The first time I heard Captain Beefheart, I thought I was listening to a long lost Howlin’ Wolf outtake. Then the jangling weirdness of the music started to kick in. As you can see from the song above, “Nowadays a Woman’s Gotta Hit a Man,” Beefheart had his own take on the blues, which he undercut with all kinds of disparate influences. His influence can be heard in everything from Public Image Ltd. to the Swordfishtrombones era Tom Waits. After touring with Beefheart in the early 1980s, jazz-fusion guitarist James “Blood” Ulmer said, “When I listened to him, I realized where a lot of stuff I’d been hearing came from.”
Captain Beefheart, aka Don Van Vliet, was a childhood friend of Frank Zappa, who produced — in a manner of speaking — Beefheart’s third album, the clamorous Trout Mask Replica. Beefheart sang on “Willie the Pimp,” the only vocal track on Zappa’s Hot Rats, and the two collaborated outright on the 1975 concert album Bongo Fury. Here’s a clip from an interview in which Zappa — looking weak and ravaged shortly before his death from prostate cancer — reminisces a bit about Beefheart:
Though Trout Mask Replica has the hipper-than-thou vote as Beefheart’s greatest record, I have to say I find it pretty much unlistenable except for scattered bits and the long poem “Orange Claw Hammer.” Doc at the Radar Station is much the superior “weird” Beefheart record, while the title of best “straight” Beefheart goes to Clear Spot, which includes one of his loveliest songs, “Her Eyes Are a Blue Million Miles.” It was a pleasant surprise to hear it on the soundtrack while watching The Big Lebowski.