It was Black Friday when the Captain died. Not American Black Friday, the one before Thanksgiving. This was British Black Friday, the last Friday before Christmas, when office workers, unused to socialising with one another, do so anyway. A cocktail for disaster. More traffic/ drinking/police/ambulance activity than at any other time of year.
When I awoke that Black Friday, I sensed that the forces were out of alignment. A hellhound dogged my every step, and I couldn’t shake the bugger. You know the sort of thing.
I was all set to go out that night, to Newport city centre, to a reunion for the legendary TJs. Prior to this, I had stacked 5 CDs on random-play-rotation in my fancy CD multiplayer: usual practice when at my toil. Among them, Safe As Milk and Mirrorman – the versions that came out late last century, all digitally spiffed with extra tracks. Some other fave raves, probably Miles, Martin Carthy, eX-Girl, or Gorky’s Zygotic Mynci.
The reunion event was held in a building other than the sadly now-dilapidated TJs, off over the river in the city centre. When the time came, I paused the stacked CDs on Korn Ring Finger, one of those additional tracks inexplicably unreleased until 1990something. I went out. I couldn’t find anyone, and, wandering amidst the sirens howling (the children of the night, hear them cry!) I still couldn’t shake the bastard hellhound.
So I went home to smoke the wisdom weed, kick out the hellhound. I had planned on heading back out a bit later on, elevenish, when people would definitely be out and about. At 22.30 I restarted Korn Ring Finger, and sat at my computer. As I was preparing the oojie-boojie, I saw that someone had messaged a link entitled “Captain Beefheart dies”Â. Exactly then, a text arrived from a considerably famous man of my acquaintance “my feelings are with you at this time”Â… Korn Ring Finger finished, and Sho Nuff N Yes I Do started. “I was born in the desert”Â, sang Donny Vliet. Let us pause here for an ooo-eee-ooo.
I went to Facebook, put up a YouTube clip of a Spotlight Kid out-take, Funeral Hill, (“You square with the sky there ain’t no mad man gonna spat in your eye”Â) and announced the passing of the great man thus: “So farewell then, Don Van Vliet. They will all have to pretend to like you now.”Â It was an attempt at levity, an ironic comment on squares and their accusation of “pretending to like”Â the man and his music. A few chimed in with apposite comments. Brenny from the Three Johns asked how he could post a silence. Then, as if to prove my point, the least talented member of a not funny local novelty duo posted: “this is shit. It is a horrible noise.”Â His rudeness was tactfully ignored by all and sundry. A few more wrote about how great the track was, how sad was his passing etc. Then up piped the twerp again: “aren’t I allowed to say this is shit?”Â Not on my watch, not on Black Friday, when the Captain died, no. I deleted his comments and banished the oaf from my Facebook. That’s where we’re at in the C21st:- you can switch off “friends.”Â
I can’t abide Suede, even for a second. But my antipathy towards Suede amounts to swiftly turning my radio off when Brett Anderson comes on going la la la la like a man singing out of tune to a Lulu record. I don’t territorially troll the internets of those who think Suede are any good. But check out Amazon reviews of Trout Mask Replica sometime – annoyed squares abound! Of c.500 reviews, c.200+ go ”Âj’accuse! you are pretending to like this!”Â and the remaining c.200+ say “I used to think people were pretending to like this but I was wrong, it is superb, a work of genius.”Â (thinks: “haven’t the 1st c.200+ read the 2nd c.200+ and if so why don’t they believe them?”Â Or at least heard the expression “Acquired Taste”Â which exists for a reason?) What do you expect, o squares out there? “Oh yes this is a horrid noise and there are no tunes… funny how I have never noticed before”Â after 40+ years?
Who the hell pretends to like something? In his (by and large worthwhile) autobiography ‘No Off Switch’, Andy Kershaw seems to find “pretending-to-like syndrome”Â a commonplace, but I have never encountered it. I think, for instance, that people who like Suede actually like Suede, and people who like Jane Austen really like Jane Austen, even though I can find no place in my heart for either.
