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

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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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The Howling or, 105 Years of the Big Bad Wolf

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Who’s afraid of the big, bad Wolf?

Plenty of people, and for good reason.

Fortunately for us, we are not sketchy record company executives or anyone else who may have unwittingly crossed his path during the Wolf’s prime. Chester Arthur Burnett was big and he was a bad man (the same way James Brown and Charles Mingus were bad men: they knew they were geniuses and they suffered fools poorly, as geniuses are obliged –and allowed– to do). Unfortunately for us, he is gone and has been for over a quarter of a century. Indeed, he moved on to that great pack in the sky early in 1976 — a very appropriate year for this most American of blues legends. June 10, 2010 marked his centennial, and he remains an artist who cannot be imitated and whose unmistakable growl can probably never be adequately explained or understood.

Six foot, six inches. Approximately 300 pounds. Named after President Chester A. Arthur. In a class entirely by himself as a singer, performer and presence. If Muddy Waters, his friendly (and at times not-so-friendly) adversary was like an industrious bee that produces so much sweet honey, Howlin’ Wolf was a bear that crashes into the nest, snarling as he swats away the thousand wasps circling his head.

I never had the opportunity to watch Wolf live but it does not take too much to imagine what he looked and sounded like, particularly during the ’50s. Considering there are few, if any, more menacing and addictive singers on record; it’s at once easy and impossible to get a handle on how unsettling (and ecstatic) it would have been to sit in a small auditorium and not believe your own eyes and ears.

Along with his ace guitarist, Hubert Sumlin, Wolf made some of the most covered (if essentially uncoverable) blues classics of that era. Many lesser men took a crack at numbers like “Sitting On Top of the World”, “I Ain’t Superstitious”, “Spoonful”, “Back Door Man” and “Little Red Rooster” (think Rod Stewart, Mick Jagger, Eric Clapton and Jim Morrison, to name a handful of the more opportunistic pups). Despite how embarrassing many of these efforts sound in comparison to the original versions, most of these bright-eyed white boys were paying genuine tribute to the man they admired. And Wolf, benefitting from the publicity these bands provided as well as his own shrewd business acumen, was one of the very few blues immortals who actually earned money during his lifetime.

You read advice like this all the time (and no matter how enthusiastically I endorse a particular artist, I try to dispense it judiciously) but if you’ve ever taken someone’s word for it when they say “your life is lacking if you don’t have this” take my word for it and drop the ten bucks on this indispensable document. It’s not just that you are depriving yourself of one of the singular voices of the last century, you are actually missing an important chunk of America itself. Put another way, touchstones like “Smokestack Lightnin'” and “Sitting On Top Of The World” endure less as (merely) American songs and more as components of this country’s unique sensibility. Believe your ears because they are, in fact, even more than that.

“Sitting on Top of the World”:

“Smokestack Lightnin'”:

“Evil”:

“Back Door Man”:

“Moanin’ At Midnight”:

Drop another few bucks and get hold of this DVD; understand history, the REAL history, and join me in gratitude that ANY of this footage was documented so we can see it, savor it, celebrate it:

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Gary Clark, Jr.: Live Proves that Hearing is Believing

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Over the years I’ve found myself defending bands who cover classic blues, ranging from the good (Yardbirds, Animals), to the occasionally good (Rolling Stones, Beatles), to the occasionally great (Led Zeppelin), to… Eric Clapton.

One thing I tend to repeat, without cynicism: Even the most earnest if unconvincing renditions are worthwhile if they serve as a gateway to the source material. If, for instance, someone hears Jack White doing an overly stylized cover of Son House or the Black Keys doing remarkable service to the still-unjustly-unheralded Junior Kimbrough, or even the aforementioned Mick Jagger mumbling Mississippi Fred McDowell, it’s all to the greater good. Quick, raise your hand if you knew about Muddy Waters or Willie Dixon before you heard Led Zeppelin or the Allman Brothers, or Howlin’ Wolf before you head the Doors cover of “Back Door Man”.

And so on.

And so, what to do when you not only hear faithful, bordering-on-unbelievable covers of blues classics, but a young (!) artist who is doing more than anyone in decades (Robert Cray comes to mind, but in a Rated PG way, and Stevie Ray has been gone, alas, for a very long time) to recreate, reimagine and rechannel the old blues grooves into the here-and-now? Enter Gary Clark, Jr.

A few years back, when the Bright Lights EP started garnering rapturous reviews, I picked up a copy. It did not disappoint, but left me wanting more, so I made a mental note to check him out live, if I could. I did, and saw—and heard—what all the hype was about. I converted as many friends as I could, sending breathless emails with YouTube clips, saying things like “This is the real deal” and “We’re talking potential once-in-a-generation-type-talent.”

