Musings On Music

Brushstrokes Of Mortality: Self Portrait Inside Of An Obituary

Brushstrokes Of Mortality: Self Portrait Inside Of An Obituary
(or Fast ‘n’ Bulbous, Tight Also: The Magic Of Captain Beefheart)
by Mitchell L. Hillman

(Editor’s Note: This was originally written in the weeks following Captain Beefheart’s death December 17th, 2010. It will be included in an upcoming novel called The Recursive Turnstile.)

1.

I had been listening to Captain Beefheart for over a month, and by listening, I mean non-stop listening, playing Safe As Milk, Strictly Personal, Mirror Man and Trout Mask Replica over and over again. A friend had reminded me of the good Captain and so had a few choice covers of his music by the Black Keys. I hadn’t listened to Beefheart in ages. It was good to get back to music so strange it rearranges your brain. I had been listening to a lot of Stooges as well, mostly FunHouse era recordings. I was already in a weird time—aurally speaking. It was that kind of season. Sometimes, for whatever reason I need to fill my head with records that some people find unsettling at best, unlistenable noise at the very worst.  I’m not sure what accounts for it, but I love stuff like that. Some people don’t get Coltrane or Ornette Coleman, some people can’t stomach the Stooges, some folks are offended by Frank Zappa, some people can’t handle the early Velvet Underground or most of Sonic Youth’s career. Most people don’t get Captain Beefheart And His Magic Band. For some reason all of the above music soothes me in some strange sense and what’s more, and something I can’t account for, is that it makes sense to me. Maybe it’s all the drugs I took in my youth, maybe it’s all the brain damage I’ve accrued, maybe it’s some disease I have that is slowly destroying my central nervous system, maybe it’s that, but whatever it is, albums like Funhouse, White Light/White Heat, Freak Out!, A Love Supreme, Confusion Is Sex and Trout Mask Replica make my brain feel better and decompress my soul slightly.

I first heard of Captain Beefheart when I was in high school. Two things led directly to me hearing Trout Mask Replica for the first time. The first was that Rolling Stone included it in one of its Top however many albums of all time issue which we drooled over like craven school children looking at porn. Secondly, a tribute record called Fast’n’Bulbous came out on Imaginary Records which featured Sonic Youth covering “Electricity,” XTC covering “Ella Guru,” That Petrol Emotion doing “Hot Head” and The Mock Turtles version of “Big Eyed Beans From Venus.” It was only a matter of time before we were sitting in front of the turntable ready to spins some records from the Captain. I clearly remember “getting “ Safe As Milk, I liked it, it was fun and filled with Delta Blues, filled with dangerous vibrations and a fair amount of noise, that seemed keen on my ears—this didn’t seem to weird to me at all, or surprising that it was from 1967. Then we played Trout Mask Replica. It was like nothing I had ever heard and truth be told, I didn’t get it, I hated it—it was almost the same visceral reaction I had when I first heard Confusion Is Sex or The Smiths or any number of albums and artists I recoiled from in horror only later to adopt as my favorites.

I wouldn’t hear the Captain again until college. By that time in my life, I had rearranged the wiring in my brain a bit and was really learning how to operate it for the first time. This was done with a little help from my friends and opened up my perception a bit on the world and the various sounds and visions available within it. I remember the evening, the setting, the events, but I’ll be damned if I can remember who was with me and who put that record on. It was a darkened apartment downtown, candle light only and we were all sitting in half shadows losing our minds—we were quite insane, grinning and laughing madly, there may have been three or four of us, maybe five or six, it was winter and the windows were frosted on the outside and wet with condensation inside, incense was burning, sandalwood. We were spinning all kinds of weird albums, most of it was good feeling classic rock and some low key alternative stuff we were all turned onto that worked with the groove well. At some point in the middle of the night it happened. Trout Mask Replica had only come out on CD maybe a year or two prior, it hadn’t been out long, I hadn’t thought about it since the days back in high school. Someone, some wise or perhaps mischievous compatriot had decided we were far enough gone to listen to one of the most far out records of all time…and they, whoever they were, were right. I’m not sure how long it had been on, we couldn’t have been too far into the record when the room began to spin and there were these sounds coming from the speaker—vaguely familiar sounds, terrifying sounds, but terrifying within reason, reason none of us possessed at the moment. I looked up dazed at my friends and said simply, “Wait, what is this? What’s happening?” It was Trout Mask Replica and it sealed the deal, did I like it, not exactly, but I sure as shit was fascinated by it.

