The first time I heard a Captain Beefheart track (“Plastic Factory,” off Safe as Milk), I thought I was listening to a long-lost Howlin’ Wolf outtake. The second time I heard a Captain Beefheart track (“My Head Is My Only House Unless It Rains,” off Clear Spot), I thought I was listening to an up-and-coming blue-eyed soul singer. And the third time I heard a Captain Beefheart track (“Orange Claw Hammer,” off Trout Mask Replica), I thought I was hearing a field recording of a forgotten 19th-century poet in his old age. So when people say Captain Beefheart was an artist of extremes, they’re not kidding. Walt Whitman claimed he was vast and encompassed multitudes, but Captain Beefheart really sounded that way.
Beefheart, aka Don Van Vliet, just died of complications from multiple sclerosis, and it’s been great to see the range of tributes he inspired. As “obscure” artists go, he will prove to be a very influential one. He was already a role model for Tom Waits in his mid-Eighties transformation, and most of the ambitious post-punk bands owe him at least a name check.
Beefheart’s most challenging music sounded like free jazz, but he notoriously flogged his players into performing his music note-for-note, with no room for improvisation. Even his more straightforward blues rockers contained baffling, surrealistic lyrics that might have been transcribed directly from his id — or broadcast from another planet entirely. More than one acquaintance described him as a visual artist trying to express his ideas through music, so when Beefheart retired from recording in the Eighties in order to concentrate on his painting, it seemed like the most natural of transitions.
Beefheart was a childhood friend of Frank Zappa, who gave him his monicker, released some of his albums, and used him on some famous tracks, such as “Willie the Pimp” off Hot Rats. Zappa was far and away the better known of the pair, but I don’t think there can be any doubt that Beefheart was the more adventurous and ambitious artist. He had none of Zappa’s instrumental prowess, but it’s impossible to imagine Zappa recording anything as nakedly emotional as “Her Eyes Are a Blue Million Miles,” or as poetic as “Orange Claw Hammer,” in which an old sailor encounters his daughter after decades at sea:
Come little one with yer little dimpled fingers
Gimme one ‘n I’ll buy you uh cherry phosphate
Take you down t’ the foamin’ brine ‘n water
‘n show you the wooden tits
On the Goddess with the pole out s’full sail
That tempted away yer peg legged father
I was shanghaied by uh high hat beaver moustache man
‘n his pirate friend
I woke up in vomit ‘n beer in uh banana bin
‘n uh soft lass with brown skin
Bore me seven babies with snappin’ black eyes
‘n beautiful ebony skin
‘n here it is I’m with you my daughter
Thirty years away can make uh seaman’s eyes
Uh round house man’s eyes flow out water
Many of the Beefheart tributes cite Trout Mask Replica as his masterpiece, but I beg to differ. Personally, I find the album all but unlistenable these days. Doc at the Radar Station is a far better and more accessible sample of Beefheart at his most extreme, while Clear Spot and The Spotlight Kid (conveniently available on a single CD) showcase his blue-eyed soul side at its most appealing. They’re still plenty weird, in an approachable way — I wish the Lowell George-era Little Feat had covered “Nowadays a Woman’s Gotta Hit a Man.” Or you could try his debut album, Safe as Milk, in which the bluesman and the garage-rocker exist in perfect, jangling harmony.