I saw him live, again, this time with some of those friends. They still thank me for ensuring they caught the soon-to-be superstar in a small-ish venue. We were hooked on him like a hipster on a can of PBR. Eventually, his big label debut, Blak and Blu, was released in late 2012. Perhaps inevitably, it was a mixed affair: Overly produced at times, too calculated by half in others, it seemed like product being tampered with by a kitchen full of PR chefs, all convinced they knew the best way to break Clark into the big leagues. It felt like what it was: an overly ambitious, uneven document, trying too hard to be all things to all people.

But it still was the official introduction of a major new voice. My mantra to naysayers was simple and succinct: You have to catch this dude live. The last time I saw him, at a larger venue in DC, he opened up with the slow burning “When My Train Pulls In”, and he had the crowd ready to lap up his sweat from the first second. He commands the stage like no one else has in a long time. Tall, thin, dark and cooler than a root cellar in December; he has the unique charisma that comes from not trying too hard. Of course you don’t have to try hard when it oozes out of you like steam from a sewer grate. And what’s it like to see him live, to believe with your eyes what your ears are hearing? Pyrotechnics and sick skills backed with tons of soul and feeling you can’t fake.

And now, finally, we have proper documentation of what Clark sounds like, live and unfettered. This is the album many of us, including those who will understand in short order, have been waiting for. This is, in fact, about as perfect an album as anyone could hope for, at once an introduction to Clark and a summation of what he’s accomplished. And what has he accomplished, exactly? Well, he’s made it possible to use the words “blues” and “21st Century” with neither irony nor resignation.

If it’s too easy, equal parts lazy and unimaginative, to invoke Jimi Hendrix, it is nevertheless obligatory. It’s not necessarily because of the guitar prowess (Clark is formidable, to be certain, but no need to commit sacrilege) or his vocal gifts (although he has an extraordinarily sensitive, at times laconic delivery that, coupled with his sometimes explosive solos, is emotionally devastating). Rather, it is because he mixes blues and rock, incorporating folk and jazz-y elements as well as anyone, arguably, since Hendrix—or at least Shuggie Otis. Plus, it would be wrong to label him, like Hendrix before him, a “rock” musician, since he is so clearly steeped in the blues tradition and can shift seamlessly between feedback-frenzied rawness and cool, old school soul and funk.

Where Hendrix used the blues as a launching pad for his otherworldly excursions, Clark is content to (mostly) stake his claim in traditional terrain, adding a unique imprint courtesy of those aforementioned solos. On this outing, we hear an inexhaustible mind matched by relentless energy: On multiple numbers, the solos are not aesthetic showcases so much as statements of purpose. Covering Albert Collins’ “If Trouble Was Money”, Clark seems to be suggesting, Yes, you may recognize this song, but you won’t recognize this. Over and over, he puts his own distinctive stamp on everything he touches, be it original, cover, or point of departure (see Hendrix’s uncoverable “Third Stone From The Sun”).

Some highlights include “Next Door Neighbor Blues”, which, with its slide guitar and rambling pace, will remind some of what both the Black Keys and the White Stripes have done, with varying degrees of success. Scorcher “When My Train Pulls In” is perhaps the best example of the way Clark impeccably blends past and present, at times taking tradition and handling it with care, love, and a welcome dash of irreverence, at others taking the idiom for a test drive and never coming back. Both “Three O’clock Blues” and “Things Are Changin’” feature top-notch playing (and fantastic support from second guitarist Eric “King” Zapata) and some so-laid-back-they’re-almost-languorous vocal stylings that quickly become addictive. There are, believe it or not, more definitive versions to be found online, but this take on “Please Come Home” is far superior to the too-saccharine studio version, as Clark’s (convincing) falsetto bookends the tasteful shredfest that comprises the meat of the number.

An already terrific disc is put over the top by a handful of tour de forces. “Numb”, again featuring some tasty and filthy slide work, creeps through the smoke and detonates into a deconstruction of every blues cliché those shades-and-fedora wearing imitators have been milking for decades. There are now multiple, all enjoyable, renditions of his signature song “Bright Lights”, and the latest installment serves as confirmation that only a handful of players can pick up an electric guitar and make these sorts of sounds happen. “Blak and Blu” is a rare achievement, using weary menace to push past exhaustion into defiance. It’s just one man, one instrument, one voice and several thousand spellbound fans. “When the Sun Goes Down”, an appropriate album-closer, is once again a solo showcase, unfiltered and without a net. Clark kills it, illustrating that a soft-spoken young man can—and often should—let his playing and singing do the talking.

