Sunday, December 19, 2010

Obituary: (Captain Beefheart)

Captain Beefheart – “Something about the Fidelity”
Obituary (of sorts) written by Tom Wilmeth
19 December 2010

Sorry to hear that 2010 must end with the death of Captain Beefheart (Don Van Vliet). Beefheart was the type of artist who had removed himself from the public eye so thoroughly that most people who even recognized the name would need to check their computer to see if he were still living. When somebody has already been gone from the scene for such a long time, it’s hard to say that he will be missed. Those who were influenced by his music have already been missing him for over 20 years. What is incontrovertible is that he will be remembered.

I think that, like many people, I first became aware of Captain Beefheart though the Zapped sampler album of early 1970. Zapped was one in a series of inexpensive records that featured songs from new Warner Brothers / Reprise label releases, and one of the still-healthy industry’s better promotional ideas. Zapped was more focused than most of these collections since they weren’t trying to promote everything from James Taylor to The Fugs on one anthology. Zapped only included recordings from the offshoot Bizarre & Straight labels, both under the absolute control of Frank Zappa, and distributed by Warners.

After a brief instrumental “Overture” by Alice Cooper (still a group – not one person – and a 2011 inductee into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame) Beefheart arrives, grabbing attention with an urgent narrative about some sort of impending doom involving a blimp. But it is the Captain’s track from side two – I still hesitate to call it a song – “Old Fart at Play” – which made me wonder if something new was afoot. At first this just seemed to be a Kerouac-flavored bathroom-humor recitation over disjointed Ornette Coleman riffs and insistently driven rhythms – radical at the time because of the outrageous subject matter. But -- Just what was the subject matter?

After this, I did buy the record from which these tracks were culled, Trout Mask Replica. It was an expensive double album at the time but was worth having on a several levels. First, the cover (described precisely by the record’s title) was unlike all others; second, merely by playing any part of the album you could immediately clear a crowded room (at that time in Des Moines, Iowa, anyway). More than merely strange, though -- it was unique, haunting, and unforgettable. Much of side one remained my favorite material, but that may be due to not hearing the other three sides nearly as much. I’m not sure if it was endurance or tolerance, but Trout Mask Replica did require a period of adjustment for the listener, especially for one still in junior high. “Old Fart at Play” was well chosen for Zapped, I always felt, as it was a high point of the set.

I stayed with Beefheart more than some and less than others. His vocals were featured on Zappa’s “Willie the Pimp,” from the great Hot Rats album of 1969 (and also included on Zapped). I was somewhat cold on Zappa when Bongo Fury was released in 1975, so the fact that Beefheart sang with Zappa’s band on this record didn’t matter much to me. I lost track of the Captain until 1978 when Shiny Beast (Bat Chain Puller) got a big push from Warner Brothers, and rightly so. I searched out the first album Safe as Milk, but never really considered myself a fan or true aficionado.

That’s the personal background part of the obituary.
What follows is the brief section that might actually add to the conversation:
I was a huge Tom Waits devotee in his early years (another 2011 R&R Hall of Fame inductee, by the way). I still am a fan, but I was really taken with the first records and truly got on-board with the release of Nighthawks at the Diner in 1975 Even living in the great Midwest, I was able to see Waits several times -- on tours promoting his Small Change, Foreign Affairs, Blue Valentine, and Heartattack & Vine albums. I spoke with him before or after most of these concerts (sometimes both), and he was never anything but friendly, gracious, and accommodating. During one brief post-gig encounter, I expressed dismay that he had not an equal share of time on the PBS Soundstage (which aired in 1975). I also complained that he had only gotten a single tune on Saturday Night Live (1976). Waits patiently explained that he was supposed to play a second song, but they ran long and didn’t have enough time – that’s the way live TV is.

Concerning Soundstage, Tom Waits certainly wasn’t going to rip Mose Allison, who shared the hour with him in separate sets. But he did tell me – “The original guy for the other half of that show was Captain Beefheart. . . . We got into rehearsals and the Captain was unhappy. He picked-up this real Leave It To Beaver type of director by his collar and [shifting to a carefully articulated guttural] said ‘something about the fidelity.’ Everybody on the set got real nervous after that, and the next thing I knew Captain Beefheart was off the show.”

