Tonguing Meaning 5: Captain Beefheart

Don Van Vliet: «Stand Up to Be Discontinued» EP [.zip]
  1. Fallin' Ditch
  2. The Tired Plain
  3. Skeleton Makes Good
  4. Safe Sex Drill
  5. Tulip
  6. Gil
Even more annoying than the hype surrounding mediocre artists in the mainstream is the hyping of overrated underground legends at the hands of cultural elitists. Captain Beefheart is the stuff of legends. His name (and the myths surrounding it) are far better known than his music. Why? Because the tall tales—the Cap'n taking impressionable young musicians practically hostage, his sect-like regime causing post-traumatic stress disorder in some—are more entertaining than his music.

Not that he set out to entertain us with his cerebral attempts at artistic innovation. Still, the genuflection at the feet of his asexual, heartless mathematical jazz rock and his faux-Surreal aphorisms by chin scratching, would-be cultural subversives (read: music lovers living in their mother's basement) has a tendency to deafen even the din of his musical output.

[Garage-era Magic Band playing desert blues on a sandy Cannes beach.]

That said, Safe as Milk is a rocking garage record to be reckoned with, and the Cap'n's late-'70s/early-'80s albums abound with the kind of demented spazzticity that the fashionable New Wave bands at the time so wished—alas!—that they could summon up. As for Trout Mask Replica, the album that made (and still makes) Beefheart's name, leave that to the musicologists and the jazzturbators. (And to people who listen to music for the novelty, obscurity or shock value. Yeah, yeah, so the Cap'n is «eccentric». How does that imbue his work with validity, again?)

[New Wave-era Magic Band playing desert blues in, er, the desert.]

The Cap'n, as much as his adoring fans, seems to consider himself something of an artistic genius. He's not—even though he has made up for himself a distinct sound unlike that of anyone else. The Cap'n will never appeal to a larger audience, not because he's misunderstood or because he's too special for the average population (people who are, by definition, mediocre), but because his songs aren't generally valid to the human experience. For some, maybe. But for most it's gibberish. And grating, at that.

But Trout Mask Replica doesn't sit in untold snobs' bookshelves for absolutely no reason. The Cap'n has his moments. He even has a way with words—although they don't strike heart strings, the gut or your funny bone. They miss all those, but hit everywhere else, which causes a strange sensation. Briefly. Before you move on to something great.

Toilet Guppies endeavours to spread audio otherwise unavailable to consumers, while avoiding to post stuff that's out of print or deleted simply because it's shit. Sometimes it's a tightrope walk. These spoken word pieces by Don Van Vliet—the Cap'n's real name—are not shit. Well, two out of the six readings («Fallin' Ditch» and «Gil») aren't; the Toilet Guppies jury is out on the other four. But I can safely recommend those two. Sure, I don't listen to them when I'm crying in the shower, but there's a certain quality there that his fans, I'm sure, would call «je ne sais quois». And we all know what that means.

But I've been a bit harsh here. Legend has it that in the early 1970s, Beefheart's long-suffering backing band had had enough of artsy-fartsy obscurity and cornered the Cap'n into recording a more accessible album. The results—Clear Spot and The Spotlight Kid—are some of the Beefheart's best and least wanky albums. See what I mean on this groovy German TV performance:


  1. se me esta haciendo imposible conseguir algun disco de Paula Frazer. Tal vez vos sepas.

    Imposible to me for finding an any Paula Frazer album. Maybe you know where.

    Excusweme for errors. (

  2. Sorry, Melisma, I hadn't heard of Paula Frazer until you left your comment. But I'll keep an eye out...