Captain Beefheart is one of the most serious weird musos of all time. He and his Magic Band were promoted to be the next Beatles (he does a wonderful parody of Strawberry Fields Forever’ and they were more interested in him than he ever was in them), but his musical and theatrical imagination was so strenuous that he soon pissed off the major companies, and since he was in the habit of signing every commercial contract he was offered, he soon got hamstrung and was ‘rescued’ for a tour by the second weirdest US musician, Frank Zappa, who reckoned he was doing the poor man a favour but in fact was getting the best vocalist with the widest range and most powerful ideas on the scene. Beefheart was also an obsessive artist who constantly made satirical drawings of Zappa on the tour which drove Frank into towering rages.
I saw Captain Beefheart and the Magic Band in Birmingham Town Hall in the 1970s. He was very late starting in the packed and darkened hall. Then a pencil spotlight focused on a ballet dancer who performed politely. Cat calls from the audience. Then more darkness and boos. Then another spotlight beam on a BELLY dancer (Beefheart, also a fabulous poet, would have liked the pun on ballet/belly).
More darkness for a very long time. Then a spotlight beam on … what was it? A silver TOASTER. The beam broadened to show that it was strapped to the head of the bass guitarist, Zoot Horn Rollo, who then did a ten minute solo cavorting up and down the stage in a painful looking duck walk for ten minutes before the great man came on in his commanding cape. At another concert in Cambridge I saw Britain’s most important (still) living poet seated in the audience, J. H. Prynne, clutching his knee and grinning.
One of Beefheart’s best and strangest albums is Trout Mask Replica, a double LP here improbably shown in the hands of President Obama. According to president Obama, Captain Beefheart and his Magic Band encompassed everything that he believes is great about this country: resolution to express the truth through illogical imagery, creativity in the face of all prescriptions to be practical, and “the craziest fucking time-signature changes” ever heard in rock. He cited John “Drumbo” French in particular, whose breakneck drumming and arranging of Beefheart’s music “perfectly encapsulates the potential for exploration and job growth that I see in every young person in America every day.” WHAAT!??.
Despite the complexity and spontaneity the album was drill-routined to perfection by the Captain who had kept the band in virtual house-arrest with very little food for a whole year. It was recoded straight out in an incredible four hours. In his later years Beefheart abandoned music to pursue a financially and artistically highly successful career as an abstract artist after being diagnosed with MS.
In John Peel’s brilliant film about him and the band (Peale was the BBC’s alternative music guru who started off on the pirate music station Radio Caroline that all British teenagers of the 60s were glued to), he looks silently out at the camera for ages like a very old, senile man, then he raises his palm just like the album cover of Trout Mask Replica. The thing about his art and music is that he looks like he comes from the cauldron of the city, but actually he’s inspired by his native Californian desert, the surprising things: buzzards, rattlesnakes, lizards and tumbleweed: ‘The sun is a big, black shiny bug’. If you hate his music first time then don’t try again, for you’ll get hooked in to his bizarre, unprecedented but often kindly world, peopled with children, elderly eccentrics and octopi, despite threatening his band with a loaded cross bow on occasions. Ry Cooder was an early recruit who got out while the going was good wondering what on earth had happened to him. Here are maybe some desert lyrics from Trout Mask Replica:
Light floats down day river on uh red raft o’ blood
Night blocks out d’ heaven like uh big black shiny bug
Its hard soft shell shinin’ white in one spot well
It’s hard place dat I’m livin’ but I’m doin’ well well
The white ice horse melted like uh spot uh silver well
Its mane went last then disappeared the tail
My life ran thru my veins
Whistlin’ hollow well
I froze in solid motion well well
I heard the ocean swarmin’ body well well
I heard the beetle clickin’ well
I sensed the thickest silence scream
Then I begin t’ dream
My mind cracked like custard
Ran red until it sealed
Turn t’ wooden ‘n rolled like uh wheel well well
Thick black felt birds uh flyin’
With capes of solid chrome
With feathers of solid chrome
‘n beaks of solid bone
‘n bleach the air around them
White ‘n cold well well
Till it showed in pain
The hollow cane clicked like ever after
Its shadow vanished shinin’ silence