Now that Don Van Vliet’s abandonment of music in favor of his career as a painter appears to be permanent, what are we finally to make of his alter ego, Captain Beefheart? Is he the avant-rock deity so dutifully worshipped by hipsters and other modernistes? Or was he, to use Ray Davies’ blunt assessment, "the biggest plater (blowjob artist) in the business"? Two new Beefheart collections – Grow Fins, a four-CD box of demos, alternates, live material and ephemera now available on Revenant Records, and The Dust Blows Forward, a double-disc of career highlights due next month from Rhino – provide an abundance of data for those brave (or foolish) enough to venture into the musical thicket that lies under the good Captain’s hat.
Genius or God’s goofball? The answer, as it was with Salvador Dali, is an alternately maddening and delightful shell game. But where Dali played up an eccentricity that was enormously successful in the marketplace, Captain Beefheart never enjoyed so much as a whiff of Sal’s commercial acceptance, even when he tried to sell out. I’m not sure genius is the word that best describes him, but his stubborn refusal – or genetic inability – to inhabit any world but his own is evidence of an authentic commitment to his art.
Playing with Captain Beefheart was always fun; indeed, play – the suspension of preconceptions – is what it was all (music, painting, conversation) about.
Grow Fins is the kind of playground Beefheart fans have only dreamed of: five discs, one of which is enhanced with performance footage that includes a 1971 appearance on the WABX-hosted TV show "Detroit Tubeworks." It’s a shadow history of Beefheart’s two decades of music making, from his humble beginnings as a Mojave Desert bluesman through the many maps he made of his own celestial country.
The set dredges up several solid gold carrots: two versions of the early classic "Here I Am I Always Am," a concise and powerful live "Kandy Korn" from ’68, and an astonishing version of "Orange Claw Hammer" from a 1975 radio interview (Beefheart is accompanied by Frank Zappa on acoustic 12-string and the directness of the performance makes it a highlight of both men’s careers).
One outlandish Beefheart claim that both these collections deflate is that he was single-handedly responsible for every note of music attached to his name. Both collections multiply our admiration for the grounded support and inspired wingwork of his three primary Magic Bands. The first was the blues band incarnation built around the guitars of Alex Snouffer and Ry Cooder.
The mature – or unchained – Beefheart produced two classic Magic Bands: The former was the Trout Mask Replica unit of Bill Harkleroad (Zoot Horn Rollo), Jeff Cotton (Antennae Jimmy Semens), Mark Boston (Rockette Morton) and John French (Drumbo), later brilliantly abetted by Mothers refugees Art Tripp and Eliot Ingber. This group pounded out the off-kilter Beefheart template from which later Magic Band members learned. These latter, young musicians accepted Beefheart’s skewed reality as a given, re-energizing him on the trilogy of albums – Shiny Beast (Bat Chain Puller), Doc At The Radar Station and Ice Cream For Crow – immediately preceding his 1983 retirement from music.
Disc three of Grow Fins is an especially revealing document of the Trout Mask tracking sessions. Besides providing a Beefheart karaoke opportunity, the naked instrumentals show the amount of hard work that went into creating something meant to sound as if all the rules had been tossed into the air and allowed to reorder themselves as they fell. It sounds like boot camp for Beefheart music: physical, rigorous, demanding, a calculated shock to the system of the musicians as well as the listeners. It remains the most extreme presentation of Van Vliet’s musical career. I’ve come to see Trout Mask as the Sgt. Pepper’s of the Beefheart catalog; it’s the most famous item, yet I find myself looking to his other records for the fulfillment of the musical ideas it expresses.
In the Grow Fins annotation, John Corbett states that Beefheart’s many label affiliations – the wages of unsuccess – will make a comprehensive "Best Of" impossible. Wrong! It’s not only possible, next month it’ll be actual: Rhino licensed 45 selections from A&M, Buddah, Blue Thumb, Straight, Bizarre, Reprise, Mercury, Warner Bros., Virgin, Atlantic, Epic and Rykodisc that offer highlights from Diddy Wah Diddy to Ice Cream For Crow. There’s only one unreleased track and the set leans too heavily on Trout Mask (seven selections) at the expense of earlier work (only two from Safe As Milk), but The Dust Blows Forward is still the single best batch of Beefheart we’re ever likely to get.
The Rhino anthology is Beefheart 101, while Grow Fins is for graduate students. Both are treasures, offering, in the words of John French’s box set notes, "a peek at the infinite possibilities that existed if only one would walk even a few feet off the well-worn path."
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