Captain Beefheart And His Magic Band are a hard sell on the ears, not the early stuff—I think most who have any appreciation of the blues and certain psychedelia can meet and greet Safe As Milk or the earlier A&M recordings just fine, this might even be said of the follow ups (unintended or not), Strictly Personal and the Mirror Man Sessions. In fact later on, some of his stuff might be easier to swallow as well, Spotlight Kid, Clear Spot, Bluejeans & Moonbeams and Unconditionally Guaranteed, some of which are considered the low point of his career, others consider these albums the only moments they can listen to the Captain and his crew. It’s his true masterpieces like Trout Mask Replica, Lick My Decals Off, Baby, Shiny Beast (Bat Chain Puller), Doc At The Radar Station and Ice Cream For Crow, where Captain Beefheart truly shines and it is these recordings that will send stray dogs mildly interested running. You could probably include his live document with Frank Zappa Bongo Fury, in that list as well. The Captain is not for everyone and I can respect anyone who doesn’t get it, doesn’t want to get it and looks nervously when his records are playing. I love the man’s entire catalog, from beginning to end. Sure the middle period, when he tries to be accessible may disappoint the tried and true fan, but I still see the genius at work, trying on a new suit and starring in a different play. The Captain is hard at work on all of his albums, no matter what his aim is.

The thing was, I had been listening to almost nothing but Captain Beefheart and His Magic Band for nearly a month, with a sprinkling of Stooges and it was an all around nice sort of belated Fall cleaning for my brain. I had pulled his discs out of the stacks, I was burying myself in his catalog, something I hadn’t done in a few years and it was good to come back to all those wonderfully weird sounds that make my mind sigh and ooh and ahh in the way that it does with near incomprehensible aural assaults such as that. I was listening to Safe As Milk, last Friday, writing something or other about something when an announcement came through to me. I paled immediately, my stomach heaved, I stared at the headline as if blinded by it. I couldn’t believe it and it haunted me, before I went any further, I just stared at it, stared at the headline, my head buzzing, my brain burning. It was almost funny. I had only found out or reacquainted myself with the fact that Don Van Vliet AKA Captain Beefheart had Multiple Scleroses a month or two prior, it was part of what reignited my interest in him, that and I had a ton of his music laying in wait for me, that I hadn’t listened to in years and now was the time. You see, I have MS as well, the only other person I knew of with MS, who I had met a year ago in Joshua Tree was musician Victoria Williams. I try not to think about it. I try not to admit to having it. I just hide when it hits me and I pretend it’s not there the rest of the time. I probably knew this about Captain Beefheart, but at the time I wasn’t diagnosed and so it was forgotten, but rereading things about him in October and November, I found out and it launched me into a month long Captain Beefheart listening party. The headline stunned me, my wife was not at home. The headline read: CAPTAIN BEEFHEART DIES DUE TO COMPLICATIONS FROM MULTIPLE SCLEROSIS. It sent my world spinning. It was one thing to read the obituary of a hero, I was getting used to that in this life, it was another to be enjoying his works so thoroughly when you find out about it, it was yet another level, though, to see that headline for someone like me. I try not to think about my MS, I’ve never seen a headline that mentioned anyone’s death in relation to MS, and there it was in glowing black and white on my laptop screen.

2.