Not long ago I read something about how Captain Beefheart and his Magic Band were scheduled to perform at Woodstock, but that one of the guitarists quit the group right before the festival so they had to cancel. Would this exposure have helped? Who knows. Would they have even made the movie or record? Unknowable. Is this report even a fact or a rumor? Probably researchable. But for now I’ll leave you with that – the only Beefheart-related story in my arsenal which might come close to being useful. Everybody have a great 2011!

Best always,

Tom Wilmeth
Grafton, Wisconsin

(262) 243-4218


Notes: I have subsequently been told that the cancelled performance by Captain Beefheart and his Magic Band was not intended for Woodstock (1969) but for the Monterey Pop Festival of 1967. The guitarist who departed the band was Ry Cooder.


exciting new web site (of musty old reviews): “The Wilmeth Way”
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948 words

Friday, December 10, 2010

Review (CD): Broken Dreams Club by Girls

Girls. Broken Dreams Club (EP). Fantasy Trashcan / Turnstile Records, 2010.

Review Written by Tom Wilmeth 10 December 2010

Woe! A semi-stretch band with horns. And a steel guitar. And a mellotron! And plenty of mood. And an ethereal voice appropriately hidden in the mix. And interesting songs. And guitars that sounds like they are on loan from Chris Isaak’s Silvertones at their most atmospheric. This all adds-up to a distinctive and memorable collection.

Brief and to the point -- Broken Dreams Club by the band Girls is a musical high mark for 2010, arriving just in time to make the onset of winter seem a little less glum. Christopher Owens is clearly the driving force behind the group Girls – principal songwriter, guitar, vocals; he is even responsible for the CD’s cover art. Still, producer Chet Jr. White is also inseparable from the success of this 30-minute studio set. It is appropriate that White is listed immediately under Owens on the CD’s list of credits.

The Girls know the sound they are after – and they nail it with seeming effortlessness. Like slowly waking from a dream, the ethereal and compelling closing track “Carolina” drifts through your brain for nearly four minutes before Owens’ first vocal line emerges. White’s production takes the sound from phantasmagoric blend to crisply delineated sounds with the precision and expertise of a man well acquainted with his sound board. Fine songs, well recorded -- the six selections on this EP are often haunting, beckoning one to return to the set for repeated listenings.

Thursday, December 9, 2010

One Question With . . . #4

Tom Wilmeth
December 9, 2010
Last night I was trying to write part of an “Introduction” to a book I have been working on. It just wasn’t coming, and things sort of went into a different direction.
This is the carnage:
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Introduction [to that book I mentioned above]:

One of the things that my recent projects have taught me is that people are living their own lives, as they should. As such, they really don’t have time to dig in to my obscure writings. That’s fine, and in many ways it’s also liberating. Writing for myself, I am allowed to go after the short items such as my occasional “One Question With . . .”. Speaking of which, I’ve been meaning to write this one for a while – here it is:

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Tom Wilmeth Presents Another: One Question With . . .

If I had one question with a specific individual, what would it be?

[This one is pretty obscure.]

One Question With . . . #4 – Barry Manilow Wednesday, 8 December 2010

Tom Wilmeth: So, Mr. Manilow, What is up with your recording the song “Sandra”?

Barry Manilow: What do you mean?

TW: Well, it’s about a woman who gets married young, has several kids, and then attempts suicide by slitting her wrists with a broken glass. Not exactly “Weekend in New England” stuff.

BM: [sings] “She wanted to be like her mother.”

TW: Yeah. We get that. The story’s a bit dark, isn’t it?

BM: Hey, the lyrics say that “she cut her wrist – quite by mistake.” By mistake! An accident!

TW: That slit wrist episode seems to be the centerpiece of the song. That, and how afterwards it was “touch and go for a while.” And that she also suffered from post partum depression and frequently drinks at home during the day. A pretty bleak portrait.

BM: It doesn’t exactly say all that.

TW: Sure it does. That tune is worthy of Lou Reed’s Berlin album.

BM: I’m not sure if that comparison is praise or a burn. But that’s good album.

TW: You like Berlin?

BM: Very sincere. Heartfelt stuff.

TW: Pretty stark vignettes of extremely sad situations.

BM: That too.

TW: Let’s get back to your recording of “Sandra.”

BM: That song is sung from the point of view of the husband.

TW: Right – and the fact that he isn’t all that troubled by his wife’s actions – that is frightening in itself. This is clearly the portrait of a woman drowning, and a husband blindly in denial.

BM: Succinct assessment. But you miss a lot by summarizing it in that way.

TW: You mean like the daytime drinking and the depression.

