Of Bob & Beefheart & A Big Old Hat

                                Key   Brown for sound, big arrow on left to return to text

Half a year in and one theme runs through all my WordPress posts so far – breaking the rules. Rules aren’t laws, right? Rules are more like blueprints. The Tin Pan Alley blueprint encourages music written to a formula because it is easily duplicated by low-paid hacks with drum machines. But the music that hits me hard enough to burn the moment of first hearing on my brain always breaks the mould – sometimes musically, sometimes lyrically, more often with a startling new combination of melody and rhythm and words.

How does this happen? It’s well known that sentient beings respond more intensely to novelty than to routine, a trait perhaps evolved to enable rapid ‘flight or fight’ decisions. So maybe it’s just newness that clicks the camera of my mind? Nah, there must be more to it than a dumbass kneejerk reaction.

And anyway, haven’t we stopped evolving physically because the development of culture keeps us protected from nature? We’re a complex life form, or so they say. Me, I like to keep things simple. As I understand it, the left side of my brain handles words and reasoning while the right side processes music and rhythm and emotions. Science shows that poems set to music get the two hemispheres conversing and the brain lights up like those spaceship lights in Close Encounters of the Third Kind. You remember … Da-di-dum-di-da

xunlmeygp3go3rqv0qtuGotta strange feeling I’ve only just scratched the surface here. What I do know is that I have complete recall of hearing Mr Tambourine Man for the first time. Captivating poetry to a lovely folk melody, of course, but the clincher for me was Dylan’s trick of adding an extra phrase to each verse so that come the end we have a breathtaking litany of wonders and the song becomes a hymn to life lived in the moment …

Take me disappearing through the smoke rings of my mind / Down the foggy ruins of time / Far past the frozen leaves / The haunted frightened trees / Down to the windy beach / Far from the twisted reach of crazy sorrow / Yeah to dance beneath a diamond sky with one hand waving free / Silhouetted by the sea / Upon the circus sands / With all memory and fate / Driven deep within the waves / Let me forget about today until tomorrow …

I like to imagine Bob Dylan tearing pages out of the rule book and feeding them one by one to a roaring fire on that windy beach. But perhaps the best candidate for Most Complete Musical Rebel of the 1960s was Captain Beefheart. Don Van Vliet, to use his civilian name, certainly ticks all the boxes … though I can’t imagine he would enjoy filling in the forms.

There’s a filmed interview where Beefheart describes the bom-bom-bom-bom-bom of commercial music as ‘the mama heartbeat’ – a hypnotic that sent people into a trance, he believed, a cataleptic state from which he sought to shake them with his fractured and wildly unpredictable music. And just down the beach from Bob Dylan, here we see The Magic Band pretending to imitate the surf boys but please click on Diddy Wah Diddy to spot early signs of subversion.

Debut album Safe As Milk was conventional by later Beefheart standards with a commercial touch provided by Ry Cooder, whose favourite track was Autumn’s Child. I’ll plump for the even more surreal Abba Zaba, the only song I know that celebrates a private childhood mythology about a chocolate bar. Babbette Baboon was his secret name for the monkey on the wrapper …

The ‘difficult’ second album was Strictly Personal, wrecked or rescued – a matter of personal taste – by its trendy use of phasing effects. In my view, the material was strong enough without fancy production tricks. The controversy doesn’t stop there because John Lennon was reportedly offended by the pastiche of Beatle Bones ‘N’ Smoking Stones which pokes fun at the childish elements in Strawberry Fields. This is ironic because the waspish Beatle never showed pity towards the objects of his own barbed lampoons. The irony deepens when you consider how childlike Beefheart was, still the young boy who won the sculpture competition but was prevented from taking up a six-year scholarship in France because his parents thought the art world too ‘queer’. You couldn’t make that up, could you? But it goes some way to explain what drove the guy. Yeah, strictly personal …

Widely acknowledged as The Magic Band’s masterpiece, Trout Mask Replica broke new territory in sheer Dadaist daftness. Almost as weird is the story of this monster double-album’s making as told in the excellent 1997 BBC documentary – public broadcasting, yay! – narrated by John Peel, the DJ who made the band famous in the UK.

Come to think of it, why are you wasting time reading this when you could be watching the documentary?

trout-mask-replica-501d04ad4c085Oh no, you’re still reading … I expect you want to know what I think of the album. The short answer is, I’m trying hard not to. That front cover gives me the heebie-jeebies and this back cover scares me shitless. Who are these crazy people, that they invade my dreams and point their alien death rays in my direction?

06trout1band

I have it on very good authority that anyone who makes the mistake of listening to these hideous jungle rhythms will never be the same again … so don’t say you haven’t been warned. By all accounts, the follow-up album Lick My Decals Off, Baby is even more scary. Let’s keep Halloween a wholesome family festival, I say … and will therefore take absolutely no responsibility for what might happen if you click on Woe-Is-Uh-Me-Bop which sounds to me like a foreigner of terrestrial or even extra-terrestrial origin pretending to speak English …

OK, feeble attempts to be funny aside, time to come clean! My name it is nothing (thanks for that, Bob) and I am a Captain Beefheart junky. I like everything he did, the weirder the better. TMR is a bona fide work of genius which should be heard all the way through at one sitting – hence no tracks here – and LMDOB, though it doesn’t always hang together, isn’t far behind.

But if your own strangeness threshold is set lower than mine you may be on safer ground with the album many folk say is the place to start – Clear Spot. Made with the intention of establishing a more commercial direction, its clean sound and crisp delivery can be heard on tracks such as Big Eyed Beans From Venus … but wait a minute, what’s with the weird song title? … and those people on the album cover with that spooky thing that looks like a spaceship command module … I think one of them might be Chinese …

Clear_Spot

Hang on, unless I’m imagining it, I can hear these like well weird words …

Mister Zoot Horn Rollo / Hit that long lunar note / And let it float …..

Ah, those crazy old times! Let’s flash forward ten years to Beefheart’s final record, the third of three acclaimed come-back albums. Surely by now he will have mellowed, taken the company shilling, sold out to the man? The opening shot in the next clip looks promising. There he is, silhouetted against the golden evening sun, standing calm and quiet in a big old hat … tell you what, why don’t we give the old reprobate one more chance to prove he’s a reformed character? Let’s hit the album’s title track, kinda sweet idea  ain’t it … Ice Cream For Crow?

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2 thoughts on “Of Bob & Beefheart & A Big Old Hat

    1. Cheers, glad you enjoyed it, will read your stuff too. I followed the Beefheart tag on WordPress and there wasn’t much personal writing on the subject, just clips and photos, so it was good to find another enthusiast …

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