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.

Share

Five From Frank Zappa (Revisited)

frank-zappa

December 4, 1993: impossible as it is (at least for me) to believe, Frank Zappa passed away (yet another casualty of the Big C.) twenty-two years ago, today.

Zappa, to me, has always functioned as a corrective sort of converse to The Grateful Dead: he was around so long, was so productive and had (has) such a fanatical following, it’s difficult for the uninvolved observer to make heads or tails of his legacy. Unlike The Grateful Dead, once the dust clears, it becomes obvious that Zappa’s dense catalog of recordings is serious, ceaselessly rewarding and likey to be dissected several generations from now.

Zappa was never commercially huge for the two most uncomplicated and inexorable reasons: he didn’t particularly want (or, to his credit, need) to be, and more, he couldn’t be. His music was too complex, challenging, and ultimately unclassifiable for mass consumption. Where many (most?) of the more adventurous prog-rock bands of the mid-to-late ’70s were reviled for taking themselves entirely too seriously (a common sin), they also made music that sucked in almost direct proportion to their augmented self-regard (an unforgivable sin). Bands like Emerson, Lake and Palmer wore out their welcome not ultimately because of their insufferable pretension (although naming their double album Works was an invitation for a critical backlash that was well-earned), but because their inspiration could not keep pace with their egos. Or, to put it as plainly as possible, they just started to suck in the mid-to-late ’70s.

Zappa, on the other hand, appeared with orchestras and wrote compositions with words like “Opus”, “First Movement”, “Allegro” and “Variations” in them without irony. For one thing, he undersood what the terms meant, and he actually employed them. He was not imitating classical music, he was conducting it, albeit a distinctively eccentric, avant-garde variety. His approach was kitchen-sink in the best possible connotation of that term. He was too intelligent, ambitious and driven to create material that fit comfortably into any simple category. When you are ultimately better than even the sum total of your achievements, it is not possible to fake anything.

Zappa was, in the final analysis, the rarest type of artist: simply incapable of writing a note (or comitting an artistic act) he did not fully believe in. This was not always a good thing. His propensity for juvenile hijinks is one reason he was easier to dismiss (although it’s fair to suggest that Zappa anticipated backlash from both the unsophisticated rock music critics who could not begin to fathom what he was attempting as well as the clinch-assed classical music community who would instinctively cringe at the sight of a grown man with pig-tails having the effrontery to wave a baton). On the other hand, even if he was deliberately taking the piss out of himself (semi-literally in the case of a song like “Don’t Eat The Yellow Snow”) as a sort of pre-emptive strike, his sense of humor –which enabled him to “keep it real”– was an inextricable part of his acumen (resulting in more serious songs with titles like “Dog Breath Variations” and “G-Spot Tornado“).

One of his great statements (musically and otherwise) is entitled Shut Up ‘n Play Yer Guitar. He was, of course, talking to a variety of culpable parties, from the smug art-rock political activists to the hit-hungry hair bands whose increasingly vapid treacle was beginning to surface around the clock on MTV. Yet, it seems fair to suggest, he was also speaking, however sardonically and self-deprecatingly, to himself. He knew he was at his best when he let the music do the talking. It continues to sing, cry, coax and confound, and successive generations of adventurous and discerning listeners will be able to experience the wonder and joy that infuses almost every note Frank Zappa wrote.

“Peaches En Regalia”:

“Little Umbrellas”:

“Dwarf Nebula Processional March & Dwarf Nebula”:

“Opus 1, No. 3, 2nd Movement, PRESTO”:

“Watermelon In Easter Hay”:

BONUS BLISS: “Muffin Man”, live and REAL.

Share

Five From Frank Zappa

frank-zappa

December 4, 1993: impossible as it is (at least for me) to believe, Frank Zappa passed away (yet another casualty of the Big C.) twent-one years ago, today.

Zappa, to me, has always functioned as a corrective sort of converse to The Grateful Dead: he was around so long, was so productive and had (has) such a fanatical following, it’s difficult for the uninvolved observer to make heads or tails of his legacy. Unlike The Grateful Dead, once the dust clears, it becomes obvious that Zappa’s dense catalog of recordings is serious, ceaselessly rewarding and likey to be dissected several generations from now.

