. When doing his gruff, evil blues, he sounded more than a little like Howlin’ Wolf, but he wasn’t mimicking so much as channeling him (yeah, I know…), and it came out through his soul sounding like a narcotized sci-fi monster with an ashtray heart of gold. Add the lyrics (they range from simple to impenetrable but are always original and clever to the point of being intimidating) and you have a result that, love it or loathe it, could not in a billion years be imitated or even approximated by anyone. “High voltage man kisses night to bring the light to those who need to hide their shadow-deed” he wails on “Electricity” –a song that anticipates punk as much as it exhausts the possibilities of the avant-garde. Speaking of Howlin’ Wolf, this sounds like the great Chester Arthur Burnett cloned as a machine, doused in Lysergic acid and forced to stick its finger in a light socket.

Now that he’s gone, many folks will—and should—rhapsodize about the album most agree is Beefheart’s defining work (even if they’ve never actually listened to it), Trout Mask Replica. Among its many quirky and/or quixotic charms, this is possibly the first album to be so arty it became anti-art. Deliberately cacophonous, even confrontational, it seems to be searching for magic inside of the discordant chaos. The results will mean different things to different people, but Van Vliet had a method for his madness: perfectly capable musicians playing behind, beside and beneath anything that, on first (or fifteenth) listen seems to make sense. The album could be considered one extended love song to insanity, or a smirking expense report from the other side of reality. It is one of the all-time cult following rites of passage: if you are down with this, you could conceivably be down with anything –for better or worse.

Needless to say, Trout Mask Replica is not easy going or easily recommended, and in fact, one could (should) start just about anywhere else. If anyone reading this is uninitiated, it affords me an excellent opportunity to talk about the most accessible option, which happens to be my favorite Beefheart album, Safe As Milk. It is the first album, and also, in my opinion, the best one. I do not expect that many people share this perspective, but I think everyone in the know would agree this is the ideal point of entry. If there was even a modicum of justice in our plastic factory world, this would be widely considered one of rock music’s most out there yet addictive barbaric yawps.

(Sidenote: was 1967 an all-time year for debut albums or what? In addition to Safe As Milk there were first albums by The Doors, Pink Floyd, Jimi Hendrix and The Velvet Underground. Most people, if they think about Safe As Milk at all, consider it a delightful little lark, a nice enough opening salvo. For my money, it’s more than that; a lot more. And it’s funny, because when we think about the Summer of Love (if we think about the Summer of Love), it’s all about love being all you need and how The Beatles dropped their definitive statement, Sgt. Pepper, which might happen to be the most important album ever, et cetera. Interestingly, two albums that did not get much press at the time, but have certainly found their audiences—however small—in the subsequent decades, seem to best represent the reality of what that seminal year meant, musically and culturally. I’m talking about Safe As Milk as well as Love’s Forever Changes. Maybe the ultimate reason these two albums, aside from their commercial failings, tend to not register in the facile narrative of hippie nostalgia is because both albums saw through the façade then, and in hindsight seem all the more remarkable for their refusal to pay lip service, lyrically and aesthetically, to the up-with-people ethos of the time.)


Look at the band on the back cover. They are characters from a Wes Anderson movie: all wearing coat and tie, one inexplicably sporting leather gloves, one rocking a stylish chapeau (who happens to be named Alex St. Clair Snouffer). Not pictured—and not credited—is young wunderkind Ry Cooder, who lent his considerable slide guitar skills to the proceedings. They look more like stockbrokers than songwriters, which only adds to the mystique since they, as it happened, made some of the more unsettling music on the scene.

How does music like this happen? How is Captain Beefheart even conceivable? Do you believe in magic? Well how about the Magic Band? We know that the world didn’t know what to make of this album, then. What can we make of it, now? Here are a few thoughts: it doesn’t sound of its time, or any time, and it is one of those (very) rare recordings that can be returned to constantly and somehow, someway remains unfettered and invigorating. Each song is a totally complete statement, whimsical, yet always with the air of danger: like a trip about to take a serious turn for the worse, but it never does. The creative energy and offbeat ebullience make this record approachable but indescribable; it’s all in there: blues, doo-wop, psychedelia, faux-pop and a handful of songs that sound utterly unlike anything anyone has ever done.

Listening to “Dropout Boogie” is like watching the rock and roll version of Clark Kent coming out of the phone booth for the first time: this quiet, weird dude you laughed at in gym class suddenly soaring in the air above you. You’ve never heard him speak but as soon as he opens his mouth he’s Superman. This track works as well as any (from this album, or from his entire oeuvre) in terms of epitomizing Van Vliet’s unvarnished and utterly uncompromised approach. If the Captain should be worshipped for one thing it’s that he never once pandered for the sake of critical or commercial expediency. Considering this album was recorded during the height of the “Turn on, Tune in, Drop out” hysteria, a song like “Dropout Boogie” becomes a brave turd in the punch bowl, serving to question the long-term prospects of Timothy Leary’s call to arms. “And what about after that?” he asks, a line that joins Arthur Lee’s “The news today will be the movies for tomorrow” (from Forever Changes) as two of the most enduring—and prescient—from ’67.

Then there is a song like “Yellow Brick Road” that could almost make a white guy dance, and then wonder why everyone doesn’t know this and love it.

Safe As Milk was the one that introduced Don Van Vliet to the world and it remains a (Korn Ring) middle finger in the face of all the lame conformists who scoff at what they can’t understand. It’s not especially sad that this album did not find a widely receptive audience; its obscurity tends to confirm many things we know about the way art is created and received, especially in America. If music like this was successful it would almost cause us to question the calibration of our planet. Besides, Beefheart had as much of a chance at being understood as Jesus Christ at the trading floor on Wall Street. The message was sent, and it’s still out there for anyone who cares to hear it. The biggest blessing is that we can listen to this magical music and be reminded that it’s real, it happened. He happened, and some of us will spend the rest of our lives trying to figure out how we managed to get so lucky.