BM: Well . . . maybe. But the husband IS troubled by his wife’s situation. He absolutely is aware – he just doesn’t know what to do about it. So he writes it off to her being normal with a couple of temporary quirks. Easier to get through life that way. Ignore the bad stuff – it’ll work out. And he was able to explain that away as well – at least to himself.

TW: You did not write that song, did you.

BM: I’m not finished -- It’s clear that the husband too is calling out for help here – or his list of unhealthy things about his wife’s mental condition wouldn’t be the subject matter of the song.

TW: OK. But it still sounds like he is rationalizing a lot of stuff to himself on this. You did not write that song, did you.

BM: I co-wrote it – I added some things to Anderson’s original song, and I only performed that tune in concert for a short time, very early in my career.

TW: It wasn’t all that early – it was in your set when you played Carnegie Hall in about 1972. Or was Carnegie Hall an early, forgettable gig?

BM: You have long since passed the one question mark, so just back off a bit. But concerning playing that song live -- you need to remember the time and the audience.

TW: Meaning?

BM: The time was the early 1970s, so there was a bit of “women empowerment” in that song. Or maybe instead of the woman empowerment thing, you can see it as a wife who is also a real person, with real problems -- in a very different type of love song.

TW: She doesn’t seem very “empowered” to me. She knows she missed something, but isn’t sure what.

BM: Well, you are right about criticizing the husband. He should be throwing his wife a life-line, but he is pretending that there is no problem. Or he doesn’t really see one.

TW: So it’s an anti-man song?

BM: Once again -- It’s not that simple. “Sandra” not an anti-man song; it’s an anti- not caring song. An anti- not being in touch with your human surroundings song. It’s not an us-versus-them song for gender studies. I’ll say it again – it’s a love song, but not one that fits with flat character situations.

TW: OK, but you had to search-out that tune. You clearly really wanted it in your set. Even the original songwriter Anderson had never heard “Sandra” performed until your recording came out.

BM: I like that song and I liked performing it.

TW: You mentioned the time; what about the audience.

BM: Very New York – and most of my fans were very New York in the beginning even if they did not physically live in New York.

TW: Large gay audience?

BM: Some, but not as prominent as you might think. I never really courted that. I had seen that from the inside working the baths. And I knew that it would be a limiting thing for me to specifically target such a nitch audience.

TW: OK. So why did “Sandra” stay in your set list for such a short time?

BM: It sort of creeped people out – especially once I started to get non-New York City fans.

TW: It “creeped people out.” Go figure.

BM: Perhaps even more important – it is a depressing tune. It would take me a couple of really “up” songs to get the audience back from the doldrums that the song induced.

TW: Powerful stuff. So, “Sandra” was a song that would shatter the mood of your live show.
Yet you intentionally performed it, knowing the work it would take you to get the audience back. That’s quite a risk for a performer. Even now, for good or for bad – the song really distinguishes itself amidst any collection of your material. Any regret over performing or recording that song? Any second thoughts about including it in your show, even briefly?

BM: Not at all. Listen – that would have been a very easy tune to bury. It only appears on my second studio album, Manilow II, which has long ago been supplanted by various hits collections. I think it’s even out of print now. “Sandra” appears on none of my hits collections, as you might guess, so the only place to now get the song is on the expensive box set in the form of the live Carnegie Hall recording you mentioned.

TW: Oh. You mean your 4 CD, 1 DVD box set that contains very few of your hit singles?

BM: Guilty.

TW: But you did beat me to the punch on that box set topic – the place where you buried this intriguing oddity.

BM: I knew you were about to ask. The reason I put it on there is because I do like the song and I wanted to have some tangible evidence that it had been in my set. Sort of my take on Another Side of Barry Manilow.

TW: In a one song form.

BM: Right.

TW: Your specific parallel to Another Side of . . is a reference to Bob Dylan’s fourth album.

BM: Correct. The one where he does unexpected topics.

TW: Yeah – I’ve heard it. Is it true that Bob Dylan once hugged you in a hotel hallway, told you that everybody admired what you were doing, and then walked-on down the hall?

BM: Yes. I used to wonder if he were mocking me, but I don’t think he was. I think he is a fan of strong melodies. And love songs.

TW: Like “Sandra.”

BM: Just like “Sandra.”

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PROVISO: The above “interview” is fiction – written by Tom Wilmeth.


Tom Wilmeth
(262) 243-4218
exciting new web site (of musty old reviews): web site: