Authors: Kevin Courrier
For most of his career, Zappa’s musical satire was largely based on his interest in documenting the unusual fixations of those normally not commemorated in pop songs—or for that matter, in classical music, too. For example, before his death, while working with the Ensemble Modern, he provided story material from
magazine—a magazine devoted to genital
piercing—in order to create an orchestral composition. In “Lost in a Whirlpool,” it was the peculiar story of a man being flushed down the toilet by his girlfriend where—to his horror—he encounters an eyeless brown fish. “There are few areas of basic human activity that have not been dealt with in rock ’n’ roll, but a song about being pursued by a giant stool stands in a field of one,” wrote Mike Barnes. But the idea of building a blues song around such questionable material was in keeping with a tradition much bigger than a field of one.
The blues has a long history embroidered with sexual slang and swagger—whether it was the Mississippi Sheiks’ down and dirty “Ram Rod Blues” in 1930, Blind Boy Fuller’s 1939 ode to cunnilingus, “I Want Some of Your Pie,” or Hattie North’s “Honey Dripper Blues.” “Lost in a Whirlpool” plays havoc with that legacy by adding a touch of the preposterous. As the song opens, Bobby Zappa rhythmically starts strumming the melody, while brother Frank picks out the lead notes as if digging for gnats hiding in his guitar. Meanwhile, Don Vliet clears his throat. Once they establish the tune, Vliet bursts in with an uncharacteristic high falsetto reminiscent of Skip James in his 1931 “Cherry Ball Blues.” “Weellll, I’m lost in a whirlpool,” Vliet cries out in a mock despair, “Yeah, baby, my head is going round / Well, ever since my baby flushed me / Ohhh, been goin’ round, yeah, round and round.” As the singer swirls deeper and deeper into the commode, he quickly encounters the stool, that eyeless brown fish staring right back at him. Vliet momentarily slips back into his husky baritone, as if the shock from the rendezvous suddenly transforms him from this aggrieved lover into that of an outraged suitor. “He ain’t got no eyes!” he stammers loudly before stating the obvious: “How could that motherfucker possibly
see?” Vliet pleads for his lover to save him, perhaps with some Drano, or possibly a plunger, because, “I’m gettin’ tired of all this pee.” As the song concludes, Vliet lets loose with an improvised pun that, by the time of
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, would be effortlessly supplied. “Don’t go strangle Mother Goose,” he warns. “Ooh, my head’s in the noose.” While the Zappa brothers continue to unfurl their endless chord progressions, Don decides to cap the tune with a quick “deedley-wee-wop.” If “Lost in a Whirlpool” didn’t produce anything astonishing, or terribly memorable, it did reveal something of the sensibilities of both men. You could clearly see the early origins of Zappa’s penchant for bawdy humour, along with Vliet’s style of inspired vamping. On that day, Frank Zappa officially began his quest to turn the history of popular music into a kaleidoscopic farce, while Don Van Vliet started to consider ways to transform the blues into an expressionist canvas for his own obsessions.
Since all his blues idols gave themselves names, often fierce ones chosen to live up to the force they would become in the world, Vliet wanted one himself. Chester Burnett had turned into Howlin’ Wolf. McKinley Morganfield one day became Muddy Waters. But Don Van Vliet? He became Captain Beefheart. Vliet claims he coined it himself because he had “a beef in his heart” for the world. In truth, it was Frank Zappa who actually gave it to him, as part of a failed oratorio called
I Was a Teenage Maltshop
. This teenage “rock opera,” which Zappa had called “a stupid piece of trash,” was essentially a fantasy about a teenage Lone Ranger. In the film, there was to be a character called Captain Beefheart, featuring Vliet in the role. It was also the name of a character that Zappa created for another aborted film project
Captain Beefheart vs.the Grunt People
As for the origin of the name Captain Beefheart, it was worthy of a Zappa song itself. Apparently Don’s Uncle Alan (who Zappa claimed looked like Harry Truman) lived with his parents. “He used to piss with the [bathroom] door open when Don’s girlfriend [Laurie] walked by, and [he’d] make comments about how his whizzer looked just like a beef heart,” Zappa recalled.
drummer John French concurred in substantiating that story. “There was an old joke about a fellow having ‘a head on his penis the size of a beef heart,’” French explained. “From what I can surmise and from what I’ve seen of Frank, it seems likely that he combined a childhood hero image (à la Captain Midnight) with the old joke to come up with this distorted comic symbol for ‘the kind of male sexuality.’” The name soon started to take on mythical status in the studio right after the day’s recording. Vic Mortensen and Zappa would sit around devising clever band names and they’d start riffing on the character of Captain Beefheart. “[He] was supposed to be this magical character,” Mortensen recalled. “His thing is [that] he would drink the Pepsi Cola and he could make magic things happen, he could appear or disappear.” Mortensen suggested that if he had those kinds of powers, he should also have a band to match them. “I told Frank, ‘Hey wouldn’t it be cool if Captain Beefheart had a Magic Band, and wherever he went, if he wanted the band to appear, he would take a drink of Pepsi, and BINGO there’s the band right behind him, ‘jukin’?”
