Losing Beefheart

posted by Tom Moon on December 20, 2010 at 8:18 pm
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We appreciate Captain Beefheart as a rogue, a conjurer of his own defiant musical universe, an arthouse trickster who, like his compadre Frank Zappa, cleared out space in ‘60s rock culture for the fruits of willful eccentricity. All of this is well documented. What’s less appreciated, and almost missing from the tributes occasioned by his death late last week, is discussion of the musical language he developed to do it.

Donald Van Vliet didn’t read music. His creations were extemporaneous; if some musician happened to be around or a tape recorder was running, a stray idea might evolve into a song – according to myth, much of Trout Mask Replica, the Beefheart magnum opus, started this way.

Sometimes with this type of creativity, what survives is a tiny spark from the creator and lots of editorial input from the “transcriber.” Apparently this is not the case with Beefheart. His rhythms announce themselves like threatening gangs entering a quiet street; they’re audacious lurches that demand attention first for their sheer noisy brazenness, and then for their notation-defying oddness. And yet as dizzy as things get, there’s usually something solid to grab onto – the whipcrack backbeat of the blues, some scurrying attempt at whiteboy boogaloo. Most pop songwriters create accompaniments that can sustain, with some variation, across a set of stanzas; Beefheart wrote in fitful episodes, and didn’t worry if sometimes that meant different notation (involving different rhythmic systems) for each measure. On his most memorable records – Trout Mask, Safe as Milk, Doc at the Radar Station – the shifting pulses are high theater in themselves. It’s almost a bonus hearing how they contain and come to symbolize the "sense" of the narrative, deftly reinforcing the scatter of words and images that seem perpetually moving in several directions at once.

Then there’s the harmony, which is every bit as individual. Beefheart and his crew accentuate the feeling of upheaval at every opportunity, with constellations of piano thunder and plinking stabs from the guitar. The harmonic schemes are studies in the careful deployment of dissonance: Though at times the Magic Band can summon a massive free-jazz wail, most often the chord clusters and instrument combinations are the work of a precise mind, a finicky anarchist who knows exactly what size of drillbit he’ll use to open your skull and the method that’s most effective for the job.

For me, the loss of Beefheart represents the endpoint to a fairly significant musical language. We need the cranks and crazy folk of music, perhaps now more than ever. And we especially need the ones whose ideas test the limits of rational thinking and conventional wisdom. It’s often said of composers that they possess a singular “thumbprint” that’s the sum of their instincts and their ears. Beefheart’s musical identity was massive in size and provocatively original in conceptual scope – his music was an island that lots of aspirants tried to visit. But nobody could ever settle down there. It was his, and his alone.


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#1 from Mike Driscoll, Springfield, PA - 12/31/2010 10:48

Hey Tom:

Wonderful article on the passing of Capt. Beefheart. You captured the nature of his music as “the fruits of willful eccentricity”.
Not too many folks got his sound. But the playful dissonance they created helped me explore new sounds as a musician. It was as if both Zappa and Beefheart took a page from John Cage and broke down doors in the Pop Music scene. His sound was a patchwork of lyrical poetry layered with a Pop beat, Blues and BeBop. Still have the “Trout Mask…. LP.
Unfortunatley, those creative doors closed too soon.

Mike D.

#2 from Tom Moon - 01/06/2011 8:05

thanks for your note.
I haven’t done appreciations on all the folks we’ve lost over the last year or so, but w/ Beefheart there is a ton to say. in a sense he represents the kind of bold vision and audacity that’s missing from the current music business.

thanks for writing and happy exploring!

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