Song written by Don Van Vliet and performed by Captain Beefheart and His Magic Band
The comedian Marc Maron does a routine where he talks about waking up one morning and realizing that today is the day that he is going to get into Captain Beefheart. All his life has been preparing him for this moment. In some ways, this blog series has been an extended exploration of life as preparation for moments, be they moments of inspiration or moments of exultation.
Certainly, Captain Beefheart is not something that can be approached lightly. It’s the aural equivalent of reading Franz Kafka or looking at Jackson Pollack. I’m not suggesting that any of these are necessarily highbrow entertainment or even that they lack entertainment value – only that they are such a response to the world around them that it may be difficult to find them funny or comprehensible without context.
Soon as anyone brings up context when I’m approaching a work of art, I cringe because I don’t want to work. The dirty secret about context is the other secret shared by Kafka, Pollack and Beefheart: the context for their art is the lives that we have lived. Kafka requires a minimal degree of experience with bureaucracy and Pollack is helped by looking at some paintings, though merely imagining that the world around us could be framed is potentially sufficient.
Beefheart does ask that we listen to the radio for a few hours. You just need to know what his music is reacting to. Then you start listening to Trout Mask Replica. Pretty much the first words that follow are, “That’s different.”
Your experience may vary,
but it is highly likely that your response will be tied to your comfort level with “different” as well as just how different it seems. Some days, we can be ready for John Cage and Ubu Roi. Other times, Kraftwerk is a step too far.
Hopefully, many moments fill life. John Campbell wanted us to find our bliss, but that feels like a plateau. Reaching a good place is a blessing. For better or worse, I like a view that changes. Still, there is a wide difference between the view on a long walk in my neighborhood and an early morning walk in Chennai.
Don Van Vliet heard this music first and then managed to convince other people to help create the recordings. The question had to be whether or not it was a bridge too far. A few years ago, I heard a well known Hollywood director talking about a widely-disparaged and generally unpopular film that he had made. He was at a party once when someone approached and told him how much the film had meant to her. He remained undecided about whether the effort had been worth it. Even so, he deeply appreciated the connection made with someone.
Captain Beefheart never sold a massive amount of records. They truly had to land on the prepared set of ears at the proper moment. The question that I would ask Beefheart and his co-conspirators: is it more of a surprise that you were so widely ignored or so widely embraced?
What’s it all about?
You’ve Got to Check This Out is a blog series about music, words, and all sorts of artistic matters. It started with an explanation. 128 more to go.
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