To recap: If you have a chance to check him out live, do so. Like most of the better acts, especially in the jazz and blues circles, he needs to be seen to be appreciated, and believed. Believe this: he’s not going anywhere and he should be a major force in the American music scene for the foreseeable future. For now, this latest, most welcome installment, will tide us over until he returns to make us believe, all over again.

Postscript: If this album entices anyone to check out Muddy Waters, Jimmy Reed, Albert King or, hell, Jimi Hendrix, Clark deserves extra accolades for being a brilliant ambassador for the legends whose torch he carries with style and pride.

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A Week of Americana. Part Two: Captain Beefheart

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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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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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The Howling or, 100 Years of the Big Bad Wolf (Revisited)

Who’s afraid of the big, bad Wolf?

Plenty of people, and for good reason.

Fortunately for us, we are not sketchy record company executives or anyone else who may have unwittingly crossed his path during the Wolf’s prime. Chester Arthur Burnett was big and he was a bad man (the same way James Brown and Charles Mingus were bad men: they knew they were geniuses and they suffered fools poorly, as geniuses are obliged –and allowed– to do). Unfortunately for us, he is gone and has been for over a quarter of a century. Indeed, he moved on to that great pack in the sky early in 1976 — a very appropriate year for this most American of blues legends. June 10, 2010 marked his centennial, and he remains an artist who cannot be imitated and whose unmistakable growl can probably never be adequately explained or understood.

Six foot, six inches. Approximately 300 pounds. Named after President Chester A. Arthur. In a class entirely by himself as a singer, performer and presence. If Muddy Waters, his friendly (and at times not-so-friendly) adversary was like an industrious bee that produces so much sweet honey, Howlin’ Wolf was a bear that crashes into the nest, snarling as he swats away the thousand wasps circling his head.

I never had the opportunity to watch Wolf live but it does not take too much to imagine what he looked and sounded like, particularly during the ’50s. Considering there are few, if any, more menacing and addictive singers on record; it’s at once easy and impossible to get a handle on how unsettling (and ecstatic) it would have been to sit in a small auditorium and not believe your own eyes and ears.

Along with his ace guitarist, Hubert Sumlin, Wolf made some of the most covered (if essentially uncoverable) blues classics of that era. Many lesser men took a crack at numbers like “Sitting On Top of the World”, “I Ain’t Superstitious”, “Spoonful”, “Back Door Man” and “Little Red Rooster” (think Rod Stewart, Mick Jagger, Eric Clapton and Jim Morrison, to name a handful of the more opportunistic pups). Despite how embarrassing many of these efforts sound in comparison to the original versions, most of these bright-eyed white boys were paying genuine tribute to the man they admired. And Wolf, benefitting from the publicity these bands provided as well as his own shrewd business acumen, was one of the very few blues immortals who actually earned money during his lifetime.

You read advice like this all the time (and no matter how enthusiastically I endorse a particular artist, I try to dispense it judiciously) but if you’ve ever taken someone’s word for it when they say “your life is lacking if you don’t have this” take my word for it and drop the ten bucks on this indispensable document. It’s not just that you are depriving yourself of one of the singular voices of the last century, you are actually missing an important chunk of America itself. Put another way, touchstones like “Smokestack Lightnin'” and “Sitting On Top Of The World” endure less as (merely) American songs and more as components of this country’s unique sensibility. Believe your ears because they are, in fact, even more than that.

“Sitting on Top of the World”:

“Smokestack Lightnin'”:

“Evil”:

“Back Door Man”:

“Moanin’ At Midnight”:

Drop another few bucks and get hold of this DVD; understand history, the REAL history, and join me in gratitude that ANY of this footage was documented so we can see it, savor it, celebrate it:

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They Will Rock You, They Are The Champions: The Consummate American Bands (Revisited)

October ’08. In the spirit of two quintessentially American inventions (obsessions, really), baseball and rock and roll, it seemed like a swell idea to merge the two in a lighthearted exercise designed to celebrate the World Series. If one were to imagine fielding the ultimate all-star team comprised of the greatest “players” from the roster of rock music history, how would one begin? Well, for starters, this project could best be understood as falling somewhere in the spectrum of compulsive list making, a passionate engagement with rock music, and the increasingly ubiquitous phenomenon of fantasy teams that exist in the shadow universe of sports freaks. This discussion might begin with the innocent posing of an impossible question: who is the all-time MVP of rock and roll? Or, who are the chosen ones who would find their way onto the roster of any respectable short list? Most people, once the considerable pool of candidates was properly examined, could quickly reach consensus, right? Keep dreaming. The only thing more inimically American than sports and music is our unquenchable compulsion to compete, to choose a side and see what happens.

