Sunday, 19 December 2010

Beef in Our Hearts

Like so many wily outcasts, the music of Captain Beefheart is near and queer to me. On Friday the fallin’ ditch got his bones after a long and painful bout with multiple sclerosis. This post pays tribute to the Cap (Don Van Vliet) by recalling many stupendously good Beef moments.

Autumn’s Child

The closer on
Safe As Milk is a psychedelic ballad with gentle bass and guitar giving way to the early Howlin’ Wolf baritone, backed by the finest use of a theremin since Portishead made them cool in 1994. The song is a lament for a woman who Beef “met at a balloon bust picnic,” whose sandals he made “gambol under knees of trust.” The spinning drum rolls and yowling chorus is all nostalgia and sleaze and swirly sixties madness.

Safe As Milk

The opening stomper on
Strictly Personal, this song blasts out the dust with a galloping blues ruckus. All howling lyrics and bouncing bass and haywire blues guitar, the song goes from drum thunder into a nervous, careening mid-section, gathering steam over “bacon blue bread dog ears” until the music erupts and melts into an exhilarating climax of feedback, drums and guitar pummelling. The band literally take this song apart, going from controlled cool into primitive mania in three minutes. Absolute mayhem. And who could forget the immortal line: “I may be hungry, but I sure ain’t weird.”


This twenty-minute blues jam is on the
Mirror Man Sessions LP. I adore this song more than two hundred chocolate women. The song is a blistering blues hoedown, with Beef channelling the blues giants and honking on his harmonica over an endless assault of blues licks and beats. For those fond of Beef’s blues work, this song smothers the listener in love. It reminds him there is a reason to strive toward happiness.

Pachuco Cadaver

The whole
Trout Mask Replica LP is a must for self-respecting avant-garde rock fans, but this song is especially lickable. Over a fast and bulbous intro, where the bass, guitar and drums play three separate phrases that somehow cohere, the song segues into a spoken-word surrealist bomb with such lines as “she wears her past like a present” and “tattoos and tarnished utensils, uh snow white bag full o’ tunes,” delivered in a southern drawl as a truly delirious beat builds in the background. Saxophone noodlings from the Cap keep the music going and we never want this song to end. Ever.

Bellerin’ Plain

Lick My Decals. This song has the usual dissonant guitar mauling and incomprehensible vocals, all the better for their inspired babel. An amazing instrumental bridge, where the marimba duels with Zoot Horn’s lunar magic, takes the song to edge of madness. This song might make you queasy, if you’re listening carefully.

I’m Gonna Booglarise You, Baby

The Captain’s fondness for sleaze and low-down-dirtiness is celebrated in this song from
The Spotlight Kid. With a slinky bass line, working with a funky guitar, the music worms under your skin. Then Beef comes on like a freaky uncle at a party, trying to chat up his own daughter. I would love to be booglarised by Beef, to hell with the rash afterwards.

Clear Spot

From the
titular album, this bayou swamp ode celebrates the virtues of Amazon life. Beef lived in the Mojave desert for the last two decades of his life, and this song is nothing if not hot and sticky. The lunar guitar bites back over a militaristic beat (later used on Hot Head) while Beef avoids the mosquitoes and moccasins steppin’ all around. At the shimmering climax, it’s a good time to stop and wipe the sweat from your brow. Phew.

Bat Chain Puller

Also from the
titular album (this tit, not that one), this has perhaps the most unhinged and inspired performance from latter-era Cap. The lyrics and music on this album are something alien and this song shows the new band firing on all pistons. Over a mama heartbeat, Beef howls out a litany of Lynchian images, from “grey tubes that house people’s thoughts” and “rubber dolphins with gold yawning mouths that blister and break in agony.” The guitar and harmonica wage a war behind a truly feral attack from the Cap.


On his last two albums, the Cap’s songs have an incredible menace and pathos. This song from
Doc At the Radar Station thunders and torments. The drums slam into a spleen of ghoulish lyrics, suggesting demonic bats and popping heads. This song will induce much choking.

Cardboard Cutout Sundown

People say this music is unemotional. Wrong. Emotion is splattered over the Cap’s music. This song in particular moves me in ways chocolate women cannot. The drama and passion that blows through this utterly disquieting song is incredible. The guitars create a sense of panic, impending collapse, as though the sun is falling from the sky, the mountains erupting in flame. The Cap’s voice at this time had become gruffer and laden with wariness. The final refrain of “you hardly know a day goes by in the cardboard cutout sundown” turns me to sludge every time. Remarkable. (This one is from
Ice Cream For Crow).

So concludes this brief tribute to Beef. I hope everyone reading this goes and listens to a Beefheart song and then hurls the headphones off in disgust. The brave ones, the truly curious, will return.

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