So Green Man Review has come to this: the inevitable “who or what is a Captain Beefheart?” paragraph. I’ll reduce it to a sentence: Captain Beefheart is the all-encompassing focal point of all 20th century American music idioms, rolled into one composer. Better still, I’ll reduce it to one word: genius. I’ve seen that word used with many musicians, but if it had to apply to only a select few, Beefheart would be on that list. Brahms, Beethoven, Beefheart… I’ll refer you to the absolutely wonderful Beefheart Web site if you want more background information on the man. Time and space don’t permit…
In a nutshell, you either get Beefheart or you don’t. To me, Don (van Vliet, his real name) has always been a weird cross between Howlin’ Wolf and the Rev. Howard Finster: blues meeting “folk art.” Although undoubtedly influenced by free jazz, his saxophone approach is more that of a seven-year-old, fascinated by the squeaks and squawks the horn makes. Those bizarre lyrics, filled with neo-Beat prose slammed against intricate wordplay and deft one-liners? You can find that in any junior high school child’s notebooks. Don’s assertion that he never grew up is a very apt description; combine that with a mastery of both rural and urban blues, and a keen ear sensitive to country, folk and pop idioms, and you’ve summed up Beefheart. He could write a groove with the best (“I Wanna Boogerize Ya Baby” would’ve sounded great if War covered it), keep it short and simple (“Golden Birdies”), or just spout out those great stories (“The Dust Blows Forward and The Dust Blows Back,” “Big Poop Hatch”) to make Spalding Grey blush. Genius, pure and simple.
OK, so his job as a “composer” is somewhat overblown — more of a “musical provocateur.” But how provocative! Those short, repeating patterns, in differing time signatures, relentlessly repeated, or those three note clusters popping up only once: Don took a lot of old blues turnarounds and “built” his music from them. Now that isn’t dissing the man, it just proves how original he was: the only white guy to figure out that the spaces in between the blues are what made the blues what they are.
Be that as it may, Grow Fins is a 5-disc (!) retrospective spanning almost the entire career of the Captain and his various Magic Bands. Now, if anyone needed a box set, Beefheart certainly did. Although many have tried, there are simply far too many corners and alleys (and a few dead ends) to cover in some single disc “Greatest Hits” (which, given he had only one semi-“hit,” would be more irony added to his career). Many have tried this approach; all have failed. And all probably will.
Revenant Records, this set’s label, have done more service to the music world in general than most record companies could dream of. They have not only re-released the good Captain, but the Stanley Brothers, Cecil Taylor, and Harry Smith’s unreleased fourth compilation of American folk music. Obviously a label that likes a challenge….
Each disc is given a specific title. The first disc is called “Just Got Back From The City,” and features the early, hard blues of the Magic Band. A far better than average white blues band, these tracks show off Don’s harp work and downright scary vocals nicely. The included live cover of Howlin’ Wolf’s “Evil” not only validates the strong link between Don’s singing and his idol, but the almost “beat blues” version proves that he felt no need to remain “pure” to the blues. Messing around with rough baldly (“I’m Glad”) and rough garage rock (“Here I Am I Always Am”), the various early incarnations of the Magic Band (9 different musicians over two years) are at their best with gruff, Stones-style blues. A sweet cut of John Lee Hooker’s “Tupelo” proves their mastery of the genre, far above any white band you’ve heard before. The disc is rounded off with demos from “Safe As Milk,” that glorious first album, with only “Yellow Brick Road” being a distinct improvement, sounding tighter and without the echo on Don’s voice.
The second disc, entitled “Electricity,” is forty minutes of live tracks featuring the “Safe As Milk” incarnation of the Magic Band. Two versions of “Electricity” are included (although I miss the Theramin featured on the studio version), as well as the tight version of “Sure ‘Nuff ‘n Yes I Do” featured in video on disc 4 (see below). There’s a great 12-minute cover of “Rollin’ ‘n Tumblin,'” featuring some great harp blowing, and a deep cut of “Yer Gonna Need Somebody On Yer Bond,” harder than any other version I’ve heard. The Magic Band is at their mutant blues best here (check out Don’s sax on the second version of “Electricity”), coming across as a harder, truer blues group than other white California bands (Canned Heat, Electric Flag) that rose to prominence in the mid-1960s. A live take of “Kandy Korn,” emphasizing the “hokum” novelty of the song, precedes a fascinating find: the demo to a recently uncovered song call “Korn Ring Finger.” While a little too drawn out, it’s a fascinating hint at where Don is about to take his music.
Disc three, “Trout Mask House Sessions,” consists of almost 73 minutes of the original band demos for one of the greatest albums in the history of music, Trout Mask Replica. For the uninitiated, Trout Mask Replica is the album where Don decided to create “his” music: a brilliant mix of free-form blues, free jazz exploration, brilliant poetry, droll humour, and Drumbo (John French) reinventing drum technique to become the most singular voice of his generation. At turns jarring, at turns spellbinding, it isn’t for the weak of heart; nor is it necessarily the easiest place to enter the musical realm of Beefheart. (I did when I was 15. After the first spin, I couldn’t believe I had wasted $18 on it. After the fifth spin, I was hooked. Still am.)
