His band's debut album proved that progress isn't linear. Experimental rock music was never so good againby Alex Dean / July 28, 2017 / Leave a comment
“Babbette baboon, abba zaba zoom.”
Captain Beefheart’s Safe as Milk, from which those lyrics are taken, ushered in one of rock music’s most important—and unusual—careers. Real name Don Van Vliet—known to die-hards simply as “The Captain”—Beefheart fused Mississippi delta blues with avant jazz to astonishing effect. His debut album, 60 years old in September, still sounds breathtakingly experimental—and reminds us that progress isn’t linear. Rock music has not reached the same heights since.
Don Van Vliet had always been peculiar, and his parents, who from early on appreciated their son’s remarkable musical gift, indulged him. Sometimes too much. Frank Zappa, another avant-rock extraordinaire, grew up near Van Vliet’s California neighbourhood. In 1997 documentary The Artist Formerly Known as Captain Beefheart he recalls spending time at Beefheart’s house as a teenager. Van Vliet would do little except listen to blues music, Zappa explained—pausing it occasionally to “scream at his mother to get him another pepsi.”
Beefheart, in the end, found a bunch of musicians willing to put up with him, and formed “The Magic Band”—named after a recurring vision he had as a child in which he would drink a pepsi and a ghostly backing troupe would materialise behind him. He was a perfectionist in the extreme, and treated his band members appallingly, locking them in the house for hours on end, throwing them down the stairs when they made errors. One former bandmate has alleged that he was forced to live off soybeans for a month. Another, having been pushed to breaking point, threatened Beefheart with a loaded crossbow. Thankfully, the situation was defused.
“Beefheart sung with something like the deep growl of blues legend Howlin’ Wolf”
But their first effort, Safe as Milk, was released to a rapturous reception. The technical prowess was clear, while Beefheart’s voice was the most remarkable instrument of all: he sung with something like the deep growl of blues legend Howlin’ Wolf. The experimentation to come, including crazy time signatures and erratic shout-singing, was hinted at. “Abba Zabba,” a lolloping blues number with those near-incomprehensible lyrics I quoted above, is a highlight:
“Babbette baboon, abba zaba zoom Two shadows at Noon, Babbette baboon Comin’ over pretty soon, Babbette baboon Run, run, catch her soon, draft of dawn, sunshine on Babbette baboon”
The experiment continued, culminating in 1969’s Trout Mask Replica, which runs for no less than 79 minutes over 28 tracks, with titles like “Hair Pie: Bake 1” and “Neon Meate Dream of a Octafish.” It is a challenging listen to say the least. In the same 1997 documentary Matt Groening, creator of the Simpsons and diehard Beefheart fan, explains that he hated it on the first try. On the second, “I thought it sounds terrible, but they mean it to sound this way.” By the seventh or eighth, “I thought it was the best album ever made, and I still do.”
The world would enjoy a decade or so more of Van Vliet’s music, during which he released several more studio albums—most of them brilliant—and went on the “Bongo Fury” tour with Zappa. By 1982 another creative passion, painting, was occupying more and more of his time, and when advised by a New York art dealer than he would never be taken seriously as an artist unless he quit the music for good, he packed it in, explaining to bemused fans simply that he had “become too good at the horn.” Twenty years of near-total recluse followed, during which he painted canvases almost as peculiar as his music (they fetch high prices at auctions today.) He passed away in 2010.
Beefheart’s musical legacy is as complicated as the musician himself. He hasn’t been influential directly, despite his immense talent, since no one could possibly imitate his unorthodox sound. (One hopes his personal life has inspired similarly few direct imitators). That said, his fingerprints are all over punk and new-wave if you look closely enough.
There are a couple more takeaways. The first is that progress can’t be taken for granted: experimental rock music was never so good again after Van Vliet left the scene. The second is that we could all do with being a little more weird.