(There is but one circumstance where someone would pretend to like Captain Beefheart. Picture it: you have a music collection, filled with the pwp like Suede and Phil Collins. Polly J Harvey and Kate Bush have invited themselves round for a threesome sex romp, and you seek suitable accompaniment to the night’s shenanigens… something they’d both like. But that would involve a lot of unlikely coincidences.)
I am one of those people (I know several others, honest) who appreciated the glory of Trout Mask Replica straight off. To me, this difficulty and unlistenability of which they speak has always been an alien concept. I hear hilarious, sophisticated, poetic lyrics. A line has been drawn between Howlin’ Wolf and Richard Burton reading Dylan Thomas, and Captain’s vocals shimmy along that line. What’s not to like?
Apparently, there is plenty not to like. Some cannot even hear the beautiful tunes, considering it to be “nought but 80 minutes of discord with a man in a top hat and fish head bellowing nonsense over the top.”Â
“Where are these tunes?“ ask the squares, though they are everywhere and tumbling over each other in glee. At times, even the drummer is playing tunes.
This notwithstanding and nevertheless, I am here to tell you: it is not, whatever rock mythology might state, THE MOST DIFFICULT UNLISTENABLE YADA YADA. (Me, I think Phil Collins is unlistenable. People just pretend to like him, because of that time his best mate drowned.) It is, I guess, the most difficult and unlistenable album squares are ever likely to encounter, but there are far more “difficult”Â recordings. That stuff pseudy Wire readers in jizz-soaked anoraks listen to – two guys from Finland shouting down a pipe, or a man playing a trombone in a vasty cavernous sewer. Liam Gallagher, the least talented member of unfunny novelty duo “Oasis”Â was quoted not so long ago as saying “(my band are) making records like John Lennon, not Captain Beefheart.”Â Dear Liam, if there is one major rock star who has made “difficult unlistenable”Â albums, it is your mate Lennon (after he met his 2nd Mrs).
Around Black Friday when the Captain left Earthly Midgard there was a mild media storm. News of his death qualified news of his death with who he influenced rather than what he did. My personal favourites were the porn star Sasha Grey tweeting a simple ”ÂOh no! Not the Captain!”Â and actor Jeff Bridges shouting “Rest in peace Captain Beefheart”Â at the end of his hosting of “Saturday Night Live.”Â My least favourite was when John “Drumbo”Â French, the Magic Band’s most prominent and influential drummer, wrote that his Christian God had given Don multiple sclerosis in order that the Captain could hear the message of God’s word. Oh no, Drumbo didn’t wish the MS on Don, but his imaginary friend did. Fuck that noize, splendid drummer what he is.
John French claimed a lot of stuff in his 800+ page memoir “Beefheart Through The Eyes of Magic”Â, wherein his attempts at myth-busting are substituted with fresh self-serving myths filtered through a delusional Christian mindset. Did you know? Captain Beefheart had magic powers, probably from demons, and could touch women on the astral plane? But I digress. Like the existence of his creator-god, the “we did all the hard work, Beefheart took all the credit”Â (sidemen griping, as sidemen have griped down the ages) hypothesis begs more questions than it answers. Take the two tracks “Odd Jobs (piano demo)”Â and “Odd Jobs (full band version)” off the Grow Fins Revenant anthology. A fairly low grade piano sketch is followed by the eventual full-band version. That the structure of the band parts are stated and/or implied in the piano would seem to give the lie to that “Magic Band did all the work”Â stuff.
As would French’s own attempt to do the Beefheart thing, his album City of Refuge. Released a few years back, peopled with former colleagues such as Rockette Morton and Zoot Horn Rollo, it doesn’t work at all, as if someone has all the ingredients but merely guessed at the recipe.