When I was growing up, I didn’t know hardly anyone that listened to Captain Beefheart And His Magic Band, much less knew anything about these records. Oh, sure there were a few, obviously, that I ran into, mostly Zappa fans and clearly whichever friend threw it in the CD player late that night in college—but it just wasn’t something you came across very often. There were always the various people you would run into in record stores (remember those, I still go to those things—I shirk online buying whenever possible in favor of a trek to my local indie store), or folks that somehow or other would bring up an obscure Beefheart reference and you smiled and nodded and knew, this person was all right. There were a lot of things in the early 90s that brought us back to Beefheart, the tribute album was one, the CD release of Trout Mask Replica another, the various reissues of the Zappa catalog and so on. As time rolled on, more undiscovered gems and reissues occurred, some of his albums got the remastering treatment, as all of them should and now, probably will, maybe.

Even amongst my various groups of friends Captain Beefheart was not something that came up often. I blame this mainly on what I call the “Punk Rock/Prog Rock Seventies Split” amongst my music loving friends. It’s an interesting phenomenon. See somewhere the line is drawn in the 1970s where otherwise likeminded people who enjoyed all the same sonic cosmic interests of the music that poured forth from the 1960s start to head down separate paths and never the twain shall meet until somewhere in the early 1980s. I’m not sure where the line is. We all seem to like Bowie, Roxy Music and T. Rex…so it’s not glam rock, maybe it’s The Modern Lovers or possibly Pere Ubu, it could be somewhere in there, but somewhere a line is drawn where one group will head into the hazy synthesized epic masturbation of Prog Rock and the other group will race toward the alluring, slurring danger of Punk Rock. These two groups don’t meet on music until Punk is refined and tamed into New Wave much later and by then Prog Rock is pretty much dead, or just as quaintly absorbed into New Wave as well. I notice too, that many of these friends seem to stand on a Zappa/Beefheart split as well, and those who headed toward Rick Wakemen, love their Zappa, while those who live for the snarl of Johnny Rotten had the Captain on their side.

None of this is to say that there are any exclusive right or wrong sides here, just patterns I’ve seen over time.  This is also not to say that someone can’t come to their senses years later and realize the brilliance of punk after listening to decades of Yes, but clearly from the bias in my writing, I stood with the Captain on the side of punk. There is great evidence of course that the Captain himself didn’t give fuck all about punk and nearly anything else, these are just patterns, and the Captain laid the groundwork for punk, he was one of its early architects. His music was alternative music twenty years before the term would even come to fruition. And this is nothing to reflect poorly on Frank Zappa—I have a ton of his records and I love every one, but if I had to choose between my favorite weirdo, and the choice was Zappa versus Beefheart, I’d pick the Captain every time. He’s just my kind of weirdo. In the same way Iggy Stooge is my kind of weirdo, or Alex Chilton is my kind of weirdo, or Syd Barrett is my kind of weirdo or Robyn Hitchcock is my kind of weirdo. And maybe that’s the whole deal with the “Punk Rock/Prog Rock Seventies Split”, it’s about picking your kind of weird and sticking to it. I can’t stand the likes of Rush or Yes or any of that shit, but I respect it and understand what it is about, I can only hope the prog heads feel remotely the same about punk. We picked our weird and we stayed with it. Captain Beefheart And His Magic Band is just my kind of weird, and maybe the next time it comes up, that’s how I’ll explain to whoever it is why I love that music. It’s just my kind of weird.

It seems like my generation would be the one that would have, should have, could have raised the music of Captain Beefheart to exalted heights, but sometimes genius skips a generation and escapes it. So it came as some surprise to me recently, before the departure of this great visionary, in various discussions with the next generation, mostly artists and musicians that I currently write about that Captain Beefheart is incredibly loved, not just loved, but understood. The kids today actually “GET” Captain Beefheart—it’s really the damnedest thing. They quote song lyrics, they talk about his albums casually, they know his stuff, they are well versed in his music and songs—it was as if I had stepped into some strange alien world, unexpectedly. I mentioned to a friend that I was talking to someone who was really cool, intelligent and this person actually dug Captain Beefheart, I was in awe. He stopped me and said without hesitation, “Who doesn’t love Captain Beefheart?” Ummm…98% of the fucking people I’ve known all my life? Maybe it’s the White Stripes or the Black Keys who have done this with their numerous (too numerous to mention) covers of classic Beefheart tunes, maybe it’s the other artists, or maybe, the Captain had only just come into his time, finally. Maybe it’s finally a world where something like Trout Mask Replica makes sense and people just naturally understand its brilliance. I love the idea of that.