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1967 and the Prog-Rock Progenitors*

Progressive rock reached its full potential in the ‘70s, but its roots trace back to the previous decade. While an attempt to determine when and with whom prog-rock formally originated is impossible (not to mention pointless), it is instructive to consider which artists pointed the way.

The official or at least easiest story is that when they released Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, The Beatles ushered in a new era wherein rock music could be appreciated—and appraised—as Art. Of course there is considerable truth to this account, but there were plenty of other bands, circa 1967, edging things in a direction that was at once more evolved, complicated and unclassifiable.

For starters, The Beatles themselves had already made significant strides: Rubber Soul and especially Revolver showcased a facility for experimentation (sitar, string quartets, enriched lyrical import) and restlessness with regard to convention. “Tomorrow Never Knows” could be considered the true opening salvo that foresaw the future; after this song nothing was off the table, and opportunistic acts followed suit.

If 1967 characterizes a high point (famously, if a bit unfairly exemplified solely by Sgt. Pepper), it also initiated an explicit realignment of what was possible in rock music—for better or worse. Two albums that, in their way, illustrate where the art form would go are The Who’s The Who Sell Out and Love’s Forever Changes. In fact, if you combine the various concepts and approaches of both, a rough formula can be gleaned, previewing much of what was to come.

Indeed, both Love and The Who (led by Arthur Lee and Pete Townshend, respectively) had already made advancements on previous albums. The Who’s cheeky mini-opera, “A Quick One, While He’s Away” provided a template that Townshend—and many subsequent imitators—would utilize to greater effect. Love is notable for creating, alongside Dylan, Zappa and The Rolling Stones, one of the first songs to fill an entire album side. Love is not extolled nearly enough for the subtle ways they augmented the possibilities of a standard pop song: incorporating strings, flutes and harpsichords are all elements that make Side One of Da Capo a ceaselessly colorful and engaging listening experience.

Neil Young, not long for Buffalo Springfield, employed strings (with Jack Nitzsche’s supervision) for his elaborate miniature epics “Broken Arrow” and “Expecting to Fly”. The Moody Blues took a definitive leap forward, collaborating with Decca’s house orchestra to embellish their conceptual song-cycle Days of Future Passed. The Moody Blues were also one of the first bands to make prominent use of the mellotron (courtesy of Mike Pinder who, incidentally, is credited with turning John Lennon, pre “Strawberry Fields Forever”, onto the instrument), which would become a fixture in the prog-rock sound.

Traffic’s “Dear Mr. Fantasy” and Jefferson Airplane’s “White Rabbit” remain ubiquitous psychedelic anthems from 1967, but it was arguably two lesser known and celebrated (at the time) acts that provided crucial direction for more ambitious artists. The Velvet Underground and Captain Beefheart dropped albums that inspired and influenced the way modern music could connect. By turns surreal and cynical, Lou Reed and Don Van Vliet turned a mordant eye upon society and extended the lyrical possibilities Bob Dylan pioneered. Tracks like “Venus in Furs”, “Heroin”, “Drop Out Boogie” and “Electricity” (theremin!) are uncanny blueprints of a kitchen sink sensibility that quickly became commonplace.

Special mention must be made of the inimitable Brian Wilson. Even though his magnum opus SMiLE never saw the light of day (much more on that, here, “The Once and Future King: ‘SMiLE’ and Brian Wilson’s Very American Dream”) he can be—and has been, by none other than Paul McCartney—credited with inspiring if not intimidating the Fab Four to raise their game. Although the world would not hear the ideas and innovations Wilson began to assemble in 1966(!), enough material was salvaged to ultimately surface on 1967’s Smiley Smile, and “Heroes and Villains” could be considered the yin to “A Day in the Life’s” yang.

Two other debuts, both released prior to Sgt. Pepper, contain multiple elements that would be mined throughout the ensuing decade. We will never know what direction(s) Jimi Hendrix may have headed in, but the sources of a very different rock sound are sprinkled liberally throughout Are You Experienced?. His virtuosity alone served notice and opened the floodgates of imitation and indulgence; arguably no one has yet caught up to what Hendrix was achieving between 1967 and 1970. Whatever his merits as a lyricist (never mind poet), there is no question that Jim Morrison introduced a modus operandi that was at once more literate and dark than most of the rock albums that preceded The Doors.

Morrison’s two extended album closers, “The End” and “When The Music’s Over” (from Strange Days, also released in 1967) brought a dramatic, cathartic aspect to songwriting that translated to more theatric live performances: every arena act learned a trick or two from the Lizard King. However effectively (or farcically, depending upon your preference) the organ and guitar solos on “Light My Fire” approximate jazz improvisation, Robbie Krieger and Ray Manzarek did the near-impossible (or unthinkable, depending upon your preference) on the song that helped define the Summer of Love: they turned attention from the singer’s looks (and vocals) to the band mates’ sounds, if even for a few minutes.

Finally, enough can never be said (and much more will be said, before long) about Pink Floyd. Another 1967 debut, The Piper at the Gates of Dawn, recorded at the same time in the same studio as Sgt. Pepper, is a fully realized burst of sui generis psychedelic perfection. Lyrically, it ranges from the obligatory astral imagery of the era (“Astronomy Domine”) to the obligatory shout-out to I Ching (“Chapter 24”) to the brain salad surgery of “Bike”, revealing the unique and astonishing mind of a 21-year-old Syd Barrett.

Captivating as Barrett’s words (and voice) is throughout; the real revelation is his songwriting. The tunes, with one notable exception (“Interstellar Overdrive”), are exercises in precision, packing maximal sound and feeling into bite-sized bits. Eccentric, erudite and ebullient, The Piper at the Gates of Dawn is a happy explosion of creative potential, a template Floyd would expand upon in a stretch of possibly unrivaled masterpieces throughout the ‘70s.

