A couple of years ago, I was surveying Captain Beefheart albums here and got through the first seven. I always meant to finish; his death jolted me back into action. You can catch up with Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3 as well.
Shiny Beast (Bat Chain Puller) (Warner Brothers) Coming after some unsuccessful commercial compromises, about which the less said the better (Unconditionally Guaranteed and Bluejeans & Moonbeams yield one good track each, maybe two if you're generous), this 1978 album was a significant comeback.It includes the second recordings of four 1975-76 songs (and a poem) originally intended for an unreleased album, Bat Chain Puller, made for Frank Zappa's label DiscReet using guitarists Moris Tepper and Denny Walley, drummer John French, and keyboardist John Thomas. Zappa's estate owns this material and has continually blocked its legitimate release, but it has leaked out multiple times, most recently on the Ozit-Morpheus label as Dust Sucker: The Captain's own tapes of the legendary Bat Chain Puller studio sessions.
When Beefheart went back into the studio, it was with a revamped Magic Band, the most sonically colorful of his career. True, aside from Eric Drew Feldman's slight touches of electric keyboard and a tiny bit of trombone, opener "The Floppy Boot Stomp" almost sounds like it could have been on Trout Mask Replica, with slide guitar and walloping drums setting the tone. But then comes "Tropical Hot Dog Night," with Bruce Fowler's trombone and Art Tripp's marimba dominating the sound, truly sounding, as Beefheart sings, "Like two flamingoes in a fruit fight." The Captain also proclaims, "I’m playin' this music so the young girls will come out to meet the monster tonight," the monster presumably being him. The instrumental "Ice Rose" combines the two sounds, Jeff Moris Tepper's and Richard Redus's sliding and jangling guitars alternating and occasionally mixing with trombone and marimba over typically shifting beats that are nonetheless more propulsive -- more groove-like -- than Beefheart's norm. "Harry Irene" is a throwback to the sweeter, more pop-song-esque material of the previous few LPs, complete with accordion, piano, and whistling, but in the more bracing context of this album, where it acts as a change of pace, its sentimentality is more welcome. "You Know You Are a Man" is a scruffy hunk of boasting on the grittier end of the spectrum including Muddy Waters and Bo Diddley.
"Bat Chain Puller" is something of a mystery. Not sure what a "bat chain puller" is, and the other lyrics offer little enlightenment. The beat is more up-and-down than forward-moving, and harmonic motion is often absent and more sideways than forward, but it's a colorful little mobile spinning for us. "When I See Mommy, I Feel Like a Mummy" puts some amusing wordplay -- with perhaps a Freudian undercurrent -- over a beautifully skewed assortment of grooves with a modal tinge. The instruments' different parts of varying length, coming and going, give it a kaleidoscopic feel, with Beefheart often dropping out to let the music come to the fore. His harmonica bleats and squeals a fanfare on "Owed T'Alex," which again sets up shifting interlocked patterns of trombone, drums, and guitars. After that builds in density, with Beefheart growling over it like Howlin' Wolf, it concludes with a more tonal demonstration of his harmonica skills.
"Candle Mambo" doesn't sound much like a mambo; the title comes from his description of candle-cast shadows dancing on the ceiling. "Love Lies" is a hypnotically mournful admission that the singer’s woman left because of his deceits; marimba and trombone dominate, with Beefheart's wails and Fowler’s slithering slides intertwining brilliantly. "Suction Prints" is another instrumental; some sections bear a resemblance to "When I See Mommy, I Feel Like a Mummy," but overall it's more emphatic and driving. The closing "Apes-Ma" is a sad little poem about an aging ape in a cage; the lyrics suggest a chilling sociological parallel.
By 1980, with post-punk rhythms often strongly influenced by Beefheart's favorite beats, his time had finally come, and this magnificent platter captured the moment and vastly increased his audience. Whether knowingly or coincidentally, its generally stripped-down, more guitar-centric Magic Band (less marimba and horns; John "Drumbo" French was now on guitar more than percussion), emphasized the relationship with post-punk and may have made the music more accessible to that style's adherents. (Was it some clever image-tweaking that had all six members of the band pictured wearing neckties?)
