Review of CAPTAIN BEEFHEART flick UNDER REVIEW with some reflections on my own Painting
“Abba Zaba go-zoom Babette baboon
Run, run, morning soon, Indian dream, tiger moon
Yellow bird fly high, tobacco sky, two shadows at noon”
I have to admit that much of Sixties rock I listen to now with a certain amount of nostalgia, and admiration, a gem from the past. There is none of that with Beefheart & the Magic Band, it comes on strong, completely present. Beefheart was loaded for bear.
I realize now that Don was testing me when he asked if I liked UNCONDITIONALLY GUARANTEED (released April 1974) and I couldn’t honestly answer and couldn’t look him in the eye, which told him all he suspected, and he got all riled and yelled I KNEW IT GAWDDAMMIT! Then he asked what I thought about BLUEJEANS & MOONBEAMS (recorded August 1974 released in November). I said something noncommittal about how I kinda prefer his earlier records and he again flipped out, and kicked the dirt. This conversation was the night of May 17th 1975 after rehearsal with Zappa for the BONGO FURY tour. Which means when I caught him at the Whisky it was in between UNCONDITIONALLY and BLUEJEANS, and according to the documentary UNDER REVIEW (2006) his band quit right after UNCONDITIONALLY just before he was scheduled for a European tour (which explains the cool shoes he had made in Holland that he was wearing, sort of pre-Earth Shoes style, soft leather), so, his record company put together an ad hoc band of studio players for the tour, which is the band I caught at the Whisky (April 1974) —- I do remember backstage Don and the band were aloof, keeping their distance. I was the only one visiting with him. He had kept a brown sack in his hands on stage like he was drinking wine, but when I asked what was in there (I never knew him to drink) he said it was an empty bottle of port stage prop, “You know, a red herring.”
Maybe sacreligious to say but I can’t put on a Dylan record, or anybody else, after immersing myself in an hour of Beefheart, it just sounds silly. Beefheart was driving a steamroller. It was scary menacing, titanic, as big as the wave that sunk Atlantis, which Beefheart was just nutty enough to probably believe happen’d. He had a rocky output, a few missed turns, but never boring, ever. Emulators are many, and Beef’s music stands up well to reinterpretation. Being an “uncompromising artist” was a bigger deal back then, more than now. And Don was never to be dissuaded, although he needed to make some money.
Beefheart was a force of nature. I called him Don, you couldn’t really call someone Captain Beefheart. Where did he get these ideas? His music was an amalgam of influences that he stirred up into a phantasmagorical rhythmic universe. To talk with him, he was like Lester Young only ten-fold, these two who lived in a parallel universe of their own making. Lester had his own language. Don had his own language but also a warped perspective. I mean “warped” in the physical/physics sense, not that he was mentally deranged. I’ve heard that he could play the mental card easily, to put people on, he must have enjoyed that. I’ve heard he could be quite caustic, especially to journalists who didn’t know who Muddy Waters or Howlin’ Wolf or Jackson Pollock were. That was our immediate connection, was art and poetry and the blues and free jazz. I was a half generation younger than Don (1941 vs 1953) which means he was only 31 the first time we spoke. It was the Fox Theater in Long Beach, March 10, 1972 and the opening acts were Daddy Cool and Harvey Mandel! This was the Magic Band that had just made SPOTLIGHT KID so, they played some from that and a lot from the previous album LICK MY DECALS OFF BABY (my favorite Beefheart album in a lot of ways) so, they were cooking. It was a 3-night run and the night I was there Little Richard was the MC, in a giant pompadour and pink frilly shirt! Gee, I sure wish I had taken my camera. Don was wearing his cape and backstage I just wanted to meet this guy, this fellow traveler in the realms of uncompromising art. On YouTube you can see photos from this night as well as a lo-fi fabulous recording of the concert! Unbelievable to be able to hear this. The ROLLING STONE feature with his photo on the cover had just come out, and prepared me for his paranormal abilities, the article starts off with Don interrupting the journalist that he needs to get the phone. The phone had not rang. But, by the time Don walked over to the telephone, it rang! So, I’m an 18-year high school hipster talking with Don and he interrupts me saying Excuse me I need to light this lady’s cigarette, and 180-degrees behind us, sitting on a bench, is a girl searching through her purse for a match! Don walks over and lights her cigarette!
