Captain Beefheart & His Magic Band
Grow Fins: Rarities (1965-1982)
My primal memories involve Captain Beefheart & His Magic Band, whose difficult masterpiece Trout Mask Replica came out the same year I did. My father was (and is) a Beefheart fan, and I vividly recall my response to that record. With its eruptions and churnings, its stops and starts, its self-interruptions and declamations, its epic unrelentingness–right down to the idiot stare of that top-hatted dead fish on the cover–it represented a chaotically phantasmal grown-up Wonderland, and my failure to understand it drove me to tears. It had none of the form or logic or triumph of order that my Disneyfied fairy tales did; no reassuring cuteness, no Jiminy Cricket tour guide, no “once upon a time” to push it safely out there. In short, it scared the hell out of me.
Meanwhile, critics and fans instantly smitten by Don Van Vliet’s intensely expressive voice, his visionary poetry, and his potential to do for funky natural rock ‘n’ roll what Dali did for European surrealism were pronouncing it a revolution, a reenvisioning of the blues as prescient as and more radical than Chuck Berry’s. While in a 1973 interview in Oui magazine Van Vliet sounds downright contrite about relations within the Magic Band (“The worst thing I’ve ever done was to try and sculpt the people in the band”), he also claims not quite honestly that two key band members had never played music before. This article also claims that Clear Spot was written in two hours. A 1971 Sounds piece describes the Magic Band as “innocents (though they are far from naive)” and Van Vliet as a “visionary”–though the writer does take the trouble to point out that his talent “is not a supernatural force, it is a totally natural one.” Indeed. Much as I respect their delighted utopianism, those writers were approaching the record from a young adult viewpoint, and their excitement was that of the colonial discovery of a wild, vast new land. Since my world almost literally began with Trout Mask Replica, I come back to it like a native. My very expectations of music and art are Beefheart-shaped: Trout Mask cursed me with a lifelong intolerance for banality.
This, ironically, is why I can’t brook the myth of Captain Beefheart, solitary genius. The romantic half-truth of the great artist as loner, ritualized outsider, Uberuntermensch, actually contributes to the banality of our lives. By placing our artists on pedestals, we isolate them. In isolation, they lose inspiration, so we tear them down and move on. In reality, no one creates completely alone: it requires the energy and interaction of a community to give dreams their waking-world flesh. And if one’s dreams happen to be extraordinary, then it can take an extraordinary community to bring them to life.
Don Van Vliet retired from music in 1982 and now lives in a small town in California, where he’s devoted himself to painting and maintains a strict public silence on just about everything, from his past musical work to rumors of a severe illness. In his absence, the story of his community has finally begun to emerge.
As Reader contributor John Corbett points out in the liner notes to the new five-CD rarities set Grow Fins, almost since Trout Mask was born there have been exaggerated tales of its immaculate conception: Depending on whom you believe, the 28-song, two-LP set was written in eight and a half hours, recorded in eight and a half hours, or written and recorded in eight and a half hours. There are those who say Van Vliet wrote all the parts and dictated them exactly as he wished to hear them, and that the band learned them in a day. Discs three and four of Grow Fins, which document raw notes, rough sketches, and instrumental tracks recorded over the course of several days about a week before the band went into the studio, dispel this nonsense immediately. Listening to them is like looking at a great painter’s anatomical studies: they illustrate how many layers of learning go into what seems like effortless technique. With the help of a flurry of new writing and reissued music–including a new CD version of Beefheart’s debut, Safe as Milk; The Mirror Man Sessions, a compilation of pre-Trout Mask recordings released in an approximation of the Captain’s original intentions; drummer John French’s 1998 solo album, which includes his drum arrangements for several Beefheart songs; and guitarist Bill Harkleroad’s 1998 memoir, Lunar Notes–Grow Fins presents an alternate and hopefully more accurate history, a theirstory, as told by band members and longtime fans.
It took a whole new community to wrest this version of the truth from the murk: Grow Fins was issued by Revenant, whose John Fahey and Dean Blackwood promote a Beefheartian aesthetic that embraces everything from the rawboned country blues of Dock Boggs to the post-postrock jams of the No Neck Blues Band. Graham Johnston, who runs the Captain Beefheart Radar Station (www.beefheart.com), helped collect live recordings from fans. The live footage on the “enhanced” portion of disc four, compiled by Chicago filmmaker Jeff Economy, was taken largely from fan collections. Historical perspective and personal testimonials in the booklet are provided by critic David Fricke and John Corbett, who’ve both written extensively on Beefheart in the past. French’s solo album was made at the suggestion of guitarist Henry Kaiser, who wrote the foreword to Harkleroad’s book and also wrote about the band in the liner notes to a 1991 album of his.
As it turns out, my two-year-old self was right to be frightened–it’s not a pleasant thing they’ve unearthed. In his book, Harkleroad–aka Zoot Horn Rollo–writes of severe sleep deprivation, hunger, and bleeding fingers, of 20-hour encounter sessions the Captain organized to vilify one member or another for crimes ranging from holding a cigarette wrong to having a bad relationship with his mother. In his thick contribution to the Grow Fins liner notes, John French–aka Drumbo, who for most of his tenure with the Magic Band had the job of translating Van Vliet’s inspirations into musical terms a human band could play–complains of rarely getting paid and of being left out of album credits and press accounts. He compares the Magic Band’s rented house outside LA to a cult compound, recalling how bassist Mark Boston (aka Rockette Morton) tried to “escape,” hiding his clothes in a field across the street. French himself “tried to quit once and was forced to stay and write down all my drum parts. Don then took me outside privately and talked me back into staying….These were not happy campers, folks.”