"Hot Head" is about a woman who can "burn you up in bed." Musically it's a string of irresistible riffs, one after/atop another. The album's trademark rhythmic device, off-beat high-hat clamping down, is prominent. Much of "Ashtray Heart" ("You used me like an ashtray heart / Case of the punks, right from the start / I feel like a glass shrimp" makes for an arresting opening) has a chugging, regular rhythm laid out on toms and high-hat (on one of two tracks where Drumbo's drumming), but its feeling is nonetheless angular due to the way the accents of the instrumental parts fit together. There are frequent interruptions where Eric Drew Feldman's Mellotron pushes out the other instruments; it's a very sectional piece (Beefheart varies his voice as well) -- but this is one tight band, and where in the old days there was sometimes a shambolic feel to the parade of sections, and occasionally a ramshackle feeling that it might all fall apart and the sections weren't compatible, here everything coheres tightly.
"A Carrot Is as Close as a Rabbit Gets to a Diamond" is a minute-and-a-half instrumental duet for electric guitar and piano; the guitar has the melody (with a few chords underneath) and the piano occasionally buttresses it with chords and serves to accent beats. "Run Paint Run Run" is far from Beefheart's best songwriting effort, barely above the nursery-rhyme level (albeit with dark tinges), but Robert Arthur Williams's pounding drums, some repetitive slide guitar from French and/or Tepper, and whooping trombone (Fowler) or French horn (Gary Lucas) make it naggingly compelling.
"Sue Egypt" mixes Mellotron flute with a wall of guitar-strumming/sliding and an amazing lyric ("I think of all those people who ride on my bones" and "Vagabond / bad vugam" are just a few of the gems to be heard) declaimed with riveting melodrama. "Brickbats" is one of those prototypical Beefheart constructions of asymmetric parts that cycle around each other like a sonic mobile -- with his unfettered soprano sax bleatings on top, a wild card defying the structure but also in a way tying together the shifts from one motivic cell to another -- and there are enough riffs here to power five or six normal songs. "The shiny beast of thought," another of Beefheart's best lines, kicks off "Dirty Blue Gene." It's a guitar whirlwind, with sudden starts and stops and bits where everything drops out but one guitar for a few beats. Beefheart runs through a wide range of vocal timbres across a broad pitch range.
"Best Batch Yet" is a surprisingly optimistic lyric, spoken rather than sung (though so dramatically and with so much gruff personality that it’s not really a "reading"); the guitars throw little riffs back and forth, the players' different timbres making it more than repetition. The music builds/develops more than most tracks on this album -- one of only two longer than four minutes. The short "Telephone" is another sub-par lyric, but at least lets us know how much the Captain hates the titular object ("plastic horned devil"). The jagged parts under his frenzied voice accentuate the mood without becoming memorable, probably explaining the track’s brevity. "Flavor Bud Living" is a sparkling solo electric guitar instrumental. Mixing chords and little runs across its 57 seconds, it's a scintillating miniature of barbed beauty. It's the first Beefheart guitar appearance of Gary Lucas, who was the Captain's manager at the time; if I remember correctly, Lucas told me that he had to painstakingly learn it from a tape where Beefheart played it on piano.
"Sheriff of Hong Kong" has lots of gong to evoke its Asian locale. Surprisingly, the titular character is at various times Beefheart and a woman. More high-hat/toms beats and chiming guitars. But we’re building toward the big finish, so at six-and-a-half minutes it gets to play out for a while. It’s well suited for its length, as it’s another Beefheartian creation where the rhythms and phrase lengths that the different instruments have don't all match, so they can repeat themselves without the overall pattern repeating as they fit together a little differently each time around. The different riffs also get varied and developed -- and piled atop each other more thickly -- as it goes along, with added ingredients as well, until a sudden cold ending. It would be a hard act to follow for anyone but Beefheart; instead, the concluding "Making Love to a Vampire with a Monkey on My Knee" is the high point of the album. Feldman deploys ice-cold Mellotron chords that ooze alienation while Beefheart's sinuous sax winds under his scabrous vocal. Most of it is sparsely instrumented, but it gradually adds layers (including some welcome marimba), and after he proclaims, "Death be damned! Life!" the music turns into a sort of dark instrumental merry-go-round crowned by Beefheart's braying sax, then leaves us hanging by ending with a phrase two chords shorter than expected. Fifteen years into his career, he'd made a masterpiece to rival Trout Mask Replica.
