A Week of Americana. Part Two: Captain Beefheart

usa

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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R.I.P. Kumar Pallana

Anyone with a passing familiarity with, much less love of, Wes Anderson’s films (more on him HERE), will join me in mourning the loss of Kumar Pallana. Nice tribute HERE.

94 years young. Nice.

Here are some parting words of wisdom from the great man himself:

“I have seen the people who hustle and bustle, and they are already gone, at a young age,” he said. “I’m an old guy. I’ve been doing this a long time. And I don’t hustle and I don’t bustle.”

And here are some of his finer moments.

“Who is that man?”

“I lose my touch…”

Mr. Pagoda:

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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.

Share

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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A Different Kind of Independence Day: Revisiting Bottle Rocket

First off, huge hat tip to my boy JB (the award-winning home-brewer and all around great man) for bringing this amusing, and somewhat touching piece to my attention. It seems there is an effort afoot to save the Texas motel that served a vital role in the Wes Anderson masterpiece Bottle Rocket. Check out the story (and, if you are in Texas –or if you are nuts enough to care this much– get involved directly).

In the meantime, it seems appropriate to revisit my review of Anderson’s epic (if still under-appreciated) debut. What better movie to fire up on this great American holiday weekend, right?

The perfection of Wes Anderson’s first film Bottle Rocket might lie in the fact that is isn’t, and wasn’t necessarily intended to be, a perfect film. Anderson tried to make perfect films later on (he failed with The Royal Tenenbaums, but came as close as any director can come with Rushmore), yet nothing he’s done since has been as oddly affecting as his debut feature.

Part of the desperate charm of this “little” film can be attributed to its convoluted origins: the 13-minute short (directed by Anderson and co-written with college friend Owen Wilson) premiered at the Sundance Film Festival and attracted certain appropriate, important people. Despite the subsequent involvement, and unflagging endorsement of James L. Brooks (The Simpsons), the final script needed more time in the oven and more than a little TLC to get it ready for the big screen.

Despite the cast and crew’s understandable confidence in what they ended up with, the initial test screenings were catastrophic, and Sundance inexplicably refused the full-length version of the film it had previously championed. Disillusioned but not defeated, Anderson and Wilson went back to the drawing board and (wisely) rewrote and reshot the entire beginning of the film. Their perseverance paid off. What could (and would) have, at best, been hailed (and/or discarded) as a cute, quirky effort instead arrived—-after several years and more than a handful of detours—-as a polished product, and a damn near perfect film.

All of that back-story is essential in order to properly appraise the not exactly auspicious evolution of this film. It also serves as (yet another) case study of how even the feel-good, left-field success stories are often only the final step in an arduous, sometimes painful artistic process. More importantly, the evidence of these two friends’ unflappable natures underscores how their project came to fruition, and where the eccentric energy permeating the movie derives from.

Since lightning won’t strike in the same place twice, it was a wonderful, albeit necessary happenstance that a first time director was working with a first time script with first time actors. Part of the innocent seduction people talk about when they talk about how they fell for this film is in no small part due to these aforementioned circumstances. In short, this balance of earnestness and ambition could never be duplicated by a veteran who has lived through the meat-grinding process of making a movie.

Now that Bottle Rocket is getting the Criterion Collection treatment, its status is officially elevated from cult-following to sanctified. Given its complicated history and the fact that it almost failed to make it out of the starting gate, what can we say, today, to elucidate how it (almost) flopped, and why it endures? Here is Martin Scorsese (taken from the DVD booklet, quoted from an appreciation of Anderson he wrote for Esquire in 2000): “A picture without a trace of cynicism that obviously grew out of its director’s affection for his characters in particular and for people in general. A rarity.” Bottle Rocket is indeed a rare type of movie: unimprovable casting, impeccable soundtrack (Anderson’s first fruitful collaboration with the amazing Mark Mothersbaugh), and the creation of a world that is at once disarmingly peculiar and utterly unique.

And the plot? Well…that may explain why a majority of the movie’s first viewers walked out of the theaters. And it certainly explains the typical, and predictable, critical indifference that the film generally received. The plot, such as it is, involves an increasingly outlandish series of escapades, masterminded by Dignan, the ringleader who is all heart and not exactly what one would call a masterful mind. But the plot (as, I would argue, is so often the case with some of our more influential, if unappreciated film and fiction) is mostly a delivery device for the characters.

And, as is the case with all Wes Anderson’s films, the characters are a delivery device for the Wes Anderson aesthetic. This sensibility was still fresh and unfettered at this stage, and its propensity for preciousness, while for the most part deftly avoided in Rushmore, is in full effect throughout The Royal Tenenbaums. Bottle Rocket is, to be certain, very much a statement of purpose and a signal of things to come, just as Christopher Nolan’s Following–for instance—-is replete with images and obsessions that would come to the fore in his brilliant follow-up, Memento.