Zappa was never commercially huge for the two most uncomplicated and inexorable reasons: he didn’t particularly want (or, to his credit, need) to be, and more, he couldn’t be. His music was too complex, challenging, and ultimately unclassifiable for mass consumption. Where many (most?) of the more adventurous prog-rock bands of the mid-to-late ’70s were reviled for taking themselves entirely too seriously (a common sin), they also made music that sucked in almost direct proportion to their augmented self-regard (an unforgivable sin). Bands like Emerson, Lake and Palmer wore out their welcome not ultimately because of their insufferable pretension (although naming their double album Works was an invitation for a critical backlash that was well-earned), but because their inspiration could not keep pace with their egos. Or, to put it as plainly as possible, they just started to suck in the mid-to-late ’70s.

Zappa, on the other hand, appeared with orchestras and wrote compositions with words like “Opus”, “First Movement”, “Allegro” and “Variations” in them without irony. For one thing, he undersood what the terms meant, and he actually employed them. He was not imitating classical music, he was conducting it, albeit a distinctively eccentric, avant-garde variety. His approach was kitchen-sink in the best possible connotation of that term. He was too intelligent, ambitious and driven to create material that fit comfortably into any simple category. When you are ultimately better than even the sum total of your achievements, it is not possible to fake anything.

Zappa was, in the final analysis, the rarest type of artist: simply incapable of writing a note (or comitting an artistic act) he did not fully believe in. This was not always a good thing. His propensity for juvenile hijinks is one reason he was easier to dismiss (although it’s fair to suggest that Zappa anticipated backlash from both the unsophisticated rock music critics who could not begin to fathom what he was attempting as well as the clinch-assed classical music community who would instinctively cringe at the sight of a grown man with pig-tails having the effrontery to wave a baton). On the other hand, even if he was deliberately taking the piss out of himself (semi-literally in the case of a song like “Don’t Eat The Yellow Snow”) as a sort of pre-emptive strike, his sense of humor –which enabled him to “keep it real”– was an inextricable part of his acumen (resulting in more serious songs with titles like “Dog Breath Variations” and “G-Spot Tornado“).

One of his great statements (musically and otherwise) is entitled Shut Up ‘n Play Yer Guitar. He was, of course, talking to a variety of culpable parties, from the smug art-rock political activists to the hit-hungry hair bands whose increasingly vapid treacle was beginning to surface around the clock on MTV. Yet, it seems fair to suggest, he was also speaking, however sardonically and self-deprecatingly, to himself. He knew he was at his best when he let the music do the talking. It continues to sing, cry, coax and confound, and successive generations of adventurous and discerning listeners will be able to experience the wonder and joy that infuses almost every note Frank Zappa wrote.

“Peaches En Regalia”:

“Little Umbrellas”:

“Dwarf Nebula Processional March & Dwarf Nebula”:

“Opus 1, No. 3, 2nd Movement, PRESTO”:

“Watermelon In Easter Hay”:

BONUS BLISS: “Muffin Man”, live and REAL.

Share

Five by Frank Zappa @ 20 Years

December 4, 1993: impossible as it is (at least for me) to believe, Frank Zappa passed away (yet another casualty of the Big C.) twenty years ago, today.

Zappa, to me, has always functioned as a corrective sort of converse to The Grateful Dead: he was around so long, was so productive and had (has) such a fanatical following, it’s difficult for the uninvolved observer to make heads or tails of his legacy. Unlike The Grateful Dead, once the dust clears, it becomes obvious that Zappa’s dense catalog of recordings is serious, ceaselessly rewarding and likey to be dissected several generations from now.

Zappa was never commercially huge for the two most uncomplicated and inexorable reasons: he didn’t particularly want (or, to his credit, need) to be, and more, he couldn’t be. His music was too complex, challenging, and ultimately unclassifiable for mass consumption. Where many (most?) of the more adventurous prog-rock bands of the mid-to-late ’70s were reviled for taking themselves entirely too seriously (a common sin), they also made music that sucked in almost direct proportion to their augmented self-regard (an unforgivable sin). Bands like Emerson, Lake and Palmer wore out their welcome not ultimately because of their insufferable pretension (although naming their double album Works was an invitation for a critical backlash that was well-earned), but because their inspiration could not keep pace with their egos. Or, to put it as plainly as possible, they just started to suck in the mid-to-late ’70s.

