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!
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.
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