Although a fascinating listen (some of these tracks are better sounding than the final studio ones), this disc is rather long in the tooth. I enjoy audio-verite as much as the next person, but listening to the sounds of mics being moved isn’t a high priority. But the performances! “When Big Joan Sets Up” is twice as aggressive as the studio version, downright nasty at points. The second take of “Hoba Chang Ba” is interesting in its exploration of revoicing the counterpoints between the guitars. And at the end, the original take of “China Pig,” while identical to the album version, is prefaced with Don fooling around with former bandmate Doug Moon on “Candyman,” and shows the off-the-cuff performance in a whole new light. The disc includes a suggested programming to mimic the final album, creating a sort of instrumental “Trout Mask” workout; this disc works a lot better sequenced that way.
Disc four, the “storytime portion,” has 12 minutes of dialogue between the band and the lady next door. Hilarious put-downs of Herb Alpert and the truly gutbusting reactions of the neighbour (“Anything else I’ve missed? Dare I ask…”) mix in with Don’s prolonged shock over the “septic tank story.” This can’t be missed. The rest of the disc consists of video footage, a real treat for us young ‘uns who missed seeing the Captain live. Film from 1968 of perfunctory renditions of “Electricity” and “Sho Nuff and Yes I Do” (both included on disc 2) in Cannes (of all places), a truly rough run-through of “My Human Gets Me Blues” (included on disc 5) and “She’s Too Much For My Mirror” from a festival in Belgium, 1969 (featuring an almost crooning Don), start off the set.
But next comes the centre of my current musical fixation: a performance in a Detroit television studio from 1971. Lousy audio and video don’t detract from a truly mesmerizing, relentless medley of “When Big Joan Sets Up/Woe Is Uh Me Bop/Bellerin’ Plain,” performed by the classic Don/guitar/bass/Drumbo/maramba lineup of the Magic Band. Drumbo is a grinning blur of poly-rhythm; Don plays some of the greatest skronk sax I’ve ever heard; and Ed Marimba’s/Zoot Horn Rollo’s interplay on “Plain” borders on mystical. Well worth the price of this disc by itself, a version with the sound cleaned-up is on disc five. Rounding things off is a rollicking “Click-Clack” from Paris, featuring my favourite lineup: the 1973 three guitar assault. This track is included on disc five as well. Wonderful quality (except for the Detroit tracks), although I could have done without the somewhat cheesy Macromedia interface (it’s easily circumnavigated, thankfully).
Which brings us to the final disc, “Captain Beefheart & His Magic Band Grow Fins.” This is my favourite of the set, albeit with one major reservation. Spanning the era between 1969 and 1980, there are some superb gems here. Apart from the abovementioned Detroit 1971 tracks, there’s great emphasis on the compositions from this period, with a powerful “Spitball Scalped Uh Baby” from 1972, and a wonderful 1980 take on “Flavor Bud Living.” A raucous 1972 version of “Grow Fins,” featuring some great harp from Don, and Rollo (the incredible Bill Harkleroad) at his guitar best, lives up to its choice as the title for this set.
Most interesting are the demo/performance tracks, showing how “Odd Jobs” and “Evening Bell” (my favourite Beefheart composition by far) were transformed from rough piano “guides” to beautiful compositions. “Vampire Suite” is included with fades, from Don’s original whistling to a live band workout. A few radio phone-ins, live improvs (I love Don abruptly ending one with an angry “Fuck it! If you’re gonna talk, forget it!”) and an unsettling “Orange Claw Hammer,” featuring Frank Zappa strumming minimalist guitar underneath, round out the disc.
Although I’m sure that this set had to stop somewhere (or else it would stretch a dozen discs — not a bad idea, in my opinion…), this disc is also the biggest letdown for me. Cramming 13 years of some of Don’s greatest work into 70 minutes is obviously going to miss a lot, and while wonderful, a lot is missed. For example, there’s the stunning Beat Club (German TV) version of “I’m Gonna Boogerize Ya Baby” archived on the Beefheart Web site that could have replaced some of the phone-ins.
The packaging itself is stunning, a hardcover book/CD wallet with a 112- page booklet. Featuring dozens of never before printed photos, the centrepiece (outside of copious track notes) of the booklet is 76 pages of memoirs of various ex-Magic Band members, conducted and guided by Drumbo. A fascinating, albeit frightening read: it’s amazing the number of times the words “cult” and “brainwashing” pop up. Beefheart was never the nicest boss (actually, more like a heartless taskmaster), nor the most together artist (a few revelations about his drug use, especially in later years), but the obvious love these musicians have for their former visionary is clear.
Now, if it isn’t obvious that I’m more than a little biased in this review, you need some remedial reading courses immediately. But Grow Fins is a triumph, a long overdue volume that absolutely needs to be part of every serious music fan’s collection. Kudos to Revenant for a wonderful, nearly flawless set. But enough of my yakking: just go and buy this. Unconditionally guaranteed, only better.