Captain Beefheart: A Beginner's Guide

Don't buy this first
Don Van Vliet, a/k/a Captain Beefheart, died on Friday, reportedly of complications from a decades-long battle with multiple sclerosis. He was 69. Long a cult hero, with a critical fan base rivaling that of Lou Reed or the Fall's Mark E. Smith, he was naturally (and deservedly) lionized in the music press all weekend. Here, for those of you not currently steeped in Beefheartmania, is a beginner's guide to his music.

First things first: Don't run out and buy 1969's Trout Mask Replica. In almost every article on Beefheart's work, it's held up as his crowning achievement and one of the Most Important Records Ever. "Important" is very different from "enjoyable," though. Yes, it's got moments of great beauty; "The Dust Blows Forward 'n' The Dust Blows Back," a poem recited line by line (with the clicking of a portable tape recorder preserved) and "Ella Guru" are but two of the highlights. But there are as many freak-outs as songs, and overall, it's Beefheart at his most extreme, with lurching drums, squawking reeds, guitar lines that feel not only improvised but wrong, and raw-holler vocals as alienating as any in rock -- he sounds like he's trying to warn you about something, or chastise you for something, or both. If you're going to journey through Beefheart's discography, start somewhere else, unless skronk 'n' shout is your thing.

On earlier recordings -- like the early singles "Diddy Wah Diddy, "Who Do You Think You're Fooling?", "Moonchild," and "Frying Pan"; the 1967 recordings released as Safe as Milk; or follow-up albums Strictly Personal and Mirror Man (the latter released in 1970 but recorded years earlier) -- Beefheart's music is frequently built around only slightly off-kilter blues and r&b grooves, albeit with some skronky harmonica and shehnai (an oboe-like Middle Eastern instrument) on top. The stinging slide guitar and prominent bass on songs like "Safe as Milk" and "Gimme Dat Harp Boy" were elements that would linger in his work until the end of his career. "Sure 'Nuff 'n' Yes I Do," Safe as Milk's opening track, is practically straight-up, Canned Heat-style boogie. The 1999 Milk reissue is an excellent introduction; the extended jams of Mirror Man and the overly psychedelicized production on Strictly Personal make them more of an acquired taste.

Beefheart released two albums in 1972: The Spotlight Kid and Clear Spot. Both slowed the band down somewhat and verged on conventional blues-rock, even leaning toward garage punk on some tracks ("Big Eyed Beans From Venus," "Low Yo Yo Stuff"); they're currently available on a single CD. He made his most headlong (some would say desperate) run at mainstream success, though, on 1974's Unconditionally Guaranteed and 1975's Bluejeans & Moonbeams. It didn't work, and in fact, the former was the last straw for the '60s incarnation of Beefheart's Magic Band. Though he was a notoriously abusive boss -- keeping bandmembers under virtual house arrest, underpaying them, and subjecting them to what amounted to brainwashing techniques -- it seemed like the pleasure of making genuinely adventurous music kept them in the fold. To be suffering as they did for no aesthetic reward was too much.

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