It has been over twenty-five years since Captain Beefheartâ€™s last official studio album, Ice Cream for Crow, was released on Virgin in 1982. At the time it seemed like the musical career of Beefheart, the nom de plume of Don Van Vliet, was on the ascent, but he then abandoned music and built a second career as a painter. His musical hiatus has lasted much longer than his musical activities did. (It is rumored that health problems have been a factor.) This is a great loss to us music lovers, as he was one of the most original creators and performers of his time, unique in rock despite having influenced many (look for an overview from me in a day or two).
Among those keeping the Beefheartian flame burning since then has been guitarist Gary Lucas, who guested on Beefheart's penultimate studio album and became a Magic Band member for the final one (and was Beefheart's manager in 1980-84). On a recent Wednesday night (4/9/08) at the Knitting Factory, Lucas pitched in again with an evening devoted to performances of Beefheart/Van Vliet's words, music, and paintings.
As fans filtered into the venue, they were treated to projections of Van Vliet's paintings (bottom right) while Lucas spun an assortment of Beefheart rarities, closing with the instrumental track of "The Thousandth and Tenth Day of the Human Totem Pole" and the extemporaneous Beefheart poem "Pork Chop Blue Around the Rind," taped at Lucas's apartment. Then came the first of two sets by Fast 'n' Bulbous, a septet specializing in jazzy instrumental arrangements of Beefheart songs. Alto saxophonist Phillip Johnston (Microscopic Sextet) wrote the arrangements for four horns -- him, trumpeter Rob Henke, baritone saxophonist Dave Sewelson (always a pleasure to hear), and trombonist Joe Fiedler (who handled arrangements on three songs). Lucas rips it up on guitar in a variety of roles, and a solid rhythm section of Jesse Krakow (bass) and Richard Dworkin (drums) handles Beefheart's intricate, off-kilter rhythms with grace and power.
Their first tune was "Pachuco Cadaver," which starts with the Beefheartism that gave the band its name: "A squid eating dough in a polyethylene bag is fast 'n' bulbous, got me?" After this, most pieces were religiously announced, right down to, in some cases, track position on the original LP (which really is like citing chapter and verse before a church reading). "Abba Zabba" with its rolling rhythm on toms and the horn choir sounded like a crazed marching band. Fiedler, playing muted trombone, delivered the melody with vocalistic inflections on "When It Blows Its Stacks," which also sports a gargantuan bass riff. Sewelson, the most avant-garde of the horn players, went "out" in his solo; Johnston by contrast was cool over choked hi-hat, bass, and spacey guitar effects. The piece opened into a freer jam; Fielder (still muted) gave the closing solo.
We were given our first preview of a "new tune," "The Past Sure Is Tense," which will be on the album F'n'B is set to record this week. This arrangement of a favorite from Ice Cream for Crow had a monster groove. Fiedler added the melody of "Joy to the World" (the hymn, not the Three Dog Night hit). Sewelson, who isn't heard from enough in NY considering his elder statesman status, delighted us with a solo that flitted into his altissimo range, and Lucas unleashed one of his patented slide solos.
Then it was time for the readings. Film and music critic Glenn Kenny opened with a whimsical rendition of "Old Fart at Play," Peter Warner did "The Host the Ghost the Most Holy-O." Alan Vega (Suicide) said "Orange Claw Hammer" was about a man who "thinks he's a friggin' pirate" (it's not), then messed up in several spots, including the ending. Music critic Billy Altman read from a Creem article he wrote in 1979 entitled "Captain Beefheart Knows He's a Man," including a short list of things Beefheart used to write when signing autographs (the one Altman got was "love over gold"), then recited "Frownland."
