“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.
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.
According to bitter testimony in the Grow Fins notes, competition was thick among L.A.-area blues-rockers in the mid-'60s, and Beefheart was determined to corral one of the best guitarists on the scene, a hotshot Santa Monica teen named Ry Cooder. After dangling the promise of a production gig in front of Gary Marker, the bassist in Cooder's group the Rising Sons, Beefheart successfully roped in the guitarist; he then promptly fired axeman Doug Moon — and summarily dumped Marker for a neophyte producer, Richard Perry (later a big-time '70s pop knob-twirler and architect of Carly Simon's “You're So Vain”), who went on to helm Safe As Milk.
Cooder barely outlasted the April 1967 sessions for the album; he abruptly quit the Magic Band that summer, on the eve of a potentially career-making date at the Monterey Pop Festival, after Beefheart, in apparent mid-hallucination, walked offstage in the middle of a Northern California gig. Cooder was also unhappy because what the band was playing wasn't blues, and he had a legitimate point. While Safe As Milk contained such material as the Stones knock-off “Call on Me,” the doo-wop ballad “I'm Glad” and a stop-time cover of Louisiana ex-convict/singer Robert Pete Williams' “Grown So Ugly,” Beefheart's music was already arcing toward unfamiliar terrain. One can easily imagine a blues player being bewildered by the herky-jerky rhythms and opaque lyrics of “Abba Zaba,” or the trippy arabesques of knotty, theremin-laced pop songs like “Electricity” and “Autumn's Child.”
Undeterred by the commercial failure of Safe As Milk and Cooder's defection, the Magic Band recorded a second album — twice. In late 1967, with new guitarist Jeff Cotton (soon to be rechristened “Antennae Jimmy Semens”) in tow, Beefheart and holdover members French, guitarist Alex Snouffer and bassist Jeff Handley entered the studio to cut what was envisioned as a two-LP set entitled It Comes to You in a Plain Brown Wrapper; half the record would be “live” studio jams and half more conservatively rendered songs. After these sessions were completed, the Magic Band's producer-manager, Bob Krasnow, became involved in a Machiavellian series of negotiations with several labels, which led to a hurried re-recording of most of the same material in April 1968. Ultimately, Version B of the album was released — slathered with phasing, distortion, stereo effects, tape loops and other acid-rock gimmickry — in late 1968, to Beefheart's displeasure, as Strictly Personal, on Krasnow's new label, Blue Thumb Records. (Two cuts from that botched set are heard on The Dust Blows Forward.) The unadulterated Version A is reconstructed on The Mirror Man Sessions; seven additional outtakes are included on Safe As Milk.
Mirror Man is a weird album, part blues, part . . . something else again. Three of the tracks are elongated, amorphous numbers ranging in length from 10 to 19 minutes. “You're Gonna Need Somebody on Your Bond” reappears as the epic “Tarotplane” (the title of which is a pun on Robert Johnson's “Terraplane Blues”), encrusted with shards of “Wang Dang Doodle” and some debutante saxophone noodling from Beefheart; the more economical “Gimme Dat Harp Boy” is nothing more or less than a lurching take on “Spoonful.” However, some of the songs nod toward things to come — most notably “Kandy Korn,” which floats on French's oddly accented drumming and unexpectedly jerks into a wafting coda that anticipates the bolder rhythmic conceptions of Beefheart's next album.
AFTER A TRYING YEAR THAT CLIMAXED with the penniless band nearly stranded in Europe, Snouffer and Handley jumped ship (following a gig on the beach at Cannes during the '68 MIDEM music conference, glorious footage of which may be seen on Grow Fins' CD-ROM disc). Beefheart quickly shanghaied two young Lancaster musicians, guitarist Bill Harkleroad (whom he dubbed “Zoot Horn Rollo”) and bassist Mark Boston (a.k.a. “Rockette Morton”); these babes in the woods joined French, Cotton, Beefheart and Beefheart's cousin, bass clarinetist Victor “The Mascara Snake” Hayden, in a rented house in Woodland Hills. There, living on pilfered groceries and handouts from relatives, they labored in seclusion for months on what proved to be the Magic Band's pièce de résistance. With French painstakingly cobbling fragments banged out on the piano or whistled by Beefheart into musical transcriptions, and Cotton assembling Cappy Don's scribbled notes on napkins and paper bags into finished lyrics, Trout Mask Replica took form.
