Sunday, December 19, 2010

I Love You, You Big Dummy

Captain Beefheart, 1940 - 2010

I don't sleep so well these days. There may be number of reasons for this. (My guess is middle age and finances are the leading candidates.) Side effects include disappearing library books, losing reading glasses left on the top of the head, and surreal retellings of bedtime stories.

About the bedtime stories: Reading aloud during these sleep-starved periods often has me dropping into a light sleep mid-sentence. Interestingly, the sleep doesn’t stop the reading. Instead, the manuscript switches from the page at hand to the one in my head. The result: A Dada-esque cut-up word game that leaves my daughter bewildered.

E.g.: As Hansel and Gretel follow the trail of bread crumbs home, the narrator interjects with "No, Mr. Stewart, I didn’t study for the Geometry final and, yes, I did forget to wear pants.” And, “is that my girlfriend from 9th grade wearing Margaret Thatcher's head?"

It’s a fairy tale as retold by Captain Beefheart.

The late great Captain, born Don Glen Vliet (later changing "Glen" for "Van" for the stage), passed away last Thursday, December 17th, at the age of 69. If you've never heard the music of Captain Beefheart, well, you probably wouldn't have liked it anyway. His particular genius was an acquired taste. He was the James Joyce of Rock and Roll: A pioneer who the snobs of outre´ culture insist we should all know but few of us can actually abide.

Lyrically, Beefheart was not unlike my dream:
It's like a white onion-fleshed pumpkin tiny black eyes and round paper hairs laughing white collars minced muted in the huffing dry morning wind that jingled like fish bones. (Doped in Stunned Mirages, 1982)

As for his sound, one critic's description as "pure primeval stomp" seems reasonable enough. I'd prefer "deep fried atonal catfish on a sugar-dusted hacksaw of blues." The Captain himself describes it this way:
"I don't like doing music. I like doing spells. Because music is just black ants crawling across white paper... I don't like hypnotics. You see, I'm doing a non-hypnotic music to break up a catatonic state. [And society] is in a catatonic state."

You see, he was saving us from ourselves.

To Beefheart, mainstream rock rhythm was the enemy: For him, the basic “heartbeat” patterns of rock were dull as muddy water. His models were on the margins: Late Coltrane, early rhythm and blues, Howling Wolf, post-tonal composers, surreal poetry, and abstract algebra. As a character and artist he stood among an exclusive club of geniuses; A club whose roster might include Van Gogh, Syd Barrett, John Kennedy Toole (“A Confederacy of Dunces”), and outside artist Henry Darger, masters who could straddle sanity and its opposite to good effect. Like them, Beefheart also had a vision that was unschooled, defiantly stubborn, and utterly convinced of its own righteousness. In a Rolling Stone interview he said, "I don't spend a lot of time thinking. It just comes through me." Only an artist with complete trust in his choices and a complete indifference to general conceptions of "failure" could claim such a thing. Is it hyper-confident boasting when you have the imagination to back it up?

By his own admission Beefheart was “an only child, a tyrant, irascible" and his work reflects that. High school friend Frank Zappa described the young Beefheart as an indulged teenager whose parents exerted little authority over him. (Their role limited mostly to keeping him plied with Pepsi and art supplies.) He also had little interest in academic methods or institutional learning. "If you want to be a different fish you got to jump out of school," he would say.

One analyst described Beefheart’s as "a diffuse undifferentiated consciousness that children have." If so, the condition served him well. His influence proved widespread: From the obvious — Sonic Youth, White Stripes, Tom Waits — to the less so — Beck, Blondie, Joan Osbourne. His ardent fans have ranged from The Beatles (who wanted to sign him to a precursor of Apple Records and whom he’d later decry in "Beatle Bones N' Smokin' Stones") to Julian Schnabel and Matt Groening. I saw Captain Beefheart and the last version of The Magic Band ca. 1980 at the Golden Bear in Huntington Beach. It was vintage Beefheart in all his abstract gesticulating and wild-eyed glory. He combed a fireman's helmet cradled in his arms and he blew intermittently into a soprano sax. I say blew because to call it playing would be an overstatement. His Howling Wolf yelp was still resplendent. The grating rhythms, serrated harmonies, and battered guitars had smoothed (slightly) with age but were none the less for power. For anyone else this all may've easily appeared as pretense or pose. Not so for Beefheart: This is what he was. He wasn't capable of anything else.

The Captain addressed downloading 30 years before it happened:
"I don't want to sell my music. I want to give it away because where I got it, you didn't have to pay for it."
Love has no body
I love you, you big dummy
No body has love
No body has love
Breathe deep
Breathe high
Breathe life
Don't breathe ah lie
I love you, you big dummy

Love to you, Captain.

No comments: