Friday 31 December 2010

Ice cream for snow - my Captain Beefheart tribute

Great music often evokes specific memories hardwired to precise locations and so with the death of great musicians. Friday 17th December 2010 saw the passing away of Don van Vliet, a beguiling musician, who you may know by the name of his musical alter ego: Captain Beefheart. Snow was falling fast in London and I happened to be playing some of my favourite Beefheart tracks on Spotify whilst attempting to clear my desk at work before Xmas - a persistently futile exercise. The snow was threatening to clogg everything up and so I headed for the tube. Someone twittered "Beefheart has died" which I picked up when the District Line surfaced to a snow-drenched Bromley-by-Bow underground station. I always lose data connection there but when I got home the radio confirmed Don van Vliet's depARTure.

Captain Beefheart and the Magic Band disbanded in 1982 after their 12th, and final, studio album Ice Cream for Crow and van Vliet committed himself to expressionist painting for the rest of his life. So his shuffle off this mortal coil was not an immediate loss to music as he had already retired: no comebacks, no reunions, no final tours or charity singles. If you have never been gripped by pop/rock music post 1955 then he will be, and is likely to remain, an utter mystery to you. If however, you like popular music (and one can never assume that everyone does) and you have never come across Captain Beefheart, then you have many treats ahead of you. My brief tribute is not an obituary, please go to Rolling Stone, MOJO, Wikipedia, The Guardian and cult fans sites for the narrative details. No, this is simply a short personal reflection on Captain Beefheart's impact on my musical senses.

I went to Nottingham Trent Polytechnic in 1983 as an indie kid and left in 1986 a jazz-fiend, a world music lover with a taste for the avant-garde - or so I like to think. Some of my new friends were listening to Frank Zappa - who immediately excited me as an artist - and along with Zappa came Captain Beefheart. Zappa went to school with Beefheart (I prefer to use his alter ego's name) and encouraged him to pursue his music, produced the most experimental of all his albums: Trout Mask Replica (1969) and also worked with him on the 1975 album, Bongo Fury. If you like one then you'll probably like the other although they are clearly very different artists. Nevertheless, what they share is a jazz sensibility.

Beefheart had an incredible voice. He could get really low and he also developed a characteristic high-pitched squawk, or squeak, that would punctuate his singing. His voice was often compared to Howlin' Wolf and it's a reasonable assumption that Wolf was a significant influence on Beefheart because of the initial similarity of the vocal sound, the skillful harmonica playing and Beefheart's clear love of the blues. So if you mix up Howlin' Wolf's voice with the free jazz experiments of some of John Coltrane's and Ornette Coleman's recordings and mix in a desert-swamp-rock blues thing with a poetry vibe, then you get some way to describing the explosive Beefheart sound.

I love the first album, Safe As Milk (1967). Electricity, a song from this album, is so brilliantly captured in this live footage from 1968 on the beach at Cannes. Beefheart looks out of kilter with the time. The audience certainly don't know what to make of him. The music has a frenetic energy and a very thick full sound. Ironically for me, I also like the mid-period, 'softer' recordings -  Unconditionally Guaranteed (1974) and Moonbeams and Bluejeans (1974) - that Beefheart later disowned (not so avant-garde now are we?). If you get an opportunity to listen to Upon the My-O-My and Observatory Crest then hopefully you will be enraptured by the atmospheres they conjure up. Trout Mask Replica they certainly aren't.

Smoke-filled student digs, going on mad trips to Wales, turning up the dial to 11 on my (recordiing) Sony Walkman through the streets of Nottingham and free jamming sessions all get tied up into my Beefheart memory bank. Enjoy these links if you want to get booglarized:

13 Reasons Why We Love Captain Beefheart
Ten Essential Captain Beefheart Songs