Since the passing of Don Van Vliet, I have never met so many people in my life that love Captain Beefheart and it astounds me. Captain Beefheart has been one of those secret loves, those critically acclaimed guilty pleasures that you just assume will stay with you all of your life as something sacred you’ll take with you to your grave. You don’t expect in later life that suddenly, people will talk to earnestly about the contribution someone like Captain Beefheart has made to modern music or quote lyrics from “Making Love To A Vampire With A Monkey On My Knee,” make casual references to “Dropout Boogie” or indicate how much “Moonlight On Vermont” touched their lives. And still, people from my generation admit they just don’t get it, while the kids, the kids, well, the kids are alright—they swing to Lick My Decals Off, Baby and totally get Ice Cream Crow and who would have thunk it? It’s been an unexpected surprise, a nice one, a comforting one, that some forty years later, the world has finally started to catch up to Captain Beefheart And His Magic Band.

I’m interested to see if any of the Captain’s numerous record labels even realize the audience out there for the music is now ready—I can only hope that Don did. It may be a silent wake if the labels don’t know, a reissue here or there, the man has already had one very unlikely box set produced, a Rhino handmade set of a magnificent live show, an incomplete reissue campaign and countless compilations, live sets and demo collections—but what if they do know, there could be a lot of great things coming, rumors that the good Captain kept recording after his early retirement are as tantalizing as the possible unpublished manuscripts J.D. Salinger may well have died beside. If nothing else it would just be nice to have Lick My Decals Off, Baby see a remastered CD release and perhaps see the full original version of Bat Chain Puller come to light. It will be interesting to see what happens—either great treasure troves will be dumped upon us or as is most likely in the continuing story of Captain Beefheart never quite getting his due, nothing will happen at all. I’d actually be surprised if the latter was the case, but you never know. The day Don died, Amazon.com sold out of copies of Trout Mask Replica and the day after he outsold the Beatles, the Stones, Pink Floyd and Led Zeppelin. It’s sad to say, but for just one day, the day after Captain Beefheart died, his music reigned supreme.

3.

The magic of the Captain was strangely following me and I was thinking this was probably happening to a lot of us who were big Beefheart fans, maybe not, maybe I’m crazy, well, yes I’m crazy, but the day of December 23, was crazy and it was my last day or so I swore of Christmas shopping after some previous and horrible attempts, the Captain had been dead six days. I was planning on doing some more paintings and woke up late after staying up late listening to Shiny Beast until what hour I do not know. My MS is flaring up like a huge crazy bat in my spine and makes me spastically crazier in double time, I stayed up and drank club soda and listened to the Captain, read reviews on him, read some stuff by Lester Bangs and generally waited until I thought I might be able to sleep.  I had mapped out my day reasonably well about a hundred times so I would go in a giant spiral around town as efficiently as I could with my first stop at Hoodlums—a great independent record store. Now Hoodlums isn’t great because they have the largest selection or the best prices, Hoodlums is great because they have the best selection with fair prices. The first time I ever walked in there, I was blown away—they had amazing albums, great titles—all the titles a record store should have, whether it was The Stooges, or Sonic Youth, modern indie stuff, or classic obscure monuments. The store is small but nearly everything inside it is really great, I’ve never quite understood it, but I loved it immediately.

