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.

Click Clack

There are countless retellings of Beefheart’s life with the Magic Band out there – what you can’t find at the Wikipedia joint you’ll find at the original Radar Station, so why re-tread?

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
Salt 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

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.
  6. 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.
  7. 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.
  8. DON’T WIPE THE SWEAT OFF YOUR INSTRUMENT You need that stink on there. Then you have to get that stink onto your music.
  9. 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.
  10. 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.

About Scot Hacker

Scot Hacker is a web developer, teacher, and blogger living in Northern California. He is the author of Can You Get to That? The Cosmology of P-Funk and Understanding Liberace: Grooving With The Fey Heckler. He works by day as webmaster at the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism and Knight Digital Media Center, and runs Birdhouse Web and Mail Hosting on the side. Hacker is the author of The BeOS Bible and MP3: The Definitive Guide, and posts near-daily on random stuff at Scot Hacker's foobar blog. He's ecstatic that we're sitting on 100 years of recorded music history. How I Got Stuck When was the last time you bought a record because of the cover? 25 years before MP3s, I used to make a weekly pilgrimage to Cheap Thrills in San Luis Obispo with friends, where we'd surf through dusty wooden bins, de-flowering ourselves in a mist of vinyl, grabbing piles of cut-outs about which we knew virtually nothing. Junior Samples, Temple City Kazoo Orchestra, The Buggles, Paul Desmond, Instant Chic, Smithsonian collections, Robert Moog, Dream Syndicate... didn't matter. If the cover was cool, we assumed there was a good chance the music would turn us on. And we were often right. In that humongous wooden warehouse, between around 1977 and 1984, my musical universe bloomed. There were also duds - dumptruck loads of duds. The lesson that a great cover doesn't tell you jack about the music inside was a long time coming (the inverse correlation - that great music was often hidden behind terrible artwork - came much later). But it didn't matter, because cut-outs never cost more than a couple-three bucks, and all the good shit we uncovered made it worthwhile. In high school, I (for the most part) ignored the music going on around me. The jocks and aggies could keep their Rick Springfield and their Jefferson Starship - we were folding papers after school to The Roches and Zappa and Talking Heads and PiL. But inevitably, some of the spirit of that time stuck with me. ELO and McCartney wormed their way (perhaps undeservedly) into my heart. No one escapes high school without an indelible tattoo on their soul describing the music of that time. When I went away to college, the alt/grunge scene was being born, and getting chicks required familiarity with The Pixies and Porno for Pyros. I couldn't quite figure how these bands were supposed to be as interesting as Meat Puppets or Cecil Taylor or Syd Barrett, but I went along for the ride for a while, best I could. But I never quite "got" alt-rock. Never understood why The Pixies were elevated in the public imagination over a thousand bands I thought were so much more inventive / rocking / interesting. What exactly was Frank Black offering the world that Lou Reed had not? In general, I like music carved in bold strokes - extremely rockin', or extremely beautiful, or extremely weird... I like artists that have a unique sound, something I can hang my hat on. I love Mission of Burma and The Slits and The American Anthology of Folk Music and Devendra Banhart and Bowie and Nick Drake and Eric Dolphy and Ali Farka Toure and Marvin Pontiac. If you were to ask me who was the last great rock and roll band, I'd be likely to answer "The Minutemen." I know it's not true, but I'd say it anyway. And yet, in a weird way, I totally believe it. Today while jogging, I listened to a long interpretation by the Unknown Instructors: "Punk Is Whatever We Made It To Be" - half-spoken / half-sung sonic collage of some of D. Boon's best stanzas. Boon's powerful words rained like hammers and I felt like I was back in 1980, careening down the highway in a green VW bug with The Stooges blasting. It was that spirit of amazement that I used to live for - the one I never got from the 90s indie scene. And then, just as quickly, I thought "God, I'm living in the past. I suck." I'm stuck. I have vast collections of LPs, CDs, and MP3s. I listen to music for hours each day, and yet I'm completely out of it, musically speaking. I confess -- I've never listened to Guns-n-Roses or Pearl Jam or Prince, and I've only recently heard "Nevermind" in its entirety. If it weren't for Twitter, I wouldn't even know Lady Gaga existed. I'm oblivious to the stuff that supposedly matters to "music people." It's not like I'm totally unaware of pop music. I just have a finely tuned ability to tune out whatever doesn't interest me. I don't quite know how to explain it. I can only say that my friends register shock when they learn that I've never heard of Elliot Smith. And yet I do not feel thirsty. I'm always open to being turned on. But I learned long ago that, unfortunately, you can't trust beautiful cover art to promise great music, and you can't always trust your friends to push your music buttons. I'm happy to listen to damn near anything. And every now and then, that "anything" will turn into something that will become important to me over time. Something that will last. I like music with staying power. Belle and Sebastien have a certain appeal, but I don't think they're going to occupy even the tiniest slot in my consciousness in 20 years. But the power and inventiveness of the Art Ensemble of Chicago, John Fahey, Robert Wyatt, Can, The Carter Family, The Clash, will never dissipate. I have little interest in the "new" factor. I could not care less whether this year's model is the baddest thing going on in Atlanta or a rare gem rescued from 78 rpm oblivion by Robert Crumb. It's all the same to me. Just squeeze my lemon / 'till the juice runs down my leg. Please. A friend once said that he felt lucky to have been born so late in history, because the later you're born, the more history you have to work with. I don't think I really understood what he was saying until I was about 40. It's not about being born late, it's about this massive archive we're sitting on - the entire history of recorded music under our butts, which we can either choose to ignore or to mine for all it's worth. Every hour I spend checking out the flavor of the month is an hour I haven't spent with David Thomas or Richard Hell or Shuggie Otis. Life's too short. I'm going to use this site to drift back and forth through musical history, modernity be damned. You turn me on, I'm a radio. Let me know what I'm missing. shacker's station at

2 thoughts on “Practice in Front of a Bush: Stuck on Beefheart

  1. Amazing and worthy tribute. The black ants are crawling through your prose.

    Now I’m left with my misheard lyric of all time, which I never bothered to look up before:

    “A squid eating dough in a polyethylene bag is fast & bulbous.”

    NOT “A squid-eating doe in a polyethylene bag is fast & bulbous.”

    Man, that changes everything, particularly if you are a squid.

  2. LOL – That mishearance alone makes me wish I still ran the Misheard Lyrics site – priceless, especially since it’s only a spelling tweak away.

Comments are closed.