One of the highlights of that concert was the dual-guitar feature which was definitely Zoot Horn Rollo on one of the guitars and my guess Rocket Morton on the other, even though Elliot Ingber was also on this concert, it could have been him? Playing possibly “Dali’s Car,” or “Peon” of the half dozen in the Beefheart canon which struck me then as now as Bach-like in the 2-Part Inventions vein.
“Intricate insectoid abstract chamber music for rock & roll instruments,” is how one journalist put it. I love that one.
How do you explain Captain Beefheart’s music? He’d spent his youth listening to R&B and captivated by Black American cultural musics, eventually diving into the Delta. (One talking head in the documentary feels strongly an influence from classical music but I don’t sense this at all, not unless you count Harry Partch as classical?) Don’s sensibility was blues-based with an ethos of really digging down into the center of what the blues can do, how it can jump down inside yr psyche.
Was Don a reactionary against a sterile 1950s, the way Zappa was? He certainly had no affinity for the sterility and conformity that washed over America, at least, as purveyed by the media and government, but Don didn’t have a political bone in his body. He was something of an innocent. Needed looking after. In fact, when I first saw him drive I was surprised —- I hate to admit, but his brain just never struck me as being aligned with negotiating a car. He had an amazing mind but driving cars was the last thing I think of when I think of Don. Not that I knew him that well. So, do you call it Stratospheric Blues? Primordial Blues? Titanic? Apocalyptic? That was an element of modern art in it, and what seems absurdist (L.A. has a long tradition of Dada), like his recording a bush? We loved it! TROUT MASK REPLICA was out of sight. We were teenagers and we loved how weird that was. Don an environmentalist? Most certainly. About half the songs in his oeuvre are about concerns for the health of the planet and the natural world and the animals. But, even with that, he wasn’t usual. His involvement with the natural world was mostly as an observer. I can’t see Don going backpacking, the notion is laughable, it would take Don all day just to walk a mile! He’d stop at every bug and plant and flower and bird and absorb. He had empathy. He could go into raptures telling you about the whales he saw off the coast of Northern California. You have to remember how bad smog was in L.A. those days. It was hard to ignore the impending environmental catastrophe around the corner.
Now, I don’t want to leave the impression that Don and I were close friends. I was merely a young boho who recognized a fellow with the same interests and always made my way backstage to say Hi and maybe ask a question, or tell him I caught the reference to Otis Rush in his set, to which his eyes would light up with childish wonder and say, “Yeh, the Cobra sides,” emphasized with overtones of the animal kingdom. The way he twisted words. (Otis Rush 1950s Chicago blues 45s were on the Cobra label —- Us record collectors called “sides,” a term long fallen into disuse, only used now among us nuts). I was a fellow believer. I supported his manner of being. And so we were friends. A year or two might pass between but he always remember’d me. Zoot Horn Rollo says as much in his memoir LUNAR NOTES page 42 “He had an amazing memory for people. He only had to meet them a couple times and then ten years later he would be able to remember what they had talked about and strike up a conversation about the very same subject.” I was just a young guy who was interested, bought all his records, in fact, I was part of the demographic he always bemoaned, he said to me that his audiences were all guys, it bothered him. Another connection we had, under the skin, was that we were both born and bred Southern Californians, and lived the consequences of such things like the John Birch Society and Reagan and the stiff staid culture that hated anybody not in step. And I do mean “hated.” That’s not to say that L.A. didn’t have its eccentrics.
First time I ever heard the word “copacetic” was watching Frank and Don banter it back & forth at the BONGO FURY rehearsal.
When I first ventured into L.A. out of the suburbs (1969 age 16) I drove straight to Hollywood Blvd and then to Sunset Blvd expecting to find a lively scene. So, I was not a little bit surprised instead to encounter winos and oddballs and desolation. L.A. had a lot more eccentrics, then. Maybe TV and the Internet has homogenized us all into sameness? I am me and you are me and we are all together?
Anyway, these are just my reflections. Purely personal.
