Captain Beefheart: The Man Who Reconstructed Rock & Roll

By Kurt Loder

Captain Beefheart and his various Magic Bands never sold a ton of records (neither did the Velvet Underground, or the Ramones, or... well, name your favorite lost cause). But although he's long-retired from the corporate pop-musical grind, Beefheart remains today a towering figure in the evolution of rock-and-blues-and-jazz-based art. To find out why, stop reading this and go out right now and pick up "Grow Fins, Rarities (1965-1982)," a glorious new five-CD box set from Revenant Records that's lovingly devoted to the man and his extraordinary musicians and the majestic, alternative-universe music they managed to create in the face of near-total (at the time) popular incomprehension.

Actually, you'll want to make a few other purchases, too, while you're at it, because the 78 tracks collected here are all previously unreleased demos and live tapes. (Disc number four is actually a CD-ROM roundup of ultra-rare concert footage -- see Beefheart and the boys

on the beach in Cannes in the midst of some cheesy record-company promo stunt.) Once you get sucked in, you'll have to have such classic CB studio albums as "Trout Mask Replica," "The Spotlight Kid," "Clear Spot," and "Shiny Beast (Bat Chain Puller)." (Two others, "Safe as Milk" and "Mirror Man," have just been reissued, and are likewise worth your money.)

Beginners will want the basic facts: Don Van Vliet, the Captain himself, born in Glendale, California, in 1941, was a child-prodigy sculptor whose parents made him pass on a proffered European art scholarship and moved him, instead, to Lancaster, California, way to hell and gone out in the desert, where he fell in with a fellow kid named Frank Zappa, with whom he maintained a mutually useful but volatile relationship for the rest of the late Zappa's life.

Both were blues and R&B fanatics, and played in local bands. Van Vliet ­who had taught himself harmonica and saxophone, and who was possessed of the most timber-shivering

bellow this side of Howlin' Wolf ­formed his first, rather bluesy Magic Band in 1964. After some unhappy recording experiences, Zappa stepped in and signed the group to his own Straight Records, which released the still-astonishing "Trout Mask Replica." Here we have the Beefheart method in its first full flower: Don dashing off surreal lyrics on the back of napkins and paper bags, transmitting the whacked-out sounds in his head onto piano, and leaving his band members to figure out how to play them. The result was music that (as has been noted before) makes the listener's body jerk and twitch in entirely new ways. Not everyone got it ­ hardly anyone did, actually, at first ­but the man's fans are by now legion, ranging from ex-Sex Pistol John Lydon and free-jazz titan Ornette Coleman to Courtney Love and Red Hot Chili Peppers guitarist John Frusciante. Surely you, too, should join them.

Don bailed out of the music business after releasing "Ice Cream for Crow" in 1982, retiring with

his wife, Jan, to a remote California fastness to paint. (There was a show of some of his latest work in Manhattan just a few months back.) He is definitely missed; although a difficult man in some ways (see ex-drummer John French's invaluable essay in the "Grow Fins" booklet), art poured out of him like sweat in a lesser terrestrial denizen, and we'll not see his like again anytime soon. Fortunately, his music still speaks. Do tune in.