Hoodlums was on the way to the great far edge of the spiral I had designed in my mind. I had stopped there the other night, but alas it was seventeen minutes after they had closed, it was no loss because I also had to hit the coolest bookstore in town, which oddly enough to many people’s benefit I’m sure, is right next door. I imagine the people that listen to music on three dimensional formats also read real books and vica versa, I may be wrong, but I suspect I’m not.  So I promised myself I would return. Honestly this was a stop not about Christmas, it was for me, I wanted to see if they had any Beefheart discs—I had a few, some on vinyl, a couple on cassette, but CDs were just damn few and far inbetween, hard to come by if you will. I pulled up, got in and immediately walked to where the Captain should be and he was and all three album were ones I needed and I picked them up quite pleased.  Wait for it, here comes the magic of the Captain.

I was looking at tracklistings on The Mirror Man Sessions, Doc At The Radar Station and Clear Spot/The Spotlight Kid, when one of the clerks walked by me in an elf hat with elf ears and did a double take, he swung around in fact to make his way back to me.
“Um, do you know your way around that stuff?” He asked. It was funny. It was like I had just picked up something to make explosives.  It was almost cautionary, like I had picked up something very dangerous. That something might go horribly wrong if I didn’t know quite how to aurally navigate the world of Captain Beefheart.
“Yeah, I do, quite well, in fact,” I laughed. “I love this stuff”
“Alright, just wanted to makes sure,” he smiled. “I mean Mirror Man, Safe As Milk, and that stuff is pretty good, but I could never get into Trout Mask Replica.”
“I can, I can listen to it over and over again,” I smiled widely, it was true, I could and just recently I had.
“Well, then if you can do that, you’ve already reached that far edge and everything else is great,” he said and was about to walk away.
“I love how you said that,” I chuckled. “Do you know your way around this stuff.”
“Well, some people just don’t get it.”

It was true. Some people just don’t get Beefheart , some never will and some will be lucky enough to one day, but not today, maybe not even tomorrow, but a month, a year, a decade from now perhaps. I continued to browse a bit, I didn’t know why, I was done, I had what I came for, I went to look at some Zappa. Turns out Zappa is right across the aisle from where the Beefheart had been, but diagonally, you can see someone shopping for A-C while you shop W-Z, it’s an alpha omega sort of thing that seemed kind of neat to me, I was still glowing with my CDs clutched tight in my hands. I saw a man walk in and he caught my attention, I didn’t know why, I went back to browsing Zappa. He pulled diagonally across from me. 
“Didn’t you guys just have some Beefheart!?!” he exclaimed, almost out of panic it seemed.
“Uh, yeah we did,” a different clerk said, I was paying attention again.
“It was just here! You just had Doc At The Radar Station!”
“I guess someone bought it,” the clerk said and walked away. I looked at the man who seemed bewildered by what was happening in his universe. I looked at the CDs in my hand and knew what I had to do. I came in for Clear Spot/Spotlight Kid, the Mirror Man Sessions was a bonus at an amazing price, and Doc At The Radar Station was icing on the cake. I didn’t need icing. I was fine with the cake. I walked around from W-Z to A-C which is easy to do when you go the wrong way and with a smile handed him Doc At The Radar Station, because for whatever reason, he needed it more than me.
“Here you go,” I said with a smile.
“Uh, what?” he looked up bewildered.
“Here you go, it’s the disc you were looking for,” I smiled again.
“Wait…are you sure?”
“Absolutely!” I handed it to him and he took it.
“Was it for a gift, I need it for a gift,” his panic was slowly washing away.
“It was just for me, I can always get it another day and I would really like you to have it for whatever reason,” this was more conversation I thought I would have in handing over a CD, that indeed I could get later and indeed he needed more than me.
“Seriously?” he asked. “Are you sure about this?”
“Seriously, I’m sure,” I grinned, “besides, I’ve got these other two here to keep me company.”
“I couldn’t believe it,” he laughed. “What are the chances that someone else would be buying Beefheart at the same time, this is a great album.”
“It is a great album,” I had actually listened to it four or five times over the past few days.
“Thank you so much,” he shook my hand, “Merry Christmas.”
“You’re welcome, Merry Christmas to you.”
The man went and stood in line and I went back to browsing mindlessly, except now I knew why I had hung out and my job was done. Awkwardly, I went to stand in line and landed right behind the man to whom I had handed the disc for his gift. He rang up the CD and pointed at me and said to the clerks behind the counter.
“This guys is the greatest!” he was smiling.
“He needed it for a gift, I’m getting a few others and I already had copies of it on vinyl,” I shrugged off the praise. “I don’t need it for a gift, that day comes sooner and I can always find another one later.”
“That was a very nice holiday thing to do,” the clerk commented.
“Do you know how the Captain is doing? How is his health?” The question was chilling, he didn’t know the good Captain had left our solid dimension.
“Um, he died last week, on the 17th,” I informed him almost apologetically.
“Oh, wow, I didn’t know.” He was shocked.
“I figured that was why you were buying it.” The clerk added.
“No, it’s just one of my favorite albums and I wanted to give it for a gift.”
“Yeah, it freaked me out, I’ve been revisiting the Captain’s stuff for the last few months, and one day I was listening to Safe As Milk and the news came across,” I explained. “I just found out he had MS, a couple months ago and I have MS, so I revisited his albums.”
Amidst the solemn news delivery he thanked me many, many, many more times and wished me many more Merry Christmas’ and then said, “Are you going to be here for a moment, I might have some CDs in my car for you.”

