Sunday, December 19, 2010

The Captain

My buddy, Dominic, called the other day with news that Captain Beefheart had died from complications of Multiple Sclerosis. Dom was pretty choked up. The news hit as hard and personally as John Lennon’s death. I can’t even begin to express the effect Captain Beefheart has had on my taste and aspirations.

I remember an interview with Ian Anderson in the early 70s, before Jethro Tull became trapped by the stigma and success of Aqualung defining the band. He was asked if there were any American musicians he respected. He said the only thing happening in America was Captain Beefheart.

I’m not sure how Dominic discovered him. Dom really opened my eyes to a lot of important and obscure artists when we were very young.

The Captain did take a little getting used to. He was totally uncompromising, totally idealistic, and he backed it up with a huge body of work!

Needless to say, he went through a lot of record labels.

I don’t think I’ve ever had as much fun as singing along to Trout Mask Replica with Dominic in our early teens. We knew all the lyrics to every record by heart. The poetry was wild, disjointed, and deep. We caught every subtle innuendo intended or not. The music can not be described in words. He somehow, literally, painted and sculpted sound.

I remember thinking most of my girlfriends thought of him pretty much the way they thought of the Three Stooges. Something only boys liked. I was wrong.

It only took one listen to Orange Claw Hammer to convince my girlfriend Jill. I saw her a few months ago and she told me I was responsible for her marriage. Her husband fell in love with her when he saw Trout Mask in her record collection.

Captain Beefheart and His Magic Band performed in the Washington University Quadrangle when they toured the album Unconditionally Guaranteed. My girlfriend Pam and I were in High School and into photography. We always had cameras around our necks. You were allowed to go to concerts with cameras in those days.

We were up front, against the stage, when Pam grabbed my arm and pulled me past security. “Press,” she said. The camera must have convinced them. We enjoyed the entire performance on the stage. Man, she had balls!

Years later, The Captain came with Frank Zappa, touring Bongo Fury. Somehow, Pam and I ended up outside with the band after the show. I stood right next to Zappa but had absolutely no interest in him. I mentioned my love of Trout Mask to The Captain and we ended up at the hotel with the band. He was as charming as Hell. I have since learned he can be a real jerk, but that’s probably only to people who work with him.

The Captain told us, that night, to meet up with him at a place called The 5th House, near St. Louis University. I couldn’t believe my luck, the man was God to me.

I had my mother’s VW, and, for some reason, we had to drive somewhere far away before we could go. My mom’s clutch cable broke, and we couldn’t make it. Dominic tells me The Captain sat in with the band at The 5th House. He read a newspaper into a microphone as the band jammed on.

Today, Pam sent me a story from a friend of hers who knew Van Vliet when he was a teenager. The Magic Band lived together in a house, where they also recorded. If someone flubbed a note, they were sent downstairs to practice until they got it right. Pam asked if I remembered the car breaking down that night.

I must have thought about it a million times.

Friday night Valerie and I listened to Trout Mask, Clear Spot, The Spotlight Kid, and Safe As Milk. Everything else I have is on vinyl and I’m not set up for that right now. We could have gone through his whole catalog.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Anyone who can fall in love with a person at the mere sight of Trout Mask is okay by me. Also, I thought I had a lot of bad luck when it came to opportunity, but that's just terrible, and I'm sorry that happened.