In the summer of 1963, right after Zappa had bought his own five-track recording studio in Cucamonga named appropriately Studio Z, Don Van Vliet was born as Captain Beefheart. “Hello there kids, this is your old friend Captain
Beefheart,” Vliet announced on tape in a carny barker’s voice. “You know me—the Magic Man, invisible and all that jazz. Hah! I fly through time and space, dimension warp … all that rhythm. Well, anyway … I’m here tonight to tell you that we have a heck of a little teenage opera for ya. You’re really gonna dig it … hmm … yes, it’s really groovy.” As groovy as it might have been, the grooves themselves never reached the ears of the public until years later when Zappa included excerpts on his commemorative
Before Captain Beefheart started playing pranks with his own Magic Band, he began singing in a new Zappa ensemble known as the Soots. Besides featuring Beefheart on vocals, the group included guitarist Alex St. Clair Snouffer and Vic Mortenson on drums. With the band, Don started gaining more and more confidence as a singer. They made a number of recordings including Little Richard’s “Slippin’ and Slidin’” (sung in the style of Howlin’ Wolf) and “Metal Man Has Won His Wings,” where Beefheart performed in the hallway outside the studio while the band played in the other room. This rather unorthodox technique for recording vocals was an early variation on the methods Zappa haphazardly developed for the sessions on
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. Ultimately, Zappa sent their recordings for consideration to Dot Records, but Milt Rogers, the A&R guy at Dot, wrote him in December 1963 with some bad news. “[Although] the material has merit,” Rogers stated, “we don’t feel strongly enough about its commercial potential.…” Zappa phoned Rogers for a further explanation, and he was told that Dot’s lack of interest was due to the “distorted guitar.” On the positive side, he had nothing bad to say about Beefheart’s voice.
While Zappa opened the door for Beefheart to ultimately
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, Alex Snouffer provided a sufficient playhouse for him to ply his talents. Snouffer had been a student at Antelope in the late 50s, as well, and was a classmate of both Zappa and Beefheart. He also used to share in the record listening sessions at Vliet’s house. Back when Zappa was wrestling gigs with the Blackouts, Snouffer was forming his own R&B band called the Omens. “[We] played early rhythm and blues during Little Richard’s heyday and after that era,” Snouffer explained. “Back then, it was Top 40 stuff.” By the time Beefheart was performing with the Soots, Snouffer had left the Omens to do a paying gig at a Lake Tahoe casino. When he returned in 1964, he was itching to do some blues. “Don was one of the first people I went to see ’cause he and I had been pal-ling around together before I left,” he recalled. Snouffer also sought out some other local musical pals: bassist Jerry Handley, who was a huge fan of John Lee Hooker and Jimmy Reed, plus guitarist Doug Moon, who had replaced Snouffer in the Omens when he’d set off to Tahoe. The idea was to form another blues band featuring Beefheart as their lead vocalist—even though he was hardly an experienced singer by that time. What sold Snouffer, though, was what he heard when Beefheart began to sing. “[H]e started to do this Howlin’ Wolf imitation and I thought, ‘Yo buddy!’ This isn’t bad at all,” he explained. Besides, Beefheart had learned to play a mean blues harp. So Snouffer brought Moon and Handley into the group, while Beefheart nabbed Vic Mortensen for the drums. Captain Beefheart & the Magic Band began as imaginative fodder for Frank Zappa’s failed film project, but now they were about to become a real live blues band.
Know to recognize and pick up the signs of the power we are awaiting, which are everywhere; in the fundamental language of cryptograms, engraved on crystals, on shells, on rails, in clouds, or in glass; inside snow, or light, or coal; on the hand, in the beams grouped round the magnetic poles, on wings.
