My musician son Barney sent me a text message on Dec. 17: “Beefheart died today.” This was sad but also a good sign that the music of Captain Beefheart, aka Don Van Vliet, will long outlast the man, although you wouldn’t know it by WXPN and other “alternative” stations that ignored his passing. God forbid they should bump Coldplay’s Christmas song to pay tribute to an American original.
Beefheart probably didn’t think much of texting — a bastard spawn of the plastic-horned devil. It’s easier to picture him sending smoke signals from the Mohave, just after dinner. One red bean stuck in the bottom of a tin bowl/hot coffee in a crimped-up can/me and my girl named Bimbo Limbo Spam..
And maybe he wouldn’t care that he’d influenced young players like Barney, as well as Tom Waits and other notables.
He was like Walt Whitman, a multitude of contradictions. At one extreme is Trout Mask Replica (1969), a mostly joyous assault on the senses. At the other is his dark masterpiece Ice Cream for Crow (1982). By then he was a full-time downshouter, maybe in part because his music never found its way to the mainstream — Frank, it’s the big hit! it’s the blimp! But then he launched a second career as a painter.
You can’t pigeonhole his music — there ain’t no label for this bottle — but you can hear Delta blues, free jazz, rock ‘n’ roll, R&B, ancient Egyptian electronica, often in the same song, coming at you like shiny beasts of thought.
He was a free spirit and a control freak. The professors at the old folks’ homes would call him a primitive. Harold Bloom, if he’s even heard of Beefheart, would shake his jowls at the comparison to Whitman.
As Marlene Dietrich said in Touch of Evil, “What does it matter what you say about people?” In the end there’s only the work. In this case, there’s “Electricity” and “Dirty Blue Gene” — She’s not bad/She’s just genetically mean. And his finger of contempt to boomers: We don’t have to suffer, we’re the best batch yet/Baked in special/White flesh waves to black.
Composer, poet, snake oil salesman, black-hearted funnyman, magnet for great players, vocalist extra-or-di-naire… Beefheart cajoled and exhorted, evoking preachers and gold prospectors, changing texture with each turn of phrase. He crooned like a soul man — I got too much time to be without love — but held out little hope for this pirate flag headlong disaster course vessel we call Earth.
Download the music, or do like us dinosaurs and buy it on CD or vinyl. Spend time with a roundhouse man who — I’m paraphrasing Greil Marcus — remade America on his own terms.