For Captain Beefheart, the answer is yes. Born Don Vliet, later self-nobilified to Don Van Vliet before taking the Beefheart moniker, the Captain fused the homegrown traditions of black American music found in the Delta blues and free jazz with the psychedelic rock of the 1960’s and the avant garde art rock of the following decade. Today, some might call this cultural appropriation. Back then, it was mostly misunderstood outside of a few influential voices like John Lennon and Lester Bangs. Frank Zappa encouraged Beefheart’s musical career, even helped supply his name – the two were high school pals, musical rivals and spiritual frenemies. A young Matt Groening was listening. So was David Lynch. It’s easy to see Beefheart’s influence on other oddball rock unicorns like Tom Waits and Beck. But enough about his fans. Let’s talk about the man and his music.
Was the greatest genius of 20th century American rock music a nearly forgotten artistic polymath with a stage name inspired by his creepy uncle’s genitalia?
In a career that lasted less than two decades, Captain Beefheart & His Magic Band reinvented rock music, tore their own artistic breakthroughs to pieces with fearless experimentalism, unsuccessfully vied for mainstream commercial success, then said fuck it and went back to the musical shredder before disappearing into the desert in self-imposed exile from music. Like all great American myths, it’s one half the truth, two thirds cultivated persona, and three fourths the product of a brilliantly fevered imagination. If those numbers don’t add up, great. The time signatures in Beefheart’s music don’t either. The lyrics follow no discernible rhythm. When they rhyme, it feels like an accident of nonsensical wordplay, the way monkeys at a keyboard can write the English canon given a few eons. Beefheart sang purely from his subconscious, allegedly (and amazingly) without the use of any sort of drugs. The only psychedelics he used were slide guitars and jingly jangles.
The only way to appreciate Captain Beefheart & His Magic Band is to accept the contradictions, embrace the musical absurdity and eventually find harmonic order in the atonal anarchy. Beeheart’s songwriting arose simultaneously with the mathematics of chaos theory. Coincidence? As you listen, the boundary between classical symphony and pure cacophony begins to disappear. Instrumental pieces lead into acapella songs and spoken word poetry, as if the sound engineer simply forgot to mix the two into a single track. When the words and music do meet, it’s on a battlefield of sound. Certainly, some of these musical quirks are a result of the production. Beefheart famously taught many of his band members from scratch and would instruct them how to play their parts by ear. In the studio, he refused to follow traditional accompaniment procedures when recording his vocals, hence the dissonance. The sound equipment had trouble keeping up with his vocal range, causing the distorted caterwauling on so many of his tracks.
In the end, it doesn’t matter whether Beefheart’s genius resulted from the technical aspects of sound recording or a visionary imagination. Not to mention the creative collaboration with other talented musicians like Frank Zappa, Ry Cooder, John “Drumbo” French, Gary Lucas, Zoot Horn Rollo… there were so many sorcerers in and around the Magic Band. All great art is a product of influence and circumstance. Captain Beefheart had the rocks to seize his musical moment before hanging up his top hat and wandering off into the desert sunset.
Captain Beefheart, Toronto 1974. Photo by Jean-Luc licensed via Creative Commons
Live in Kesselhaus – Konrad Roth – Wikicommons
Don Van Vliet and Gary Lucas, May 1980. Photo by Gary Lucas licensed via Creative Commons
Frank Zappa and Captain Beefheart. Photo by Carl Lender licensed via Creative Commons