There's a good reason that so many members of the public see music critics as twerps: Plenty of us are. Scribes with pretentious stripes routinely disregard the stuff that real people enjoy hearing (regardless of its quality or lack thereof) in favor of the outré (regardless of its quality or lack thereof). It's difficult to pin down why such a considerable percentage of our fraternity reacts in this manner, although being mistreated by football players in high school probably has a lot to do with it. But in the end, the predictability of these responses undermines the opinions such writers are so determined to express. The more full-of-themselves reviewers huff and puff about the greatness of some obscurity, the more apt the typical reader is to turn on some Shania Twain.
Given this seldom-acknowledged truth, there's something almost poignant about the rapturous notices that have greeted the sudden cascade of previously unreleased and/or newly reissued material by Don Van Vliet, more commonly known as Captain Beefheart. The Captain, after all, is the quintessential critic's baby -- a guy who's so widely revered by arbiters of hipness that his name has become an adjective (how many songs have you heard described as "Beefheartian"?), despite the fact that the majority of his albums never made it further than the lower reaches of the Billboard charts. Of course, sales success is hardly a barometer of excellence; otherwise, the Backstreet Boys would be the finest act of the late Nineties. But no matter how many music journalists rave about the Cap, he'll never be widely embraced by consumers. All but a few of his creations are too flat-out weird for that, and his occasional attempts to smooth out his rough edges for mass consumption come across as aesthetic and conceptual missteps.
At the same time, simply dismissing Beefheart as an insignificant fringe character isn't justified, either. Van Vliet, who stopped making albums after 1982's Ice Cream for Crow in order to concentrate on painting, stands as a considerable influence on acts as disparate as Devo and Tom Waits, and while a little of his music can go a long way, his best stuff is raw, intriguing and funny folk art that rips through boundaries with casual aplomb. But unfortunately, the latest additions to the Beefheart oeuvre don't present his attributes in a cogent manner. Grow Fins: Rarities (1965-1982), a five-CD boxed set on Revenant, Safe as Milk and The Mirror Man Sessions, a pair of reissues put out by Buddha, and the two-disc Rhino Records compilation The Dust Blows Forward fail to capture the scattershot energy and charming madness that permeate such albums as 1969's Trout Mask Replica, 1970's Lick My Decals Off, Baby and 1980's Doc at the Radar Station. Perhaps because Van Vliet wasn't involved in assembling any of them, they are unable, for a variety of reasons, to get to the heart of the Beef.
Grow Fins certainly comes in a lavish package, complete with a colorful, 112-page mini-book featuring an essay by Rolling Stone regular David Fricke and interview collages overseen by longtime Beefheart drummer John French, aka Drumbo. But Beefheart's absence turns the package into a tale told by others -- Citizen Beefheart, if you will -- and the attempts by the supporting musicians to claim credit for assorted songs gives off an unpleasant scent. Van Vliet, during the days when he granted interviews, tended to imply that his songs sprang full-grown from his Zeus-like brow, even though he received collaborative assistance from bassist Roy Estrada, guitarist Jeff Moris Tepper, keyboardist Eric Drew Feldman and a slew of equally gifted and innovative instrumentalists. But there's no question that his vision shaped the overall sound, and to nitpick about who came up with what melody or riff is ultimately pointless.
The music on Fins doesn't deserve the same descriptive, but it puts forth a very incomplete picture of Beefheart's range. Disc one, covering the years 1965 to 1967, finds Van Vliet in the guise of a commercially viable blues rocker, and he does a decent impersonation. But if his gruff, untutored voice is still worth hearing even when he's sticking closely to the melody, the material seems fairly pedestrian: "Just Got Back From the City" is a standard choogler; "I'm Glad" could be the work of just about any bluesy balladeer; and both "Yellow Brick Road" and "Plastic Factory" paint by the numbers. The second CD changes that equation somewhat, with two renditions of "Electricity" introducing Van Vliet trademarks such as shifting vocal tones and structural anomalies and a demo of "Korn Ring Finger" mating a jazzy bass line and a field holler. But "Rollin n Tumblin" and "Yer Gonna Need Somebody on Yer Bond," though raucous, tend toward commonplace blues jamming.