I had no idea what this meant, but I figure I’d hang out after checkout to see what this cat was up to. I paid for my records, waited around and he returned empty handed, which was fine, I didn’t do it for any reward. He explained he thought he had them in his car, but did not and wanted my phone number to get them to me. I gave him my number and he promised he would.  We walked to our cars and talked about the Captain and MS and few other things, before more thanking and handshaking. I was glad I could make his day. I was glad I could make his day with Captain Beefheart and one of his best albums to boot.  I felt like the Captain was there, orchestrating all of it.

I got in my jeep, lit a cigarette and pulled out, it was no sooner that I hit the main road than, what would explode from my speakers, divining  the airwaves of my favorite radio station, it was “Diddy Wah Diddy”, Captain Beefheart and His Magic Band’s first single. I couldn’t believe it, I smiled and turned the volume up until I thought the whole damn vehicle might fall apart. It was a brilliant, blessed moment and it felt like the Captain was smiling at a deed well done, rewarding my ears for what had just transpired. There was no reality that could have created this, this was otherworldly and amazing. This was the Magic of the Captain in action.

 

4.

It’s been two weeks today that Don Van Vliet, the man better known as Captain Beefheart left this world for the next or left this world to return to this world, whatever your spiritual inclination may be. The Captain Beefheart listening party has unabated. It’s three in the morning as I read over these words, add some here and there and listen to The Spotlight Kid/Clear Spot disc I picked up for the fifteenth time. I thought my listening to Captain Beefheart non-stop was a bit obsessive before his death, but afterward, it seems with little exception, I want to listen to little else. He has enchanted me, finally, completely, with his entire catalog and his paintings as well. It’s difficult to explain.  When I read through the first three parts of this essay, I see…wait should I mention the essay I’m writing in the essay I’m writing? Either way, when I read through this, I don’t think I quite explain why all this means so much to me. I’m not sure I can, honestly. Now I know a ton of people who get Beefheart, but now I’m making them nervous with how much I proselytize his genius and the meaning of it. Maybe that’s how I keep the Captain as my own, buy taking my love for his music madness to extremes and exalting his legend above all others. But I’m talking around the talking, I’m writing around the writing, I’m not saying the truth and although all that has preceded this is true it is time to get down to the neon meat of the octafish.

