Friday, December 17, 2010

Adventures in Rhythm: Oh Captain, My Captain. Captain Beefheart Is Dead.

With the above words my good friend JWR in Connecticut informed me that one of the most creative musicians of the last fifty years died today.

It's strange because during the past six months I've been going through a bit of a personal Beefheart revival, after not listening to his music for years. In April, for Vice magazine's 'fine art' issue, I proposed interviewing Don Van Vliet, who devoted himself to painting since he gave up music and being Captain Beefheart in the early 1980s, but one or more of the editors didn't like the idea. Or they just realized that it would have been impossible since Van Vliet lived somewhere in the Mojave Desert and virtually never granted interviews. When he did he conducted them by fax.

In the meantime I satisfied myself by finding live performances of Captain Beefheart and the Magic Band on YouTube. Among the best of these was a set of performances taped for French television in 1980 (one of which was featured on this blog recently), just before he stopped making music.

There are two funny things about these performances. One was that the Captain is much thinner than he was during his 1960s blues-ringleader days. Later I read that he just wanted to 'try out' being fat for awhile.

The other is that, as much as you have to thank French television for putting on so original an artist well after the height of his fame (whatever that means), you realize that they didn't really get it—in the way that I think the French have never exactly gotten American rock and roll. At the beginning of each song, a title appears on screen, and beneath that, in parentheses, "Van Vliet"—as if "Safe as Milk" was an old jazz standard composed by some Tin Pan Alley scratcher. After two songs, you kind of expect something other than "Van Vliet" to show up under the title of the next song, but I don't think Captain Beefheart ever felt compelled to do covers. The French station titles one song "Bat Chain Pullet," which clearly makes no sense, since the song is called "Bat Chain Puller."

But the best thing about these performances is that Beefheart has thrown off the warped blues trappings of his 60s and 70s bands, and actually sounds more unique than before. Even more you realize he never queued his musicians. The violent stops and starts no longer sound random—though they never were—and are now simply shocking.

So long, shiny beast of thought.

1 comment:

  1. I think the death of a performer rattles us most because it most confronts us with our own mortality. Non-performers—-writers and visual artists—-spend their lives funneling themselves into artifacts, as if to prepare for when they will be already dead. When a performer dies, we see how inadequately the artifacts one leaves behind measure a life.