By 1968 it was apparent many artists were paying attention, and a trio of songs signifies some of the ways the prog-rock aesthetic was already in full effect. Perhaps most notoriously, Iron Butterfly went all in, crafting a side-long song that strained for profundity, intensity and inscrutability. “In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida” (In The Garden of Eden?) super-sized the instrumental passages from “Light My Fire” (including a drum solo!), and incorporated earnest if overbearing explorations that drew from Country Joe and the Fish’s acid-drenched “Section 43”: over the course of 18 minutes it is psychedelia unbound or pretentious noodling personified (perhaps both).

Eric Burdon, who had found fame mining blues motifs with The Animals, threw his hat into the ring and crafted one of the more successful anti-war ballads, “Sky Pilot”. The band is focused and at just over seven minutes the song still seems just right: neither noodling (musically) or preaching (lyrically), the inclusion of sound effects and bagpipes are novel strategies, albeit ones that would become familiar—and somewhat stale in the next decade.

Lastly, another overlooked artist who deserves more, Arthur Brown, reached incisively into the recent past and did much to predict the future. The Crazy World of Arthur Brown is an early concept album, incorporating mythology, religion and astute sociological insight. Best known for the one-and-done hit single “Fire”, the rest of Brown’s debut holds up well even as it’s unmistakably of its time.

His flair for the dramatic (bounding onto the stage with his metal helmet aflame) and painted face anticipated acts as diverse as Kiss, Alice Cooper and Peter Gabriel. The remarkable “Spontaneous Apple Creation”, which sounds like a mash-up of Sun Ra and Ennio Morricone, with vocals (and lyrics) that undeniably influenced Jethro Tull’s Ian Anderson, remains a signpost of how far rock music had come in only a couple of years.

*Second installment of new monthly PopMatters column, “The Amazing Pudding” (First installment HERE).

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A Week of Americana. Part Six: Captain Beefheart

Don Van Vliet (R.I.P.), with his idiosyncracies, individuality and iconoclasm, represents virtually everything that is profoundly beautiful about America both as a concept and actuality. Like his compatriots Syd Barrett and Arthur Lee (to name only two, both of whom figured prominently in the summer of ’67), he was possibly driven to –or past– the point of insanity by…what, exactly? His genius? Reality? The impossibility of adapting, much less conforming, to a society that has rules men like Van Vliet are genetically predisposed to circumvent? Never fully appreciated during his time, it’s painful to contemplate his ongoing legacy in a world of free downloads and celebrity-anointed idols. Captain Beefheart is an original American Idol, and an ideal American: artist, inspiration, human. He bypassed convention by becoming the possibility of what his impossible brain imagined. And we should all be grateful to have had him.

(From my December 2010 tribute O Captain! My Captain!: The Unique Magic of Don Van Vliet)

As Ian Anderson said, “We’re getting a bit short on heroes lately.”

And Ian, while he wasn’t speaking of Don Van Vliet, nevertheless would –and did— endorse the man better known as Captain Beefheart. Indeed, the list of well-loved and iconoclastic artists who have cited CB as an inspiration and hero include the likes of Frank Zappa, Tom Waits, Nick Cave, P.J. Harvey and Matt Groening. When the people lots of people worship name you as someone they worship, you can safely conclude you have done influential work, even if it didn’t necessarily pay the bills.

To say Don Van Vliet was unique is rather like saying the sun radiates heat: it doesn’t quite capture the enormity and impact of the subject. To assert that he was brilliant would be almost insulting, if that is possible. A genius? Let’s just say that if he wasn’t, then no other pop musician has ever been either. Even that is not quite right, since pop refers to popular and Captain Beefheart was anything but popular. He was highly regarded, and always will be, but the circle of aficionados who gravitate to his uncanny catalog is likely to get smaller, not bigger. Also, it just doesn’t work to call what he did pop music; he was an artist. Literally. When he walked away from music, forever, in the early ‘80s, he concentrated on his painting and made far more money from that. (Calling to mind another eccentric genius, Syd Barrett, who turned his back on the scene and quietly tended to his paintings and his plants.)

So, sui generis? For sure, but even that won’t suffice. You almost have to make up words, so I will. Don Van Vliet was Chop Suey Generis. You need not hear a single note to be smitten; just consider some of the song titles: “Grown So Ugly”, “She’s Too Much For My Mirror”, “Steal Softly Thru Snow”, “Grow Fins”, “My Head Is My Only House Unless It Rains”, “Her Eyes Are A Blue Million Miles”, “Woe-is-uh-Me-Bop”, “The Clouds Are Full of Wine (not Whiskey or Rye)”, “Cardboard Cutout Sundown”, and, of course, “Zig Zag Wanderer”.

But then there is the music. And that voice. When doing his gruff, evil blues, he sounded more than a little like Howlin’ Wolf, but he wasn’t mimicking so much as channeling him (yeah, I know…), and it came out through his soul sounding like a narcotized sci-fi monster with an ashtray heart of gold. Add the lyrics (they range from simple to impenetrable but are always original and clever to the point of being intimidating) and you have a result that, love it or loathe it, could not in a billion years be imitated or even approximated by anyone. “High voltage man kisses night to bring the light to those who need to hide their shadow-deed” he wails on “Electricity” –a song that anticipates punk as much as it exhausts the possibilities of the avant-garde. Speaking of Howlin’ Wolf, this sounds like the great Chester Arthur Burnett cloned as a machine, doused in Lysergic acid and forced to stick its finger in a light socket.

