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Tuning in with Thomas Conner

Captain Beefheart, 1941-2010: like Zappa but not really

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When and where I was growing up, "art rock" meant the Talking Heads and Duran Duran's first album. Once we got to exploring, back through Bowie and the fairy bands (Moody Blues, Genesis, etc.), all art-rock roads led back to Zappa, then to his various minions. Frank Zappa -- who would have turned 70 tomorrow -- was a generous guy, and he helped bring along other arty performers like Alice Cooper and Captain Beefheart.

Beefheart, born Don Van Vliet, died Friday at 69. The AP reports: "The Michael Werner Gallery in New York confirmed Van Vliet died in California from complications stemming from multiple sclerosis. The gallery exhibits his paintings."

After more than 15 years and a dozen enthralling, bizarre albums as Captain Beefheart, Van Vliet returned to his real love, painting. "Record producers have always been certain that Don Vliet was just a hype away from the big money," Rolling Stone wrote in a 1970 profile. "But Beefheart stubbornly continues what he's doing and waits patiently for everyone else to come around." The general public never really came around, but Beefheart inspired countless musicians.

Cooper you could get your head around; Beefheart's albums seemed nearly impossible to comprehend, a wildly shifting mélange of musics incorporating rock but also a lot of blues and free jazz, including a few strains of it pioneered here in Chicago by the AACM. His music, though, wasn't completely arty for art's sake. It didn't push you away, it drew you in. He teased a lot, throwing you eight bars of a catchy tune, then exploding it with a riot of trombones and tortured guitars. He'd occasionally pop up in the mainstream, more as a reference than a presented artist. He performed once on "Saturday Night Live" in 1980. I remember Dr. Johnny Fever back-announcing "Bat Chain Puller" one night on "WKRP in Cincinnati."

That's where to start, if you're the brave type. "Shiny Beast (Bat Chain Puller)" was a re-recorded set from 1978 that's about as easily digestible as the gristly Beefheart gets. (The original recordings from '76 have been bootlegged; an official release from the Zappa archives has been rumored for years, and Wikipedia even says it's coming next month. Don't hold your breath.) His 1969 opus, "Trout Mask Replica," is his great masterpiece, hailed by Rolling Stone at No. 58 in its list of the world's 500 greatest albums (and including downstater Mark Boston on bass). Lennon once said, "Avant garde is French for bullsh--." But Lennon also had a "Trout Mask Replica" promo sticker on a filing cabinet in the Dakota.

His most accessible song, "My Head Is My Only House Unless It Rains"

Beefheart and band performing "Bat Chain Puller" on French TV

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This page contains a single entry by Thomas Conner published on December 20, 2010 8:00 AM.

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