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Captain Beefheart: The Mirror Man as mere man

Wednesday, Jun 30 1999
"I'M THE OBEAH MAN," CAPTAIN BEEFHEART proclaims on the 1966 demo that leads off the massive new compilation Grow Fins. And 'tis true: The powerful juju exerted by his aptly named Magic Band's dizzying music led the L.A.-bred musician to be esteemed as -- to quote another of his songs, 1972's "Golden Birdies" -- "an obi-man/revered throughout the bone-knob land." (It's worth noting, though, that the bone-knob land is inhabited largely by critics and left-field musicians.)

Since the '70s, Beefheart's shadow has lengthened within the musical community, and a sizable cult of performers has grown up around his jagged, leaping, oft-dissonant sound and buzzingly rich, madly colored lyrics. Pere Ubu, Sonic Youth, Public Image Ltd., Devo, Tom Waits, PJ Harvey and, for God's sake, Joan fucking Osborne have all claimed elements of the Cap's music as their own. Yet even as his rep burgeoned, Beefheart slipped off the scene: He retired from music in 1982 after the release of his last album, Ice Cream for Crow, to pursue full-time his lifelong avocation, painting.

However, almost two decades after that disappearing act, and 30 years after his masterpiece Trout Mask Replica was dropped like a multimegaton nuke on an uncomprehending public, the good Captain has been deemed ready for reconsideration, and no less than three labels have undertaken Beefheart reissue projects recently. In early June, the reactivated Buddha Records brought Safe As Milk, Beefheart's 1967 debut album, back into print, and issued The Mirror Man Sessions, an expanded edition of a brawling late-'67 session belatedly released in 1971; both albums include tracks originally unearthed on a scarce 1992 English collection. On August 17, Rhino Records will step up with The Dust Blows Forward (An Anthology), a two-CD, 45-track career overview. Best of all, Revenant Records, guitarist John Fahey's wonderfully quixotic "raw music" label, has just unleashed its long-awaited Grow Fins (Rarities 1965­1982), a jumbo five-CD altar of previously unreleased Beefheartiana. This huge hardbound homage includes 78 audio tracks, a CD-ROM with about 30 minutes of rare video material, and a fantabulous 112-page book, which includes an essential oral history of the band assembled and conducted by Beefheart's long-suffering drummer/musical director/ whipping boy, John "Drumbo" French.

The picture of Beefheart that emerges in the liner notes of these diverse collections isn't a lovely one: The captain he resembles most frequently is Bligh, and his pettiness, despotism and self-serving chicanery may come as a shock to those who have viewed the musician as a comic, sunnily benevolent figure. However, at the same time, the story told in these releases is one of extraordinary self-creation; together, the Buddha, Rhino and Revenant sets delineate Beefheart's evolution from suburban bluesman to musical monstre sacré.

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Beefheart was born Don Glen Vliet in Glendale on January 15, 1941. He took to calling himself "Don Van Vliet" sometime in the '60s, in probable emulation of Vincent van Gogh, for as a boy he showed his greatest aptitude an an artist; a sculpting and painting prodigy, he had his own local TV show before he was in his teens. It wasn't until his family moved to Lancaster and Vliet encountered a young Frank Zappa, who shared his antisocial attitude and love of blues and R&B records, that he began exploring musical performance. After acquiring the "Captain Beefheart" handle (a moniker most witnesses believe was derived from his uncle's pet name for his procreative organ) and undertaking some stillborn collaborations with Zappa, Vliet began organizing his own group in 1964, plucking personnel from various Antelope Valley blues combos.

Last year, Rhino included the Magic Band's first single, the 1966 A&M 45 "Diddy Wah Diddy," on its expanded version of Lenny Kaye's 1972 garage-punk anthology, Nuggets. This was by no means an incongruous selection, since evidence on The Dust Blows Forward and Grow Fins indicates that the earliest incarnation of the group was a straight-up white blues combo, as dedicated to aping classic down-home and Chicago styles as its English cousins the Rolling Stones and the Yardbirds (and the host of other American pretenders heard on Nuggets). Rhino's Beefheart set includes both the aforementioned Bo Diddley cover and the follow-up B-side, "Frying Pan," a four-to-the-floor blues stomper (both incongruously produced by David Gates, later of the mush-pop group Bread). The first two CDs in the Revenant box are loaded with fierce covers of such standards as Howlin' Wolf's "Somebody in My Home" and "Evil" and Blind Willie Johnson's "You're Gonna Need Somebody on Your Bond." (The guttural vocalizing of Wolf and Johnson plainly inspired Beefheart's larynx-chafing style, while his blunt harp work owes a debt to Wolf and James Cotton.) There is also an incomplete 11-minute live workout on "Rollin 'N' Tumblin" from a 1968 English tour stop.

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