Now that he’s gone, many folks will—and should—rhapsodize about the album most agree is Beefheart’s defining work (even if they’ve never actually listened to it), Trout Mask Replica. Among its many quirky and/or quixotic charms, this is possibly the first album to be so arty it became anti-art. Deliberately cacophonous, even confrontational, it seems to be searching for magic inside of the discordant chaos. The results will mean different things to different people, but Van Vliet had a method for his madness: perfectly capable musicians playing behind, beside and beneath anything that, on first (or fifteenth) listen seems to make sense. The album could be considered one extended love song to insanity, or a smirking expense report from the other side of reality. It is one of the all-time cult following rites of passage: if you are down with this, you could conceivably be down with anything –for better or worse.

Needless to say, Trout Mask Replica is not easy going or easily recommended, and in fact, one could (should) start just about anywhere else. If anyone reading this is uninitiated, it affords me an excellent opportunity to talk about the most accessible option, which happens to be my favorite Beefheart album, Safe As Milk. It is the first album, and also, in my opinion, the best one. I do not expect that many people share this perspective, but I think everyone in the know would agree this is the ideal point of entry. If there was even a modicum of justice in our plastic factory world, this would be widely considered one of rock music’s most out there yet addictive barbaric yawps.

(Sidenote: was 1967 an all-time year for debut albums or what? In addition to Safe As Milk there were first albums by The Doors, Pink Floyd, Jimi Hendrix and The Velvet Underground. Most people, if they think about Safe As Milk at all, consider it a delightful little lark, a nice enough opening salvo. For my money, it’s more than that; a lot more. And it’s funny, because when we think about the Summer of Love (if we think about the Summer of Love), it’s all about love being all you need and how The Beatles dropped their definitive statement, Sgt. Pepper, which might happen to be the most important album ever, et cetera. Interestingly, two albums that did not get much press at the time, but have certainly found their audiences—however small—in the subsequent decades, seem to best represent the reality of what that seminal year meant, musically and culturally. I’m talking about Safe As Milk as well as Love’s Forever Changes. Maybe the ultimate reason these two albums, aside from their commercial failings, tend to not register in the facile narrative of hippie nostalgia is because both albums saw through the façade then, and in hindsight seem all the more remarkable for their refusal to pay lip service, lyrically and aesthetically, to the up-with-people ethos of the time.)


Look at the band on the back cover. They are characters from a Wes Anderson movie: all wearing coat and tie, one inexplicably sporting leather gloves, one rocking a stylish chapeau (who happens to be named Alex St. Clair Snouffer). Not pictured—and not credited—is young wunderkind Ry Cooder, who lent his considerable slide guitar skills to the proceedings. They look more like stockbrokers than songwriters, which only adds to the mystique since they, as it happened, made some of the more unsettling music on the scene.

How does music like this happen? How is Captain Beefheart even conceivable? Do you believe in magic? Well how about the Magic Band? We know that the world didn’t know what to make of this album, then. What can we make of it, now? Here are a few thoughts: it doesn’t sound of its time, or any time, and it is one of those (very) rare recordings that can be returned to constantly and somehow, someway remains unfettered and invigorating. Each song is a totally complete statement, whimsical, yet always with the air of danger: like a trip about to take a serious turn for the worse, but it never does. The creative energy and offbeat ebullience make this record approachable but indescribable; it’s all in there: blues, doo-wop, psychedelia, faux-pop and a handful of songs that sound utterly unlike anything anyone has ever done.

Listening to “Dropout Boogie” is like watching the rock and roll version of Clark Kent coming out of the phone booth for the first time: this quiet, weird dude you laughed at in gym class suddenly soaring in the air above you. You’ve never heard him speak but as soon as he opens his mouth he’s Superman. This track works as well as any (from this album, or from his entire oeuvre) in terms of epitomizing Van Vliet’s unvarnished and utterly uncompromised approach. If the Captain should be worshipped for one thing it’s that he never once pandered for the sake of critical or commercial expediency. Considering this album was recorded during the height of the “Turn on, Tune in, Drop out” hysteria, a song like “Dropout Boogie” becomes a brave turd in the punch bowl, serving to question the long-term prospects of Timothy Leary’s call to arms. “And what about after that?” he asks, a line that joins Arthur Lee’s “The news today will be the movies for tomorrow” (from Forever Changes) as two of the most enduring—and prescient—from ’67.

Then there is a song like “Yellow Brick Road” that could almost make a white guy dance, and then wonder why everyone doesn’t know this and love it.

Safe As Milk was the one that introduced Don Van Vliet to the world and it remains a (Korn Ring) middle finger in the face of all the lame conformists who scoff at what they can’t understand. It’s not especially sad that this album did not find a widely receptive audience; its obscurity tends to confirm many things we know about the way art is created and received, especially in America. If music like this was successful it would almost cause us to question the calibration of our planet. Besides, Beefheart had as much of a chance at being understood as Jesus Christ at the trading floor on Wall Street. The message was sent, and it’s still out there for anyone who cares to hear it. The biggest blessing is that we can listen to this magical music and be reminded that it’s real, it happened. He happened, and some of us will spend the rest of our lives trying to figure out how we managed to get so lucky.

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2010: Time To Die (Part Two: July-December)

2010: In pace requiescat!

This one hurt. The spectacular career of Bob Probert had already ended; his life ended entirely too soon (at the absurdly young age of 45), on July 5 while smoke from the previous day’s fireworks still hung in the air.

Quick tally: #24, over 3,000 penalty minutes. Member, along with Joe Kocur, of the legendary “Bruise Brothers” tandem back in the days when the Detroit Red Wings were more feared for what they could do after the whistle stopped play. Participant in a handful of the all-time classic fights in hockey history. Man who inspired t-shirts that read “Give Blood. Fight Probert.” Simply put, if one were to try and create the ideal enforcer (especially for an era that may not have been the toughest or most iconic era but was one of the most enjoyable), one could hardly imagine a more suitable cartoon character than Bob Probert.

As The Kinks once sang, Let’s All Drink To The Death Of A Clown.

And lest anyone think I’m using the word clown carelessly or disrespectfully, it is in fact chosen with the aim of being both accurate and approbatory. (A Probie-tory, if you like.)

