Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Any Old Way You Choose It Book Cover

Capt. B. Fart

It was Wednesday night, before the good captain had wearied of the Bitter End West, but you still couldn't understand what the fuck he was saying. Fantastic, yes, he was fantastic, but . . . He came out wearing his Trout Mask Replica hat, which is shaped like . . . which is shaped like a standard topper with a sand pail upside down on top of it, if you really want to know, except that it's all the same black cloth hat and there is a shuttlecock which might be taken for the tip of a duckpin or the end of a plastic penis on top of that. Dutch-looking, that hat, though perhaps it only seems so because you know the captain's other name is Van Vliet. The rest of his appearance is less extraordinary. His stage demeanor is friendly but preoccupied; at odd moments, he smiles. He is fat, but not rotund and robust like Mama Cass or Bob Hite, more like Jim Morrison during those periods when he will permit no photographs, pallid and jowly. This would seem to support the popular suspicion that the captain is tripped out or strung out or doing one of those vegetable imitations for which heroes of the underground are so notorious, except that (according to an adulatory but credible cover story by Langdon Winner in Rolling Stone) he eschews all inebriants. In short, Captain Beefheart is a somewhat confusing figure, but he is oh so definitely weird. He has gigged perhaps thirty times since convening his Magic Band in 1964. Those performances are legendary. Lately, he has acquired a new manager; his engagement at the Bitter End West was his third billing around Los Angeles this fall.

Beefheart's association with Frank Zappa, a teenage chum who controls his present record company, has inspired an unfortunate tendency to put him on the Bizarre Freek List--Wild Man Fischer, Alice Cooper, the GTOs, Captain Beefheart. But not only is Beefheart more profoundly interesting than any of Zappa's permanent floating seminars in the psychoses of late capitalism, he is also, I think, a lot more interesting (and certainly more likable) than Zappa himself. Zappa receives rather uncritical approval from most of the "serious" rock audience, especially that portion which maintains loyalties to jazz or traditional music. This is mostly because his expert image manipulation has everybody buffaloed: it isn't the products of his apparent musical sophistication that attract his fans so much as the way he has sold the idea.

It's ironic that the most ardent admirers of such a master of media tend to reject the whole idea of celebrity as star-tripping or some such inanity, when it is his acute and quite cynical understanding of the way celebrity works that has attracted them in the first place. I am often tempted to put Zappa right up there with Bobby Sherman as a selfish exploiter of popular taste. That Bobby Sherman wants to make money while Zappa wants to make money and pose as a successor of Varèse is almost beside the point. There are reports that the new Mothers are warmer, but until now they have shown an overriding contempt for rock music and its audience. The guises of this contempt can be amusing, insightful, and even exciting to listen to, but it's still contempt underneath, and my suspicion is that it isn't good for people. Not that Beefheart's theatre isn't reminiscent of Zappa's, or even that there are no musical similarities between them; it's only to insist that the differences are more significant.

Beefheart is a blues-derived singer who also plays harmonica and soprano sax. His band comprises three guitarists, a drummer, and a guy referred to as Ed Marimba whose specialty is the marimba--a rock and roll first, I would guess--although he also plays drums. The Magic Band resembles the Archies in that none of its members is known by his real name, although one guitarist, a tall person with spaniel-ear hair and a funny peaked cap, has been called Zoot Horn Rollo for so long that when Beefheart muttered his cognomen into the microphone it was almost possible to understand what he had said. The second guitarist, decked out in tuxedo, goatee, and pointy mustache, tuned both necks of his guitar and then touched only the bass (which he often strummed rather than plucked, by the way) throughout the set. The third, a refugee from the Fraternity of Man, played some solos that can only be described as bitchin. The drummer was remarkable primarily for his alias, which was Drumbo. The sounds produced by this ensemble were suitably jarring: uneven rhythms, the captain's famous free-form saxophone blow, and that marimba relentlessly mocking the guitar line. But the disturbances didn't end there. Those snatches of lyric that were decipherable were pure (or perhaps impure, which is even better) dada, Jarry cum Corso cum Ecclesiastes cum Groucho cum Dennison Clothes, and Beefheart's comments from the stage often sounded jocular; he kept on saying something like, "If you came here for entertainment, that's what you're going to get." He also glanced occasionally at a magazine. Apparently, that's where he stores his lyrics--he did appear to refer to it several times while performing--but initially it looked like he was reading. How far out can you get?