In the film’s opening scene, Anthony (the almost indescribably likeable Luke Wilson) is ending his voluntary stay at a mental hospital, and his doctor admonishes him “don’t try to save everyone.” Enter Dignan, his best friend and imminent partner in crime. Dignan has been convinced (or has convinced himself) that he is helping bust Anthony out, and Anthony willingly plays along. While on the bus ride back home, we see the “75-Year Plan” Dignan has drawn up for them—-a detailed exercise that is, like its author, at once endearing and exasperating.

Dignan’s immediate mission is to prove that crime does pay, and the moment they return, they go to work. Their first heist, a robbery, is a success, albeit a quick one that yields a rather underwhelming bounty. Nevertheless, Anthony is caught up in the excitement, until he realizes that Dignan helped himself to his mother’s earrings, which were strictly off limits. And at this point the viewer understands that all they did was “rob” Anthony’s parents’ house. These small-time hoods, it seems, aren’t quite equipped to leave their own ‘hood.

After they recruit their other friend (the impeccably named Bob Mapplethorpe) as a getaway driver—-a role he is ideally qualified to perform, as he is the only one of them who owns a car—-they knock off the local bookstore. Another success and, in Dignan’s romanticized depiction, they are henceforth “on the run from Johnny Law.” Whether they are exactly wanted men is, at this point, a dubious proposition, but off they go, regardless.

Of course, when they pass a fireworks stand on their way out of town, they immediately pull over to load up on bottle rockets. While this scene obviously gives the movie its title, it also provides its theme: these young men are clearly not ready (or willing) to embrace adulthood, so they engage in what they perceive—-from watching too many movies—-to be dangerous, authentic activities, yet they can’t resist the urge to stop when they see a chance to buy firecrackers. This scene also provides one of the many masterful Andersonian touches that subtly conveys the innocence and absurdity of their adventure. Firing bottle rockets out of a moving car is not exactly the ideal way to avoid detection, just like Dignan’s subsequent vision of matching yellow jumpsuits for their penultimate gig is…not quite the signal of an advanced criminal acumen.

Getting back to the issue of plot, it is never much in question that these rascals will fail in their quest to become legitimate thieves, it is only a matter of how spectacularly they will flame out (and for those who have not seen the movie, the denouement is at once appropriately over-the-top and indelible). But the actual payoff is all about the journey, and the somewhat refreshing resolution of lessons not necessarily learned.

Through their experiences, Bob manages to reconnect, however tentatively, with his bullying older brother. Anthony happens to meet the woman of his dreams, in a whirlwind courtship that manages, against all probability, to unfold in a fashion that is convincing and tender. Most significantly, Dignan comes closer to achieving, or at least understanding, his destiny. Or does he? He may not be in a different place by the time the action ends, but the viewer definitely is.

How does this happen? One explanation is that different viewers of this film could come up with any number of different scenes that encapsulate the entire story. And each person, each scene, would be the right one. An example: as they plan the make-or-break heist, while Dignan reviews his painstakingly prepared notes, Anthony completes, with an artistic sort of absentmindedness, a flip book of a figure poll vaulting (which, in its way, is equally painstakingly prepared). Genius in movies lies in the details, and the details in this extremely short scene are immaculate. Dignan with coat and tie, signifying he is in full business mode, albeit with his horrific white athletic socks—-the ultimate not-ready-for-primetime oversight. Anthony, listening patiently while Dignan checks off his list, right there by his friend’s side, but not entirely there. These few moments crystallize their personalities, and the dynamic of their very genuine friendship, in ways it would take dozens of pages in a very good book to convey.

Later, after the heist has gone predictably, hysterically astray, the cohorts visit Dignan at the state penitentiary, where he has traded in his yellow jumpsuit for a white prisoner’s model. A moment follows that hits the trifecta for writing, acting and directing: Dignan pulls out a pile of belt buckles he has handcrafted and offers them around. It turns out the other, absent, accomplices (including Mr. Henry, played by tough-guy extraordinaire James Caan) whom he made buckles for might be partially responsible for landing him in jail, but he shrugs his shoulders and says there are no hard feelings. There has never been a character like Dignan in any movie, before or since.

That this restored high definition transfer is now available amounts to a win/win for fans or would-be first time viewers: anyone not yet convinced can likely pick up an older version of the DVD dirt cheap; repeat customers can treat themselves to an upgrade that truly looks and sounds stellar—an obvious technical improvement on the original.

And then there’s the bonus material. The film has commentary provided by Anderson and Owen Wilson; they are both exceedingly soft-spoken and humble about their collective accomplishments, but their insights are, well, insightful. Suffice it to say, Anderson (and/or Wilson) aficionados will want to savor this stuff.