Think about what a clown does: he is the minor but essential character who shows up at a circus with the objective of instigating misconduct. Above all, his purpose is to entertain with a mixture of mischief and cheer. A superficial assessment might conclude that a clown is simply doing, in make-up, what any drunk idiot might do. But of course whether it is juggling, dancing or doing tricks, not just anyone could be (or would want to be) a clown. It’s a job.

Think about what a hockey enforcer (what we used to call a goon just like we used to call escorts hookers or stockbrokers sociopaths) does: he is the minor but essential figure who shows up in an arena with the object of instigating misconduct (hopefully without receiving a game misconduct). Above all, his purpose is to settle scores and entertain a crowd while uplifting his teammates. A superficial assessment might conclude that an enforcer is simply doing, in a colorful costume, what any drunk idiot might do. But needless to say, trading bare-fisted blows (sober or especially drunk) in a bar is considerably different than standing on skates and going toe to toe with an opponent who is well-prepared (and in some cases, well-paid) to kick your ass in front of thousands of people. Many people without athletic ability are very capable goons; only an extremely select group of individuals are able (much less willing) to abide by “The Code”. It’s a job.

A much longer appraisal of his life, and the odd algebra of hockey enforcement here.

The best hockey fight of all time (please appreciate the affectionate head-butt and head-pats at the end):

 

 

The dog daze of summer got a bit more unbearable with the passing of Harvey Pekar. I gave him as loving and thorough an appreciation as I could, and his loss can be summed up with the understanding that we won’t get many, if any, like him down here anytime soon.

And while Pekar was groundbreaking in a way for making the primary source of his subject material his own life, his life story is more remarkable than anything written by or about him. To go from a genuinely obscure misanthrope living in squalor to becoming the mostly obscure misanthrope living mostly in squalor…that’s America. It’s definitely the American Dream, through a broken glass darkly.

It’s almost impossible to envision now, with everyone’s daily trials, tribulations and ablutions the focus of a billion blog posts, or the solipsistic Greek chorus of the Twittering class, but what Pekar did, then, by pulling the soda-stained cover off his personal life in the service of art was a revelation. Certainly, the subject of our immortal Self goes back to cave drawings and Don Quixote, and only official autobiographies are truly fictional. But when it came to the more postmodern type of tilting at windmills, Harvey Pekar was the patron saint of the unshaven, recalcitrant crank (actually crank is too harsh by half; he was more misanthrope who looked at life the way a chronically ambivalent dieter regards that piece of cake: he knows better but he just can’t help himself).

With Robert Crumb’s divine (artistic) intervention, his efforts captured the disaffection of the underdog and gave words to the shmucks destined to be forgotten. To become a meaningful artist one must be intolerant of cliche. To become a meaningful human being one must be intolerant of untruth. Although it came at a considerable cost, Harvey Pekar was incapable of cruising along the soul-crushing streets of quiet desperation. In becoming the poet laureate of disinclined endurance he helped remind America that there is a splendor in our shared obsolescence.

In October we lost Barbara Billingsley. This was a rite of passage, however symbolic, for many people who remember black and white TV (and I don’t mean knowing about it, I mean watching it).

I don’t know about calling her “America’s mom”, as I’m sure many obituaries will claim, but she was inarguably the “sitcom mom”.

It’s funny. My peers and I (born in or around 1970) were, obviously, not around in the ’50s, but that earlier era loomed large in our lives. Let me explain: the people who raised us did live in that time, and they were invariably informed by the mores and cultural imperatives of that era. As such, many of our parents were either inculcating or reacting against the buttoned-down (repressed?), black-and-white (i.e., white) reality shows like Leave It To Beaver portrayed. Hence the hippie sensibility that at least had a fighting chance for a few years before the door slammed shut in the back-to-the-future adventure of the Reagan years.

But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. Many of us watched syndicated repeats of shows like Leave It To Beaver at an age when the TV functioned as a stop-gap between swim practice and spending the majority of the day at the pool, or in between morning chores (remember those?). It was all about the escapades that Beaver and Wally got into, and Ward and June were, well, not older so much as ageless. Ward was kind of like God (a very white God): firm, upright, not one to be fucked with. But He brought you into this world and he always had your best interests in mind, even when you screwed up. Billingsley was, to the average eight year old (I’d imagine, unless I’m alone here), less a woman than a matron; equal parts perfect casting and appearance. She was kind of like Jesus (or Mary?): she helped hold down the fort and there was never any dissension in the Cleaver crib. But she was the (ahem) kinder, gentler hand, the one whose shoulder you could cry on and the one who would buck you up even if you let her down. That, after all, is what mothers are for. (The adult looking back on clips from that show can’t help but notice Barbs was a fine-looking woman indeed. One imagines that outside of the kitchen, once the boys were tucked in and a few very dry Martinis later, with Ward nodding off in his recliner after another heroin fix, our all-American mom was ready to party; let’s hope for all of our sakes this was the case. Just kidding, mostly.)

All of which, I guess, is one way of trying to articulate the obvious: if America needed a manufactured (but, according to colleagues, family and friends, more than half-genuine) mother figure to enshrine in sit-com heaven, we all could have gotten much worse than Barbara Billingsley.

A little over a week later we lost the great Gregory Isaacs, AKA “The Cool Ruler”.

A fond adieu to one of reggae music’s silken voices. Certainly not as known or celebrated as many of his peers, Isaacs has always been a reggae-lover’s reggae icon. Those in the know appreciate his understated charms and subtle mastery. Of the many artists we can –and should– say this about: Isaacs was meant to sing and make music, and we should be grateful to the forces of the universe (however fickle they might be, and however many other angelic voices they’ve not deemed fit to anoint) that the Cool Ruler was able to find his way onto record, and into our hearts.

The hockey world lost one of its heroes in November when cancer finally got the best of Pat Burns.

