Think Music: Steven Beeber on Captain Beefheart

Steven Beeber, the author of The Heebie Jeebie’s at CBGB’s: A Secret History of Jewish Punk, and associate editor of Conduit, pays tribute to Captain Beefheart in this week’s Think Music column.

I’ll never forget the first time. I was lying on my bed, trying to write, coming up with lines like “I bite off my thumb and begin to laugh, bloody flesh between my teeth, and spitting it into the gutter, I run.”

Suddenly, from the radio, a voice came rushing forth, It sounded as if it were being transmitted through a telephone’s receiver, manic, high-pitched.

Master, master, this is recorded through a fly’s ear and you need a fly’s eyes to see it….

“What the …?”

It’s the blimp, it’s the blimp, Frank it’s the blimp!

The next afternoon, I borrowed the family station wagon and headed down to the mall.

“Have you ever heard of this ‘blimp’ song,” I asked the bearded guy behind the counter.

“Ah,” he nodded sagely. “Ahhhhhh.”

Flipping through the stacks, he yanked a day-glo square with a flourish, its hot pink background falling into my hands, so that I saw … well, what? A man in a top hat, atop which a shuttlecock sat. But instead of a face he had a fish head. A fish face.

“Trout Mask Replica,” said the clerk, tugging his beard.

At home I put on the album, only to think at first I had it at the wrong speed. 78 RPMs? Negative 33? These guys weren’t even trying to play. They were just jamming, all out of sequence. Yet even as the guitarist slapped a repetitive line and the drummer bashed away as if falling into his kit, the words hit me.

Dachau Blues those poor Jews

There’s old Grey in a dovewinged hat, there’s old Green where’s the bobbin at…

High yella, high red, high blue she blew, hi Ella, hi Ella Guru.

Some of the words were in the songs, and some between them in spoken bits apparently sampled from some cowboy acid party. It was like they were campfire tunes shooting crazy sparks, the cactus hooch and moonshine ice burning all he way down the singer’s throat.

In a Howlin’ Wolf in a hailstorm yowl, the great Captain beat out a heart attack rhythm. He was American to the core, full of jazz, jizz, blues, and blahs, his Old West / New School psychosis a kind of comic book mating call delivered as a joke. It was as if Picasso had spilled his Id all over the kitchen floor and you were slip-sliding in a slapstick finger-painting, the word-drunk wordplay and crazy images suddenly making perfect sense.

Fast and bulbous. That’s right, the Mascara Snake. Fast and bulbous. But also a tin teardrop. That’s right.

After that night, I listened to more and more Beefheart, learning that he went on to create a darker, perhaps even more perfect statement (Lick My Decals Off, Baby) before gradually watering down his music in a bid to achieve commercial success. And then, just when it all seemed over, he came back during the advent of punk, producing three classic albums before dropping out altogether on the brink of “making it.”

His life was an example, especially the last act where the artist formerly known as Captain Beefheart returned to his first love, the onetime child prodigy becoming the full-time painter Don Van Vliet. This serious artiste was represented by a New York gallery and collected by MOMA. And though he no longer shouted onstage, he still flung his energies onto his canvas, all black slash and red smear and devils landing in cornfields with crow’s feet.

I meanwhile became an adult no longer known for shouting alone in the car until hoarse, the radio turned to eleven, the guitars screeching out, blasting through, rushing in like echoes via the hollow places filled with white heat. I wrote sentences, created paragraphs, made sensible stories that only occasionally broke into lyrical runs.

Yet there was a beef in my heart, a beating urge, a desire to escape. And I thank the Captain for having given me a way into it as a teen, and back to it now when pure story won’t do and only a punch-drunk shout will suffice.

Thank you Captain. Thank you Don. Thank you and your magic band of dark light.  I may not write like you, but I always loved that you loved words as much as you did. And I still do. A lot.

That’s right.


2 Comments Add yours

  1. Michel X says:

    What a great article about a great and undervalued artist. Thanks!

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