A Squid Eating Dough in a Polyethylene Bag
Captain Beefheart - An Appreciation
Keith Boyd 5.11.07
That growling x-ray vision naked eyeball and exposed nerve-ending cackle is what got to me first. It was the voice of every coyote on Earth telling a dirty joke at once and hissing to itself in laughter. The Captain sounded authoritative. Listening to him bark his non sequiturs of visionary poesy you couldn't help but feel that despite how little you were picking up Captain Beefheart knew exactly what he was saying.
"A squid eating dough in a polyethylene bag is fast-n-bulbous, got me?"
I guess my first exposure to the insane world of The Magic Band was through my Uncle Sam's (yeah, I know!) record collection. I was a kid visiting him and my cousin where they lived out on Long Island in the early 80's. My Uncle Sam was a sort of post Hippie beatnik type who went to Woodstock and just really dug all sorts of music. So there I am thinking that I know everything about basically everything and I'm flipping through his albums thinking, "Neil Young, heard it. Rolling Stones, know it. The Byrds, un-hun."
That's when it hit me. This lurid salmon pink cover with this totally demented picture of a freakily dressed man holding a fish head over his face. The title was, "Captain Beefheart and His Magic Band-TROUT MASK REPLICA". All I could say was,
"What the fug is this?"
My Uncle laughed the laugh of the knowing and said that this was one of the greatest and worst records of all time. He said that it was totally out of step with just about every kind of music from the 60's but that upon repeated listens it would unlock like a secret puzzle and blow your mind. He said that people still don't know what some of the hand torturing chords and scales the guitar player used and that the lead guy, Captain Beefheart, was some kind of crazy poet/artist with one foot in the blues and the other on Mars. Well he put it on and I was drawn up short and stunned. It just didn't sound like anything I'd every heard before. It was brittle and squonking. It had no regular time that you could tap a foot along with. It seemed to be music bent on going in every direction at once and just when you'd figure out a passage through it the sound would either end abruptly or totally change gears. I had no words to really describe it at the time. It seemed noisy for sure. But noise didn't quite cover it. I felt that given the commitment you heard coming through this had to be intentional. It wasn't as if they were just playing whatever came to mind at every given second. It had an abrasive and herky-jerky to the rhythm that at once repulsed and enticed me. It sounded like secret music. Music for some long hidden occult ritual. Parts of it were vaguely bluesy. Other parts veered into doo-wop. But, it only seemed to do this as some sort of trick or with a huge tongue in cheek aspect. While I couldn't say that I loved it on first hearing, I can say I was utterly intrigued and wanted to know more. What I did love was that croaking, Tourette 's syndrome, apocalypse in a throat voice of Don Van Vliet aka Captain Beefheart.
The Captain's voice was equal parts carnival barker and Shakespearian actor. It quaked as he sang these twisted songs, investing every syllable with aching fits of energy. At times the voice became a righteous bellow, like some wild animal out wounded on the moors. He'd almost loose control and simply give up with vocabulary and grunt. A high, holy grunt of horror and freedom and it would sound out with the mystical truth of the village idiot seeing his reflection in a mud puddle and also seeing the moon and diving into the mud puddle trying to find that other soul and not finding it at all but coming up covered in moonlight anyway. That voice was the whipping wind in Don Quixote's head as he charged full tilt at the windmills. It was the voice of John the Baptist as the knife severed his head and the last gasp of prophecy escaped his lips. Sure there were a few presidencies. Howling Wolf is perhaps the closest in terms of tonality. The Captain however, wasn't simply interested in retreading the old worn out story of the 60's blues revival. He seemed destined for other shores and that voice was the fog horn bleating out a path to light the way.
I've heard many a singular thing since then. I've heard mind stopping drones and time stopping noise. I've had my adrenal glands strip mined by punk rock and been shattered by the ebb and flow of dub but that first hit of Beefheart in the full sails ahead glory Trout Mask Replica stays with me to this day. In the ensuing years I tracked down all of the Beefheart albums. Some really hit the spot (Ice Cream for Crow, Safe as Milk) others are just damn weird (Lick My Decals Off Baby, Strictly Personal) but none carry the same cretin delight I found in Trout Mask. It's as if every musical impulse came together and apart on that damn record. There's also something I hear when listening to it to this very day. It's not something usually associated with Captain Beefheart but just due the fact that they were and did makes it shine through to me. That something is hope. Hope that there is a chance for all of us to stand up in our true and full colors under the sun and boldly play our own music.