The day he died scared the hell out of me. It scared me on many levels. So many that I’ve been on something of a creative mania streak. That night I painted for the first time in six or seven years, a tribute painting to him, almost cartoon like and certainly surreal which I entitled “The Captain Bids Us all Adieu.” It combined many images: his red scarf from later years, his hat from the early years, his face from 1969, his hand as he waved to the crowd on the David Letterman show. It’s not perfect, not the best, but I like it…it’s the Captain’s essence waving goodbye one last time. That day scared the hell out of me. I was painting brushstrokes of mortality. In all the time since I tested positive for MS, I had never read a headline like that—I’m not sure I had before either and I certainly had not read it about one of my musical vanguard heroes. CAPTAIN BEEFHEART DIES DUE TO COMPLICATIONS FROM MULTIPLE SCLEROSIS. He was 69. I am 38, if I’m lucky I’ve got 30 years left, over the half way point so to speak. I had only found out about his MS a short time before his passing and within a month or two of that revelation, the man had moved on. It put life into a strange perspective quickly. The disease that affects me daily is real. I can’t deny and hide from it. Eventually it will probably kill me. But then life will kill you, yeah?

I often say that timing isn’t everything, it’s the only thing. In this case it was all about timing. My MS flares up, at this point about twice a year and the last few weeks has been one of those times of the year—oddly when it does flare up, I want my music as weird as possible, I want the sounds pummeling my mind to be those from the thin ragged edge and this time around I was feeding it a steady diet of Stooges and Beefheart, along with a local band called Lisa Savidge, which worked really well with the other two. During these times I always want to feed my brain sounds that seem to fire off neurons that aren’t ordinarily in use, use ways of listening or interpreting sounds that you don’t normally use when, say you’re listening to “I Want To Hold Your Hand.” This is the first time I realized what I was doing, after a while and it became more clear the day Captain Beefheart died—it was aural ecstatic brain therapy. I thought about other MS flare ups over the last few years and how I was driven to music that was less than immediately accessible or music wholly unknown to me before. Nevertheless, in some way, I felt like I was abandoned in the middle of my own discovery by the man that had helped me get there.

The final illumination—other than listening to all of the records in the man’s catalog, repeatedly and noticing the poetry, the word use and the way his lyrics were formulated in ways that were often parallel with my thinking, I edit quite a bit, I think Don just let it flow and go—was in reading a tribute to the man himself written by a musician that worked with him intimately, John French AKA Drumbo, the drummer from Trout Mask Replica and a number of other records. It was probably the greatest thing I had read on the man since his passing, it was intimate, personal, beautiful, sad, angry, grief stricken and painted a portrait of a difficult artist and a rocky, but lifelong friendship. It hit me on multiple levels and once more some details of his behavior due to MS were revealed. As I said, I don’t know anyone with the disease, I’m unfamiliar with the idiosyncrasies it seems to cause—and it was a bit freaky to read about these things in someone else, especially someone I respected so much.

He loved his carbonated beverages, bromo-seltzer, RC Cola and Perrier (as on his Letterman interview), this is one thing I just discovered about folks with MS—we have difficulty swallowing sometimes and the easiest “cure” for that is carbonated beverages, especially something along the lines of club soda, Perrier or cola. He smoked, I’m not sure if he smoked right up until the end, but from people I’ve talked with, though I’ve never met, a lot of people with MS have grave difficulty giving up cigarettes—we know it’s a terrible habit, but it seems even more of a binding addiction when your brain features unusual lesions. His mind would fire off randomly, whether it was manic artistic inspiration or violent mood swings—these are things I’m victim of constantly and until recently, I didn’t really know why, with MS you aren’t entirely in control of things anymore, you are a slave to what your brain demands—if it demands I have to write down a poem out of a dead sleep at 3am I do so or I’ll never sleep again. He hated schedules and rules and I think that’s connected to the previous detail, MS isn’t on a schedule and your mind works with it to buck external constrictions to extremes which almost always brings simple things to conflict. And sleep when it does come, after delaying it for all it was worth, would be the sleep of the dead, nearly impossible to wake under any circumstances.