It was after the BONGO FURY concert in Claremont CA that I told Don how much I dug his soprano solo (with a huge screen of aquamarine greenish blue projected behind him, while the band riffed an elongated background for him). He said, “Yeh, I was thinking of a pterodactyl floating over a forest.” Zappa didn’t keep any of that for the album. That was the night Don read a few poems to me, all of them written out in capital letters by his wife Jan, the one that stood out was a riddle that coalesced at the end to be about a blind guy selling pencils on the sidewalk, amazing! Told me he had a sea chest full of these. When I enthused that he should get them published in a book, he held up the V sign and said, “I’m waiting for this to be over,” meaning the peace-love ethos he didn’t want to be associated with. “If you want to be a different fish, you gotta jump out of the school,” his oft repeated defiance. I offered him some red wine and he said he couldn’t, that he had a long drive back to Lancaster, and the cops would get him, “Captain! Captain! We got Captain Beefheart!” he acted out the scenario of being pulled over and arrested.
This is a great documentary, one of the best I’ve seen on Beefheart and his world. After watching I immediately bought John Drumbo French’s book ($95 expensive but 880 pages) he was so articulate all through this flick. And I can heartily recommend guitarist Bill Harkleroad (Zoot Horn Rollo)’s book LUNAR NOTES (he hates THE SPOTLIGHT KID and loves the follow-up album CLEAR SPOT, but, man, I like them both, a lot). And then there’s Mike Barnes’ monumental biography that precludes anything else I could say.
Maybe it’s Antediluvian Blues? Telepathic. “I’m gonna take up with a mermaid!” he just sang from my stereo.
One time the first thing he said to me was: “Where were you? I didn’t see you at the Harry Partch concert!” Danlee Mitchell had mounted a major concert at UCLA Royce Hall with Partch’s original instruments. (I was in jail for a minute, and missed it. Thank you L.A. jackboot cops.)
I doubt Don listen’d to much of the pop music prevalent during the 60s or 70s, some of it I suspect he would have liked, like “Psychotic Reaction,” “Are You Gonna Be There at the Love In?” and “Dirty Water,” but then, he wasn’t too charitable regarding the scene. His own music could be vicious and malevolent, savage, fulminating menace, thundering against humanity.
He might be misanthropic but never nihilistic, he abhorred what the industrial revolution was doing to the planet and blamed mankind, but he was still too soft-hearted at core to be a nihilist. I doubt he thought favorably of the mid-70s blossoming Punk scene and their destructive manifesto. (Maybe I’m wrong but punks seemed like they hated everything.)
Another interesting point one of the authors made, and it has some truth to it I believe, is that Zappa was jealous of Don and did his best to be as weird as Don but Don was preternaturally born that way, something impossible to imitate, although, one, Methyl Ethyl mer Man, with total respect nailed Don perfectly. I got a good laugh out of it:
“Ah hero ism pop weasel killing floor show down to a groove a BASF encore wounds elastic cheap plastic gimme lack o’people no more mo more show me your interior I’ll give you my cuffs…had to come out Ramadan to review. Dug the buckwheat Charade but so southern Had ti hiccup in Rahsaan Roland Kirk’s horn. Why did it suck, baby? Coz times were toinin’ in a bad wally. I was downbeat and beat too, already diggin Bitche’s Brew and Moicury put out such a recycled poly vinyl chloride disk, I neva hoid “New Electric Ride” or “rock n roland’s evil house pillory.” Through snuff and hooch I bought this thing this cadaver but it weren’t blues boogie boy, it was this hoitin hologram betrayal at sub-continental drift. Hark I see Jesus and bread too, my muffin hast come unglued. Thanks for the thimnk the gimmicks I’m sick. I disqualify my credibility as a review.er.” ——2014 Amazon review of BLUEJEANS
Every period of Don’s 17 years in music is interesting, even those two albums most devotees hold in abeyance. But, as time and reflection works on my head I really love the 1967-1968 albums SAFE AS MILK, STRICTLY PERSONAL, and MIRROR MAN. Check out “Plastic Factory,” that’ll get you hopping like jumping an old Ford with 120 volts (I used to do this, in a pinch, jump it right off the house electricity and it was beyond crazy. Talk about a jump start! That thing jumped about 10 feet!).