The whole idea, initially, was simply to have fun with the process. Immediately, I found myself fighting my choices and second-guessing my gut instinct. I realized that an endeavor like this is not dissimilar from what someone (probably a professor) once said regarding the infighting in academia: the battles are so bloody because the stakes are so small. Still, I am, admittedly, one of those idiots who spends an unreasonable amount of time contemplating the various criteria that renders certain artists (and works of art) viable, indelible, immutable. So, the question became: what was I thinking? Especially since I’m the type of person who would probably have an easier time deciding which digit to hack off if the alternative was isolating the one album I could not live without. No man is an island, but my imaginary desert island is all-inclusive: it’s all coming with me or I sink under the weight of its excess, drowning happily with those songs echoing in my mind. In sum, I should have known better. This, of course, is ultimately an agonizing endeavor, and (I know) if I ever saw someone else making a list like this, I’d certainly have a reaction (invariably a visceral one). So with that said, I serve up this offering with the encouragement of any responses, questions, critiques and most of all, alternate suggestions.

The Commissioner

Part Two: The Bench, Bullpen and Pitching Rotation

In the interest of fairness (and sanity), some parameters quickly became imperative. The roster: American bands only. The time period: post 1960. Naturally, and necessarily, this eliminates some of the most important artists, the progenitors. But any competitive team must start with proven leaders, right? We need coaches! Problem solved. Question: who is going to oversee this ultimate all-star team? Answer: why look further than the true godfather and indisputable king of rock and roll, Chuck Berry? He pretty much invented the game, so all of the players are by default his acolytes and apostles. Plus, there is nothing that will surprise or faze him; he’s been there, done that. Also, he is eccentric and irascible, as so many of the great skippers in any sport seem to be. He certainly is not lacking for self confidence: if someone needs to ride the pine due to poor performance, are they going to second guess Johnny B. Goode? Finally, there is always the tantalizing possibility of him duck walking out to home plate to argue a close call with the umpire. (That umpire, incidentally, is Rick Rubin. Who else has successfully mediated so many fruitful proceedings involving some of the biggest egos on the planet?)

Chuck Berry’s coaching staff represents the roots of rock music: the ones upon whose backs the British invasion and whitewashed American imitators climbed for profit. Little Richard, Fats Domino, Bo Diddley make a formidable bunch. The pitching coach is Roy Orbison and the hitting coach is, of course, Jerry Lee Lewis. Buddy Holly, forever young and good-natured, is bench coach. But what about soul brother number one, the fan’s choice as most valuable playa? James Brown, the hardest working man in show business, could be nothing other than Commissioner. As such, he supervises all internal affairs, speaks for the Players Association and oversees the relations with other leagues, including Blues, Funk and Country. (This explains the absence of fellow Commissioners Muddy Waters, George Clinton and Johnny Cash, all of whom have their own franchises and farm teams to organize.) In related news, if the Motown/Soul squad ever got involved, the slaughter rule might need to be put in place. Still, there is one glaring omission. What about the great white hope, Elvis Presley? Elvis, alas, is out: call it the revenge of the Negro Leagues. Not to worry, Elvis—along with Frank Sinatra and John Wayne—is safely ensconced up in the skybox, carousing with the owners and their obsequious entourages.

The Manager

Before introducing the starters and bullpen, let’s give a shout out for the deep and formidable bench, players who could step in at any time to make key contributions. In alphabetical order we have Alice in Chains, The Allman Brothers, The Cars, Kiss, Metallica, The Pretenders, Santana, Sleater-Kinney, Van Halen and Wilco. Our Triple-A affiliates are confident that up and comers such as The Black Keys, The White Stripes, The Fiery Furnaces and Iron and Wine are attracting attention and are all likely to have long and prosperous careers.

And so, without further ado, let’s have a look at the pitching rotation. These are the badasses who can shut down any lineup, and these studs all bring the noise via electric guitar. Starting with the cornerstone, the most important player on the field, our staff ace Jimi Hendrix. Plain and simple, this unhittable southpaw has the best ERA in the history of the game. His career was cut tragically short, but in his prime if you needed to win Game 7 of the World Series, this is the man you wanted on the mound. His complete dominance has never been debatable, and his stuff remains unmatched and inimitable. Next in the rotation is a proud product of Texas, Stevie Ray Vaughn. Another maestro cut short in his prime, he is nevertheless a first ballot hall of famer. Along with Hendrix’s patented machine gun delivery, SRV could always be counted on to release the Texas Flood. The third spot in the rotation is occupied by the quirky and impossibly prolific provocateur, Frank Zappa. Celebrated as much for his guile and élan, Z’s approach was always more cerebral: you never quite knew exactly what he was going to serve up, but more often than not, this long-haired hurler would be laughing at your expense before you realized the ball had left his hand. Vital for more than three decades, there is no question that Zappa was most definitely not in it only for the money. The rotation is balanced out by two insufficiently celebrated living legends, each employing opposite styles to similarly devastating effect. If Vernon Reid can reliably dazzle a lineup with his lightning-fast licks and mastery of an assortment of pitches, Buzz “King Buzzo” Osbourne is the ultimate grinder: his methodical, torrential barrage is on par with the best knuckleball—it is instantly identifiable but exceedingly difficult to master, much less describe.

