The good Captain was someone I struggled with for decades, as his music kept me guessing whether he was putting me on with the trash compactor surrealism of the lyrics, the swooping, howling, icon-smashing bark that constituted his singing, or the time signatures, which seemed a rhythmic approximation of what traffic might like in a universe that had a trillion miles of road , an equal number of cars but no traffic lights or stop signs. or if he was indeed the genius his supporters claimed he was, a self-starting savant who employed every tic, gesture, sound, click, rattle and hum that caught his attention and assembled them in ways that amounted to a careening challenge to a listener expecting something more down home.
He resembled no one so much as Ornette Coleman, the jazz player, and composer who kept people guessing through his long decades as a music maker, and in the case of both artists, I am leaning toward the side that consider them major musical forces of the 20Th century. What likely confounded the music fans of the time, perhaps, was the lack of obvious virtuosity in the playing--no extended guitar solos, no unpunctuated drum essays--and the lack of straightforward beginning, middle, and structure on which a band's gratuitous catalog of chops can be displayed. His music was about sound, about the layering of tones and textures, sweet blues juxtaposed against inverted jitterbug temps and "free jazz" dissonances ala Albert Ayler and the lithe, sliding alienation of a single blues note resonating from a cheap amplifier under one of the Captain's (nee Don Van Vliet) aqua-urban night scapes.All ths in service to a man who was truly one of the very few poets to lead a rock band; while the notable likes of contemporaries Joni Mitchell, Paul Simon, Tim Buckley or even the Beatles never quite transcended the sense that there was some serious contemplation to the words they would employ to render their "poetic" effects, The Captain was a natural word drunk, a cross between Tristan Tzara, Kurt Schwitters and Howlin' Wolf; a prankster, a conjurer of mood, an organically generated under miner of literal meaning.
Three Months in the Mirror
Three months in the mirror
- let's go to the kennel honey
and get one of those cute little moth pups
they flap their little wings
and fly around a light globe
and you can keep 'em in the closet
and feed 'em socks -
six months in the mirror
- honey let's go out naked tonight
with our moth puppy
don't forget the socks and the light bulbs
make sure it's not too warm
you don't want to burn his lttle wings -
the lights are soft, streets soft, skies soft,
the mirrors soft
the smell of burnt powder
the moth flies through the mirror
powder falls lightly around around around
One reads this, finds themselves arguing with the words and the fractured adjectives, the quirky signifiers and surrenders to it, finally, ceasing to ask "what is he talking about" and asking, instead "what is he saying?". The Captain would answer only in ways that were just as products of inspired c as the poem/lyric he'd just written. As a guess, I would say a momentarily less zany Captain might offer the advice that a listener should take off the headphones, go outside and trust the authority of their senses if they wanted an answer that helped. The beauty of the Captain's music was that he made you figure it out for yourself--these are your senses, build something! Hearing him over time, decades in fact, brought me to one of those low-calorie epiphanies that comes to you while daydreaming at taxi-stand or the bankline in 1976, that what the Captain impresses on my psyche was the sense that I had just woken up after a long lucid dream during an equally elongated street walk and I was suddenly, brutally, incomprehensible in a world of familiar things that now seemed alien, detached from the very space they occupied, removed from all function or purpose other than to be played with, reconfigured, reinvented endlessly , constantly evolving in the way that children spontaneously create games and rules and are away modifying the rules to accompanying new items to add to the play, to accommodate mistakes, to create fairness or give the short shrift to any idea of fairness. To create something and to let those things morph of their own accord by whatever invisible forces brought them to my liberated senses. In a major sense I've to believe Captain Beefheart was a witness to beauty that was fatal to the population's collective sense of pleasure, decorum and social duty; all he could do was report and to keep us guessing, guessing, one would imagine, until our own sense of a better, achievable reality formed and allowed us to move forward as better citizens without the saber, the gun and the prisonhouse to keep us on the road to deferred bliss.
Barry Alfonso comments:
Like you, I feel a great vacuum-space with the departure of The Captain from this planet. What a rare and exalted being. I had the pleasure of interviewing him back in 1982, when he was hanging out by the La Brea Tar Pits (near his good friends, Smilodon and the Ground Sloth) doing press for his last album, Ice Cream for Crow. There was a lot of wonderful blarney slung by CB that day – I especially treasure his description of the music-consuming public as “fish in a fishbowl eating their own excretum.” But he also said some things that confirm your instincts about what he was up to creatively. Beefheart definitely saw himself as a COMPOSER, akin to Igor Stravinski. In his mind, everything in a song was a part, a movement, not the expression of an individual player – in fact, his guitarist Gary Lucas later told me that after Gary played a part in the studio, Beefheart said to him, “Thanks for the use of your fingers, man.” His musicians were his paintbrushes, his tools. This doesn’t sound very nice or respectful and Beefheart admitted as much. (His musicians – especially those who played during his Trout Mask period – insisted they had more to do with shaping the intricate song-parts than Beefheart gave them credit for. This is probably true. Yet I suspect CB so penetrated their psyches that they didn’t always realize when they were doing his will.) During our interview, Beefheart said that he got his songs whole, in a flash, and that the length of the song was how long it took to describe that single burst. That may account for the odd sense of movement and form in his songs. It also relates to his intense visual sense – CB was a painter and he thought like one when he was creating songs. Everything from “Ella Guru” to “Ice Cream for Crow” can be approached as still-life paintings seen from various angles through the course of the song. You are given a weird scene or portrait and you walk around it, poke at it, sniff it, taste it. As you said, there’s a heavy prankster element in CB. He liked to mess with people’s minds – he gave them a good fluffing, as if he was thwacking a pillow. He re-booted your cerebellum and made the world look cockeyed – or maybe right for the first time.