Captain Beefheart: a Personal Memory
The first part of a six-part BBC documentary narrated by the late John Peel
Born in January 1941, Don van Vliet, aka Captain Beefheart, died Friday, December 17, 2010, of complications related to multiple sclerosis.
Even though he gave up music in 1982 (beginning a successful career as a reclusive artist until hampered by the onset of multiple sclerosis), Captain Beefheart left an important and influential musical legacy.
Safe As Milk, the 1967 debut album, didn't exactly burst onto the music scene, but it did create some cult interest, even amongst students like me in far-away England. 1967 was a vintage year for rock music. Besides Beefheart, other US bands like Love, the Doors, the Jefferson Airplane, the Grateful Dead, the Velvet Underground et al were all emerging as a riposte to the British heavyweights that had invaded the US a few years earlier.
Beefheart rarely enjoyed an easy relationship with his various record companies, or indeed with the regularly changing members of the Magic Band. He clearly wasn't an easy person to deal with, but maybe that helped preserve the originality of his musical vision in the recorded legacy.
Most commentators regard Trout Mask Replica (1969, on Frank Zappa's Straight label) as the summit of Beefheart's recording career (footnote 1). The unadulterated weirdness of this third album remains fresh and original to this day, and it was undoubtedly his most influential work. But although I find some of it interesting and excellent, I also consider it hampered by the typical self-indulgence of double albums.
I'm still fond of the second album, Strictly Personal, despite Bob Krasnow's phasey over-post-production. Purists may well prefer the much less processed Mirror Man (1971), a live and sometimes rambling recording of similar works from the same era. Post-Trout Mask, the influence of the Magic Band became stronger, and the relatively accessible Spotlight Kid and Clear Spot albums (both 1972) remain personal favorites.
But for me the true revelation came through those early 1970s live performances. I saw Beefheart at least four times in concert. Beefheart's wailing multi-octave vocals and harmonica took center stage; the statuesque Bill Harkleroad (aka Zoot Horn Rollo) was playing bottleneck lead; the diminutive bassist Mark Boston (aka Rockette Morton) bounced around the stage, in front of Art Tripp III (aka Ed Marimba) at the drum kit. The group could create genuine musical magic from Beefheart's uniquely idiosyncratic compositions, combining fascinating rhythmic complexity with a sheer down'n'dirty funkiness that was the equal of any band around, and far superior to most.
The Captain in conversation with a young David Letterman.
Footnote 1: Kevon Courrier's 2007 book-length essay on Trout Mask Replica, one of Continuum Books' "331/3" series, is essential reading for any Beefheart fan.John Atkinson