During my early rock ’n’ roll life the name Captain Beefheart pops up here and there, on posters in record departments, on track lists of sampler albums put out by the Warner/Reprise label. I probably hear a song or two on the radio without much care or concern. But it takes a few months living in a charmingly rundown tenement in the Little Italy section of the Bronx with my bandmate, Alter Boys vocalist/lyricist John C, to realize that Captain Beefheart (real name Don Van Vliet, or just “Beef” to John and me) is one of the greatest vocalists/lyricists/song stylists to ever grace God’s Golfball (a favorite Beefheart phrase for the Earth).
Now, thirty-something years later (and nearly seven years since Van Vliet’s passing), a collection of his songs has emerged on Knitting Factory Records, piloted by one-time/some-time Beefheart guitarist Gary Lucas and featuring vocals by Beefheart fan Nona Hendryx of Labelle fame. Due out November 10, The World of Captain Beefheart is a long-overdue and stunning tribute. Lucas was a member of the Magic Band (Beefheart’s moniker for his constantly-changing army of backup musicians) on their last two albums, Doc at the Radar Station (1980) and Ice Cream for Crow (1982). He’s also led a free-jazz, Van Vliet-repertoire outfit called Fast ‘N Bulbous, named after a ridiculous recurring phrase on the album Trout Mask Replica. Diehard Beefheart fans will recognize his name – and all the song titles here. But to the person who’s never experienced the music of the Captain (or who just never cared much – like I’m sure would include me if I hadn’t crossed paths with John C back in the 1980s), it should prove a nice introduction to the Beefheart library – via the more accessible avenue of Hendryx’s deep soul singing (on par with Van Vliet’s own bluesy-tenor register) and the slightly more straightforwardly-pop production. But the heart – or the beef – is there every step of the way.
The Magic Band in 1969
1972’s Clear Spot leads the pack here with four songs, including the first two, “Sun Zoom Spark” and “My Head Is My Only House Unless It Rains.” Up next are a couple from Beefheart’s first album, Safe as Milk, released in 1967 – with the down-home blues of “Sure ‘Nuff ‘n Yes I Do” and the decidedly-un-Beef-like ballad “I’m Glad” lending themselves perfectly to Nona’s soulful vocals. The early-70s works Lick My Decals Off, Baby and The Spotlight Kid are represented with one track each (“The Smithsonian Institute Blues (or the Big Dig)” and “When It Blows Its Stacks”), and 1978’s Shiny Beast (Bat Chain Puller) provides the instrumental “Suction Prints” as well as the funky closer, “Tropical Hot Dog Night.” Of course no Beefheart collection would be complete without something from 1969’s epic Trout Mask Replica. Here we get two – both from that album’s third side – “Sugar ‘n Spikes” and “When Big Joan Sets Up” (“Big Joan”’s problem being her “hands are too small” – hmm, sounds like someone else we know). And tempering the characteristic Beefheart musical anarchy are “Her Eyes Are A Blue Million Miles” and “Too Much Time,” both from Clear Spot and showcasing the Captain’s poppier side. “Too Much Time,” in particular, is another one that seems tailor-made for Ms. Hendryx.
Joining Lucas and Hendryx on this disc are Fast ‘N Bulbous members Jesse Krakow on bass and Richard Dworkin on drums, as well as keyboardist Jordan Shapiro of Gods and Monsters, another Gary Lucas project.
Mr. Van Vliet’s clever, surreal poetry, Howlin’ Wolf-style singing, and blues-rooted avant-garde, often cacophonous music occupy a somewhat dark and unexplored corner in rock ‘n’ roll. Nona Hendryx and Gary Lucas lead us bravely into that corner, wax-encrusted candelabra in hand (hey, it was Halloween last week), with The World of Captain Beefheart. And catch ‘em live in NYC at City Winery January 22!
images courtesy wpbrhistory.org, garylucas.com, blurtonline.com, en.wikipedia.org, bobdylanencyclopedia.blogspot.com