january 2011


Steal Softly Through Sunshine, Steal Softly Through Snow: Remembering Captain Beefheart

by Billy Altman

"Are there any writers here? Where are the writers?"

The voice came booming down the table at the downtown Buffalo restaurant where, on a wintry day in early 1972, the local Warner Bros. radio promo man was hosting a luncheon to introduce Captain Beefheart to a gaggle of local DJs who were about as likely to play any of his records over the air as it would've been for a heat wave to hit Western New York in the middle of January. Still, as a nod to reality—Beefheart was, after all, in town to play the University of Buffalo gym—an invitation had been extended to me as music editor of the UB newspaper The Spectrum, where the Captain always received laudatory ink from either me or the paper's other resident music freak, the inimitable Joe "El Mono" Fernbacher.

Of course, given our place in the commercial order of things, not to mention our down-to-the-shoulders length hair and decidedly non-business attire, they'd seated me and Joe all the way at the far end of the table. Early on, though, Beefheart had fixed his gaze on us and, over the disinterested heads of the shop-talking DJs, he bellowed out the above-noted query. After we sheepishly nodded, he brusquely told the promo guy to make room, motioned us up to join him and his wife, Jan, up front, and spent the remainder of the lunch basically ignoring the "important" people he was supposed to be entertaining and talking to us instead. At the very end of the meal, with nearly everyone gone, he asked for my copy of his new album The Spotlight Kid that the promo man had given us to take home. He took out a pen, looked at me, and signed it: "Billy, love over gold. Don Van Vliet, 1972."

Captain Beefheart, ‘Electricity,’ on the beach, 1968

Some 39 years later, I am, yes, still a writer, and, yes, still trying to live by that simple three-word credo inscribed on that cover, which sits on my desk as I reflect on Don Van Vliet, aka Captain Beefheart, the exceptionally gifted musician and painter who in mid-December left this earth (or, as he liked to call it, "God's golf ball") at age 69 from complications of multiple sclerosis. Oddly, it wasn't until I read the obituaries in the papers in the days after he died and saw that he'd retired from the music business to concentrate on his art in 1982 that I realized it really had been that long since I'd seen or talked to him. That first meeting in 1972 began a loose friendship, which continued for the next ten years as I finished college and moved back to New York City; I saw him perform and hung with him a bit virtually every time he came through town on tour from his native California.

Captain Beefheart, ‘She’s Too Much For My Mirror,’ live in Belgium 1969: ‘It's hard to think of another artist of the rock era whose work was as consistently uncompromising as his…’

Captain Beefheart once recorded a song entitled "She's Too Much for My Mirror," and throughout most of his recording career, his music was usually too much for mainstream eardrums. It's hard to think of another artist of the rock era whose work was as consistently uncompromising as his: Singing in an often blood-curdling low voice that was the closest any white person has ever come to the moonlight moans of bluesman Howlin' Wolf, wrenching other-worldly sounds out of his soprano saxophone with an abandon rivaled only by jazz giant Ornette Coleman, and writing stream-of-consciousness lyrics whose word pictures ("Neon Meate Dream of a Octafish") reflected the influence of Dali rather than Dylan, Beefheart defied any and all conventions associated with the creation of music.

Not surprisingly, playing with him seems to have been a real challenge as well. Over the years Beefheart's Magic Band was populated by talented, eccentric musicians to whom he gave vivid nicknames (guitarist Bill Harkerload became Zoot Horn Rollo; bassist Mark Boston, Rockette Morton; percussionist John French, Drumbo, etc.). They also had the habit of disappearing from the music scene after their stints with him. There were exceptions, such as Ry Cooder, who played with the Magic Band early on—and, of course, Frank Zappa, the boyhood friend who helped Beefheart achieve his highest public profile after he signed him to his Bizarre/Straight label and produced 1969's still-stunning double album Trout Mask Replica, which threw odd-rhythmed fusion instrumentals, outer space blues and freestyle poetry recitations into one completely uncategorizable musical melange. Even if you found it unlistenable (and many did), you had to respect its audacity—and flat-out artistic courage.

Captain Beefheart, ‘Crazy Little Thing’ & ‘Long Neck Bottles’ from the Clear Spot (1972) album

When I first met Beefheart, he'd parted ways with Zappa and had shifted to Bizarre's parent company Warner Bros., and it was during this period ('72-'73) that he tried very hard to "fit in" without sacrificing his integrity. This era yielded not only the terrific The Spotlight Kid, but my personal favorite Beefheart album is Clear Spot, which featured two of Zappa's ex-Mothers of Invention, bassist Roy Estrada and drummer Art Tripp, who together formed a spectacular rhythm section to go with guitarists Rollo and Morton. (Apropos of which: Beefheart often talked about musicians having to "unlearn" their instruments to work with him, so I once asked how he got Tripp to play so ferociously. "When he said he wanted to join the band," he replied, "I put him in a room with an erector set and told him to take it apart with his bare hands. That did it.") To this day, whenever I want to introduce Beefheart to those who know him only by reputation as one of rock's all-time weirdos, I'll play tracks from Clear Spot and invariably, whether it's blues-rockers like "Long Neck Bottles" and "Nowadays a Woman's Got to Haul Off and Hit a Man,” or ballads like the lilting "Her Eyes Are a Blue Million Miles" or the frisky "Too Much Time," they're floored by what they hear.

Captain Beefheart, ‘Click Clack,’ live in Paris, 1973

Unfortunately, at the time, Beefheart simply couldn't catch a marketplace break, and caught between prog-rock, glam-rock and country-rock, he bottomed out in the mid-'70s, only to return after a semi-exile in the latter part of the decade with an all-new Magic Band comprised of devoted young instrumentalists (among them, guitar virtuoso Gary Lucas) who helped him garner, finally, real respect for his artistic vision. He became a darling, of sorts, to the British punk crowd—although, as he once remarked to me regarding the Johnny Rottens and Billy Braggs of the world singing his praises: "Oh, yeah, I just love Captain Beefheart; wouldn't want him over at the house, though." And in retrospect, I guess the most important thing is that in 1982, after being showered with critical acclaim for the Ice Cream for Crow album, when he announced he was leaving the music business to concentrate on his painting, he went out with his head held high.

After Captain Beefheart died, I read a piece in the LA Times that quoted Tom Waits, whom Beefheart became friends with during his post-musical career living quietly in Trinidad, California. "I'll miss talking to him on the phone," said Waits. "We would describe what we saw out the window. He was a rememberer." And I remembered something that Beefheart said to me during a 1979 interview I did with him for Creem Magazine. I asked him what would make him happy after his musical career was over. "I own some land in California—as if anyone can own land—up north near the Oregon border," he responded. “All I need is a window looking on the ocean."

Love over gold. Pass it on.

Captain Beefheart and the Magic Band, ‘Ice Cream for Crow,’ from the like-titled 1982 album. Video directed by the Captain. Band includes Gary Lucas (guitar), Jeff Tepper (guitar), Rick Snyder (bass), Cliff Martinez (drums). Clip rejected by MTV as ‘too weird’ but now resides in the Permanent Film and Video Collection at New York’s Museum of Modern Art.After being showered with critical praise for the album, the Captain announced he was leaving the music business to concentrate on his painting. He went out with his head held high.

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Contributing Editors: Billy Altman, Laura Fissinger, Christopher Hill, Derk Richardson
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