You have to hand it to Cancer. It does not discriminate: all it requires is a living body to inhabit and attack. That’s it. Certainly, if you are impoverished or unable to acquire adequate medical care, this disease will make quicker work of you. But even the wealthy, well-connected and powerful are ultimately susceptible to the Big C.

This week the universally despised and dreaded ailment claimed another influential life. And it proved that no matter how tough you are, it likes its chances if it can remain undetected long enough to get a head start. If there is any human whose prospects I’d wager on in a mano a chemo battle, it would be Pat Burns. (Decent overviews of his career and achievements here and here and especially here.)

This excerpt pretty much sums it up:

“As for my career,” he said at the arena ceremony, “I always said to my kids, ‘You don’t cry because it’s over, you’re happy because it happened.’ That’s the main thing. I’m very happy that it happened.”

A few weeks later, Mr. Burns said he could not imagine himself being anything other than a cop and a coach.

“No, that’s all I was,” he said.

November turned out to be a rough month indeed when we lost the inimitable Leslie Nielsen.

Anyone who can remember the era when Beta briefly held sway over VHS will surely remember seeing Nielsen in Airplane! (Don’t call me Shirley). Impossible as it might be to believe, nobody from this generation had any idea who he was, which only made him funnier. As in: who is that old guy and holy shit, he’s hilarious! And he was. I’m sure you’ve already read more than a few career retrospective/obituaries that detail his long, patient struggle to make a mark –meaningful or otherwise– in Hollywood. (If you haven’t, they won’t be hard to find). It was, clearly, as unexpected for him as it was for audiences all around America when he ended up stealing the show in that low-budget 1980 movie.

(It is both ironic and a tad eerie to see Nielsen pass a little more than a month after the other enduring scene-stealer from Airplane!, Barbara Billingsley. In fact, that movie was a vehicle to give America’s mom one last moment that lasted forever, while for Nielsen it served as the springboard that launched his most unlikely late-career ascent to superstardom.)

And aside from Airplane he’ll be best remembered for his almost too-perfect-to-be-possible role as the bumbling Frank Drebin in the Naked Gun series. (Nobody begrudged Nielsen milking that particular cow long after the udder ran dry, because the brilliance of the first film made up for the increasingly lame follow-ups).

For an extended appreciation of my favorite Nielsen work (hint: it’s not in Airplane! or The Naked Gun) check it out here.

December 7, 2010 had the dubious distinction of being the 30th anniversary of John Lennon’s death. I’ve written quite a bit about it, and him, in recent years, and you can find them here, here, herehere, here, here and here.

Some samples are below:

It was thirty years ago today…

John Lennon’s death, not too many people would debate, was our generation’s JFK. I think people my age might more easily remember where they were when the Challenger blew up on that frigid day in 1986 (or the aforementioned Len Bias tragedy, which still manages to shock, in June of the same year). But the murder of Lennon (like JFK), by gunfire, was the same brutal, irrevocable blow that never really registers. We do our best to make sense of what we’re left with, but the act itself is never really reconcilable or, in many regards, believable. I still can’t quite believe John Lennon was killed, right outside his home, a few weeks before Christmas (and less than a month after the release of what turned out to be his last proper album, the remarkable return-to-form Double Fantasy).

Lennon, despite the perfectly legitimate and understandable lionizing he was subject to during –and especially after– his life, was, arguably, the most human Beatle. Ringo and Harrison were more down to earth (partly because their abilities, frankly speaking, kept them more firmly grounded), and McCartney has always seemed a genuinely friendly fella (his long and by all accounts happy relationship with wife Linda until her death speaks eloquently of the superficial Sun-King entitlements he was able to avoid or eschew, to his considerable credit). But Lennon, ever inscrutable, bigger than life –and Jesus–(he said, he said) and impossible to pigeon-hole, must be, in the final analysis, the most easy to understand, on human and artistic levels.

It didn’t need to end; it had to end. How could they keep going; they kept going.

Of course, as the ‘70s showed, (not unlike Cream before them, or Pink Floyd after them) no one amongst the Fab Four came close to making music on their own equal to the work they did together. (The people who think Imagine and Plastic Ono Band are superior to any proper Beatles albums, aside from outing themselves as “John people” — not that there’s anything wrong with that — are arguably not true Beatles fanatics. And there is certainly nothing wrong with that).

In short and in sum: John needed Paul, and Paul needed John. It’s as simple as that, and I’ve yet to hear a compelling argument to the contrary — and I say that as someone who accepts the fact that the break-up was probably inevitable, in the grand scheme of things. Mourning what could or should have been seems churlish, like wishing Shakespeare had lived a bit longer and written another half-dozen plays. With an embarrassment of riches like this, it’s insane to quibble (and, in a confession that marks me, for better or worse, as a Beatles fanatic, I find much to enjoy in all of the solo albums: as always, Ringo is best in small doses and each other member indulges a tad too much in their obsessions for my liking. In closing, they needed each other, perhaps more than they ever realized).

As anyone who reads this blog well understands by now, The Beatles are, for me, like the mafia was to Michael Corleone; every time I think I’ve said all I can (should) say, they pull me back in. And if I’m going to be pulled back, I’d better Get Back.

Finally (I hope, as we still have a few days left in 2010), just before Christmas the cruelest blow of all: Don Van Vliet thumbed his nose at the planet, cosmically speaking.

To say Don Van Vliet was unique is rather like saying the sun radiates heat: it doesn’t quite capture the enormity and impact of the subject. To assert that he was brilliant would be almost insulting, if that is possible. A genius? Let’s just say that if he wasn’t, then no other pop musician has ever been either. Even that is not quite right, since pop refers to popular and Captain Beefheart was anything but popular. He was highly regarded, and always will be, but the circle of aficionados who gravitate to his uncanny catalog is likely to get smaller, not bigger. Also, it just doesn’t work to call what he did pop music; he was an artist. Literally. When he walked away from music, forever, in the early ‘80s, he concentrated on his painting and made far more money from that. (Calling to mind another eccentric genius, Syd Barrett, who turned his back on the scene and quietly tended to his paintings and his plants.)