Almost all of the 28 excruciatingly complex tracks on that 1969 two-LP set were recorded during one four-hour session by producer Frank Zappa. (Seven of these songs — though, strangely, not the improvised recitation “The Dust Blows Forward 'n the Dust Blows Back,” the cut from which the package takes its name — are featured on the Rhino anthology.) The Magic Band were able to perform this astonishing studio feat because they had drilled each composition in merciless rehearsals — conducted with what French recalls as “a truly cultlike mixture of brainwashing, intimidation and coercion” — and had in fact recorded an instrumental version of the album with portable equipment at the Woodland Hills house, with the intention of overdubbing Beefheart's vocals later. This “Beefhouse” rendering of the album is the centerpiece of Grow Fins, taking up all of the third CD.
By this time, almost all vestiges of the blues had vanished from the Magic Band's sound: The lone generic piece, “China Pig,” a surrealist 12-bar about a piggy bank performed by Beefheart and briefly returned prodigal Doug Moon, is an anomaly. (It appeared, as recorded, on the finished Trout Mask.) While Harkleroad and Cotton are credited with “glass-finger” and “steel-appendage” (read: slide) guitar, there isn't a Delta lick to be found; the two musicians wail away in arrhythmic cross-currents, though a comparison to the released album demonstrates that every seemingly random note was carefully charted. French's drumming is often as freeform as that practiced by Cecil Taylor's skinman Sunny Murray, while the scattershot reed combat of Beefheart and Hayden bears the humid, humorous signature of one of the Captain's favorites, Rahsaan Roland Kirk. Here, the Magic ã Band arrived at its own vision: Through a unique combination of Beefheart's terrorist work ethic and the group's instinctive translations of his ideas, they formulated an unprecedented and seamless fusion of rock & roll, blues and free jazz (overlaid, on the finished product, with stream-of-consciousness post-bop prosody).
Incredibly, the core of this formidable unit hung together for four more records, despite the ongoing chaos on which Beefheart thrived. (French departed briefly after Van Vliet threw him down a flight of stairs.) The Dust Blows Forward contains generous samplings from Lick My Decals Off, Baby, The Spotlight Kid and Clear Spot, the bluesy, more listener-friendly 197072 albums that featured noteworthy contributions from a trio of exMothers of Invention, Art “Ed Marimba” Tripp (who memorably complemented Harkleroad on steel pans), bassist Roy “Orejon” Estrada and guitarist Eliot “Winged Eel Fingerling” Ingber. But the shithouse collapsed in 1974 after Beefheart took up with new management — whom most observers characterize as a pair of L.A. hucksters resembling Zappa's music-biz caricatures — and cut his disastrous “commercial” album, Unconditionally Guaranteed. Horrified by the watered-down, heavily sweetened music on the record and burned out after years of hard labor and penury, the Magic Band mutinied, and Beefheart finished another gruesome album, Bluejeans & Moonbeams, with a cast of hired guns.
BEEFHEART ALWAYS DISPLAYED AN amazing ability to rebound from imminent disaster, and, after a short mid-'70s hiatus, he returned for three fine valedictory albums. He enlisted a new coterie of young players/fanboys — guitarists Jeff Moris Tepper, Richard Redus and Gary Lucas, keyboardist Eric Drew Feldman, drummers Robert Williams and Cliff Martinez (the latter a former member of L.A. punk act the Weirdos) — and schooled them in his Zen-style compositional technique. Grow Fins' fifth disc includes a couple of unique work tapes from this period: One shows how a whistled fragment grew into a guitar transcription (by the ever-faithful recidivist French) and then a full-band version of “Making Love to a Vampire With a Monkey on My Knee”; the other displays the transmutation of a solo piano excursion into the completely realized song “Odd Jobs.”
The music on Shiny Beast (Bat Chain Puller), Doc at the Radar Station and Ice Cream for Crow was largely magnificent, as The Dust Blows Forward edifyingly reveals, but by the early '80s Captain Beefheart had grown impatient with his lot and his audience; on a live Grow Fins track recorded in 1980, he is heard snarling, “Shut your mouth, boy!” at a vocal fan.
Don Van Vliet has since retreated to Northern California to fulfill the lyric to a 1980 song: “Run paint run run.” There he remains, in reportedly poor health, working at his easel; he has chosen not to revisit his life in music in the rare interviews he has granted over the last decade. Happily, these lavish new reissues of his work afford both fans and newcomers an opportunity to plunge into his vital, visionary trove, which remains a lantern for musical explorers of all persuasions.
CAPTAIN BEEFHEART & HIS MAGIC BAND | Safe As Milk: The Mirror Man Sessions (Buddha) Grow Fins (Rarities 19651982) (Revenant) | The Dust Blows Forward (An Anthology) (Rhino)