The Ace

The bullpen is stocked with singer/songwriters, all of whom are masters of finesse, capable of taking over a game in the late innings. The set-up men, Kurt Cobain and Mike Patton, represent two of the more important and influential voices of the ‘90s. Like too many of his teammates, Cobain’s career was cut short, but Patton is settled in for the long haul, and it seems safe to assume that he’ll own many records by the time he hangs up his spurs. As the game winds down, two old school options emerge: from the east coast we have Lou Reed while representing the gold coast is Jackson Browne. Reed tends to give up too many walks, but he lives on the wild side; Browne serves up the occasional long ball when he’s running on empty. Ultimately, despite some less successful outings, these two veterans are there for you when you need them most. Every bullpen needs the situational specialist (sometimes lovingly referred to as the LOOGY, or Lefty One Out Guy), and on this squad Don Van Vliet (sometimes lovingly referred to as Captain Beefheart) always provides enough Electricity to induce that one crucial out. Last but far from least, the team requires a fearless closer to shut ‘em down and seal the deal. All energy, emotion and raw ability, Janis Joplin is an unflappable and intimidating as anyone who has ever played the game. Big Brother and the Holding Company knew how to hold a big lead, and there was never anything cheap about the thrills Janis delivered.

Part Three: The Starting Lineup

And now, the starting lineup, complete with designated hitter (as it would somehow seem less American not to play by American League rules; all of the National League purists are encouraged to join the conversation about how the game used to be played over at Nogoodmusicwasmadeafter1960.com), organized by batting order:

NAME POSITION

Creedence Clearwater Revival SS
Bruce Springsteen CF
Steely Dan 1B
R.E.M. 3B
The Pixies DH
Bob Dylan C
Lynyrd Skynyrd LF
The Doors RF
The Beach Boys 2B

Question: Where are the Grateful Dead? Three answers: First, they are too busy patrolling the concourse, dispensing miracles, to participate in organized games. Second, and perhaps more to the point, what position, exactly, is Jerry Garcia going to play? Finally, the game needs a mascot, and what could be more appropriate than the Steal Your Face guy flying in and around the stadium, at once part of the game and calmly removed from it; like a beach ball, only trippier. Also, instead of the current trend of singing “God Bless America” during the seventh inning stretch, we’re pumping in Howlin Wolf’s rendition of “Smokestack Lightning” because, frankly, it doesn’t get any more American than that.

Leading off, at short stop, is the hits machine Creedence Clearwater Revival. In their relatively brief, but remarkably productive prime, they were not only a force to be reckoned with, but unparalleled as a positive force in American music. They led the league in hits and batting average over three seasons (1968-1970). Their highlight reel runs constantly on FM radio, and it’s worth recalling that these dudes rocked the flannel look long before it was cool (in the ‘70s or in the grunge 2.0 fashion cycle).

Hitting in the number two spot, in centerfield, is Asbury Park’s own Bruce Springsteen. A promising rookie in ’73 who’d paid some serious dues for several years in the minor leagues, his breakthrough season came in 1975 when he garnered MVP honors for Born To Run. Since then he has seldom been out of favor, cranking out timely singles and infusing the game with his unmatched energy and integrity. If the team ever hits a losing streak, the Boss is often at his best when times seem the toughest: Bruce understands (and does his best to ensure) that the glory days are always in the future.

Spunk In Centerfield: The Boss

Batting third and flashing some serious leather at first base is the quiet but deadly duo Steely Dan. These guys were as close to a dynasty as anyone else in the much-maligned decade of the ‘70s. Perfectionists, oddballs, studio wizards, the Dan put together a string of winning seasons that any band would happily emulate. Consummate team players (never ones to put their faces on albums), Donald Fagen and Walter Becker were such perfectionists that they stopped touring altogether in the ‘70s so they could concentrate on crafting their meticulous string of albums. Every team requires the quietly obsessed, lead-by-example professional, and in the understated Dan, this squad has the perfect player to keep them grounded, and focused on what matters most.