All of this still sounds like the Mothers, I know. But where Zappa's distance from his audience is a calculated means of bullying it into some sort of respectful cash-on-the-line attention, Beefheart really doesn't give a shit. Zappa plays the avant-gardist and Beefheart is the real thing. He does perform, but for once performance and self-expression are almost identical: his detachment is in some sense pure and even innocent, and at the same time he is arrogant as only the pure in heart can be arrogant. Unlike your run-of-the-mill musical galahad, however, Beefheart's noises sound truly original--much more original, my intuition tells me, than Zappa's usual mix. (Reportedly, Zappa agrees.) In some peculiar sense Beefheart's music remains closer to its blues roots than Zappa's does to '50s r&b--or maybe, on the contrary, it is the relatively abject nature of its inspiration that renders Zappa's music so unsatisfying for me. But that's overly kind--I like dumb rock and roll too much to put it down. When the Mothers do one of their "Louie Louie" medleys, they are juxtaposing their own supposed brilliance to the banality of the material. But when the Magic Band plays for 20 minutes on top of "Spoonful," they transcend parody and even restore to that tired riff some of the strength that made it so popular in the first place. The spirit of Beefheart's lyrics is to some degree consonant with the blues conceit of his music, and his voice is truly freaky, Howlin' Wolf plus two octaves. When their mood is friendly, as it was on "Alice in Blunderland" that Wednesday night, his musicians even play good rock.

Beefheart's superiority to Zappa is best demonstrated by his two most recent albums. The first, Trout Mask Replica, is a double-LP produced by Frank himself. Langdon Winner, apparently succumbing to the old critical fallacy that hard is better and art is hardest of all, has called it "the most astounding and most important work of art ever to appear on a phonograph record." Myself, I gave it a B plus. The record is arresting, even brilliant, but choppy, and full of a gratuitous hostility that reminds me more of Zappa than it does of Beefheart. In addition, it is interrupted all too often by little comments from Big Mother in the control room, an effect which has become so unforgivably cornball that it can only be explained in terms of Zappa's ego. After twenty tries I still never play it for fun and the more difficult varieties of aesthetic pleasure it provides do not seem to me as rewarding as all that. The mistakes on the current album, Lick My Decals Off, Baby, end with the title, whick sounds as if it were suggested by someone at Straight even though I know Beefheart produced the record and chose the title himself. Decals recapitulates all the best qualities of Trout Mask Replica, but it is also more accessible. The music still jars, yet after some acclimatization you can play it while doing the dishes, and although like all of Beefheart's music it is ominous, the style of ominousness has changed. Here is a stanza, if that's what it is to be called, of one of the most singable cuts on the record, "Smithsonian Institute Blues"; bear in mind that throughout the song the word "dinosaur" is pronounced "dinasewer": "All you new dinosaurs, now it's up to you to choose./Fore your feet hit the tar you'd better kick off them old shoes/and forget about that big dig./It sure looks funny for a new dinosaur to be in old dinosaur shoes/Dinah Shore shoes/dinosaur shoes." That tone of playful doom is certainly not unprecedented in Beefheart's lyrics, but this time it seems better modulated to me. The musical success of the record is comparable. In some way that defeats my talent for analysis, the deliberate ugliness of the music has an attractive undertone. Ahh, who knows? Maybe I'm just getting used to it.

And maybe it goes back to that performance Wednesday night. Beefheart connoisseurs tell me he has never been so on, and I believe it: he was simultaneously repulsive and engrossing and wondrously funny. I saw him again Sunday and although one of my companions was knocked out, I wasn't. By then Beefheart had reportedly become unhappy with the room, which is like the New York Bitter End only bigger and more plush. There was less singing, less rock and roll, and a composed drum duet (Drumbo had fits but he and Ed Marimba ended on the same beat) that was exciting to watch but somehow disappointing in the contrivance of its tension. I was a lot closer to the stage and still couldn't understand the words. I knew they were good, but I still couldn't understand them. I don't think the good captain was trying very hard.

In fact, I know that if I'd seen him only Sunday I wouldn't be writing this now. Ideally, he should be at least that good, and probably better, every time he performs. Yet 100,000 consumers are expected to purchase Lick My Decals Off, Baby. Not bad for such a galahad, and no doubt Frank's talent for exploitation hasn't hurt. Yes, the contradictions of being an avant-gardist in pop society are numerous. It might be argued that Beefheart's art ideas, which are clearly drawn from the visual arts--he paints and sculpts and writes poetry, too--aren't really avant-garde at all. Old hat, even. Maybe John Fogerty is in the vanguard. But more of that another time.

Village Voice, Dec. 24, 1970
Any Old Way You Choose It, 1973

We Should Be Together