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For its part, the box's third disc collects a series of mainly instrumental work tapes in an effort to prove that Beefheart and company shaped the songs from Trout Mask Replica in advance rather than simply vomiting them out in the studio (a matter of largely academic interest), and CD four supplements some curious footage viewable on computer with just over twelve minutes' worth of Van Vliet and buddy Victor Hayden jabbering with a neighbor as a typewriter taps in the background. That leaves only disc five, a wide-ranging compilation of live offerings and demos from 1969 to 1982, to provide anything approaching a legitimate overview and consistent listening pleasure. Among the highlights are a tumultuous 1971 run-through of "When Big Joan Sets Up"; a folkie-friendly 1975 reconsideration of "Orange Claw Hammer"; and "My Human Gets Me Blues," which longtime Beefheart associate Frank Zappa introduces by saying, "Be quiet and pay attention to this man's music, because if you don't, you might miss something important." Too bad more of Grow Fins doesn't bear out this warning.
Safe as Milk and Mirror Man are better listens -- well-recorded (the former was produced by, of all people, Richard Perry, who went on to work with Ringo Starr and the Pointer Sisters) and filled with consistently decent songs and a generous supply of bonus tracks. But both date from 1967, when Van Vliet was only beginning to develop the wild blend of blues, free jazz and freakiness that would set him apart from pretty much everyone else on the planet. The primary selections on Milk are predominantly concise and to the point (many are reminiscent of the quirkier items on Lenny Kaye's Sixties garage tribute, Nuggets), and the occasional eccentricity, like the mincing middle section of the aptly monikered "Dropout Boogie," are more interesting as harbingers of the future than they are in and of themselves. Mirror Man, meanwhile, is a rambling excursion that was originally conceived as a live-in-the-studio companion to Milk. The results aren't bad, but neither are they revelatory. Anyone who thinks they have a handle on Beefheart after listening to these albums is badly misinformed.
The Dust Blows Forward casts a wider net, kicking off with "Diddy Wah Diddy," the 1966 cover that actually got Van Vliet on pop-radio stations in Southern California, and concluding with "Lights Reflected Off the Oceands of the Moon," an instrumental B-side from the Ice Cream for Crow era. It also benefits from sleek liner notes by Barry Alfonso that brim with easy-to-access Beefheart trivia. (Examples: Van Vliet's first producer was David Gates, who went on to warble in the half-baked group Bread, and slide master Ry Cooder was once a part of his Magic Band.) But great stuff from Trout Mask ("Ella Guru," "Old Fart at Play"), Decals (the title song, "I Wanna Find a Woman That'll Hold My Big Toe Till I Have to Go") and Doc ("Ashtray Heart," "Making Love to a Vampire With a Monkey on My Knee") often appears alongside watered-down material Beefheart hoped would make him marketable, and the juxtapositions can be uncomfortable. Some of his concessions don't feel like total sellouts: "Nowadays a Woman's Gotta Hit a Man" (originally heard on 1972's Clear Spot, which was produced by Ted Templeman, of Van Halen and Doobie Brothers fame) is a terrific number, and "Bat Chain Puller," off of 1978's Shiny Beast (Bat Chain Puller), doesn't pull as many punches as it seems at first blush. But "Upon the My-O-My," a 1974 single, is enough to make a Beefheart lover's teeth ache, and "Hard Workin' Man," from the soundtrack of the 1978 movie Blue Collar, is only marginally better. Including such songs may be defensible from a historical standpoint, but that doesn't make them any more entertaining or enlightening to hear.
Van Vliet is obviously an artist who is best taken on his own terms, meaning that interested parties should try getting to know him by picking up albums put together by him rather than someone else. Anything else is good mainly to give critics something to gush about -- so feel free to ignore their superlatives. As if you hadn't already.