Sunday, December 19, 2010

Strictly Personal

Did I ever meet him?

Yes. Once.

I was tucked away in Rhode Island when the news came around that Captain Beefheart would be playing with a new Magic Band and in a style far more resembling that heard on his classic recordings of the late 60’s and early 70’s, as opposed to the last time he had been heard from, fronting a somewhat disappointing collection of musicians who might have been seen playing behind anyone and whom wags had unkindly taken to calling the “Tragic Band.”

It was the late 70’s and word had traveled through the grapevine that Beefheart had recorded a far worthier album called Bat Chain Puller that was looking for a record label. The British trades had gotten hold of a tape of it and printed detailed descriptions of each track and fans were chomping at the bit. Unfortunately, legal problems held the thing up and it seemed unlikely that anyone would ever get to hear it.

Against that backdrop came this announcement of a show in Boston and although I knew few people in Rhode Island, I had made the vague acquaintance of a group of progressive rock and avant jazz fans who, luckily for me, were eager to make the trip.

That I wouldn’t have missed it goes without saying.

It’s rather difficult to describe the impact someone like that has on your life. Was there ever such a thing as a casual Captain Beefheart fan? I suppose there were some, folks who had a copy of Clear Spot in amongst the mainstream LP’s it nearly resembled. But usually the price of such originality is the creation of a coterie of the hardcore and the rabid. Some are there to try and outhip the hip. Some hear a challenge that needs to be addressed. Many of us, the great majority I think, were just simply thrilled by the aggressive musical textures and poetic language. Sure, there was nothing else like Trout Mask Replica, but there is nothing like spinach either. This was something that, like Ornette Coleman’s music, seemed to have tremendous roots in the past while flinging itself headlong into the future. So many native American inventions seemed to be referenced in it like jazz, blues, and rock ‘n’ roll that it was like listening to a compressed version of the uncontrollable spirit that lay at the heart of American music and American art.

And you seemed to get it or you didn’t. It may have taken an awfully long time, perhaps, but from what I’ve been reading online from fans and admirers, an awful lot of people really got it.

My own personal reaction was that I simply wanted to listen to this music over and over.

After the two albums considered his most difficult came two that seemed to want to cozy up to the commercial mainstream. The Spotlight Kid sounded shockingly simple after Lick My Decals Off, Baby, whose tin-can-and-wet-paper production made Trout Mask seem warm and inviting. There was something a little turgid about this new album, but by the time Clear Spot arrived, critics and fans agreed that he had found something of a happy medium here. It’s hard for me to imagine a more excited audience than the ones I witnessed driven into a frenzy by Big Eyed Beans From Venus. Any rock ‘n’ roll band would have been happy with the reaction the Magic Band inspired night after night.

But it still didn’t have the desired effect in the marketplace and the following albums were desultory affairs that fans bought out of loyalty more than anything else. The mid-70’s were rough all around, my friend, and don’t let anybody tell you different.

Which brings us to Boston.

As we found our seats (I think we’d arrived somewhat early), I noticed a man up front who seemed to be fielding questions and shaking hands. Surely not…

Ah, but it was.

Now I will be the first to tell you I am a terrible fanboy, or rather I am actually a very good one, hence the word “terrible.” I will babble mindlessly in the presence of an idol until the expression on their face tells me that getting to the point would probably be greatly appreciated. It’s happened time and time again and there seems to be little I can do about it.

This night, thankfully, the gentleman in question seemed to take it well and then said to me, “Yeah, I think I remember you!”

Now I’d read many an account of people being told this by Beefheart. It’s hard to say how much he believed it or whether he just wanted to make you feel welcome. After all, where would he have remembered me from? The nosebleed seats at the Tower Theater? The upper echelons of the Spectrum?

Still. Nice to be “remembered.”

There was another onslaught of compliments that I was vaguely aware was coming from me, and then a handshake as he said, “Thank you, and I think you’ll like what these guys are gonna do.”

Was there ever such an understatement?

It was an evening of jaw-on-the-floor entertainment. Not only could these “guys” play the most difficult songs in his catalog (and the song list came, remarkably, from every period in his career without sounding disjointed in the least), they played it with a fervor and excitement that made even the oldest songs sound incredibly new.

I was absolutely astonished.

Soon, Beefheart would have a new record contract and Shiny Beast would provide a good idea of what the lost Bat Chain Puller had been about. He would receive the greatest acclaim of his career and two albums would follow that built on this, although there were hints that something was wrong. Either the well had started to run dry or something had gone terribly wrong. Now it’s all very plain, of course, but I’m so glad he hung in as long as he did.

Words frequently fail art. Perhaps they have failed me here. They probably have.

I wanted to write something, though.

Yeah. I think I remember him.


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