Each week we pay homage to a select "Original Creator"—an iconic artist from days gone by whose work influences and informs today's creators. These are artists who were innovative and revolutionary in their fields. Bold visionaries and radicals, groundbreaking frontiersmen and women who inspired and informed culture as we know it today. This week: Captain Beefheart.
Captain Beefheart, or Don Van Vliet as was his birth name, was one of rock’s true originals. Sure, rock music is full of them—a musical rabble-rouser comes up every other year (or at least, used to), but Beefheart was a musician who always existed on the peripheries of even rock’s true originals. In a genre known for its excesses both on and off stage, Beefheart and his Magic Band exceeded the sonic boundaries of his contemporaries, refusing to be confined by the limitations of one particular style. He greedily and playfully took on jazz, blues, rock, noise—contextualizing this incongruous mix with satirical surrealist lyrics that come across as pieces of absurdist genius: psychedelic, bold, bawdy, hilarious, yet hinting at a bigger understanding of the natural order, while taking in historical references and cartoon caricatures of the counter-subcultures.
His music veered from straight-up blues to attempts at sating the mainstream, but he was at his best when orbiting the conventions of rock and making a sublime racket at the fringes of the avant-garde. His most celebrated album, Trout Mask Replica, is a vaudevillian slap to the temples, where instruments clash and lyrics jump and kick—his voice sounding chaotic and wild, expertly unhinged. A mind that is this knowingly unhinged betrays an opposing truth: while the songs sound improvised and disordered, they were actually carefully constructed and expertly crafted. For while there are plenty of gloriously deranged moments with ample hollering and howling, other times, like his a capella on “Well”, show his voice as powerful and fraught with bluesy emotion, while “Orange Claw Hammer” comes across as surrealist country. The dream-link lyricism of the songs is packed with energetic imaginings and wonderfully absurd juxtapositions—with hilarious ramblings from the band interspersed between them—showing a mastery of the language of nonsense and the abstract. It’s playful and experimental, and while some people might find its conflicting rhythms and instruments baffling and difficult, someone else will find them equally brilliant, and full of discordant beauty.
His rather unorthodox approach to song structure was reflected in the band’s mismatched attire, with cloaks and second hand clothes adorning their multicolored frames. Beefheart was, perhaps unsurprisingly, childhood friends with that other experimental music maverick Frank Zappa (who suggested the name change from Don Van Vliet) and they were sometime competitors and sometime collaborators, like on a version of “Orange Claw Hammer”. If you listen to most of Beefheart’s output, the style is far from mainstream, but he attempted to fit in with the albums Unconditionally Guaranteed (1974) and Bluejeans & Moonbeams (1974), which offer a more conventional sound. They were both critically mauled and the band split soon after—with members citing Beefheart’s tyrannical behavior—but in the late ’70s he formed a new Magic Band and released three albums that ensured he went out with his innovation and lunatic credentials intact. Having been one of the most fearlessly creative and inventive talents in rock, he bowed out in the 1980s and took up painting. He died just before his 70th birthday on December 17, 2010.
Captain Beefheart and the Magic Band – “Sure ’nuff ’n Yes I do” (1967) Their first track from their first album Safe As Milk. You can hear the influence of the Captain’s heroes Howlin’ Wolf and Muddy Waters in the roughly-hewn electric blues and his whooping voice. He also shows off his harmonica skills in this more traditional sounding, but no less invigorating, rhythm and blues track.
Captain Beefheart and the Magic Band – “Neon Meate Dream Of A Octafish” (1969) Taken from his jangled magnum opus Trout Mask Replica, the title to this one sums up his mastery of the absurd in a line which would make the Jabberwocky chortle. The lyrics stumble about like a Beat poem, showing his artful ability for nonsense verse, all surrounded by hints of free-jazz set to a cracked rhythm.
Captain Beefheart and the Magic Band – “Big Eyed Beans from Venus” (1972) From the album Clear Spot, this tune’s got a fantastic, electrifying guitar riff coupled with a primitive drum beat. The intensity of these instruments coupled with the shamanic growl of the vocals make for an intoxicating performance.
Captain Beefheart and the Magic Band – “Ice Cream for Crow” (1982) From Beefheart’s twelfth and final album, Ice Cream for Crow, from the 15 years he made music. The title was inspired by the contrast between white vanilla ice-cream and a black crow. Released in the era of the music video, it saw Beefheart, along with Ken Schreiber, directing the above video with the Captain playfully lurching towards the camera while his paintings frequently pop up. It was, however, deemed too strange for MTV’s conservative tastes (this was pre-Chris Cunningham), but found validation in the end as it now resides in the permanent collection at MoMA.
Captain Beefheart’s influence can be felt through a whole bunch of musicians who wouldn’t have existed without his indelible imprint on modern music. Among them are Tom Waits‘s gravelly musings, Johnny Rotten’s scowling and The White Stripes‘s stripped down blues rock. Other bands who’ve channelled his turbulent raw originality are the Minutemen, Nirvana, Mark E. Smith’s The Fall, the Red Hot Chili Peppers, Sonic Youth, the Pixies and plenty of bands from the 1980s New Wave. His fans include the late UK radio presenter John Peel, who constantly championed his music, and Matt Groening of the Simpsons, along with pretty much anyone else who likes their music potent and alive.
Photo: © Andy Freeberg Photography, Inc.