The last we heard from Beefheart musically appeared in 1982. He had a new Magic Band, the most guitar-centric of all. Lucas was now a full-time member, Tepper was stalwart, and there was hardly any keyboard. The new rhythm section of Richard "Midnight Hatsize" Snyder and Cliff R. Martinez sound like they'd studied the old Magic Bands acutely, or been drilled by someone who had. On a lot of tracks Beefheart recites rather than singing or even declaiming dramatically. In retrospect one wonders whether his illness was already weakening him. The album's not at the level of its two immediate predecessors, but we were just glad to have a little more Captain.
"Ice Cream for Crow" is basically a fast shuffle, but in the sections between Beefheart’s recitation, there's some shimmering slide guitar. It's a semi-comic tale/poem, I think, though one can never be sure with Beefheart. "The Host the Ghost the Most Holy-O" is the first recitation over music, with only slight shifts in vocal timbre. How religious or ironic is it? One thing’s for sure: It doesn’t speak well of humanity.
"Semi-Multicoloured Caucasian" is an instrumental with a rolling/hopping groove, a lighter respite from the heavy pondering of the preceding track. It's less dissonant, less weird, more repetitive and normally structured, and more tuneful than Beefheart's norm, especially for instrumentals. "Hey Garland, I Dig Your Tweed Coat" returns to recitation-over-music mode, with the album's most jagged music, a throwback to Trout Mask Replica. It seems to be about identity changing with appearance, but also switches from describing a human face to some odd animal vignettes and back to human. The sounds of the words are beautiful beyond sense.
"Evening Bell" is another spectacular guitar solo played by Gary Lucas, perhaps the most difficult of them all. Then it's back to recitation over music with "Cardboard Cutout Sundown," the music jerking along in fits and starts with all but guitar (sounds like Tepper) dropping out for short stretches to vary density and volume. Martinez does his most impressive drumming here. "The Past Sure Is Tense" is halfway between recitation and song, Sprechstimme as the Germans might put it, with a few howls and warbles thrown in. The music's another warped shuffle, relatively accessible, with one riff in particular driving the piece along but with plenty of slippery slide guitar ornamentation and, near the end, a powerful onslaught of fuzz guitar plus harmonica overlapping Beefheart's vocal (yes, overdubbing). "Ink Mathematics" is full of wordplay, and trying to listen for a point may be misguided. The music emphatically mirrors Beefheart’s phrasing. "The Witch Doctor Life" is another Sprechstimme track, a little more colorful than most of the album thanks to marimba overdubbed by Snyder. The guitar riffs have nursery-rhyme simplicity.
"'81' Poop Hatch" is pure recitation, no music -- except the music of Beefheart’s rhythm. What does it mean? Who knows, although there's a certain amount of ecology and suffering involved. "The Thousandth and Tenth Day of the Human Totem Pole" is some sort of sociological allegory. "The man at the bottom was smiling" but the poor guy on top was starving, balance was a problem, and really they all just wanted to walk. The accompaniment is minimal -- off-kilter beats, spare guitar lines, bass accents. After the lyric is finished, Beefheart plays horns, overdubbing intertwining lines. "Skeleton Makes Good" finds Beefheart taking his last officially released vocal, singing and Sprechstimming over a herky-jerky accompaniment. And that was the end of his musical career. (The most recent CD edition adds a bonus track, "Light Reflected off the Oceans of the Moon," flipside of the "Ice Cream for Crow" 12-inch single; it's the instrumental track of "Hey Garland, I Dig Your Tweed Coat" with Beefheart playing soprano sax over it instead of his lyrics.)
He was just 41 years old in 1982, at the height of his popularity; how many people expected that he’d follow that with 28 years of silence? That silence lasted longer, in fact, than his musical career. Not knowing at first that he was sick, Beefheart fans were disappointed that he switched from music to painting (his first love, and in his second shot at it, more remunerative than music had ever been for him). We hoped for a comeback. But the Captain was probably wise to leave on a relative high note rather than traveling down an unhealthy road of diminishing returns. The ten good to great albums he left are a unique rock-outsider legacy. By the time he died at age 69, he was a beloved figure and revered icon. - Steve Holtje
Mr. Holtje is a Brooklyn-based poet and composer who splits his time between editing Culturecatch.com, working at the Williamsburg record store Sound Fix, and editing cognitive neuroscience books for Oxford University Press. No prizes for guessing which pays best.