Even before Black Friday, we hadn’t heard from the Captain for years. Musically inactive since 1982, we got paintings, occasional interviews, poetry recitals in a tragic and tremulous voice. Many came to him via those “I remember spacehoppers”Â clip programmes. Potted history flashed across the screen: “mainstream success eluded him, he drove a Rolls Royce and lived in a cactus and was named after his uncle’s penis”Â…(mainstream success eluded him so much that he was being shown on TV well into the next century – I suspect they meant “money eluded him”Â.)
Wild and deranged, they called him. I say thee HUH? There are several lists online of famous people who have been afflicted by mental illness. It is hardly a dishonour to appear on such a list, alongside Van Gogh and Spike Milligan, but Donny Vliet is not on any of them. Go check if you like. That was sheer hard work, people!
I once went all the way to Brighton to see an exhibition of his art. I thought they were pretty swell, and the one time, when I was standing in that gallery, a man who looked ever so much like Donny swept in, swept his eyes about the place, and swept out again. I thought “no it can’t have been”Â but I read recently that he’d done such a thing.
Seems unlikely, considering what we now know of his health, but it gave me pause for an ooo-eee-ooo. Several years previously, I went to London’s Cork Street Galleries. Stood with 3 John “Brenny”Â Brennan in front of “Green Tom”Â, the painting that forms the front of Shiny Beast (Bat Chain Puller).
“Cause a distraction”Â, said Brenny, “I’ll steal it.”Â
“You can’t steal from the Captain”Â spoke I.
”ÂHe would want us to have it,”Â said Brenny. I was both moved and touched (and still wonder if he’d have wanted us to have it.)
The last time I saw the Captain was on the 1980 tour, Cardiff and Bristol, the first two dates, the same weekend. I was working for those robbing bastards Dwr Cymru Welsh Water at the time (they can sue me for calling them robbing bastards if they like – I’d win!). Sometime prior to the event, when I was vastly anticipating the proceedings, I was approached by a colleague. “I know you don’t usually attend works functions of an evening, but I am giving you plenty of advance notice…”Â
(thinks- “how the fuck do I get out of this?”Â) “OK when is it?”Â “October the 11th.”Â I squealed with inner delight. “I’ll have to bow out, I am attending a concert by Captain Beefheart and His Magic Band that evening.”Â
Do you know what they said? They said “do you have to go?”Â That, ladies and gentlemen, is the runner-up most stupid thing anyone has ever said to me, after “schooldays are the happiest days of your life.”Â
He didn’t seem very happy, at those performances, at Cardiff and Bristol. He didn’t come amongst us doing ESP tricks and drawings, as he had the previous time I saw him, in Cardiff University, in 1975.
I don’t drink anymore, ”Ëtis a foolish habit (I will of course make an exception when Thatcher drops off the twig), but in 1975 I got smashed prior to the Cardiff CB & the MB gig. Pre-performance, I walked into the gentlemen’s lavatories for an emergency pee. There before my lovely eyes was Donny Vliet, drawing all over a door. As I stood and watched, I said something, not even to him, and he turned and spoke to me “you know what? I remember you!”Â and then carried on drawing.
I didn’t ask where he remembered me from, because I was impossibly drunk and thought “of course he remembers me,” but I think I know where from. There were other things that happened when I was basking in the Good Captain’s presence. One of my friends, also stood watching him draw, thought – merely thought, mark you – “I could take his hat off”Â and Don glanced across and said: “don’t even think about it- not even for a second.”Â
Some lads there from Aberdare were going on at him “Big Eyed Beans From Venus – thassagoodun!”Â and “Autumn’s Child – thassagoodun!”Â and on the stage that night, during Big Eyed Beans From Venus, when Denny Walley hit the long lunar note the Captain added an extra bit after the “let it float (pause)… THASSAGOODUN!”Â
The time before that, 1974, the so-called Tragic Band, where he’d gotten serious confused and his band had left him and a bunch of hacks replaced them (or as a little witchy girl of my acquaintance once insisted “he wanted to make sure we were paying attention”Â), I walked out of his Bristol Colston Hall concert before the end, but not before I attempted to get down the front and tell him off. That isn’t where he remembered me from though, I didn’t get near enough, a bouncer stopped me.
