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The Boston Phoenix Rare Beef

There's magic in the Captain's five-CD box

By Richard C. Walls

JULY 26, 1999:  In one of the many pictures found in the 110-page booklet that's part of the exquisitely crafted and quite handsome Captain Beefheart & His Magic Band five-CD boxed set Grow Fins: Rarities (1965-1982) (Revenant), the young Captain is caught informally posed with his band mates circa '66, his Beatle bangs setting off his earnest little moon face, his buds looking like yet another California rec-room surf band waiting to happen. Actually, this early incarnation of Beefheart and His Magic Band was a lot better than it looked: they were a hard-edged, blues-influenced garage band whose repertoire included a shitload of Stones' covers. And Beefheart himself was already learning how to sound like a 60-year-old black bluesman whose vocal cords had been hardened by a long trip down the whiskey road -- a voice somewhere between a homage and a satire, a Howlin' Wolf voice with weird traces of Moms Mabley in it.

The question the picture evokes, and a major point of interest when you're approaching Grow Fins, is how did this punky little group -- very energetic and very derivative and well plugged into the mid-'60s rock zeitgeist -- evolve into the band who would record Trout Mask Replica, the most recondite album in rock history? Trout Mask Replica sounded unmoored from anything else that was going on when it came out in 1969, even if it was released during a period when popular music and the avant-garde were having a brief confluence.

The answer is to be found not on the five CDs but in the accompanying booklet, most of which is taken up by a detailed oral history of the Magic Band overseen and conducted by long-time off-and-on member John French, who served mainly as a drummer, sometimes as a guitarist. Beefheart, who retired from the music scene in '82, doesn't participate, but French has gathered enough corroborating witnesses to put together a convincing narrative.

It's an incredibly complicated story, but the simple version goes something like this: Captain Beefheart, born Don Vliet (he later added the middle name Van) was far from being the driving force behind the original Magic Band. A non-musician recruited for his forceful vocal abilities, he was often vetoed by the other members when it came to musical ideas. But Beefheart remained the constant as the band went through several personnel changes (members sometimes leaving, then coming back), and gradually his personality began to dominate the group -- a real triumph-of-the-will scenario.

By the time the Magic Band's first album was released, '67's Safe As Milk (Buddha), the music was an interesting hybrid of Beefheart's vision of surrealistic blues and flexible song forms and the band's more mainstream blues/rock -- an approach close enough to the period's larger vibe of experimental grooviness that one record executive told the believing youngsters they could be "as big as the Stones." Around the same time another exec, dismayed by Beefheart's use of the theremin on parts of Milk, said, "Take that electronic bullshit out of there . . . I'll hire you some broads to sing the parts."

And maybe they could have been as big as, if not the Stones, then at least Wishbone Ash if the Captain's acid tripping hadn't turned him into a hypochondriac given to panic attacks. One night, at a performance in San Francisco intended as a rehearsal for the upcoming '67 Monterey Pop Festival, Beefheart freaked in the middle of a song and walked off the stage, refusing to go back on. "That was the end of it right there, basically," says French in Fins' liner history. "From then on we were an avant-garde band who was never going to make any money."

This debacle resulted in some further personnel changes that led to Beefheart taking greater control of the band, which in turn led to Trout Mask Replica, an album prepared in what more than one participant describes as a "cult-like" setting, with Beefheart cast as David Koresh (sans child molestation and fiery death, it should be noted) haranguing band members with meandering speeches during endless rehearsals, teaching them their parts via his eccentric piano playing. And generally fucking with their minds.

That's the story covered by the first four CDs of Fins, though not in any conventional way -- remember these are rarities. The first disc is mostly band demos from '66 and '67. Except for a '65 version of "Call Me" where the Captain sounds a little unsteady and not yet into his Beefheart persona -- he would nail the song later, on Safe As Milk -- the most impressive thing about these early sides is the singing; the way the 25-year-old Vliet sounds like a seasoned voodoo chile on "Obeah Man," the blues authority he displays on the two Howlin' Wolf covers. The Safe As Milk period is represented by three demos at the end of disc #1 and most of the live material on disc #2. The demos sound a little tossed-off, but the live stuff is pretty wiggy, still mostly blues-drenched but with a growing dissonant strain.

Things don't get really strange until disc #3: "Trout Mask House Sessions (1969)." Legend has it that Trout Mask Replica was written and recorded in one marathon session. In fact, the songs were written over a period of several months, then carefully rehearsed at the band's house before being recorded in a studio . . . in one session, which lasted, according to French, about four and a half hours. Anyway, what we have here is the band's rehearsal tapes, which is to say almost every song on Trout Mask Replica played at least once, without the vocals. At this point, you're saying to yourself either "I must obtain this boxed set at any cost" or "Forget it, man, just forget it." It's interesting stuff, though. What often sounded on the original vinyl double LP like aimless clutter is shown to be well-thought-out and carefully shaped overlapping motifs, raucously dense but with an appreciable internal logic.

The fourth disc is the "storytime portion" of the Trout Mask sessions, 12 minutes of random (and often funny) chat, much of it from the lady next door who comes over to complain about the noise but stays to kibitz. This is an "enhanced" CD, so if you have a Quick Time movie player on your computer, you get to watch some cool footage, the best being a '71 spot from a Detroit TV show with one of the more dexterous Magic Bands doing "When Big Joan Sets Up" and "Woe Is Uh Me Bop" from Lick My Decals Off, Baby.

The 13 years of post-Trout Beefheart are crammed onto disc #5 so it's not a particularly comprehensive overview, but it isn't intended to be so that's okay. The highlights are two separate mellotron improvs recorded live, with the Captain losing his temper each time because the audience won't shut up and listen; live versions of the classics "One Red Rose That I Mean" and "Flavor Bud Living"; and best of all a live radio version of "Orange Claw Hammer," which on Trout was done as an intense a cappella sea chanty but here becomes a more straight-ahead folk song with Frank Zappa on acoustic guitar.

Obviously the box is intended for hardcore Beefheart fans, but that's fine because those are just about the only kind of fans Beefheart has. Little he made was for the casual listener; those not repelled tend to be drawn in for life. An uninitiate wanting to find his way to planet Beefheart would do well to start with something a little less messy, like the recent Buddha reissue of Safe As Milk (with seven bonus cuts), where you can feel the envelope being pushed but still dig the reshuffled rock and blues clichés (many of the later expertly executed by a young Ry Cooder). Buddha has also released The Mirror Man Sessions, the loose-jam contrast to Milk's tight songwriting and also a relatively accessible disc. Unfortunately, between the Buddha sides and Trout Mask (and the subsequent material on a two-CD Rhino anthology due in mid August) there are no acclimating steps. You're on your own.

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