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The Captain

May 15, 2012

As an expression of the emptiness of my life, I was just listening to a Slate Culture Gabfest podcast from a year and a half ago. That was soon after the death of Captain Beefheart and the gabbers were discussing his legacy. Two of them (the men) were music geek enough to be familiar with his work, the other two (the women, such a stereotypical division) were neophytes. What was so maddening about the discussion wasn’t that these people were not fully appreciative of the music and ended up concluding that it is more important as an influence on other musicians than in its own right. That is to be expected. It was that they, like so many others, treated Trout Mask Replica as if it were his undisputed masterpiece, and the only Beefheart you need consider. With this I completely disagree.

Not because it is not a great album, a classic, a landmark & etc. But it is only a part of the canon, and not the part I would choose to keep if I had to choose. One of the women was put off by the dopey humor and the studio chatter and a general dated quality to the album that marks it as an artifact of the late Sixties rather than as a timeless classic. That is a legitimate complaint, though I think that part of its magic is that it does sound like a long self-indulgent jam session by a bunch of rather juvenile counterculture freaks, like a goof, except that it is also a compendium of incredibly precise, complex, difficult, and innovative music. Sprawling in its amalgamation of concisions, both primitive and sophisticated, sloppy and virtuosic, doofoid and witty, Trout Mask Replica has the genius of contradiction. If I wrote a few more sentences on it I could probably convince myself that it really is Beefheart’s best.

But Lick My Decals Off, Baby is arguably a better version of similar material, shorter and more refined, with better sound and less bloat. Unfortunately I only have it on a vinyl record that I don’t have the means to play right now, so I can’t confirm this sense of it.

The Beefheart I love best comes later, with Shiny Beast (Bat Chain Puller) and Doc at the Radar Station. Unlike most rock, his music is not a youth music, so it makes sense that it would gain power as he got older. These albums were made in his late thirties, and with maturity he achieved an overwhelming authority, he became The Captain. He wasn’t some gonzo freak, he was a visitor from another dimension. This is the pop music of a parallel universe. It reminds me in this way of the great player-piano works of Conlon Nancarrow, which, because they are impossible to play with human hands, sound like they come from an alien civilization. But Beefheart’s vocals are always rawly, if strangely, human. The vocals are incredible on these albums, his voice more compelling than ever. ( The main reason I can’t rate the last album, Ice Cream for Crow, as highly is that he had lost the full range and power of his voice by then.) The production is clean, sharp, and two-dimensional. He insisted on that last point, a sound like a painting. In a way, the last albums are his contribution to New Wave, in the Television/Talking Heads vein. The mud and the dank are gone, to reveal even greater strangeness in a pure and even light. All the pieces move and click together like clockwork, making perfect sense, but the clock strikes thirteen.  It is the music of a self-assured master, and among my personal touchstones of the sublime in music.

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