‘Mr Zoot Horn Rollo, hit that long lunar note .. And let it float.’
(Captain Beefheart ‘Big Eyed Beans From Venus’)
‘Once you’ve heard Beefheart it’s hard to wash him out of your clothes. It stains like coffee or blood’ (Tom Waits)
‘If there has ever been such a thing as a genius in popular music it’s Beefheart’ (John Peel)
A day or so ago, on a whim, I decided to play my vinyl copy of, ‘Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band’.
So, I carefully punched in the combination code (get it wrong twice and the caged tigers are released) and entered the sanctum sanctorum containing the motherlode of a lifetime’s dedicated record collecting.
Adjusting my eyes to the subdued lighting and breathing the filtered air in a thermostatically controlled dry heat I strolled past the substantial, ‘A’ section and found myself mesmerised by the bounteous treasures contained within the, ‘B’s.
Before extracting Sergeant Pepper from the compendious Beatles cache I lingered over titles from; The Band, The Beach Boys, Badfinger, Blind Boy groups from several States, Paul Brady, Tim Buckley, Joan Baez, Billy Butterfield and, of course, Sidney Bechet (Sidney Bechet!).
However, none of the above accompanied Sergeant Pepper on the walk back to the house.
No, nestled next to the Fab Four was an album from one of the most extraordinary figures in the history of popular music – ‘Clear Spot’ by the one and only Captain Beefheart (otherwise known as Don Van Vliet).
In an age when massed phalanxes of politicians, sociologists and Madison Avenue moguls spend untold hours corralling all of us into discrete groups, tribes and categories (personally I’m distraught if I don’t appear in the grouping called ‘other’ in such surveys!) what a relief it is to encounter the Captain – an artist who explodes all the imprisonments of classification and genre.
Captain Beefheart is hors categorie.
He was an American original in excelcis who arrived on the scene like some thunderous prophet from the Desert who lived on a diet of honey and locusts.
Listening his impossibly cavernous voice you imagined a Man-Thing emerging like a vision from the heat shimmer dressed in a hair shirt with buzzards on his shoulders and roaring lions prowling at his feet.
The Captain is best understood as a sculptor and painter who worked, for a time, in the medium of music. He moulded words and sounds and musicians like clay – ripping, tearing and main force wrestling all the material at hand until it matched the mysterious visions blooming in his heart and mind.
And, there can be no better example of the visceral power of his mysterious visions than, ‘Big Eyed Beans From Venus’ which now takes an honoured place on The Immortal Jukebox as A20.
Usually I’m so pumped up after listening to this track that I have to set off for a long lung-busting run to restore some vestige of equilibrium.
Get ready! Get ready!
This is life changing music.
A work which explodes into life with a, ‘Now I’ve got you!’ guitar riff followed by one of the most arresting opening lines ever recorded:
‘Distant cousins, there’s a limited supply,
And we’re down to the dozens, and this is why …’
Four minutes or so later The Captain with the heroic support of Magic Band members Zoot Horn Rollo (Bill Harkleroad), Rockette Morton (Mark Boston), Ed Marimba (Art Tripp) and Orejon (Roy Estrada) has taken us on a hallucinatory musical journey fusing field hollers, free jazz, the delta blues, rhythm and blues and rock ‘n’ roll into a new and wholly original creation – and isn’t that what art is supposed to do?
No praise is too high for the cosmic commitment this group of musicians offer us here.
Listening I feel as if all my senses (including my sixth and seventh senses) have been shaken and shaken and shaken again until they are singing in rare unison.
The track while proceeding according to some hidden logic asks you to throw out all the conventional expectations of lyrical and musical song structure.
Instead you are taken on a wild, wild ride with sudden stops and accelerations keeping you thrillingly off balance and holding on for dear life.
When Beefheart and the Magic Band put the hammer down you’ll be pulling some serious G forces!
Yet, you always have the sense that someone is at the controls and though you don’t know exactly where you’re going to wind up you’ll be glad you got there when you get there!
Where you will be is far from home in a place you may yet find strangely familiar.
Perhaps Beefheart’s music comes from the parallel universes the physicists tell us surround our own!
It seems to me that all of The Captain’s finest works have the hallmark of mystical transmissions from some crystal beyond. They are simultaneously nonsensical and revelatory bolts of bone deep human truths.
That’s what can make his work so unsettling and downright scary. As Earth people around the circle our instinct is as often to cower and turn our back on such truths as to welcome them.
The Captain’s vocation was to eschew the fol-de-rol of the music business and all the, ‘this is how you do it’ manuals and do, grandly, what all genuine artists do – fearlessly explore and expound the truths he found in his heart.
This was a man who said that a guitar was not really a guitar but a divining rod and that it should be used to find spirits in the other world and bring them over.
There can be no doubt that in creating and performing, ‘Big Eyed Beans From Venus’ The Captain found some very powerful spirits and blessed us by bringing them over.
There never was and never will be anyone like him.
P.S. Many, many thanks to all the Jukebox aficionados who have taken the time to nominate The Immortal Jukebox for the UK Blog Awards. And, for the very kind words used to describe the virtues of The Jukebox.
Nominations remain open so … If you haven’t already please do follow the link below!