"Once you've heard Beefheart, it's hard to wash him out of your clothes. It stains, like coffee or blood." -Tom Waits
Don Van Vliet, better known to music fans everywhere as Captain Beefheart, died last month after a lengthy battle with Multiple Sclerosis. While his death was certainly not unexpected, and the man hasn’t recorded an album since 1982, the loss is nonetheless profound. Undoubtedly, we have lost one of the giants in music and art.
Whether you loved him or feared him—and there really ain’t a whole lot in between, as even now, like any record store clerk will tell you, nothing sends malingeringly and choadish customers to the exits quite like Lick My Decals Off, Baby—it is impossible to overestimate the profound effect Captain Beefheart—with considerable assistance from the different incarnations of The Magic Band—has had on rock and roll, on rhythm, on the infinitesimal possibilities inherent in music, if you’re willing to take the risks of liberating yourself from the (in his words) “mama heartbeat” of the music industry’s 1-2-3-4 disco beat factory pummel.
Not since Michael Jackson’s death have so many people showed up on the world wide web to express sadness and gratitude over an artist they don’t know personally. Why is this, when, as stated above, the man hasn’t released music in nearly thirty years, and had been sick for quite some time?
The answer lies, of course, in the music. For the tens of thousands of us who made the effort to delve into the Beefheart oeuvre and, you know, get it (“Got me?”), the dividends were, and are, substantial. Not a day goes by when one of Beefheart’s rhythms (honed into sound by the great Drumbo, aka John French) ricochets around my skull, booglarizes my heart/mind. Even now, as I type this, the rubbery swing of Mark Boston’s (aka Rockette Morton’s) bass line to “Fallin’ Ditch” bursts and hops and sniffs like some playful puppy. Something alive. As in: Still living. Vibrant. Energetic. Mischievous. Liquid. A steady companion in life’s day-to-day and night-to-night.
When the music is always around, you start thinking the person is still around, even if they’re dying in a trailer in the Mojave. Me, I’ve listened to Trout Mask Replica literally hundreds of times, and find something new to love and admire about it every single time around. And I can say that about nearly all of Captain Beefheart’s records. It’s a rare commodity in a world filled with bands that only require one listen to get it (“Got me?”). Of course you’re going to mourn the artists who made you see and hear the world in a whole new way, no matter what they have or have not done for you lately.
Because Beefheart required new ears to really listen, in much the same way (in my case) The Ramones, Albert Ayler, and The Minutemen needed a jarring paradigm shift in the way I heard music. You had to spend some time with the music, had to get beyond that first shock of hearing, say, Trout Mask Replica for the first (and second, third, and fourth) time, how the drums sounded like they were being tossed down several flights of stairs, as Zappa (or whoever) chased after them with a tape machine to record the rhythms resulting from the cacophony. You had to push past those initial listens where it sounds like seven people playing seven different instruments in seven different rooms while some weirdo howls post-beatnik poetry over the mess. Out of the madness and the chaos, beautiful patterns emerge. Precise patterns. Music that swings like no other. A wholly new musical language, that’s literally (to borrow a phrase) “fast and bulbous!”
There’s a challenge posed by the Captain that’s buried beneath the question that kicks off Side 2 of Trout Mask Replica before “Pachuco Cadaver’s” prismatic ca-chunka-chunka-chunka-chunk: “A squid eating dough out of a polyethelene bag is fast and bulbous, got me?”
I always loved the well-timed pause and the “got me?” tacked on at the end. “Got me?” as a fine example of the multi-layered paradox of what the Captain was getting up to: Is “Got me?” a self-awareness of the strange image? A humorous, ironic acknowledgment of the general square-freaking going on within the four sides of the album? Or, could it be a literal plea of: DO YOU UNDERSTAND WHAT WE ARE TRYING TO DO HERE?
In other words: I am destroying your paradigms so you can hear the music of this world and her rhythms in a liberating, fresh way, got me?
Well then, of course we’re going to mourn the loss of a man like Van Vliet. Because the music of Captain Beefheart and His/The Magic Band isn’t that dead sound you so often hear anymore when you turn on so-called “classic” rock radio. Jesus Christ, y’all: Nobody needs to hear Foreigner, Jethro Tull, Rush, and The Cars anymore. Decades on, their music is exhausted, lifeless, a deathly gray. To hear it through the sterile re-masterings of Clear Channel radio is to hear the bland soundtrack of a culture on autopilot. Not so with Beefheart. It’s beyond time, and still utterly and completely transcendent of everything that has happened since.
I can’t help but think we’re not simply mourning the death of a man who’s musical career was active for seventeen years, and inactive for twenty-eight, but we’re mourning the utterly unimaginative shittiness of contemporary music, the kind of shittiness that all the autotunes in the world cannot repair. After showing us the vast possibilities, of taking the flux of inspiration to dizzying levels of originality, too goddamn few are taking up the challenge.
Beefheart and Co. revealed so many rhythmical innovations that still swung in wild sex beats of total liberation, and yet we’re still mired in the drummer-bummer disco schlock quarter note goose step of the 1-2-3-4 purgatorial ho-hum everywhere we turn.
We’re mourning a music industry and culture that ignored Beefheart and makes millionaires out of guy-linered Bieber-headed fancy-lads. We’re mourning a musical world without Don Van Vliet, but filled to the brim with talentless ego-maniacal fuck-wad phonies concerned with nothing but what’s going on inside their glands.
Whereas Beefheart’s music gives me visions of neon meate dreams of octofish flailing and diving and leaping in multi-layered harmolodical tones that scream “Live! Live! Live!,” the music of Lady Gaga gives me visions of assholes yelping online about whatever it is assholes yelp about online before trotting off to work in their North Face Jacket casual wear while screwing in their ear buds filled with lock-step mecha-tones that scream, “Buy! Buy! Buy!”
Richard Meltzer once talked about how the rock and roll he grew up with could get its listeners from A to Z and back again, while pretty much everything that has happened since 1972 or thereabouts hardly ever escapes the letter A. With Don Van Vliet, the songs he created got us not only from A to Z and back, but created heretofore unknown letters, symbols (cymbals?), hieroglyphics. Can your Pitchfork Flavor of the Nanosecond do that? (Don’t even try to answer “Yes,” dipshit.)
If Beefheart’s death is making us aware of the massive void left by his passing, the challenge, and the best way to honor that memory, is to fill that void with our own madness. Our own “Abba Zabba,” got me? Because the crows still squawk for ice cream, and too many tropical hot dog nights are passing undocumented, and all the clothing made out of meat, and all your personal reinterpretations of “I Can’t Drive 55” won’t change that, buddy.
As the man himself once sang: “Skip the cool tomfoolery, ’n shed your nasty jewelry.”
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