Tristan Tzara, “Note on Poetry (1919),”
Seven Dada Manifestos and Lampisteries
For close to eighty minutes,
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unleashes a cascade of atonal sounds that never relent. If the record itself provides both contrast and texture within that dissonance, the force and originality of those arrangements can leave you breathless, guessing as to how, even why, Captain Beefheart & the Magic Band arrived there. Usually, at the core of pop music is a quest for a sound which touches a
nerve, something that strikes a pleasurable chord in the listener. The best pop tends to unify the incompatible world around it—even answer a subliminal calling. When Elvis cut loose in the 50s, he shook up a generation clearly ready to be shook—he uncorked a bottle filled with a frustrated generation’s desire to stand apart from the herd. Elvis not only transcended what came before him, he validated everything good to come later.
In general, pop music is about the celebration and sharing of good times. For example, in the 60s, when the Ronettes sang “Be My Baby,” you shared the intense joy in their voices. It was overwhelming to immerse yourself in such pleasure and still not lose yourself. You could melt into their sound and still be set apart from the herd. The Ronettes offered a kinship, a spiritual bond so rich, so generous, that they quenched a longing, a craving for something impenetrably beautiful to experience. Be my baby, NOW! they demanded—with a desire that made you feel a fool to resist it. Of course, the Beatles scaled those peaks continuously, too, even building greater expectations on the songs they left behind. On “Eight Days a Week,” John Lennon easily convinced you that his love had the power to extend the calender beyond the expected seven days. He did it in a voice that asked—no,
—that those deeply expressed sentiments be shared and requited.
Yet long after the 60s, when (to invert John Sebastian’s idyllic plea) no one believed in magic anymore, pop artists still reached for a sound that could bond with the listener and sum up an epoch. Long after the Beatles’ hurricane of love subsided, and the punk storm blew over, Kurt Cobain of Nirvana created his own pop tempest out of the dissipation
of an era. For Cobain, honest feeling was being replaced by vague cynicism and glib hipness. You could hear the recoil in his voice under the rage of the clanging guitars and Dave Grohl’s cannon-shot drumbeat. His aside of “Oh well … whatever … nevermind” in their anthem, “Smells Like Teen Spirit” was the sound of defiance being bled dry in an emotional vacuum. Yet the urgency of the music ripped through the radio with the force of the Who. Cobain’s voice was a drone of impacted rage, exploding only on the chorus. That explosion, though, brought listeners together as one. However, Cobain didn’t stand in front of the song, as Elvis did in “Houng Dog,” or the way Lennon could in “Eight Days a Week.” He also didn’t have the dynamism of Ronnie Spector in “Be My Baby.” Cobain chased the song instead of riding it out. His was the exigency of emotional exhaustion, a man in dire straits to catch a runaway bus. “Smells Like Teen Spirit” collected the ennui of its time and blasted its contents with such vigour that it may be the most joyful song ever written about joylessness. Paradoxically, the song was often misunderstood as an expression of lethargic apathy, when it was actually a wince in the face of feelings that were too painful to consider. Nevertheless, whatever mood these varied pop songs (from Elvis to Nirvana) conveyed of their time, the largeness of their vision encompassed something already rumbling in the culture, if not already desired in the audience they reached out to. These artists built foundations for people to dream on.
By contrast, the tracks on
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speak directly to no one and to nowhere. They’re not only songs out of time, they don’t even pretend to keep time. They
catch you unaware because, unlike all those previous tunes, they’re not tissue samples of their age. Their impact on the listener is fresh and shocking because they don’t quench a thirst, they build an appetite. You may recognize familiar musical strains, but if you try to trace those strains, the record will tie you up in knots. It wasn’t simply that the album’s cryptic songs, recitations, and instrumentals were gumming you up; it was the actual clatter of the instruments and voices working together. These musicians weren’t after a unified sound or a shared vision like all those other pop artists. These guys were testing the laws of gravity.
In the 60s, the decade in which
erupted, there was mostly a joyful quest in the music. Every song—by seduction or force—seemed designed to harmonize all the disparate pieces of the culture. But Beefheart’s Magic Band operated with an entirely different alchemy. The musicians pitched risky musical questions into the equation. “If I play my own rhythmic pattern, will it still connect to what the bass player, the drummer, and the singer are doing?” each one asked. The record became a search, not for the whole, but rather a definition of its individual parts. “
sounds like the most democratic record ever made,” Magic Band guitarist Bill Harkleroad remembers today. “All the instruments have an equal say in the overall plot.” But it did more for Harkleroad than just define the role the instruments would play. “[It shaped] the way I think about music,” he recalled. “I might like a bass player to stay more in the pocket than that, but having the bass to be as melodic as the melody instruments, rather than be simply a timekeeper, that is really striking to me.” It was striking to listeners, as well, even if they didn’t really know why.