Captain Beefheart vs. Adam Flynn

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I mentioned we were going to see Gary Lucas‘s “Captain Beefheart Symposium” at the Independent, and by way of explanation — or maybe Adam asked — I added that Gary had played guitar on Beefheart’s final album. To which my punkass 24-year-old co-worker replied, “You mean, Ice Cream for Crow?”

“The fuck you know Captain Beefheart, let alone a specific record from 1982?!?”

And that’s where it started.

Talk about Beefheart and you’re talking about things way beyond music. In fact, a lot of people — some quantifiably un-square (Mr. P.) — still can’t stand the music, even if they respect the man. A lot of others never listened (but in both cases, the word “lot” must be understood in a rigorously relative context — the universe of the Beefheart-aware being larger than the universe of East River Pipe fans and smaller than the faniverse of the Pixies, whom Beefheart influenced). You’re talking about a cultural significance that derives, as much as anything, from the unreplicably delightful title and indelible record jacket for Trout Mask Replica, the deadpan comedy of (some) song titles (“A Carrot Is As Close As A Rabbit Gets to a Diamond”), even the martial whimsy of the band name, not to mention the flamboyant ravings of critics — mostly pro, but con, too — some of whom meant it.

One who meant it, Lester Bangs, had ears and eyes beyond mine and called Beefheart “one of the four or five unqualified geniuses to rise from the hothouses of American music in the Sixties” and backed it up to the hilt in many reviews and at least one profile.

Most of all, the Cap’s cultural impact derives from that moment when everyone who was, is or ever will be cool tried to listen to one of the records and failed, a few tracks in, leaving Beefheart to stand as a permanent challenge to everything musical that would come after in their cultural journey and forever cast his shadow on their cool.

At least, that was my passage. But, owing to knowing Gary, my passage continued, a forced march based on personal obligation, until one day, more than 40 years after Trout Mask, I arrived at a place where I wanted to listen to nothing but Captain Beefheart. For weeks, I reveled in the untamed words, explosive juxtapositions, fractured rhythms, defiant non-rhythms and anti-pop non-melodies, the strange, but unmistakable, Delta roots, the unexpected contemporary echoes (not just straight-up influence — Waits, Devo, Deerhoof — not just freak-flag standard-bearing, but the big and little Beefheartian choices that, consciously or unconsciously, countless modern bands make), the surprising technical sophistication serving implacably stubborn primitivism, the intensity, joy, anger, audacity, the voice. Nirvana (the state of grace, not the band)! I had arrived, cool at last.

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