The clean-up hitter and arguably most impressive player on the squad is that most American of bands, R.E.M. Not only the ultimate run producer and homeruns leader (from their rookie season in ’83 through at least ’96, their prime is one extended batting title). Consistency has always been their hallmark, and only the most versatile, fearless and original band could cover the hot corner year in and year out. If they’ve shown their age in recent years, it does not (cannot) diminish their credentials: a longer heyday than any other American band, hands down.

Batting fifth is highly regarded designated hitter The Pixies. This perennial fan favorite would warrant inclusion in the lineup courtesy of their two masterworks Surfer Rosa and Doolittle. But to put their influence and reputation in proper perspective, consider the fact that Kurt Cobain once admitted that on the Nirvana hit “Smells Like Teen Spirit”, he was “basically trying to rip off the Pixies…I should have been in that band—or at least a Pixies cover band.” Factor in that this is also the band that (sort of) spawned The Breeders, not to mention Black Francis’s metamorphosis into Frank Black, and the considerably satisfactory solo career he’s had. When you contemplate a band that hit long bombs when given the chance (with the strikeouts that are an inevitable part of the DH position), you might be hard pressed to come up with a better slugger. If the bases are loaded with two outs in a tie game, all that needs to be said is “if man is 5, then the devil is 6 and if the devil is 6 than god is 7”. That (rally) monkey’s gone to heaven.

Catcher, Captain and Iconoclast: Bob Dylan

Team captain, and catcher, Bob Dylan hits sixth. To be honest, he could play anywhere and do anything he feels like. It’s rather unlikely that he’d want to be associated with any teams, as he owes allegiance to no one other than Woody Guthrie. Dylan is, in short, the consensus leader of this entire generation: he is the alpha and omega of post-‘60s American music. Everyone from The Byrds to the Beatles and singer-songwriters from Van Morrison to Neko Case are, in their own way, paying homage to everything the bard from Minnesota made possible.

Batting in the number seven slot, it’s the tough-as-nails, first off the bench in a brawl southern boys Lynyrd Skynyrd. And where else but left field for a band that took Neil Young to task for critiquing “sweet home” Alabama, only to befriend him later? Where else but left field for a group with ultimate southern street cred advocating that we toss all pistols to the bottom of the sea (“Saturday Night Special”)? These non-NRA endorsing rednecks wrote songs that were remarkably nuanced (“That Smell”, “Needle and the Spoon”) and unusually sensitive (“Tuesday’s Gone”, “Simple Man”) as well as the obligatory ‘70s anthems (“Sweet Home Alabama”, “Give Me Three Steps”, “Free Bird”). Like too many of their teammates, tragedy derailed their run to glory, but the body of work is versatile, deep and enduring.

Hitting eighth and getting the mojo rising in right field are The Doors. Not too many groups have finished their careers as solid and strong as they began them, but L.A. Woman was almost as perfect a swan song as The Doors was a debut. Overlooked and easy to dismiss (Jim Morrison was to rock music what the oft-suspended and self-immolating prima donnas are to today’s sports), they cast an immense and influential shadow—often on the short list of younger band’s role models. And while right field is arguably the least exciting and uneventful position in the field, when you need that long throw home on a rope, or that perfect song at the end of the night before you slip into unconsciousness, the Lizard King is always ready to light up the fire.

The Hits Machine at Second Base: Brian Wilson

Finally, batting ninth and turning double plays at second base, it’s the forever young angels from the gold coast, The Beach Boys. Obviously, they had enough ammo, early in their career (another runs factory) to warrant serious consideration for inclusion on this team. But some historical perspective is imperative when really assessing the Beach Boys’ place in history: while The Beatles are (correctly) credited with creating rock music’s first commercially embraced work of art with Sgt. Pepper, it is well documented that Paul McCartney’s initial inspiration was to somehow make a record as incredible as Pet Sounds. A second baseman is counted on to stir the pot and produce timely singles, and The Beach Boys delivered some of the most crucial hits ever in postseason play: “Wouldn’t It Be Nice?”, “God Only Knows”, and, of course, “Good Vibrations”—the single still hear ‘round the world.
So there it is: the ultimate lineup of American rock music legends. While I reserve the right to second-guess myself (that, after all, is pretty much the point—along with instigating discussion!), I am happy to make the case that this team represents the best possible players, based on the various criteria. What do you think?

Extra innings.

Let’s bat around the order with one indelible moment from each starter.