Don hated heaters, loathed them, in the same way I despise them—that is what sweaters are for, temperature alterations in general stir my MS like nobody’s business and it seems to me there’s a reason he chose the temperate climates of Northern California and the extremes of the Mojave to live in for much of his later life.  The strangest detail, the one that I’ve never read about anyone doing freaked me out the most. I don’t even know why I do it and I wonder if Don knew why he did. He would often turn the faucet on hot and hold his hands underneath the cold water until it literally scalded his hands. I want to know how many people with MS do this, it’s almost a comfort thing for me, I know it sounds horrible, but for some reason it feels good to run my hands under water from cold to scalding hot. And of course allergies—allergies and MS go hand in hand and he had many as I do, including occasional embarrassing skin conditions that make you want to go into hiding until it’s cleared up. It also explains his choice of habitats, desert for relief from the allergies, temperate North Cal for the MS—when I moved to the desert most of my allergies disappeared, when I spend time with my children in coastal California, my MS very nearly disappears.

I’m nowhere near the eccentric genius that Captain Beefheart was and I would never claim to be, but still reading John French’s tribute, I was amazed at the strange habits and conditions we shared—I purposefully try not to read more about MS than I have to, I’ve tried not to seek information unless I absolutely need to and to look inside his life, his idiosyncrasies the little details one of his closest mates remembered, it was haunting.  It made me wonder if that’s in part why his music comforts me so much, why his lyrics tickle my brain with strange familiarity, why his seemingly insane orchestrations work so well inside my mind, why his paintings pleases my eyes in the same way his music helps my head decompress. I don’t know if it’s the same for other people with MS, I’m not sure if that’s why, but it’s comforting to know that this man whose music I love so much, struggled with many of the same conditions I experience everyday and did great things despite the obstacles in his way. Comfort. I keep coming back to that word and it’s a funny one to use, because most of the people for whom I have played the music of Captain Beefheart And His Magic Band, the word that probably best describes them is “uncomfortable”, terribly uncomfortable in fact, often physically or violently enraged, begging for me to turn it off.

Comfort. The word origin reads as this: “late 13c., from O.Fr. conforter  ”to comfort, help, strengthen,” from L.L. confortare  ”to strengthen much” (used in Vulgate), from L. com-  intens. prefix + fortis  (strong).” It’s accurate, it’s what any great music does for me, it is especially what Captain Beefheart does for me, his music helps strengthen me. I feel better after listening to Trout Mask Replica or Doc At The Radar Station, Safe As Milk or Lick My Decals Off, Baby, I feel better after any of his music, watching him in videos, the Captain somehow works his magic on me and for a moment, my soul is lifted, my spirits are brighter and I’m always left with some new insight, or an idea for a painting or a poem I must rush to write down. I think his entire body of work is pure genius and by his entire body of work I mean everything he created in his lifetime from his music to his paintings to the moments of actual magic he created with the people that surrounded him. To discover that something like Trout Mask Replica wasn’t thrown together haphazardly in a few hours of being high in the studio, but was rather carefully orchestrated, designed, rehearsed and practiced for nearly nine months before essentially entering the studio and performing it live is a revelation. To realize that what Don Van Vliet created was not simply whim or spontaneous madness recorded on the fly, that he wasn’t winging it, but that he actually thought everything through, thoroughly to an almost point of obsession—that is genius. And all of it comforts me.

I’ll miss the Captain greatly, for one thing I was in the middle of rediscovering how much I loved his music when he shed the mortal coil, but most for the reason that I believe with all of my heart and soul that the world simply needs more weirdoes like him. Don Van Vliet was simply authentically strange and he had been all of his life, which is all pretty well documented elsewhere—he wasn’t contrived or strange for strangeness sake, he was just a weird kid that cultivated the strangeness that came to him and with a childhood neighbor like Frank Zappa, how could he not have pursued his own insane vision of life and music and art. The world needs more weirdoes like these to just call shenanigans on the regular world and pursue the ultimate vision of what they could be, no matter how strange that might be like “A squid eating dough in a polyethylene bag is fast ‘n’ bulbous, got me?” Yes, Captain, I got you, I totally got you, because you were just my kind of weird.

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