Yet both French and Harkleroad liberally punctuate the horror show with loud toots of pride in the music and respect and gratitude for the man who tortured them so. Both seem to struggle against themselves to make sure the sincerity of that appreciation comes through. Neither shows much interest in dissociating himself from Beefheart: In his preface Harkleroad writes, “There were times when I either wanted to leave the band, or we were talking about the time it would be all over, when Don, in his most ‘on stage,’ would say, ‘You will never get away from this, it will ALWAYS be with you!’ You know what . . . he was right!” And while French’s album O Solo Drumbo (on John Zorn’s Avant label) emphasizes his contributions to “Bat Chain Puller,” “Abba Zaba,” “Steal Softly Through Snow,” “The Thousand and Tenth Day of the Human Totem Pole,” and “Hair Pie,” he dedicates the album to Don Van Vliet and his wife, Janet.
Why? Maybe the cultish methods of the Magic Band broke down French’s and Harkleroad’s egos so thoroughly that establishing an independent identity afterward proved impossible. But I don’t think so. I think the answer’s in the records–which is one of the many paradoxes that make it impossible to use music as a social-ideology blueprint or consistent morality tale. The history of the arts is populated with both gentle, ethical folks and sociopathic SOBs who made great works–and with both gentle, ethical folks and sociopathic SOBs who never made a dent. Whatever his megalomaniacal tendencies, whatever brutalities Van Vliet inflicted, he envisioned some great fucking music.
But to get it out of his head and pursue it over the bellerin’ plain, he needed a tightly disciplined, thoroughly committed, and absolutely fearless band. He needed players who were willing to don new personas–Zoot Horn Rollo, Drumbo, Rockette Morton, Antennae Jimmy Semens, the Mascara Snake–to inhabit his fantastical world. It’s their boldness and maniacal attention to detail that allow him to deliver vocal masterstrokes like the tripping scat of “Woe-Is-uh-Me-Bop,” from 1970’s Lick My Decals Off, Baby (the Magic Band’s best record, reissued by Rhino in 1989 but inexplicably out of print now–listen up, reissuers, we need this more than we need the tape-recorded Trout Mask-era chatter on disc three of Grow Fins) or the horny growling of “I’m Gonna Booglarize You Baby” (from 1972’s The Spotlight Kid) or the rousing, pagan-spirited sermon of Trout Mask’s “Moonlight on Vermont.” The Magic Band of the late 60s and early 70s, despite a lineup that fluctuated slightly from album to album, could hop from backing Van Vliet’s abstract expressionist clarinet squeakings to resurrecting Robert Johnson (“China Pig,” either the Trout Mask original or the rawer version on Grow Fins) to building walls of intricate polyrhythmic polyeverything that sounded improvised but were in fact planned to the last squonk.
Nothing, however, shows how much Van Vliet and the Magic Band grew to need each other more clearly than Unconditionally Guaranteed and Bluejeans and Moonbeams, the two 1974 albums Van Vliet made with two totally new lineups collectively dubbed the “Tragic Band”–jobbers thrown together when the original players finally decided they’d had enough. While these albums contain a few likable tunes, they’re so comparatively lackluster that most fans are unwilling to acknowledge them as “real” Beefheart records. The old Magic Band went on to record a couple albums as Mallard, but according to Harkleroad they found it nearly impossible to come up with anything compelling in the absence of a ranting, obsessive leader.
Grow Fins more or less ends on that note: the last disc includes some fantastic live material from the early 70s–the fiendish distortion of 1972’s “Grow Fins” comes as close to justifying the purchase of the box set as any one song could, and there’s also a beautiful version of Harkleroad’s instrumental “One Red Rose That I Mean” (originally from Lick My Decals). But there’s very little here from the late 70s or early 80s, when Van Vliet reunited with French and put out a few more good records–most notably 1980’s Doc at the Radar Station, a resparking of Beefheart at his wild-eyed best.
No one should make the mistake of thinking that Grow Fins is anything like a best-of or even a logical place to start the Beefheart journey. The story whose gaps it fills is only important because the original records are remarkable. Now, with the myths that shrouded them debunked, they’re all the more so.
Writing in 1993 in Mojo, Dave DiMartino described Kaiser and French’s efforts to tell another side of the story as an attempt to “diminish” Van Vliet’s musical legacy. I don’t think it does, or could–the records are there and are not available for diminishment. Revealing all the players’ work ethic and willingness to go the extra creative blue million miles doesn’t diminish jack shit–in fact, what is revealed is far more awe inspiring than the myth. The true legacy of such richly imagined, carefully created, and highly inspired music so full of clashing sounds and ideas–of true negative capability–may be how difficult it is to see Captain Beefheart in such crude blacks and whites: how wrong to think that if Van Vliet needed collaborators he couldn’t have been a true visionary, and that if he had a streak of villainy he couldn’t also have been a true hero.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Cal Schenkel.