Sample nugget: Owen initially resisted the idea of playing the role he helped write, because he didn’t feel he was “legit”; fortunately for everyone, Anderson was able to convince him otherwise. The bonus disc offers everything from a making-of documentary (including hilarious input from most of the cast, including James Caan), behind-the-scenes photos taken by sister Laura Wilson (this project truly keeps it all in the family!) and, above all, the original 13-minute short film, from 1992, that first lit the fuse.

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Bottle Rocket (from popmatters.com)

http://www.popmatters.com/pm/review/67085-bottle-rocket/

The perfection of Wes Anderson’s first film Bottle Rocket might lie in the fact that is isn’t, and wasn’t necessarily intended to be, a perfect film. Anderson tried to make perfect films later on (he failed with The Royal Tenenbaums, but came as close as any director can come with Rushmore), yet nothing he’s done since has been as oddly affecting as his debut feature.

Part of the desperate charm of this “little” film can be attributed to its convoluted origins: the 13-minute short (directed by Anderson and co-written with college friend Owen Wilson) premiered at the Sundance Film Festival and attracted certain appropriate, important people. Despite the subsequent involvement, and unflagging endorsement of James L. Brooks (The Simpsons), the final script needed more time in the oven and more than a little TLC to get it ready for the big screen.

Despite the cast and crew’s understandable confidence in what they ended up with, the initial test screenings were catastrophic, and Sundance inexplicably refused the full-length version of the film it had previously championed. Disillusioned but not defeated, Anderson and Wilson went back to the drawing board and (wisely) rewrote and reshot the entire beginning of the film. Their perseverance paid off. What could (and would) have, at best, been hailed (and/or discarded) as a cute, quirky effort instead arrived—-after several years and more than a handful of detours—-as a polished product, and a damn near perfect film.

All of that back-story is essential in order to properly appraise the not exactly auspicious evolution of this film. It also serves as (yet another) case study of how even the feel-good, left-field success stories are often only the final step in an arduous, sometimes painful artistic process. More importantly, the evidence of these two friends’ unflappable natures underscores how their project came to fruition, and where the eccentric energy permeating the movie derives from.

Since lightning won’t strike in the same place twice, it was a wonderful, albeit necessary happenstance that a first time director was working with a first time script with first time actors. Part of the innocent seduction people talk about when they talk about how they fell for this film is in no small part due to these aforementioned circumstances. In short, this balance of earnestness and ambition could never be duplicated by a veteran who has lived through the meat-grinding process of making a movie.

Now that Bottle Rocket is getting the Criterion Collection treatment, its status is officially elevated from cult-following to sanctified. Given its complicated history and the fact that it almost failed to make it out of the starting gate, what can we say, today, to elucidate how it (almost) flopped, and why it endures? Here is Martin Scorsese (taken from the DVD booklet, quoted from an appreciation of Anderson he wrote for Esquire in 2000): “A picture without a trace of cynicism that obviously grew out of its director’s affection for his characters in particular and for people in general. A rarity.” Bottle Rocket is indeed a rare type of movie: unimprovable casting, impeccable soundtrack (Anderson’s first fruitful collaboration with the amazing Mark Mothersbaugh), and the creation of a world that is at once disarmingly peculiar and utterly unique.

And the plot? Well…that may explain why a majority of the movie’s first viewers walked out of the theaters. And it certainly explains the typical, and predictable, critical indifference that the film generally received. The plot, such as it is, involves an increasingly outlandish series of escapades, masterminded by Dignan, the ringleader who is all heart and not exactly what one would call a masterful mind. But the plot (as, I would argue, is so often the case with some of our more influential, if unappreciated film and fiction) is mostly a delivery device for the characters.

And, as is the case with all Wes Anderson’s films, the characters are a delivery device for the Wes Anderson aesthetic. This sensibility was still fresh and unfettered at this stage, and its propensity for preciousness, while for the most part deftly avoided in Rushmore, is in full effect throughout The Royal Tenenbaums. Bottle Rocket is, to be certain, very much a statement of purpose and a signal of things to come, just as Christopher Nolan’s Following–for instance—-is replete with images and obsessions that would come to the fore in his brilliant follow-up, Memento.

In the film’s opening scene, Anthony (the almost indescribably likeable Luke Wilson) is ending his voluntary stay at a mental hospital, and his doctor admonishes him “don’t try to save everyone.” Enter Dignan, his best friend and imminent partner in crime. Dignan has been convinced (or has convinced himself) that he is helping bust Anthony out, and Anthony willingly plays along. While on the bus ride back home, we see the “75-Year Plan” Dignan has drawn up for them—-a detailed exercise that is, like its author, at once endearing and exasperating.