Zappa, on the other hand, appeared with orchestras and wrote compositions with words like “Opus”, “First Movement”, “Allegro” and “Variations” in them without irony. For one thing, he undersood what the terms meant, and he actually employed them. He was not imitating classical music, he was conducting it, albeit a distinctively eccentric, avant-garde variety. His approach was kitchen-sink in the best possible connotation of that term. He was too intelligent, ambitious and driven to create material that fit comfortably into any simple category. When you are ultimately better than even the sum total of your achievements, it is not possible to fake anything.

Zappa was, in the final analysis, the rarest type of artist: simply incapable of writing a note (or comitting an artistic act) he did not fully believe in. This was not always a good thing. His propensity for juvenile hijinks is one reason he was easier to dismiss (although it’s fair to suggest that Zappa anticipated backlash from both the unsophisticated rock music critics who could not begin to fathom what he was attempting as well as the clinch-assed classical music community who would instinctively cringe at the sight of a grown man with pig-tails having the effrontery to wave a baton). On the other hand, even if he was deliberately taking the piss out of himself (semi-literally in the case of a song like “Don’t Eat The Yellow Snow”) as a sort of pre-emptive strike, his sense of humor –which enabled him to “keep it real”– was an inextricable part of his acumen (resulting in more serious songs with titles like “Dog Breath Variations” and “G-Spot Tornado“).

One of his great statements (musically and otherwise) is entitled Shut Up ‘n Play Yer Guitar. He was, of course, talking to a variety of culpable parties, from the smug art-rock political activists to the hit-hungry hair bands whose increasingly vapid treacle was beginning to surface around the clock on MTV. Yet, it seems fair to suggest, he was also speaking, however sardonically and self-deprecatingly, to himself. He knew he was at his best when he let the music do the talking. It continues to sing, cry, coax and confound, and successive generations of adventurous and discerning listeners will be able to experience the wonder and joy that infuses almost every note Frank Zappa wrote.

“Peaches En Regalia”:

“Little Umbrellas”:

“Dwarf Nebula Processional March & Dwarf Nebula”:

“Opus 1, No. 3, 2nd Movement, PRESTO”:

“Watermelon In Easter Hay”:

Share

I Love Eleanor Friedberger More Than She Loves Playing Guitar

I am very much on the record of endorsing the Fiery Furnaces; indeed, I rank their 2006 joint Bitter Tea as my personal #10 choice for best albums of the previous decade. Check it HERE.

Here’s a taste, including my overall take on their unique sensibility:

Bitter Tea is neither a departure from nor a doubling-down on the eccentricity that marks all of their work. It has some of their most bizarre songs (which, as anyone who knows this band, is saying a lot) but it also has, by far, some of their most immediately accessible and enduring compositions. For evidence of the former, consider “Nevers!” or “The Vietnamese Telephone Ministry“; for proof of the latter look no further than “Waiting To Know You” (which sounds like a Motown nursery rhyme) or “Benton Harbor Blues” (a song that manages to make the state of melancholy sound intoxicating). The rest of the album splits the difference, tiptoeing the line between playful and preposterous. That they are able to do this consistently and in the service of songs that warrant repeated listens is not an inconsiderable achievement. These songs are like a first date who intentionally acts odd to throw you off guard in order to ascertain if you are for real; if you are worth a second date you have to hang in there and see what’s beneath the surface. And that is the clever, if quirky calculus The Fiery Furnaces are making a career out of: music that sounds so bizarre at first it seems designed to turn off non-believers, but reveals layers and myriad rewards for those with patience and perseverance.

Ever prolific, Eleanor is now promoting her second solo album, Personal Record.

I caught her (and fellow Furnaces) live in 2007 and it was a fantastic show.

I remember her being every bit as quirky, cute and seductive as I could have hoped.

I don’t remember her playing a guitar.

She appeared on Late Night with Jimmy Fallon the other night, and it brought to mind what Frank Zappa allegedly once said about Bruce Springsteen: “He holds his guitar very well.”

That was, of course, harsh and unfair, but Zappa did not suffer competition (or fools) lightly. In this regard, Bruce was hardly competition and he’s never been a fool and, compared to many other popular artists, he plays his guitar quite nicely indeed.

Eleanor, despite her other talents, is no guitar player.

But she does hold it very well.

