The Captain who marshalled an army of musicians and meaning
His legacy is one of fearless musical experimentation, but the late Captain Beefheart embraced that fearlessness throughout his career, writes JOHN FLEMING
SOME THINGS hit you with force. Like the death of a distant and faded star you never met or never even saw. Captain Beefheart was one of those forces that are out there all the time, like the sea. Like the tumbleweed, cactus trees and desert rocks of some videos, he was a totem, a modern indigenous American.
In his early incarnations, with his top hat and pointed beard, he was a medicine man, a vivid illustration of a Mark Twain walk-on gambler or carpetbagger. I first encountered him in late-1970s and early-1980s copies of the New Musical Express. He stared out from black-and-white pictures, an arts elder, the king of the Mojave Desert. And his voice proved as parched as the sand which coated his tunes.
Photographed by Anton Corbijn, Beefheart stared out with his hat doffed, a strange hippy gent with the kind of moustache otherwise only found in imported TV cop shows.
Despite his kindly appearance, he looked like the enemy. Like some lucky survivor from the flared, overblown music that punk had surely tried to destroy.
But although carbon-dated from a previous generation, he had a seriously missed beat in his wonky aesthetics; his was a messed-up art that meshed perfectly with bands such as Devo, Magazine, Talking Heads, Gang of Four and the Fall, alongside all of whom he found himself as returned contemporary and overarching godfather.
Around that time, I wrote Captain Beefheart into the cast of a George Bernard Shaw play. In a fifth-year school essay on Heartbreak House, I mistakenly wrote his name instead of Captain Shotover. It was to test the local overlords of the education system; it was a subconscious plea to assert a complete identity as I made do with the two-thirds of his Doc at the Radar Stationalbum I had managed to tape off the radio.
Beefheart had a neat turn of phrase. But he was too often milked for witticisms by interviewers. “Q: Why don’t you go commercial? A: Either I’m too smart or I’m too dumb.” Or “Q: How do you control your band? A: With a kind whip . . . A kind quip . . . I’m an only child – I’m a tyrant.”
Talking about his work as a painter, he once said, “Music is just black ants crawling across white paper.” Those words are a striking portrait of how he worked with sound and image. For a minute, you can see him as a military art dictator marshalling an army of musicians and meaning.
More than 40 years ago, before Apollo 11began taking its small step for mankind in 1969, he used such tyranny to create his bonkers-but-beloved album Trout Mask Replica. Just as fond of lunar landscapes as Nasa, Beefheart was holed up in the Mojave Desert in a trailer, scorching beat-up cars across its burning sands when he wasn’t writing broken tunes.
In the decades after, he became frail, silent and aged with multiple sclerosis. But back when Nasa was still sweating in the space race against the Soviets, Beefheart was crazed and barked out orders in his legendary multi-octave voice to his fearful Magic Band.
Together they were incarcerated in a house in the Los Angeles suburb of Woodland Hills and surviving on a diet of pulses. He forced his band day and night for eight months to work out a note-perfect version of the soon-to-be-recorded album.
Tales of violence are legion: verbal assaults, dismantlings of band members’ personalities, and threatened or actual throwings down stairs. One of the emaciated band members tried to escape but was dragged back by the others; another was arrested for stealing food. These stories contextualise Trout Mask Replica’s 28 tunes. They were eventually recorded in just one prolific six-hour studio stint. The album is generally regarded as a milestone and as a Year Zero for music.
But for many, Trout Mask Replicais an enigma. Especially if you have never listened to it. With its weighty reputation, it is easier to avoid. Like not reading Moby Dickin the belief that, having seen Gregory Peck in the film, you implicitly understand the fundamentals of a biblical tale about the pursuit of a whale.
Trout Mask Replicadoes not beam out of daytime radio. It does not play as background music in any supermarket I have been to. Beefheart predated my main period of musical interest and listening to him required a gradual archaeological catch-up.
But the reputation of this record scared me. I kept leaving it until later. I purchased the The Spotlight Kidfor a couple of quid in a Golden Discs January sale. And I instantly liked Observatory Crestoff Bluejeans and Moonbeams, an album Beefheart himself had disowned. Although he had suggested people take it back to the shops to seek reimbursement, I treasured this song most of all.
He seemed to nail the town and the country in the soft lyric “While the city was busy/We wanted to rest/So the only thing to do/Was to drive up and watch the city/From Observatory Crest”. And rather late in music-listening life, I acquired Trout Mask Replicaabout five years ago. I had always feared being disappointed. And that is what I was.
Sure, repeat listenings exposed the sudden changes of rhythm and reversals of sound direction that serve as basic blueprints for many bands. But I didn’t want to listen to it as a lesson. The album is drenched in ugly fractured blues music and sea shanties and never quite adds up. It drips ideas but the lyrics take time to discern.
It’s a brilliant mess but I am struggling to like it. It feels devoid of emotion. To my horror I don’t quite get it but I am prepared to keep trying. Maybe it’s a wine I left too long in the bottle. And maybe the message in that bottle is never to defer gratification.
Captain Beefheart RIP.