So, sui generis? For sure, but even that won’t suffice. You almost have to make up words, so I will. Don Van Vliet was Chop Suey Generis. You need not hear a single note to be smitten; just consider some of the song titles: “Grown So Ugly”, “She’s Too Much For My Mirror”, “Steal Softly Thru Snow”, “Grow Fins”, “My Head Is My Only House Unless It Rains”, “Her Eyes Are A Blue Million Miles”, “Woe-is-uh-Me-Bop”, “The Clouds Are Full of Wine (not Whiskey or Rye)”, “Cardboard Cutout Sundown”, and, of course, “Zig Zag Wanderer”.

But then there is the music. And that voice. When doing his gruff, evil blues, he sounded more than a little like Howlin’ Wolf, but he wasn’t mimicking so much as channeling him (yeah, I know…), and it came out through his soul sounding like a narcotized sci-fi monster with an ashtray heart of gold. Add the lyrics (they range from simple to impenetrable but are always original and clever to the point of being intimidating) and you have a result that, love it or loathe it, could not in a billion years be imitated or even approximated by anyone. “High voltage man kisses night to bring the light to those who need to hide their shadow-deed” he wails on “Electricity” –a song that anticipates punk as much as it exhausts the possibilities of the avant-garde. Speaking of Howlin’ Wolf, this sounds like the great Chester Arthur Burnett cloned as a machine, doused in Lysergic acid and forced to stick its finger in a light socket.

In the end, Van Vliet’s obscurity tends to confirm many things we know about the way art is created and received, especially in America. If music like this was successful it would almost cause us to question the calibration of our planet. Besides, Beefheart had as much of a chance at being understood as Jesus Christ at the trading floor on Wall Street. The message was sent, and it’s still out there for anyone who cares to hear it. The biggest blessing is that we can listen to this magical music and be reminded that it’s real, it happened. He happened, and some of us will spend the rest of our lives trying to figure out how we managed to get so lucky.

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O Captain! My Captain!: The Unique Magic of Don Van Vliet

As Ian Anderson said, “We’re getting a bit short on heroes lately.”

And Ian, while he wasn’t speaking of Don Van Vliet, nevertheless would –and has— endorsed the man better known as Captain Beefheart. Indeed, the list of well-loved and iconoclastic artists who have cited CB as an inspiration and hero include the likes of Frank Zappa, Tom Waits, Nick Cave, P.J. Harvey and Matt Groening. When the people lots of people worship name you as someone they worship, you can safely conclude you have done influential work, even if it didn’t necessarily pay the bills.

To say Don Van Vliet was unique is rather like saying the sun radiates heat: it doesn’t quite capture the enormity and impact of the subject. To assert that he was brilliant would be almost insulting, if that is possible. A genius? Let’s just say that if he wasn’t, then no other pop musician has ever been either. Even that is not quite right, since pop refers to popular and Captain Beefheart was anything but popular. He was highly regarded, and always will be, but the circle of aficionados who gravitate to his uncanny catalog is likely to get smaller, not bigger. Also, it just doesn’t work to call what he did pop music; he was an artist. Literally. When he walked away from music, forever, in the early ‘80s, he concentrated on his painting and made far more money from that. (Calling to mind another eccentric genius, Syd Barrett, who turned his back on the scene and quietly tended to his paintings and his plants.)

So, sui generis? For sure, but even that won’t suffice. You almost have to make up words, so I will. Don Van Vliet was Chop Suey Generis. You need not hear a single note to be smitten; just consider some of the song titles: “Grown So Ugly”, “She’s Too Much For My Mirror”, “Steal Softly Thru Snow”, “Grow Fins”, “My Head Is My Only House Unless It Rains”, “Her Eyes Are A Blue Million Miles”, “Woe-is-uh-Me-Bop”, “The Clouds Are Full of Wine (not Whiskey or Rye)”, “Cardboard Cutout Sundown”, and, of course, “Zig Zag Wanderer”.

But then there is the music. And that voice. When doing his gruff, evil blues, he sounded more than a little like Howlin’ Wolf, but he wasn’t mimicking so much as channeling him (yeah, I know…), and it came out through his soul sounding like a narcotized sci-fi monster with an ashtray heart of gold. Add the lyrics (they range from simple to impenetrable but are always original and clever to the point of being intimidating) and you have a result that, love it or loathe it, could not in a billion years be imitated or even approximated by anyone. “High voltage man kisses night to bring the light to those who need to hide their shadow-deed” he wails on “Electricity” –a song that anticipates punk as much as it exhausts the possibilities of the avant-garde. Speaking of Howlin’ Wolf, this sounds like the great Chester Arthur Burnett cloned as a machine, doused in Lysergic acid and forced to stick its finger in a light socket.
 

Now that he’s gone, many folks will—and should—rhapsodize about the album most agree is Beefheart’s defining work (even if they’ve never actually listened to it), Trout Mask Replica. Among its many quirky and/or quixotic charms, this is possibly the first album to be so arty it became anti-art. Deliberately cacophonous, even confrontational, it seems to be searching for magic inside of the discordant chaos. The results will mean different things to different people, but Van Vliet had a method for his madness: perfectly capable musicians playing behind, beside and beneath anything that, on first (or fifteenth) listen seems to make sense. The album could be considered one extended love song to insanity, or a smirking expense report from the other side of reality. It is one of the all-time cult following rites of passage: if you are down with this, you could conceivably be down with anything –for better or worse.