Share

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.

Share

Five From Frank Zappa

December 4, 1993: impossible as it is (at least for me) to believe, Frank Zappa passed away (yet another casualty of the Big C.) seventeen years ago, today.

Zappa, to me, has always functioned as a corrective sort of converse to The Grateful Dead: he was around so long, was so productive and had (has) such a fanatical following, it’s difficult for the uninvolved observer to make heads or tails of his legacy. Unlike The Grateful Dead, once the dust clears, it becomes obvious that Zappa’s dense catalog of recordings is serious, ceaselessly rewarding and likey to be dissected several generations from now.

Zappa was never commercially huge for the two most uncomplicated and inexorable reasons: he didn’t particularly want (or, to his credit, need) to be, and more, he couldn’t be. His music was too complex, challenging, and ultimately unclassifiable for mass consumption. Where many (most?) of the more adventurous prog-rock bands of the mid-to-late ’70s were reviled for taking themselves entirely too seriously (a common sin), they also made music that sucked in almost direct proportion to their augmented self-regard (an unforgivable sin). Bands like Emerson, Lake and Palmer wore out their welcome not ultimately because of their insufferable pretension (although naming their double album Works was an invitation for a critical backlash that was well-earned), but because their inspiration could not keep pace with their egos. Or, to put it as plainly as possible, they just started to suck in the mid-to-late ’70s.

Zappa, on the other hand, appeared with orchestras and wrote compositions with words like “Opus”, “First Movement”, “Allegro” and “Variations” in them without irony. For one thing, he undersood what the terms meant, and he actually employed them. He was not imitating classical music, he was conducting it, albeit a distinctively eccentric, avant-garde variety. His approach was kitchen-sink in the best possible connotation of that term. He was too intelligent, ambitious and driven to create material that fit comfortably into any simple category. When you are ultimately better than even the sum total of your achievements, it is not possible to fake anything.

Zappa was, in the final analysis, the rarest type of artist: simply incapable of writing a note (or comitting an artistic act) he did not fully believe in. This was not always a good thing. His propensity for juvenile hijinks is one reason he was easier to dismiss (although it’s fair to suggest that Zappa anticipated backlash from both the unsophisticated rock music critics who could not begin to fathom what he was attempting as well as the clinch-assed classical music community who would instinctively cringe at the sight of a grown man with pig-tails having the effrontery to wave a baton). On the other hand, even if he was deliberately taking the piss out of himself (semi-literally in the case of a song like “Don’t Eat The Yellow Snow”) as a sort of pre-emptive strike, his sense of humor –which enabled him to “keep it real”– was an inextricable part of his acumen (resulting in more serious songs with titles like “Dog Breath Variations” and “G-Spot Tornado“).

One of his great statements (musically and otherwise) is entitled Shut Up ‘n Play Yer Guitar. He was, of course, talking to a variety of culpable parties, from the smug art-rock political activists to the hit-hungry hair bands whose increasingly vapid treacle was beginning to surface around the clock on MTV. Yet, it seems fair to suggest, he was also speaking, however sardonically and self-deprecatingly, to himself. He knew he was at his best when he let the music do the talking. It continues to sing, cry, coax and confound, and successive generations of adventurous and discerning listeners will be able to experience the wonder and joy that infuses almost every note Frank Zappa wrote.

“Peaches En Regalia”:

 

“Little Umbrellas”:

“Dwarf Nebula Processional March & Dwarf Nebula”:

“Opus 1, No. 3, 2nd Movement, PRESTO”:

“Watermelon In Easter Hay”:

Share

Celebration Day: Cerphe is Back and He’s Back BIG

Forget Halloween, Christmas has come early.

Cerphe is not dead (he never was); long live Cerphe.

The most beloved disc-spinner in D.C. history is back and he is rocking you home in the afternoon/early-eve commute, same as it always was. Check it out.

For anyone not in the know, or new to the area, or any young whipper-snappers who don’t know what FM radio is, here is a little history of this living legend (yes, legend: you don’t get namechecked by Frank Zappa or correctly identified as the first DJ to play Bruce Springsteen (!!) unless you are legit).

Get your 105.9 on and I guarantee it will be love at first listen. Those not interested in good music and listening to a living encyclopedia of rock and roll need not apply. All others: Cerphe’s up, baby!

Share