The next guest was supposed to be Fred Perry, friend of Lucas and brother of Richard Perry, producer of Beefheart's first album, but illness kept him away; instead, Lucas reminisced about him and told us some of the details we would've heard from him about the Safe as Milk sessions. Then Mike Edison (editor of High Times and Screw, author of the book I Have Fun Everywhere I Go) teamed with Michael Chapman (harmonica) for "The Buggy Boogie Woogie." Another pal of Lucas, ex-A&R guy Jamie Cohen, was introduced with an audio clip of him asking a question at a Frank Zappa/Beefheart press conference on the Bongo Fury tour (along with Beefheart's wittily non-committal reply). He then read a Beefheart poem, "Hollow Smoke," published in 1982, that used familiar characters (notably the Old Fart) to good effect. Another celebrity popped up, Lee Ranaldo (Sonic Youth), and also read Beefheart poems, "Infa-Grams" (which included the wonderful description of mice as "slippery gray clouds of speed") and 1987's "Three Months in the Mirror," based on the idea of a pet moth ("you can keep 'em in the closet and feed 'em socks").
Giorgio Gomelsky (left) rambled, but he rambled so charmingly that I'd like to see him given a whole evening to chat about whatever he feels like discussing. After all, the guy's resume is the equal of everyone else's in the room -- combined. Club owner, unofficial first manager of the Rolling Stones, manager and producer of the Yardbirds, founder of one of the greatest avant-garde jazz labels (BYG/Actuel), producer (Animals, Eric Clapton, Soft Machine, Gong, Magma, Material, Inner Circle, Blossom Toes, Brian Auger, Julie Driscoll, etc.), and all-around raconteur. Since the topic this night was Beefheart, he related the story of how he first heard Beefheart when shanghaied by Peter Meaden, who proclaimed Beefheart -- the biggest thing since the Who -- and played him Safe As Milk for six hours straight. Along the way, Gomelsky observed, "something that benefits our civilization has to come from the bottom," noted that Beefheart recommended that guitarists "listen to birds, because birds know everything about sound," and said one of the things that made him great was that "he was not afraid to be influenced."
English actor/poet/musician/"beat existentialist" Darryl Read, whose film Remember a Day includes two Beefheart songs on its soundtrack, read an evocative poem he wrote for Van Vliet, "Flash Paint Style." An a cappella rendition of "Well" (Trout Mask Replica) by Felice Rosser, vocalist/leader of the band Faith, delivered in a style reminiscent of a work song, was a highlight of the evening. Producer Hal Willner read a Christmas card from Van Vliet and recalled that when Beefheart opened for Jethro Tull, whose fans reacted negatively, Tull frontman Ian Anderson defended Beefheart. Willner then -- a la Ken Nordine, he said -- read "The Dust Blows Forward 'n the Dust Blows Back." Culture Catch's own Dusty Wright had the unenviable task of reading "81 Poop Hatch," about the most deliberately obscurantist thing Beefheart ever wrote, but pulled it off with vim and vigor.
Danny Fields was introduced as "the coolest man in the room wherever he goes" (echoing a Legs McNeil encomium), but on this night that wasn't true. Another speaker defended him to me the following day by saying, "Danny's heart was pretty close to being in the right place," and having hung out with Andy Warhol and the rest of the Factory scene, gotten the MC5, Stooges, and Ramones signed, etc. certainly is an impressive track record. Nonetheless, what we had here was a guy, invited apparently because he happened to play a Trout Mask Replica song on WFMU in 1969 without having even listened to the album beforehand (which sort of detracts from the distinction of having been the first to play a TMR song on the radio) -- who is so out of touch that he just recently discovered Allmusicguide.com. He seemingly knew nothing about Beefheart, and seemed not to care either; the only point he had to make was that music in 1969 was better than it is now. Oh well, there has to be something in the evening for me to criticize other than the Knit having the air conditioning on so high that I had to wear my jacket the whole night, or you'll all think I'm blindly praising everything about this event just because Culture Catch is going to have the honor of putting up a video podcast of the show. Fields revealed further ignorance, but it's time for me to stop beating this dead horse.
Things immediately improved when Kurt Loder replaced Fields onstage. Loder is not only an MTV News icon and former editor of Rolling Stone, but he wrote a book entitled Bat Chain Puller, so his Beefheart bona fides are in order. He read accompanied by saxophonist Jason Candler of Lucas's band Gods and Monsters.