CCR, “Ramble Tamble” (can you say lead-off scorcher up the middle?):

Bruce Springsteen, “Hungry Heart” (Did Bruce ever sing, write or sound better than he does here?):

Steely Dan, “Bodhisattva” (Can you show me?):

R.E.M., “Finest Worksong” (can you say grand slam?):

The Pixies, “Debaser” (can you say inside-the-park-home-run?):

Bob Dylan, “Positively 4th Street” (He leads the league in strikeouts; he also has the most game-winning hits):

Lynyrd Skynyrd, “Call Me The Breeze” (Yup, they are crowding the plate; I dare you to throw a brush-back pitch!):

The Doors, “Wild Child” (Nothing like a little locker room dysfunction to keep things fresh!):

The Beach Boys, “Hang On To Your Ego vs. I Know There’s An Answer” (Brian Wilson is the man I want at bat with 2 outs, 2 strikes in the 9th inning…):

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That Dog Will Hunt: Bill Clinton’s Big Gift

The Big Dawg was unleashed, and boy was Bubba barking last night.

Employing his best Arkansas drawl, he connected in ways that no president –of either party– has been able to do in several decades (if ever).

How many times did he say “Listen” or “Wait a minute”, “This is important” or simply “Now…”?

Can you imagine any other politician, on either side of the aisle, being able to pull that off? One who would even try?

I can’t.

What was the moment when he won the evening? (Well, the correct answer is: the second he opened his mouth.)

When he pointed out that Obama appointed Hillary, that was a classic Clintonian moment; it was the way he said it: Heck, he even appointed Hillary!

That is “triangulation” on an entirely different level: that of the elder statesmen, the wizened veteran, the wily rascal, still lavishing every second on the biggest of stages.

One of my (female) friends texted me halfway through the speech and wrote “He could get some from any woman in that room right now. Well, except Hillary.”

In truth, the entire speech was, to invoke a very tired but totally necessary cliché, a tour de force. There is only one person on the planet who could have pulled that off, and his initials are WJC.

For me, the seminal moment occurred when he paused –after succinctly laying out what the Republicans want (and have promised to do): even lower taxes for the wealthiest 1%, increased defense spending (in excess of what the Pentagon has asked for!), and significant cuts in the programs that help the middle class and poor kids– and smirked: “As another president said: There they go again.”

That is how you insert the shiv with a smile on your face.

On purely aesthetic levels, this was truly like an extend jazz improvisation: only someone with the requisite skills, knowledge and discipline can operate without a net, in real time, and make the magic happen as they go along.

You like apples? How about THESE apples.

An already beefy speech almost doubled in word count via off-the-cuff observations and friendly-sounding fire dropping out of the September sky like a rain of apocalyptic frogs. Too long? The only people wishing it would end were the people on the receiving end of those barbs and jibes (or aw shucks and jives). There were myriad reasons Clinton drove the Republicans bat-shit insane all through the ’90s and some of them were on ample display last night: the type of instant connection with a crowd that a spoon-fed charlatan like Mitt Romney could not buy with his considerable millions, the love of debate backed by stats and history (two things the contemporary GOP is increasingly allergic to, and for good reason) and an almost inimitable ability to praise his past foes all in the service of making a point about the contemporary villains. At the risk of redundancy, I’m compelled to pull another cliché out of the campfire: people who study speeches, politics and the social art of making friends and influencing people will be devouring and digesting this masterstroke for the foreseeable future.

If the Republican Convention was a tribute to the goose that laid the golden egg, by the time Clinton completed his night’s work –an instant classic by virtually any criteria– the Big Dawg had turned into the Cheshire Cat, standing above the carcass he carved up, picking his sparkling teeth with those dirty bones.

And speaking of that other convention, let’s pause for a moment and consider that the man who last led that party –the same man whose bellicose imcompetence turned Clinton’s surplus into the disaster of debt Obama inherited– was neither invited nor mentioned. What a devastating indictment; a testament to the reality that dare not speak it’s name, literally.

The only critique I’ve heard today is at once predictable and easily dismissed: Clinton stole the show, and possibly Obama’s thunder. Now, in fairness, Bubba raised the bar so high it does beg the almost inconceivable question: Can Obama –who has given a barnstormer or two in his time– possibly rise to the occasion this evening?

The good news for the Democrats, in terms of last night overshadowing tonight, is that in the worst case it’s still a win/win. Clinton was there to do precisely what he did (only more so, as it turned out, to Obama’s delight). There won’t be anyone who decides not to vote for Obama because Clinton outshined him. On the other hand, there very well may be more than a few folks willing to get on board (or, crucially, back on board) because Clinton achieved, in less than sixty minutes, what Obama and his team have largely been unable to accomplish, for the last 3-4 years. When the truth sets you free, it behooves a leader to have the courage of his convictions. Obama spent too much time worrying about, or else underestimating the case he could –and should– have been making, forcefully and without fear, going back to the Wall Street aftermath (THIS is what government is for; THIS is why we need regulations) and the rollout of health care reform (Folks, this idea originated from Republican think tanks; this plan is a very conservative alternative to debt and dependency). Hopefully his team was taking notes, and some invaluable if overdue lessons have been learned courtesy of the master.

