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Captain Beefheart Resurgent With Retrospectives, Reissues

Three new multidisc projects suggest world may be ready to embrace experimental musician.

If the current proliferation of sugary teen-pop has put rock sophisticates in a funk, consider this: With few people looking, with little fanfare blowing, the music world is experiencing a Captain Beefheart resurgence.

Two multidisc sets, as well as reissues of classic Beefheart albums, are either now in record stores, or will be shortly. For younger music fans who have only heard of Beefheart through mentions by members of Sonic Youth and Pavement, it is now possible to experience an enormous amount of the legendary musical artist's work.

"Most everybody knows his name," said David Baker, co-producer of Rhino's two-CD career retrospective The Dust Blows Forward (An Anthology) (Aug. 3). "They think of him in association with Frank Zappa [who got a production credit on Beefheart's masterpiece, 1969's Trout Mask Replica], or in association with being a painter now. Or as one of those people [who] is perceived to have mysteriously disappeared."

Many people had heard of the man born Don Van Vliet in 1941, or had heard of Trout Mask Replica. But a relatively small number actually embraced the experimental fusion of blues, rock and jazz he created between 1966—when he released his first single—and 1982, when he left the music business in disgust to concentrate on painting.

"I try to raise art culture," Beefheart said during a 1977 interview with SonicNet Editorial Director Michael Goldberg. "Art culture must raise. Raise the drawbridge. Boy, they better raise the drawbridge or else it'll be a drawstring around everybody's neck."

While the double-disc anthology—mostly of previously released music—aims to draw new converts to the fold, Revenant Records' box set Captain Beefheart and His Magic Band Grow Fins, Rarities 1965-82 will appeal to the recently hooked, as well as to longtime fans. Along with unreleased versions of such songs 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.

In addition, Buddha Records recently issued remastered editions of the husky-voiced singer's Safe As Milk (1967) and Mirror Man (1971), both with additional tracks.

The music scene may be ripe for a Beefheart revival—if it can be called that—in part because fans have now embraced musicians who were influenced by Van Vliet's work.

Pavement leader Steve Malkmus recently described Beefheart as "One of the greatest [musical artists] of all time."

"The diversity of music out there perhaps lends a sense of tolerance that would permit somebody to listen to Beefheart with an open mind that would not have existed 20 years ago," Baker said.

Although he incorporated diverse influences into his own work, Beefheart is best-known for taking sound rooted in the blues of players such as Howlin' Wolf and marrying it with the experimentation of the bebop and free-jazz eras, as well as with a lyrical viewpoint inspired by surrealists, Beat poets and modernists.

Now, many music fans have become accustomed to sounds made by the direct or indirect artistic offspring of Beefheart, from Pavement's off-kilter melodies, to Public Enemy's dissonant sound collages, to Beck's often-Dadaist lyrics.

"Whether it's Sonic Youth or Pavement, anything that doesn't fall into simplistic, melodic song structure is going to be influenced by Captain Beefheart; a lot of English punk was," said Robert Hull, an executive producer with Time-Life Music and a career-long follower of Beefheart who interviewed the musician and fellow boundary-pusher Zappa in 1974 for Creem.

"Beefheart's voice and his presence were terrifying," Hull recalled. "They just covered the room."

Tales of Van Vliet's presence, coupled with his persistent musical influence and the challenges presented by his work, have given rise to numerous myths about him. "I'm nothing like what people have heard about me," Beefheart told Goldberg in 1977. "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."

One myth that has been widely recounted is that Beefheart wrote the extremely intricate Trout Mask Replica in a matter of hours. That was far from the case, according to one of his former bandmates.

Liner notes in Grow Fins by John French—who played percussion in Beefheart's Magic Band under the name Drumbo—should help bring the creation of works such as Trout Mask into sharper focus, said Revenant co-owner Dean Blackwood, who oversaw the assembly of Grow Fins.

"If anything, this ... shows him to be even more of a ... genius," Blackwood said. "The nature of his special gift may be deeper than people think."

The flurry of releases that include a wealth of non-Trout Mask material also may draw attention to more accessible elements in Beefheart's work.

"I'm surprised, by listening to the Buddha releases and the Revenant stuff recently, [to realize] how conservative and roots and bluesy he sounds, except for Trout Mask," Hull said.

"That album is even more way-out than I remember it. It's almost difficult to finish. It's like [James Joyce's experimental 1922 novel] 'Ulysses.' It's a testament to how far out you can go. And except for bands that have been noisy, I don't think any rock band has ever gone that far out."