Dignan’s immediate mission is to prove that crime does pay, and the moment they return, they go to work. Their first heist, a robbery, is a success, albeit a quick one that yields a rather underwhelming bounty. Nevertheless, Anthony is caught up in the excitement, until he realizes that Dignan helped himself to his mother’s earrings, which were strictly off limits. And at this point the viewer understands that all they did was “rob” Anthony’s parents’ house. These small-time hoods, it seems, aren’t quite equipped to leave their own ‘hood.

After they recruit their other friend (the impeccably named Bob Mapplethorpe) as a getaway driver—-a role he is ideally qualified to perform, as he is the only one of them who owns a car—-they knock off the local bookstore. Another success and, in Dignan’s romanticized depiction, they are henceforth “on the run from Johnny Law.” Whether they are exactly wanted men is, at this point, a dubious proposition, but off they go, regardless.

Of course, when they pass a fireworks stand on their way out of town, they immediately pull over to load up on bottle rockets. While this scene obviously gives the movie its title, it also provides its theme: these young men are clearly not ready (or willing) to embrace adulthood, so they engage in what they perceive—-from watching too many movies—-to be dangerous, authentic activities, yet they can’t resist the urge to stop when they see a chance to buy firecrackers. This scene also provides one of the many masterful Andersonian touches that subtly conveys the innocence and absurdity of their adventure. Firing bottle rockets out of a moving car is not exactly the ideal way to avoid detection, just like Dignan’s subsequent vision of matching yellow jumpsuits for their penultimate gig is…not quite the signal of an advanced criminal acumen.

Getting back to the issue of plot, it is never much in question that these rascals will fail in their quest to become legitimate thieves, it is only a matter of how spectacularly they will flame out (and for those who have not seen the movie, the denouement is at once appropriately over-the-top and indelible). But the actual payoff is all about the journey, and the somewhat refreshing resolution of lessons not necessarily learned.

Through their experiences, Bob manages to reconnect, however tentatively, with his bullying older brother. Anthony happens to meet the woman of his dreams, in a whirlwind courtship that manages, against all probability, to unfold in a fashion that is convincing and tender. Most significantly, Dignan comes closer to achieving, or at least understanding, his destiny. Or does he? He may not be in a different place by the time the action ends, but the viewer definitely is.

How does this happen? One explanation is that different viewers of this film could come up with any number of different scenes that encapsulate the entire story. And each person, each scene, would be the right one. An example: as they plan the make-or-break heist, while Dignan reviews his painstakingly prepared notes, Anthony completes, with an artistic sort of absentmindedness, a flip book of a figure poll vaulting (which, in its way, is equally painstakingly prepared). Genius in movies lies in the details, and the details in this extremely short scene are immaculate. Dignan with coat and tie, signifying he is in full business mode, albeit with his horrific white athletic socks—-the ultimate not-ready-for-primetime oversight. Anthony, listening patiently while Dignan checks off his list, right there by his friend’s side, but not entirely there. These few moments crystallize their personalities, and the dynamic of their very genuine friendship, in ways it would take dozens of pages in a very good book to convey.

Later, after the heist has gone predictably, hysterically astray, the cohorts visit Dignan at the state penitentiary, where he has traded in his yellow jumpsuit for a white prisoner’s model. A moment follows that hits the trifecta for writing, acting and directing: Dignan pulls out a pile of belt buckles he has handcrafted and offers them around. It turns out the other, absent, accomplices (including Mr. Henry, played by tough-guy extraordinaire James Caan) whom he made buckles for might be partially responsible for landing him in jail, but he shrugs his shoulders and says there are no hard feelings. There has never been a character like Dignan in any movie, before or since.

That this restored high definition transfer is now available amounts to a win/win for fans or would-be first time viewers: anyone not yet convinced can likely pick up an older version of the DVD dirt cheap; repeat customers can treat themselves to an upgrade that truly looks and sounds stellar—an obvious technical improvement on the original.

And then there’s the bonus material. The film has commentary provided by Anderson and Owen Wilson; they are both exceedingly soft-spoken and humble about their collective accomplishments, but their insights are, well, insightful. Suffice it to say, Anderson (and/or Wilson) aficionados will want to savor this stuff.

Sample nugget: Owen initially resisted the idea of playing the role he helped write, because he didn’t feel he was “legit”; fortunately for everyone, Anderson was able to convince him otherwise. The bonus disc offers everything from a making-of documentary (including hilarious input from most of the cast, including James Caan), behind-the-scenes photos taken by sister Laura Wilson (this project truly keeps it all in the family!) and, above all, the original 13-minute short film, from 1992, that first lit the fuse.

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