After tonight, no matter how it plays out –and the smart money is on Obama bringing the noise; his legacy, after all, is at stake– the campaign will capitalize on this momentum, crafting Clinton’s treasure trove into some succinct, effective talking points. And they will flatter by imitation the example of the Big Dawg, using smiles and facts to rebuff the trash heap of half-truths, naked deceit and racist innuendo that the other side long since conceded is their only strategy.

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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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Hubert Sumlin, R.I.P.

Another giant of whom we’ll never see the likes of again has left the planet. R.I.P. Hubert Sumlin.

I’ll resist the urge to say it’s the least they could do, since at least they are doing something, and acknowledge this nice gesture by the Glimmer Twins (who owe a great deal to Sumlin and his former employer).

You can usually measure an artist’s legacy by the people who worship said artist. If the names Keith Richards, Eric Clapton, Jeff Beck and Jimi Hendrix mean anything to you, it should provide some manner of perspective for how huge and influential this understated guitarist was –and will remain. Like all great artists (musicians or writers) he knew instinctively to do more with less and use silence as strategy. Although he was remarkably proficient (listen to his grease-in-a-frying-pan lead on the immortal “Killing Floor”, later covered to excellent effect by a young Hendrix) he also had the smarts to step back and let the almost overpowering presence of Howlin’ Wolf run rampant. The result is the cool and effortless grace that so many subsequent rock stars trying to play authentic blues –including some of the ones listed above– have ably imitated but never duplicated.

The Wolf, of course, would have still been a supernova without the (amazing) band he assembled; he was too much of a force of nature, musically and otherwise, to settle for less. But he was wise enough to employ and retain Sumlin, who gave those old Chess classics their distintive edge and inimitable swagger.

 

Back in June 2010, while celebrating the centennial of the great Howlin’ Wolf’s birth, I had this to say:

Who’s afraid of the big, bad Wolf?

Plenty of people, and for good reason.

Fortunately for us, we are not sketchy record company executives or anyone else who may have unwittingly crossed his path during the Wolf’s  prime. Chester Arthur Burnett was big and he was a bad man (the same way James Brown and Charles Mingus were bad men: they knew they were geniuses and they suffered fools poorly, as geniuses are obliged –and allowed– to do). Unfortunately for us, he is gone and has been for over a quarter of a century. Indeed, he moved on to that great pack in the sky early in 1976 — a very appropriate year for this most American of blues legends. June 10, 2010 marked his centennial, and he remains an artist who cannot be imitated and whose unmistakable growl can probably never be adequately explained or understood.

Six foot, six inches. Approximately 300 pounds. Named after President Chester A. Arthur. In a class entirely by himself as a singer, performer and presence. If Muddy Waters, his friendly (and at times not-so-friendly) adversary was like an industrious bee that produces so much sweet honey, Howlin’ Wolf was a bear that crashes into the nest, snarling as he swats away the thousand wasps circling his head.

I never had the opportunity to watch Wolf live but it does not take too much to imagine what he looked and sounded like, particularly during the ’50s. Considering there are few, if any, more menacing and addictive singers on record; it’s at once easy and impossible to get a handle on how unsettling (and ecstatic) it would have been to sit in a small auditorium and not believe your own eyes and ears.

Along with his ace guitarist, Hubert Sumlin, Wolf made some of the most covered (if essentially uncoverable) blues classics of that era. Many lesser men took a crack at numbers like “Sitting On Top of the World”, “I Ain’t Superstitious”, “Spoonful”, “Back Door Man” and “Little Red Rooster” (think Rod Stewart, Mick Jagger, Eric Clapton and Jim Morrison, to name a handful of the more opportunistic pups). Despite how embarrassing many of these efforts sound in comparison to the original versions, most of these bright-eyed white boys were paying genuine tribute to the man they admired. And Wolf, benefitting from the publicity these bands provided as well as his own shrewd business acumen, was one of the very few blues immortals who actually earned money during his lifetime.

You read advice like this all the time (and no matter how enthusiastically I endorse a particular artist, I try to dispense it judiciously) but if you’ve ever taken someone’s word for it when they say “your life is lacking if you don’t have this” take my word for it and drop the ten bucks on this indispensable document. It’s not just that you are depriving yourself of one of the singular voices of the last century, you are actually missing an important chunk of America itself. Put another way, touchstones like “Smokestack Lightnin'” and “Sitting On Top Of The World” endure less as (merely) American songs and more as components of this country’s unique sensibility. Believe your ears because they are, in fact, even more than that.

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