Practice in Front of a Bush: Stuck on Beefheart
The black paper between the mirror breaks my heart that I can’t go.
Steal softly through sunshine, steal softly through snow.
The good Cap’n has passed (through mirror paper?), evidence that the sun ain’t stable? If he wasn’t already, Don van Vliet is now having the neon meate dream of a octafish. Forever. Finally lost his battle with muscular sclerosis at age 69. His Trout Mask Replica was Number 58 on Rolling Stone’s list of the 500 Greatest Albums of All Time. In a 1969 review, Lester Bangs called Beefheart “the only true dadaist in rock” and Trout Mask “a total success, a brilliant, stunning enlargement and clarification of his art.” Tom Waits spent a lot of time on the phone with Beefheart in his post-music years:
“He was like the scout on a wagon train,” Waits wrote in an e-mail Friday. “He was the one who goes ahead and shows the way. He was a demanding bandleader, a transcendental composer (with emphasis on the dental), up there with Ornette [Coleman], Sun Ra and Miles [Davis]. He drew in the air with a burnt stick. He described the indescribable. He’s an underground stream and a big yellow blimp.
Sure ’nuff ‘n yes I do
A laminated vision of the Magic Band pointing lamp shade frame and retro vacuum cleaners your way hung above my desk at every job for two decades. I once had a set of military dog tags printed up, embossed with words “HOBO CHANG BA.” One of them functioned limply as a light bulb bat chain puller in my college apartment. Those who know me vouch: In any serious conversation, I’m as likely to rattle off Beefheart quotes as a real answer. There’s a childhood connection too: Trout Mask Replica was recorded in the hills above Reseda, CA in 1969. I was five at the time, growing up in Reseda, and my family used to go on kite-flying picnics in those hills. I later imagined that the Magic Band was practicing right under my nose, creating some kind of phonic sonic connection to my formative self. For my 40th birthday, told a friend all I wanted was a homespun rendition of Old Fart at Play, and that’s exactly what they did – on kazoos and jangly guitar and cheap electronic children’s voice synthesizer earbulb atomizer invention, they hammered it out with bottomless soul. Truth is, you can’t find the bottom of Beefheart; there isn’t one (but damn he jams, and so does the Magic Band).
Ant Man Bee
Master master, this is recorded through a fly’s ear, and you have to have a fly’s eyes to see it.
It’s the blimp, boss, it’s the blimp! Children, stop your nursing! …
Beefheart can’t have been pleasant to work with – a musical tyrant who once threw a drummer down a flight of stairs because he couldn’t figure out what was meant by the commandment “play a strawberry” on the drums, and who gave infuriatingly vague-but-poetic directions to musicians like “Play it like a bat being dragged out of oil and it’s trying to survive, but it’s dying from asphyxiation.” Beefheart may have been an artistic tyrant, miserable to work with (unless you enjoy living on beans (laser beans)), but the amazing thing was, the tracks did sound exactly like the impossible psychedelic visions he demanded, and the world never recovered.
Been struggling for days to poot forth words, to express what Captain Beefheart has meant to me over the years, how his music has made my clay. Funny thing is, can’t get it right, nothing on the page dovetails with what I feel. After all, “Music is just black ants crawling on paper.” Because his sound was in a space all its own, bears so little resemblance to anything else you’ve never heard, words pull up short.
Beefheart’s like oysters – one of those things you have to soak in, soak up, swallow whole and not try to describe. Either it gets you at animal level and becomes an obsession, or it goes down like cold boogers. I like oysters.
Orange Claw Hammer
On the Goddess with the pole out full sail
That tempted away yer peg legged father
I was shanghaied by uh high hat beaver moustache man
‘n his pirate friend
I woke up in vomit ‘n beer in uh banana bin
‘n uh soft lass with brown skin
Bore me seven babies with snappin’ black eyes
‘n beautiful ebony skin
‘n here it is I’m with you my daughter
Thirty years away can make uh seaman’s eyes
Uh round house man’s eyes flow out water
Always loved the stop-start click-clack of the portable field recorder Orange Claw Hammer, seemingly improvised but who knows?
I’ll stop trying, and leave the Captain’s good words to sun zoom spark on their ownsome:
Captain Beefheart’s Ten Commandments For Guitarists
- LISTEN TO THE BIRDS That’s where all the music comes from. Birds know everything about how it should sound and where that sound should come from. And watch hummingbirds. They fly really fast, but a lot of times they aren’t going anywhere.
- YOUR GUITAR IS NOT REALLY A GUITAR Your guitar is a divining rod. Use it to find spirits in the other world and bring them over. A guitar is also a fishing rod. If you’re good, you’ll land a big one.
- PRACTICE IN FRONT OF A BUSH Wait until the moon is out, then go outside, eat a multi-grained bread and play your guitar to a bush. If the bush doesn’t shake, eat another piece of bread.
- WALK WITH THE DEVIL Old delta blues players referred to amplifiers as the “devil box.” And they were right. You have to be an equal opportunity employer in terms of who you’re bringing over from the other side. Electricity attracts demons and devils. Other instruments attract other spirits. An acoustic guitar attracts Casper. A mandolin attracts Wendy. But an electric guitar attracts Beelzebub.
- IF YOU’RE GUILTY OF THINKING, YOU’RE OUT If your brain is part of the process, you’re missing it. You should play like a drowning man, struggling to reach shore. If you can trap that feeling, then you have something that is fur bearing.
- NEVER POINT YOUR GUITAR AT ANYONE Your instrument has more power than lightning. Just hit a big chord, then run outside to hear it. But make sure you are not standing in an open field.
- ALWAYS CARRY YOUR CHURCH KEY You must carry your key and use it when called upon. That’s your part of the bargain. Like One String Sam. He was a Detroit street musician in the fifties who played a homemade instrument. His song “I Need A Hundred Dollars” is warm pie. Another church key holder is Hubert Sumlin, Howlin’ Wolf’s guitar player. He just stands there like the Statue of Liberty making you want to look up her dress to see how he’s doing it.
- DON’T WIPE THE SWEAT OFF YOUR INSTRUMENT You need that stink on there. Then you have to get that stink onto your music.
- KEEP YOUR GUITAR IN A DARK PLACE When you’re not playing your guitar, cover it and keep it in a dark place. If you don’t play your guitar for more than a day, be sure to put a saucer of water in with it.
- YOU GOTTA HAVE A HOOD FOR YOUR ENGINE Wear a hat when you play and keep that hat on. A hat is a pressure cooker. If you have a roof on your house the hot air can’t escape. Even a lima bean has to have a wet paper towel around it to make it grow.