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Captain Beefheart - The Holy Cosmic Howl

I saw Captain Beefheart and the Magic Band play once. It was in Boston, February 25th, 1973, at the Orpheum Theater. A friend of mine talked me into going, though I wasn't into Beefheart at all at the time, and what little I'd heard left me a bit bewildered. Also on the bill were openers The New York Dolls, and second act Larry Coryell. That was the way music was back then. It didn't make any sense, the pairings that clubs did. They were all just current bands, and they were all cool. That was what unified them.

I watched The Dolls for about five minutes and left for the lobby. They sounded like one of the worst garage bands I'd ever heard, and the make-up, hair-dos and glam shoes just didn't do it for me at the time. I found this old review from the Boston Globe, and the reviewer's reaction was similar to mine.

Larry Coryell was stellar, the jazz-rock-fusion he was playing at the time was everything I loved most about instrumental music. He rocked, he swung, the guitar work was beyond comprehension to me, he was a guitar genius who was doing all kinds of interesting, exploratory things.

Then I waited to see what this Beefheart guy was going to be like. The stage was all black, the lights went up and the band started in with this weird rattling cacophony, the players in the strangest outfits, Beefheart in a black long-tailed coat with a top hat gyrating around like some stuck pig trying to get loose. And I mean that in the very best way. It was transfixing, you couldn't take your eyes off him. And then he sang. The cosmic Howlin Wolf howl, the high note octave jumps, the guttural noises, the yelps, I'm Gonna Booglerize You Baby, the words as crazy yet compelling as the music and movement the band put across, the Captain slapping his splayed feet on the floor, lifting his legs up and down 1-2-1-2 back and forth coat tails flying and then it stopped. Like the plug was pulled. I'd never seen a band so tight. The lights went down. Then came back up in ten seconds or so for the next song, maybe Click Clack, it's hard to remember but I went away that night scratching my head and thoroughly impressed. It was something that got inside me and I knew I had to hear more.

Thus began my love affair with the Captain and the various Magic Bands. "Trout Mask Replica" is of course the great recording, and countless words have been written about it. Yes, it was a real fish the Captain put onto his face for the cover shot, and not too fresh. Yes, the band were a bit like members of a cult under the Captain's stern creative vision and hand. And yes, as alien as it still sounds today, it is remains a far-reaching musical masterpiece of the 20th century, unlike anything anyone was doing or could ever conceive. The fact that that great grab bag of categorically disparate songs could actually become a hummable soundtrack in my head is testament to Beefheart's unparallelled genius. OK, kids, here's some songs that are from the next dimension, but hey, you can sing along!

I've heard every record, even the old obscure blues songs and they all have the unmistakable stamp of his unique (he said giggling) personality on them. Among my most favorite recordings are the jangly, jagged yet achingly beautiful neo-classical guitar instrumentals, like Flavor Bud Living, written by Beefheart on piano since he didn't play guitar. The standout songs are many - Big Eyed Beans From Venus, Moonlight on Vermont, The Blimp, Tropical Hot Dog Night, Ice Cream for Crow - the list is huge and everyone (Beefheart fans, that is) have their favorites.

There's a thing where beings come to earth who know something the rest haven't quite made it to yet, and Beefheart was one of those. There are the stories of him saying, "Oh, I have to answer the phone," in a quiet room, getting up and walking towards it, then the phone rings, and the band, sitting around, don't have any reaction because they've seen it before. Stories of him asking the band members if they've been seeing that the ants (around the house) have been getting enough to eat. Stories of him doing his recorded vocals hearing only a slight leakage of the background music coming from the control room to the studio. The Captain, see, was on his own wavelength. Record companies were always thinking they could make him into a major star, because he had the voice, that incredible four and a half octave range, could be the greatest white blues singer ever if only they could just get him to... but that never happened. Because he was the Captain and he had his own agenda.

The Captain left us a few years back to take his next trip. I just wanted to say - In appreciation for a lifetime of listening, to opening my ears to parts previously unknown, I tip my pork pie hat to you, Don. Wherever you're currently residing, I'm sure it's a whole lot hipper than here.