Next up was Some Yoyo Stuff, a short film from the early '90s by Anton Corbijn (image top left). Its subtitle is "An observation of the observations of Don Van Vliet by Anton Corbijn," and it consists of Van Vliet aphorisms read by their originator, accompanied by a few head shots of him and mixed with some topic prompts, questions posed by David Lynch, a brief appearance by his mother, and some surreal shots of a fish and a raven. As art and as an explication of Van Vliet's life philosophy, it's witty, even brilliant, but it paints a bleak picture of his health. His voice, over a decade into his retirement from music, is a shaky croak, and his visage is haggard. There have been rumors of illness, and certainly on the basis of this look at him, one would have to guess that he quit music because he can't sing anymore, a sad thought.
More Van Vliet wit was displayed in his 1982 appearance on Late Night with David Letterman, a classic TV moment (perhaps a WTF? moment for most viewers at the time, though my friends and I at college took it in avidly) it's good to see again, complete with Van Vliet's expression of his ecological concerns.
The final contribution to this segment came long distance, with aforementioned filmmaker David Lynch having sent in a Beefheart-inspired self-portrait that was projected on screen with an audio file of himself reciting Trout Mask's "Pena." Then Fast 'n' Bulbous returned, this time with a full set. "Mummy" found Lucas contributing a vocal near the end. Much of the remainder of the set was announced as coming form their upcoming recording, tentatively entitled Bad Vuggum. "Dropout Boogie," "Woe-is-uh-Me-Bop" (with great counterpoint and a Lucas solo evoking the spirit of Sonny Sharrock), "The Smithsonian Institute Blues" (Lucas on slide), "Kandy Korn" (the Strictly Personal version), and "The Blimp" (music by Frank Zappa, words by Beefheart) all sounded excellent as the group built momentum. Then the horns took a break for "Click Clack," again featuring Lucas on slide guitar. The horns returned for "Sugar 'n Spikes," but then there was a letdown: "A Carrot Is as Close as a Rabbit Gets to a Diamond" was played a bass solo by Krakow. While it was impressive that he could play this solo guitar composition, his instrument was a handicap, making a brilliantly shining piece sonically muddy.
Things picked up again with three arrangements by Fiedler. "You Know You're a Man" not only featured Lucas soloing with his usual fire, but also playing a riff where he alternately detuned and retuned, a riveting effect. Henke presented the melody of "Blabber 'n Smoke" and Lucas contributed a nice echo-effect guitar solo with slide. "Ice Rose" at times had a klezmer flavor, and Henke stepped to the fore again, this time with an amazing deranged-sounding vocal break. Then it was time for another solo piece, "Evening Bell," one of two that Lucas recorded (which, hey, is twice as many as any other Beefheart guitarist, the other being "Flavor Bud Living"), complete with Lucas's story about how he learned it from Beefheart's piano cassette over the course of two months, three hours a day getting him five seconds further.
The rest of the band returned for the "epic" (their apt word) "Trust Us"; the music sounded fine, but Johnston's vocal was feeble. No matter, as the piece built to a gloriously raucous din. Staying at that peak, "Suction Prints" was so loud and heavy it could be called metal, ending the set on a dramatic note.
Then, well after midnight, it was finally time for the surprise guest whose appearance had been bruited off and on through the evening. Lo and behold, it was Robyn Hitchcock, a great English visionary eccentric paying tribute to an American counterpart/inspiration. Acoustically accompanied by Lucas on his National Steel, Hitchcock proved Englishmen can sing the blues with an earthy, quirky rendition of Beefheart's most Delta blues song, "China Pig," Hitchcock deploying an impressive array of vocal tones. He proved equally suited for "Sure 'Nuff 'n Yes I Do," and then "Click Clack" reappeared, this time with its words. It was a thrilling conclusion to a largely successful program that showed not only how well Beefheart's creations have held up over the decades, but also the high level of devotion he continues to inspire and the exceptional creativity of those devotees. - Steve Holtje
Mr. Holtje is a Brooklyn-based poet and composer who also works at the Williamsburg record store Sound Fix. In preparation for attending the Knit event, he played all the good Beefheart albums (all but the Mercury LPs, that is) in one day at the store. It was a good day.