Don Van Vliet, aka Captain Beefheart, died last Friday at the age of 69. He hadn't made any new music in more than 25 years By that point, having retired from rock and returned to his initial artistic avenue, painting, back in 1983. Of course, By that point, the damage had been done.
He'd been releasing albums since the late '60s, and if he never achieved commercial success, the folks who love his completely freakish music -- many of whom formed bands, as the old saw goes -- probably don't care.
Many fine remembrances of Beefheart have been published in the week since his death, but this isn't one of those. Rather, it seems prudent to concentrate here on just where the Beefheart influence lurks in the present tense.
Things are starting to get weird and often wonderful again, particularly in the dark corners and damp basements of the non-pop world. It seems like Beefheart's barking-mad growl can be heard echoing off in the distance every time some new, young band decides to delve into the organized chaos of cacophony and turn their backs on the easy path of musical normality.
Before we start, let me suggest that, if you've never heard Beefheart, you should immediately purchase a copy of "The Dust Blows Forward -- An Anthology," thoroughly digest it, and then and only then purchase "Trout Mask Replica." Yes, all of your family and friends will be immediately convinced that you've lost your mind, should they happen to overhear you playing this stuff. Isn't it wonderful that there is still rock music that might actually upset people, rather than urging them to aerobocize in a disco-type environment? I feel rather deeply that it is.
Believe it or not, Beefheart's contemporaries seemed to be listening to him. Frank Zappa loved him, was his high school pal, recorded and produced him, hired him later when he was down on his luck, and generally championed the man; members of the Grateful Dead, Jethro Tull, Hawkwind, Husker Du and Pere Ubu sung the praises of the Beefheart/Magic Band approach.
Of the folks currently making and releasing records who bear the unmistakable mark of the Beefheart, the most obvious and oldest is Tom Waits. Waits has always semed to implicitly understand the marriage of DaDaism, surrealism, Beat poetry, dissonance, blues, garage rock, and avant-garde classical music that was Van Vliet and his Magic Band's stock-in-trade. This is most obvious, and thrillingly so, on the period beginning with Waits' "Swordfishtrombones" album and continuing through to the present day.
If you listen to the truly bizarre, but completely excellent young band Akron/Family, you will know immediately that these folks have spent some time trying to fit the "Trout Mask Replica" onto their skullcaps. There's just no missing it. The herky-jerky to-and-fro of alt-rock Renaissance act Franz Ferdinand might seem an odd place to go rooting about for the Captain's touch, but it is indeed there, if you dig. Alex Kapranos of that band told the Guardian UK that Beefheart was "very much an influence" on his band's stuff.
One of 2010's best and most buzzed-about rock albums, the Black Keys' "Brothers," simply hums with the disturbing electricity of early-period Beefheart, circa "Safe As Milk." The psychotic appropriation of Howlin' Wolf-style electric blues from Chicago is the grail from which the Keys surely slake their thirst. This activity certainly accounts for Jack White's entire career, too.
When you listen to a Phish tune like, say, "David Bowie" or "Fee," in the blend of the familiar and the strange, the consonant and the avant-garde, you can hear Beefheart giggling somewhere in the mix. Or you can at least imagine you do.
That so much modern music reflects the influence of an artist who spent his entire artistic life going against the grain can't fail but give one hope. Beefheart -- who, By the way, has never even been nominated for the Rock and Roll Hall Of Fame -- didn't sell too many records. Apparently, the ones he did sell were the ones that counted, though.
As Waits told the Guardian UK last week, "Once you've heard Beefheart, it's hard to wash him out of your clothes. It stains, like coffee or blood."