Needless to say, Trout Mask Replica is not easy going or easily recommended, and in fact, one could (should) start just about anywhere else. If anyone reading this is uninitiated, it affords me an excellent opportunity to talk about the most accessible option, which happens to be my favorite Beefheart album, Safe As Milk. It is the first album, and also, in my opinion, the best one. I do not expect that many people share this perspective, but I think everyone in the know would agree this is the ideal point of entry. If there was even a modicum of justice in our plastic factory world, this would be widely considered one of rock music’s most out there yet addictive barbaric yawps.

(Sidenote: was 1967 an all-time year for debut albums or what? In addition to Safe As Milk there were first albums by The Doors, Pink Floyd, Jimi Hendrix and The Velvet Underground. Most people, if they think about Safe As Milk at all, consider it a delightful little lark, a nice enough opening salvo. For my money, it’s more than that; a lot more. And it’s funny, because when we think about the Summer of Love (if we think about the Summer of Love), it’s all about love being all you need and how The Beatles dropped their definitive statement, Sgt. Pepper, which might happen to be the most important album ever, et cetera. Interestingly, two albums that did not get much press at the time, but have certainly found their audiences—however small—in the subsequent decades, seem to best represent the reality of what that seminal year meant, musically and culturally. I’m talking about Safe As Milk as well as Love’s Forever Changes. Maybe the ultimate reason these two albums, aside from their commercial failings, tend to not register in the facile narrative of hippie nostalgia is because both albums saw through the façade then, and in hindsight seem all the more remarkable for their refusal to pay lip service, lyrically and aesthetically, to the up-with-people ethos of the time.)


Look at the band on the back cover. They are characters from a Wes Anderson movie: all wearing coat and tie, one inexplicably sporting leather gloves, one rocking a stylish chapeau (who happens to be named Alex St. Clair Snouffer). Not pictured—and not credited—is young wunderkind Ry Cooder, who lent his considerable slide guitar skills to the proceedings. They look more like stockbrokers than songwriters, which only adds to the mystique since they, as it happened, made some of the more unsettling music on the scene.

How does music like this happen? How is Captain Beefheart even conceivable? Do you believe in magic? Well how about the Magic Band? We know that the world didn’t know what to make of this album, then. What can we make of it, now? Here are a few thoughts: it doesn’t sound of its time, or any time, and it is one of those (very) rare recordings that can be returned to constantly and somehow, someway remains unfettered and invigorating. Each song is a totally complete statement, whimsical, yet always with the air of danger: like a trip about to take a serious turn for the worse, but it never does. The creative energy and offbeat ebullience make this record approachable but indescribable; it’s all in there: blues, doo-wop, psychedelia, faux-pop and a handful of songs that sound utterly unlike anything anyone has ever done.

Listening to “Dropout Boogie” is like watching the rock and roll version of Clark Kent coming out of the phone booth for the first time: this quiet, weird dude you laughed at in gym class suddenly soaring in the air above you. You’ve never heard him speak but as soon as he opens his mouth he’s Superman. This track works as well as any (from this album, or from his entire oeuvre) in terms of epitomizing Van Vliet’s unvarnished and utterly uncompromised approach. If the Captain should be worshipped for one thing it’s that he never once pandered for the sake of critical or commercial expediency. Considering this album was recorded during the height of the “Turn on, Tune in, Drop out” hysteria, a song like “Dropout Boogie” becomes a brave turd in the punch bowl, serving to question the long-term prospects of Timothy Leary’s call to arms. “And what about after that?” he asks, a line that joins Arthur Lee’s “The news today will be the movies for tomorrow” (from Forever Changes) as two of the most enduring—and prescient—from ’67.

Then there is a song like “Yellow Brick Road” that could almost make a white guy dance, and then wonder why everyone doesn’t know this and love it.

Safe As Milk was the one that introduced Don Van Vliet to the world and it remains a (Korn Ring) middle finger in the face of all the lame conformist who scoff at what they can’t understand. It’s not especially sad that this album did not find a widely receptive audience; its obscurity tends to confirm many things we know about the way art is created and received, especially in America. If music like this was successful it would almost cause us to question the calibration of our planet. Besides, Beefheart had as much of a chance at being understood as Jesus Christ at the trading floor on Wall Street. The message was sent, and it’s still out there for anyone who cares to hear it. The biggest blessing is that we can listen to this magical music and be reminded that it’s real, it happened. He happened, and some of us will spend the rest of our lives trying to figure out how we managed to get so lucky.

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Got A Beef? Sure ‘Nuff ‘N Yes I Do

As T.S. Eliot portentously opined: April is the cruelest month.

Apparently someone once pulled an April Fools’ Day joke on him too.

What’s really sad is I saw this one coming almost before I finished reading it, so my burgeoning excitement was tempered by the lesser but wiser angels of my cynicism. A quick Google check confirmed the farce: there is no Captain Beefheart reunion in the making. Stuff like this is, alas, way too good to ever be true:

The legendary Captain Beefheart, whose last foray into the music industry was in 1982, has recorded a new album and will be reconvening his Magic Band to tour behind it…The opening act is to be P.J. Harvey…in recent years, P.J. Harvey and Beefheart somehow struck up a correspondence and established a kind of confidante-mentor relationship. There’s no official word from either artist’s camp whether or not this had anything to do with the good Captain’s re-emergence, but certainly Harvey’s encouragement and support didn’t hurt.

And while I would pay money to see the good Captain anytime, anywhere, I would be delighted to simply know that he is doing well and enjoying life. For Christ’s sake, for all the joy he has provided to so many of us, the least Fate can do is smile on the man and let him find ease and comfort in his old(er) age. Hell, while we’re at it, let him be happy. Reunion or not, I’m quite content to return to Beefheart’s albums as often as possible. And really, what better day to celebrate Don Van Vliet than April Fools’ Day?

The Black Keys doing an incredible version of Beefheart’s “Grown So Ugly” (also on their great Rubber Factory album):

Don Van Vliet: I Love You, You Big Dummy (To myself I say this):

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