If you find yourself browsing a site like this one on a Friday night, chances are you know by now that Captain Beefheart is dead, finally released from the horror of a prolonged battle with multiple sclerosis. Chances are also good that you’ve come across one of the many slapped-together obits crowding the web tonight, where you learned that Beefheart was frienemies with Frank Zappa and influenced Tom Waits. How boring. In most cases the people who wrote them know that because they read it on Wikipedia five minutes beforehand or borrowed from some one else’s blog post. It appears that that is largely the way Beefheart will be remembered–as the guy who struck a War-of-The-Roses kindship with Frank Zappa in the Mojave Desert and whelped a strangeling called Tom Waits.
But to confine the man’s influence on rock ‘n roll merely to his own era is to dishonor him. Listen to Joan Osborne’s “Right Hand Man” from her 1995 album Relish and you will hear the exact replica of the riff from Beefheart’s early 1970s gem “Clear Spot.” Listen to P.J. Harvey’s “I Think I’m A Mother” from her seminal LP To Bring You My Love and you will hear a half-sleeping and fiendish take on Beefeart’s “Dropout Boogie” from his uproarious debut with the Magic Band, Safe as Milk–perhaps the first “punk” record to ever hit the streets. It is no accident that “Right Hand Man” is likely the finest few minutes Joan Osborne has ever committed to tape, that the record on which Harvey paid her peculiar homage to the man is in all likelihood the one she’ll always be remembered for, that these disciples found inspiration in his work more than a decade after he left it in the dust following 1982’s swan song Ice Cream for Crow, almost never to be heard from again (Well, he did sing Happy Birthday to the Earth over the telephone for a benefit album produced by an environmental law firm in 2003).
No other group at the time even approximated the sounds that Beefheart and his band of crazies explored on Safe as Milk in 1967. Not the snotty riff that bites the pin off the grenade of “Plastic Factory” as Beefheart bathes it in some of the filthiest electric mouth harp you’ll hear this side of Little Walter, not the sweating acid trip that is “Zig Zag Wandeerer” or “Abba Zabba Zoom,” not those wickedly psychedelic licks of slide guitar that open the album on “Sure ‘Nuff ‘N Yes I Do.” Beefheart would never again cut a record as simultaneously accessible and defiant as Safe as Milk, and he would struggle to sell his brand of madcap fusion to consumers and critics alike over the years. But that’s how it is when you’re brilliant enough that your sculptures get featured on a TV show when you’re four years old and you earn a six-year full scholarship to study marble sculpture in Europe at age 13.
1969’s Trout Mask Replica is as famous today for nearly cracking the top 50 on Rolling Stone’s 2003 list of the 500 greatest albums of all time as it is for being gloriously unlistenable. It’s no starting place for novices but it’s a nightmare to savor over and over again when you’re ready to handle it. A host of more accessible gems followed, some boasting song titles that make Ween albums sound like nursery rhymes–“Making Love to a Vampire with a Monkey on My Knee,” “I Wanna Find A Woman That’ll Hold My Big Toe ‘Til I Have to Go,” “Lick My Decals off, Baby,” “I’m Gonna Booglarize You Baby.”The Holy Grail of Beefheart’s oeuvre, though, is his Lick My Decals Off, Baby album of 1970, a record that saw a reissue in the early 1990s that flickered in and out of existence like a lit match flaming out in the rain and posts an asking price upwards of $100 on amazon.com. If you’ve got the dough, it’s worth every damned penny.
Beefheart’s final decades after lifting his middle finger to the music industry for good found him tending to the sculpture and painting with which his creative impulse began. Rumors of his impending demise swirled for years in the same way that rumors of Syd Barrett’s life after Floyd took on the credibility of whispers passed between school kids in an old fashioned game of telephone. But today, sadly, the most recent rumor turns out to be true, as Don Van Vliet, otherwise known as Captain Beefheart, took his permanent leave. Here’s a taste of some of the magic he left behind . . .