Captain Beefheart Under Review
by Mike Wood
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Since he gave up music for painting in 1981, Don Van Vliet (Captain Beefheart) has not publicly spoken about his music. Even when he was recording, he was evasive and elliptical in his descriptions of his intent and his success in music. Beefheart created his own musical territory, a mixture of blues, surrealism, and shamanism, and left a body of work unique in its complexity and challenging to even the most jaded ear. That his musical vision was often difficult to translate to his band (one infamous example is his telling his drummer to play “like the sun is purple, but you can’t see it”) is legendary. It is fitting, then, that in this documentary, it is left to various members of the Magic Band to discuss the records they made with Beefheart; in his silence, it is left to the band to describe the creative process of an erratic genius.
Chief among these musicians are several who were key to helping Beefheart express himself musically. Drummer John French and guitarist Gary Lucas, though involved in the Magic Band at different times, were two who understood Beefheart’s ambitions, or at least to the degree that they helped translate his ideas to the rest of the band. The documentary traces the evolution of The Magic Band, from a somewhat traditional blues band influenced by Howlin’ Wolf and relying on the Captain’s vocal similarities to him, through his great experimental period, which produced the classics Trout Mask Replica and Lick My Decals Off Baby. It was at this point that the band slipped off the rails, and of course, opinions differ as to why. While Clear Spot continued in Beefheart’s vein of challenging blues, his next few records in the mid-’70s were either, depending on your loyalty, half-assed attempts at commercial music, or a return to the original brand of Magic Band traditional blues. As expected, those band members who were with the early, mid-’60s versions of The Magic Band tend to look less favorably on the experimental period, one in which they were unable to participate. Their replacement by such younger, less schooled musicians like French and guitarist Zoot Horn Rollo were more receptive to Beefheart’s compositions.
The real meat of the film is in the discussions of Beefheart’s late ’70s early ’80s records, which represented a surprising return to form and produced some of his most adventurous music. The Magic Band at this time was lead by Lucas, a fan and guitarist. While more professionally produced than his late ’60s masterworks, Shiny Beast/Bat Chain Puller, Doc at the Radar Station, and Ice Cream For Crow displayed an aggressive rock sound, one that relied more often on Beefheart’s sax playing than his earlier records. If these were his final statements, they were definitive. The band members of the time recall it both as an incredible experience musically, but a frustrating time personally, in dealing with Beefheart.
The tension between the professional and the mystic was always at the root of Captain Beefheart’s music. In this film, that tension is expressed by his musicians, who wrestled with him to make his vision coherent to his audience. In the end, you have a better understanding of what went into the creation of some of the most challenging, disturbing and profound rock music, but are no better equipped at apprehending the artist himself. This is as it should be. Worth seeking out, and a good companion to this, is the short film Some Low Yo-Yo Stuff, in which the artist, now again called Don Van Vliet, discusses his paintings.
Mike Wood is a novelist, painter, and critic living in Rhode Island.
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