Saturday, December 18, 2010

Ain't no snafu. No folderol.

Your guitar is not really a guitar Your guitar is a divining rod.
Use it to find spirits in the other world and bring them over.
A guitar is also a fishing rod. If you're good, you'll land a big one.

Don Van Vliet, also known in the music world as Captain Beefheart, died on Friday at age 69.

May I ramble a bit? I'll get to the point eventually.

You all know (or should, if you've been reading me for any length of time and have a good long-term memory) that I have had a lifelong fascination with the recorded output that eminated from the Brothers Warner and their associated label Reprise, especially in the years 1970 through 1975, and that, perhaps, not coincidentally, is mostly when Beefheart and the Magic Band were in full swing. I wish I could tell you that I was a fan from Safe as Milk on, but that's just not the case- despite being aware of the man and his group from seeing the curiosity-provoking song titles listed in the old Warner/Reprise Loss Leaders, I was not in a position to hear his music until 1976, when I purchased the 8-track of the collaborative comeback effort he released with Frank Zappa, 1975's Bongo Fury. You see, when I first got interested in the Captain, it was roughly 1974 and he was represented by the critically savaged and backwards-looking Mercury Records releases Unconditionally Guaranteed and Bluejeans and Moonbeams. Since my income was limited to the ten dollars a week I'd get from my parents (just enough for an album and a couple of comics or paperback books), I was reluctant to take a flyer on these records, which were painted in a poor light by people whose opinion I respected. There was a chance encounter with a vinyl copy of 1972's Clear Spot, which I spied at a Louisville record store in the Mall at St. Matthews sometime in late '74. I snatched it up, took it to the cashier, and looking at it in line, I noticed a side-length light scratch, where someone else had slid it out of its clear plastic-with-a-flap sleeve and apparently didn't take the greatest care in replacing it. I decided to put it back. I didn't see another copy of it on vinyl until the 90's, in a used record shop, where its $25 price tag was a bit rich for my blood.

You see, part of my problem was that in those long-dead days, there was obviously no Internet with its myriad ways to get music, both illegal and legal, nor were there an endless parade of repackaged CDs of varying price points to help the uninitiated discover an artist's back catalogue, especially for an artist as obscure and out-there as the Captain. The records came out, sold a few, very few, then got deleted and if they weren't smash hits they didn't get reissued but instead were sold for significantly less with a hole punched in the sleeve or the corner cut off the record, same for the 8-tracks and cassettes. And reel-to-reel, I assume, though I don't recall ever seeing any cutout reel to reels. Cutout bin diving is one of the great lost pleasures of being a record buff, believe me, now limited to cities and towns with independent record stores. If you were lucky, you could find some great records for a buck ninety-nine. Since, by 1975, all the Beefheart albums had been deleted, it was very difficult to run across copies. Believe me, I looked after that.

Anyway, after Fury, a couple of years later I finally ran across a cutout copy of Clear Spot on 8-track. Snatched that thing up immediately and played the hell out of it. It was a more commercial, which is to say some attention was paid to accessibility, effort, produced by smokin'-hot Ted Templeman, producer of the Doobie Bros. and soon to helm releases by Van Halen and others- almost a last-gasp play, a Hail Mary if you will, full of R&B and Soul and New Orleans shuffle, as well as the usual oddball spoken-word poetry set to Jazzy, angular rhythms. It would spawn no hit singles and didn't sell any better than his more challenging efforts such as the highly-esteemed Trout Mask Replica and the underrated Lick My Decals Off, Baby. So, the Captain broke up the Band, got new management, and released the aforementioned even more blatant commercial stabs, then hibernated again until hooking up with Zappa and releasing Fury. For some reason, I was reluctant to get 1978's Shiny Beat (Bat Chain Puller), even though it got a lot of positive writeups in CREEM and other places. Perhaps I felt the bloom was off the rose; can't say why for sure. I did break down and get 1980's Doc at the Radar Station, thanks to seeing him perform the track "Hot Head" on Saturday Night Live. I could have sworn it was on ABC's Fridays, but can't find anything online to back that up. Anyway, I bought it, liked it a little though it took so much time to grow on me that I didn't get the followup, 1982's Ice Cream for Crow. After that, there would be no more music from him, though I didn't know it at the time. Eventually, bit by bit, I acquired some of the Loss Leaders with Beefheart tunes like 1971's "Click Clack", and liked them a lot, but still had no luck finding those Reprise records. Finally, CDs happened, and I got the Spotlight Kid/Clear Spot twofer, finally replacing that long-discarded 8-track, and the 1999 anthology The Dust Blows Forward, where I finally got to sample some of the by-then-legendary Trout Mask tracks and many others I hadn't heard. My fandom was cemented, as I came to love nearly all of the weird and willful stuff, even the more conventional blues-based pre-Trout Mask music like "Abba Zabba" and "Electricity". Since then, I've gone on and acquired, by hook or crook, the albums I craved to hear for so long and love them all in their way, especially Clear Spot. You never forget your first love.

Van Vliet's music was an almost indescribable blend of Dada Delta Blues, Zappa-style weirdness, playful lyrics, the aforementioned jazz, R&B, soul and other stuff. Not much country, but there was a little twang in the mix. I'm not surprised it wasn't embraced by the masses- and it seems to me that Van Vliet wasn't either. Eventually he said to hell with it and stopped making music recorded for mass consumption, instead choosing to concentrate on his career as an (unsurprisingly) surrealist painter and sculptor, which brought him a lot more success (and personal satisfaction, I'd bet) than his music career ever did. And that's fine.
Although it took me a hell of a long time, I did finally come to appreciate the genius of the man, and find out a lot about the wonderful musicians who backed him (they deserve a ton of credit for those records, especially considering the crap he put them through while making them, as it turns out). Unlike many artists who bowed out early to pursue other paths, I don't really resent it and wish there had been more, although I sure do wish there had been more from his mid-70s reunion with Zappa. It had been so long since he issued new music, I had mostly resigned myself to the occasional online news update and fairly frequent listens to his I don't feel the wrenching sense of loss that some of the deaths of people I admire fosters; it seems like he was already gone for a long time to me. Still, he's one of those larger than life figures who left his often sloppy and chaotic mark on a sadly limited number of people, though by extension (i.e., all the musicians he subsequently inspired), the number becomes remarkably large. I am glad that I made the effort and am a better person for the experience, I think.


Roger Owen Green said...

My intro to Beefheart was actually from those Warner Brothers loss leaders. Damn, I loved those things. Should say LOVE, since I still have them. One I never got, though, was the single album called Zapped, which had Zappa, Beefheart and all the more "out there" artists.

Johnny B said...

I loved them, too, and have managed to acquire a handful of them over the years. I never had ZAPPED, either, though I found it online a while back and downloaded it to listen. Funny thing, though, is that by the time I did that, I was already very familiar with most of the songs included on the record!