Captain Beefheart Reissues Spark Reflections

What sounded like noise to a 13-year-old feels like genius 33 years later.

(Editor's Note: The "Sunday Morning" essay does not reflect the views of SonicNet Inc. or its affiliated companies.)

Editorial Director Michael Goldberg writes:

I am 13 years old and I am watching Captain Beefheart and His Magic Band destroy my world.

The year is 1967; it is the Summer of Love. I, and thousands of others, have been bused up to the amphitheater near the top of Mt. Tamalpais in Mill Valley, Calif. The event is a two-day music festival, the Fantasy Fair and Magic Mountain Festival. Two dollars a day to see the Byrds, the Doors, the Jefferson Airplane and many, many more. People are literally wearing flowers in their hair.

But all these years later, it turns out my first brush with the Captain is what made a true, lasting impression.

That day, with the sun shining down on the hippies and other counterculture freaks who were grooving to a day of music and good vibes, I truly hated Captain Beefheart and His Magic Band.

I didn't understand his music. It seemed to mock all the psychedelic rock I had fallen in love with. I didn't know it then, but what I experienced was the shock of the new. Beefheart's music really did make everything else seem irrelevant.

Later, of course, I looked back and wondered: How could I have been such a fool? How could I have sat there, perhaps 15 feet from the stage, experiencing one of the greatest musical geniuses of all time, and certainly one of the greatest rock bands ever, and just heard noise?

Now I write it off to the foolishness of youth, to my then-unsophisticated ears, to a kid who was barely a teenager who had yet to understand that raw and dark and chaotic and confusing could be good. That real art was a mystery not easily understood.

June 1967, I and many, many others were caught up in the peace-and-love rhetoric of the day and the bands — Country Joe and the Fish, the Airplane, Big Brother and the Holding Company — that seemed to capture the idealistic hippie lifestyle in their music.

For a suburban kid, Howlin' Wolf would have been hard to take. But Captain Beefheart? He was an alien creature barking and sputtering, churning out an otherworldly mix of raw, weird sound. "Electricity," he howled. God knew what that song

(RealAudio excerpt of live version) was really about.

He looked like an old man, a crank, with his goatee and oddball garb. I don't have so much a memory of the band's stage presence as I have an impression of its awfulness. Of a sound so harsh and dissonant, so wild and uncontrolled and hard that I just wanted it to be over.

In the years since then, as I wore out vinyl copies of Safe as Milk (1967) Lick My Decals Off, Baby (1970), Mirror Man (1971), The Spotlight Kid (1972) and Clear Spot (1972), and tried time and time again to decipher the code that would unlock the secrets of Trout Mask Replica (1970), I wished I could go back to that day in 1967. I wished I could really take in and appreciate the experience of seeing Captain Beefheart and His Magic Band when they were still inventing the truly amazing music that would inspire and confound me for the rest of my life.

What is so wonderful about the music of Captain Beefheart? He created a mutant sound that drew on Delta blues, free jazz and rock, and he overlaid it with a Dada aesthetic, writing songs with such titles as "Neon Meate Dream of a Octafish" and "Japan in a Dishpan." And then, of course, there was his voice — he sang like a crazed bluesman, but with the mind of an Albert Einstein. His lyrics were surrealist poetry. The music, which one simply must hear, is at times so beautiful it can make you cry, and at times so dark and twisted it can make you feel like you're looking into the abyss.

What inspired these reflections, of course, is a kind of Captain Beefheart revival that seems to be taking place for no apparent reason. Beefheart himself hasn't recorded a new record in 17 years; he gave up music in disgust soon after Doc at the Radar Station (1980) and Ice Cream for Crow (1982) failed to reach any kind of audience, feeling that he'd been portrayed as a freak and that his art wasn't appreciated. All the same, he is on the cover of England's Mojo magazine this month. The last time I remember seeing Beefheart on the cover of anything was in the late '60s, when he was on the cover of Rolling Stone.

The Mojo cover was prompted by the release of a five-CD box set of Beefheart rarities, Captain Beefheart and His Magic Band Grow Fins, Rarities 1965-82. Along with unreleased versions of songs such as "Pachuco Cadaver"

(RealAudio excerpt) and "Sugar and Spikes" (RealAudio excerpt), the set comes with video footage on CD-ROM and a 120-page hardback book.

And there's more. Newly remastered versions of two of the Captain's great albums, Safe as Milk (his first) and Mirror Man (his fifth), with lots of extra tracks, just reached stores; later this summer a two-CD Rhino best-of compilation will be released.

So much great music from such an obscure artist who has influenced so many others, but who makes the Velvet Underground seem like a popular '60s act by comparison.

I have been listening to Grow Fins as I've been writing this column. There is music contained in the set that will blow your mind, such as a live version of "Electricity" that was recorded in 1968. But there is plenty that only a diehard Beefheart fan like me would want to own. Or maybe not. Maybe all serious music fans need to immerse themselves in the music of Captain Beefheart.

Some of you will not get it. Or will only hear noise. That's all right. But others will be fascinated by an artist who meant — means — so much to artists ranging from ex-Sex Pistol John Lydon and ex-Clash singer Joe Strummer to Pavement's Stephen Malkmus and singer/songwriter Tom Waits, who both reference Beefheart on their most recent albums.

I met Captain Beefheart many years after I saw him on Mt. Tamalpais. I interviewed him in 1977 at his then-manager's San Francisco apartment, where he was staying for a few days with his wife, Jan.

"I'm nothing like what people have heard about me," he said, talking in a stream-of-consciousness manner. "I've never killed an animal in my life. I've never stepped on another human being. I'm not speedy. I don't drink coffee. I don't drink. I don't use drugs and I'm a vegetarian."

In 1977 Captain Beefheart's moment as a musical artist had already passed; he had created his best work and would go on to find some acclaim as a painter. His was working with a new band that was trying to re-create the "Magic" of his original combo.

"All I do is smoke," he continued. "That's bad. It's a habit. Boy, that's a habit. My dad gave me my first cigarette. He said, 'Here,' and handed me one. He couldn't relate to me."

His voice was deep and gruff; he was dressed in loose tan cotton pants and a plaid wool shirt. His brown hair was shaggy, falling over his collar. Many of his songs, Beefheart explained, were about the environment. "If the ocean is wounded, it takes the whole world to heal it," he said. "And nobody seems to care. The ocean gave me oysters, the people watching gave me ulcers. I can't believe it. The blue million miles. You've heard that song ["Her Eyes Are a Blue Million Miles"] I did on Clear Spot? That was about the ocean. 'She looks at me/ Her eyes are a blue million miles.' Why do they want to put her eyes out for? Why don't they put their eyes past their nose and shake a wet hand?

"I try to raise art culture," he told me. "And it's very difficult. They've made me a weight lifter. I was trying to be an artist. But now I'm a weight lifter, a baby sitter. I'm baby-sitting all the parent neglect. I'm saying, 'Why don't you cultivate the grounds/ They're the only ones around,' " a quote from his song "Space-Age Couple." "Art culture must raise. Raise the drawbridge or else it'll be a drawstring around everybody's neck."

Then he quoted another of his songs, "Blabber 'N Smoke": " 'I can't help but think they treat love like a joke/ Time's runnin' out/ And all they ever do is blabber and smoke/ Clean up the air and treat the animals fair.'

"Boy, that's all I'm about," Captain Beefheart said, looking me right in the eye. "You know that? That's all I'm about. I say that, I'm truthful or at least that's my truth. Full. Really!"