I wonder exactly what Beefheart master tapes went up in smoke in the 2008 UMG Universal Music Group fire? Because it would sure be interesting to hear a lot of these tracks before Don overdubbed his voice, just because the music is so interesting itself. And whatever happen’d to the first sessions for TROUT MASK that were recorded at their house? *[I wrote this before I found these first TROUT sessions exist on the 5-cd GROW FINS collection]
I want to acknowledge the various jazz saxophonists that Don supposedly sounds like, the notions being ridiculous. But, if one had to compare I’d say Marshall Allen from Sun Ra’s saxophone section (certainly not John Gilmore as one otherwise good writer avers —- We all don’t always get it right, me included). When I talked with Beefheart, I always wanted to know about his hanging with Ornette, and Steve Lacy. And our mutual love of Albert Ayler. But, his biggest admiration was always for Rahsaan Roland Kirk. I don’t remember hitting on Sun Ra in our discussions, that might have been prudent on my part, as he was often (incorrectly) compared to Ra. It’s like how writers searched for an influence on his painting style. Names like Franz Kline and Rauschenberg pop up and Don certainly knew their work but he didn’t operate that way. You could say he had the animal mind, completely unselfconscious of itself, and he just did.
As for metaphysics, he always stressed his reading the books of the mystic Manly P Hall. I had just read Colin Wilson’s THE OUTSIDER (a book that Jim Morrison absorbed) and was telling him about Jacob Boehme and Wittgenstein, all of which was of interest to him. Apparently, Manly P Hall spoke his language. I have to say, now, that it was probably his wife Jan who influenced his interest in Hall, having read the brilliant reportage at www.beefheart.com that she was working at the Philosophical Research Society library when they met.
So much more to say but I’ll end here.
In summary: Beefheart is not for everybody.
[14-20dec2020 and the story about offering him some wine was added 8jan2021 —-MW] *Posted at Psychedelic Radio Head Shoppe FB page in it’s earlier version
Hard to say what it was that grabbed me so much about the New York Abstract Expressionists, it was gritty almost negative response to the world, violent drunken splashes and slather’d broad strokes, pieces of gutter detritus nailed on in a swirling crazy mess, cytoplasm of the city, dripping detached boho desuetude, and still, it was perfection. It was like enlarging one square inch of a Leonardo masterpiece a hundred times to six-by-eight feet, those blibs and dabs and cross-hatches of Leonardo’s were abstract expression that somehow coalesced! They were beautiful and they made sense. At the same time I fell into that phantasmagoria I was listening to Stravinsky’s 1910-1913 period, Edgar Varese, Penderecki, Terry Riley in C, and all that electronic & musique concrete, I couldn’t afford to buy it all but I had Charles Wuorinen, Morton Subotnik, Xenakis, Stockhausen, KENNETH GABURO, Tom Dissevelt (my first electronic music album! altho, the track “Sound Museum” on Ken Nordine’s WORD JAZZ was in my ears first), on & on, and by the mid-60s the Beatles were listening, too, and adding little avant-garde snips on albums RUBBER SOUL and REVOLVER —- And Toru Takemitsu was big then, but it was another Japanese composer on the flip side of my Takemitsu album who flipped my lid: TOSHIRO MAYUZUMI’s monumental “Mandala Symphony” kaWOW ———– I was also devoted to Zappa’s early albums that had that existentialist ascerbic Ab Ex vibe (album cover art by Cal Schenkel!) those were my teenage years, but it was Captain Beefheart who was the real weirdo and got under my wig, back in those days Southern California was chock full of eccentrics like Beefheart, where’d they all go? I don’t mean ego nutjobs like Wild Man Fischer, altho, there were plenty of those types around, I mean eccentrics like non-conformists who weren’t “non-conformists” by design or postured philosophy, these guys were born that way, they had no choice in the matter, and Don Van Vliet was one of them, a very interesting guy.
So, how does all this square with reading JRRT, loving Incredible String Band, Pink Floyd (first 3 albums), Ravi Shankar, Zap Comix, Muddy Waters, all the Beatniks, Grateful Dead (esp. 1968-1972 period), Eric Dolphy, and spending so much time exploring the Mojave and San Gabriel Mountains? Somehow it all fit together. As Walt Whitman said, “We contain multitudes.” It was the Sixties, everything was flowing together. All of which precipitated my deep dive into jazz and free jazz, all of which makes sense to me and put me in a perfect mindset to hang with Captain Beefheart.
MW 21march2021 Albuquerque