This is where he remembered me from. The first time I saw him at Colston Hall, Rockette Morton, who was simply amazing to watch, was scampering about. He used to leap around like a gazelle, did Rockette, playing the bassus ophelius like nobody’s business. For some reason Beefheart stood stage centre bent double with his back to us, and he said something and gesticulated at Rockette’s shoes. I thought “this should look ridiculous, a man stood centre stage with his bum stuck up, but he’s getting away with it”Â – and he turned, looked right at me, and laughed. Could have been coincidence. Could have been ESP. Who truly knows?
Those amongst ye still recuperating from reading Drumbo’s “Big Book of Bitterness an’ Bullshit”Â will be delighted to know that there exists an antidote in the form of a fab wee book (aimed at early teens!) called I AM A GENIUS OF INDESCRIBABLE EVIL AND I WANT TO BE YOUR CLASS PRESIDENT by Josh Lieb. It is a Catcher In The Rye for the fast’n’bulbous generation. The depiction of Oliver, the pre-pubescent protagonist, groks exactly what it is like to be the only Beefheart fan in your school. After enduring those bullshit Mind Control days, he goes home and listens to Trout Mask Replica and all is well, at least until the next day when BS starts up all over again.
“No one understands me like the Captain,”Â Oliver thinks.
When I first heard Trout Mask Replica, I was at school, and I was a sickly asthmatic child, and I was made to do stupid stuff like wear a tie and a cap and count with letters and read Jane Austen and the Bible. People would say to me “schooldays are the happiest days of your life”Â and I would think “if these are the happiest days of your life then what is the rest of it going to be like?”Â and I would contemplate throwing myself in the fierce river at the foot of the fields that featured in the school song along with Twm Barlwm (the model for Arthur Machens Hill of Dreams and Dylan Thomas’s Llareggub Hill) Severe asthmatics, which I was until I recently found out that milk wasn’t safe, spend too much time immobile, and become very good at consuming.
Back then there was little to consume – appalling comedians, women kicking their legs in formation, and in the midst of this, the John Peel Show, on Saturday afternoons, When The Others were consolidating their tribes in the space age ’60s shopping centre, readying for the onset of puberty. I used to record Peel on a battered reel-to-reel tape recorder I had acquisitioned off my parents for that purpose. For a few weeks I recorded the “Trout”Â tracks – badly, through a microphone, and saved hard my threepenny bits and farthings until I had enough to purchase it instantly on release. I had no idea why The Others wouldn’t recognize Trout Mask Replica as a great work, but then, I was younger and more naÃÂ¯ve. I’m not one of those propelling-pencil owning jessies such as Matt Groening who took eight listens because “it sounded horrible”Â. Not to me it didn’t. Ever.
No one understood me like the Captain, and in May 2011, he came to me in a dream. I was at an event concerning Pere Ubu, and Don was pissed at them him for ripping off his stuff. He gave me a book of drawings to look after, and spoke to Ubu leader Dave Thomas, who hung his head in shame. I was left with this book of drawings, and Don was nowhere to be seen. I retreated to a country pub up by Pontypool (you know how it is in dreams – I don’t know why I pay the licence) and I sat there looking at the drawings. Don appeared after a while.
“Oh there you are. Thank you for looking after the book. I am going to the northeast. People understand me in the northeast. Tell everyone I am fine now.”Â He certainly looked well.
So I gave him back his book of drawings. I didn’t want it hanging around in the dream for unappreciative people to stumble upon. I woke up, put “Northeast”Â and “Captain Beefheart”Â into Google and, right at the top…
… but I don’t even believe in no land of the dead. ESP is as much of the luxury of superstition I will allow myself. Nonetheless, let us pause here for a reverential ooo-eee-ooo.
It was Black Friday when the Captain died, and I didn’t go out again, for here was no Santa Claus on the evening stage. It was always going to be a black day, but he was not a man to do things by halves.
Colin B Morton