Sharps & flats

A new anthology tries to put the wild career of the deranged Captain Beefheart in perspective -- as if that's even possible.


David Bowman
September 8, 1999 8:00PM (UTC)

In the 1946 noir "The Blue Dahlia," hulking William Bendix plays a psychotic mug who has shrapnel in his skull. The condition causes him to occasionally go off his rocker, to grab his temples and scream, "Turn off that monkey music!" I feel like Bendix. Turn off that monkey music! I've been listening to Captain Beefheart again. That deranged strangled voice. Nonsense lyrics like "Making love to a vampire with a monkey on my knee." Squeaking guitars. Noodling horns. It's the stuff of fever dreams. I already played Beefheart nonstop last June and wrote about the "Grow Fins" box and the re-issues "Safe As Milk" and "The Mirror Man Sessions." I'm not here to retell the Captain Beefheart story now. I just want to note that there's more Beef in the air. At summer's end, Rhino has released a two-CD collection, "The Dust Blows Forward (An Anthology)," containing important Beefheart cuts recorded between 1966 and 1982. Can 16 years of insane, cartoon-like music be anthologized?

In the CDs' excellent booklet, Beefheart historian Barry Algonso tells a great story about Don Van Vliet (what the captain's mother named him) as a teenage door-to-door Hoover vacuum salesman. One day, he stopped at Aldous Huxley's place in the Mojave. Huxley, as you know, was the erudite British writer and LSD philosopher who'd gone out to the desert to die. Algonso says Huxley ended up buying a Hoover from the kid because of his sales pitch: "I can assure you, sir, these things really suck." I doubt it. Oh they probably sucked fine, but surely the Brit bought one because he recognized the sales kid possessed a natural consciousness more ripped than anyone tripping on acid.

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The first disc documents that former Hoover salesmen's vision, from his early askew blues days of the mid-'60s through the late-'60s Dada-esque hoot of the "Trout Mask Replica" era. The second disc begins with seven songs from "Clear Spot" (1972), "Unconditionally Guaranteed" (1974) and "Bluejeans & Moonbeams" (1974), those failed "commercial" albums where Beefheart tried to sing straight, as if he were Joe Cocker or something. By the late '70s, the Captain saw sense and went nuts again. The anthology ends with the man's last frantic cuts before his retirement in 1982.

"The Dust Blows Forward" and its 45 songs put Beefheart's career in what is usually called perspective. Your ears can observe, if not entirely understand, his yo-yoing between being a white-man-singing-like-a-black-man to a singer so bedeviled and insane that those who followed him, such as Tom Waits or P.J. Harvey, sound safe as ... milk. Just this morning, as I was listening to his deranged sea chantey "Orange Claw Hammer" (a cut from "Trout" included on the anthology), I remembered sitting at a matinee with my pop watching "Treasure Island." To me, Beefheart sings like Long John Silver buried up to his neck in the surf of Treasure Island. The Captain gurgles and cries out in rage and terror as the surf of time washes up to his chin. Up to his mouth. Then over his head, drowning him and his music forever.

Let's say we're in that movie too. In a row boat. In the distance. "The Dust Blows Forward" bobs on a buoy. Should we get it? Do you need a disc that functions as a history book? Are you curious about Beefheart, but not so curious that you've listened to him before now? Are you a Howling Wolf freak and want to hear the only voyager into that same growling territory? Do you need a few unremarkable unreleased cuts and your last name is Rockefeller? If you answered yes, yes, yes or yes, well, row out and get it. But if you want a complete musical experience -- a complete meal, if you will (I mean, can you imagine listening to a Tom Waits anthology as opposed to playing his individual albums?) -- I say you row a bit farther out and pluck up an old classic. Say, "Doc at the Radar Station" (1980). But whatever you get, I warn you. Some of you will end up grabbing your temples and screaming like William Bendix, "Turn off that monkey music!"


David Bowman

David Bowman is the author of the novel "Bunny Modern" and the nonfiction book "This Must Be the Place: The Adventures of the Talking Heads in the 20th Century."

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