Goodbye, Good Captain

January 4, 2011

It seems weird to me that a generation of rock gods whose very existence was based on an unnaturally extended adolescence is now starting to trail off to meet their maker. Those larger-than-life characters that hooked me into their youthful swagger in my own (real) adolescence are, one by one, dying out. In a sense I’m lucky, because I never bought into the conventional (hippy?) notion that if you were older than 30, you couldn’t be trusted, and the musicians I admired were never teen idols.

Captain Beefheart (aka Don Van Vliet) quietly passed away just before Christmas 2010. As a young teen, he was an alternative kind of super hero. I would read stories claiming that he had an incredible five-octave vocal range, and that he could break windows with his raucous bellow. Legend has it that there were few microphones that could handle that weird sonic apparatus, and that a very good microphone spontaneously combusted when he sang the song ‘Electricity’ on his first album, in 1966. Beefheart wasn’t shy of making statements that increased the mystique, including the one that he seldom slept at all, and could go for weeks at a time without so much as an extended wink.

I was so entranced with the myth of Captain Beefheart that on my very first piece of journalism – a letter to now-defunct NZ rock magazine Hot Licks in 1975 – I signed off with the embarrassing line ‘Captain Beefheart’s greatest fan’. Yes, he was one of hundreds of rock god names scrawled on the inside and outside of my schoolboy pencil case. What a nerd.

In the early ‘70s, stranded in Hamilton, I found it difficult to find albums I had read about in Creem and NME, but found an outfit (probably in a classified ad in the back of Creem) called Dirty Jacks that, unbelievably, was a purveyor of deleted titles (or “cutouts”), not pornography. That’s where I purchased my first Beefheart albums – legendary he may have been, but his records never sold well, and his spotty history with a variety of labels meant that one of them (or the other) was always offloading unsold stock.

While it was Trout Mask Replica that ended up gracing a few too many ‘best all-time album’ lists a few decades later, that album was of more interest to me because of its production credit for Frank Zappa, an artist I quickly grew to love even more than Beefheart. To me, TMR was too skeletal and Zappa’s audio verite attempt at capturing the group more-or-less live meant that the performances were captured with less heft than they deserved. In the ‘80s and ‘90s, when the style of TMR was copied by hundreds of “alternative” bands to mask the fact that they could barely play their instruments, I felt even less like sticking it back on the platter.

Yes, it is an extraordinary album, and in its time sounded like nothing else on the planet; and like The Mothers’ freak rock, it seemed diametrically opposed to the hippy ethos. It was and is an avant statement; a prototype for a new type of rock that eliminated the egomaniacal bombast that would dominate the genre through the ‘70s.

The trouble is, I liked a lot of those egomaniacal rock acts, and then, as now, I would prefer to plop Led Zeppelin II on the turntable than Trout Mask Replica. Having said that, there were a few lean riff killers on TMR that got multiple plays: ‘Ant Man Bee’ (an early example of ecological thinking with bizarre but very cool unhinged horns), ‘Sugar ‘n Spikes’ and ‘When Joan Sets Up’ (proto-feminism in ’69) among them.

Okay, in truth, I did almost wear the grooves out of that album, but always thought the emphasis the critics gave to TMR unfairly disadvantaged Beefheart’s (not to forget the Magic Band) other albums.

In essence, Don Van Vliet started out as a blues hollerer who was deeply influenced by Howlin’ Wolf. What he ended up making was an utterly unique kind of Dada desert blues that combined the piquant imagery of his lyrics/poetry with the sharp, no-fat, but high protein riff-matrixes of his band. Although every phase of Captain Beefheart’s artistic life has merit, to me it reached its apex in the latter part, with the albums Shiny Beast (Bat Chain Puller) and 1980’s Doc At The Radar Station, two fine but very different records with awesome power and the odd touch of sweetness.

He retired early, in ’82, to concentrate on his visual art. Rumours abounded for years that he had multiple sclerosis, and on Anton Corbijn’s short 1994 tribute film Some YoYo Stuff, it was clear that Vliet had already almost lost the power of speech. On the grapevine, Vliet was “near to death” so many times over the decades that when it finally happened on December 17, 2010, I couldn’t really believe it.

I’m probably not Captain Beefheart’s greatest fan, but I do lovingly covet all his albums, and can honestly say that every now and then, I play and enjoy them; and I still find real substance in them that none of those perpetually adolescent rock gods (the ones that could never quite give it all up when they had the chance) could ever quite aspire to.  GARY STEEL

Steel has been penning his pungent prose for 40 years for publications too numerous to mention, most of them consigned to the annals of history. He is Witchdoctor's Editor-In-Chief/Music and Film Editor. He has strong opinions and remains unrepentant. Steel's full bio can be found here

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