O Captain, My Captain — Shiny Beast (Bat Chain Puller)

Ben Bush


When Tom Waits’ Bone Machine first came out my favorite song on it was “She’s Such a Scream” and I played it for my father on one of his visits, He commented that it sounded like that guy had been listening to a lot of Beefheart. I took this as a bit of a dismissal of my discovery of this new treasure but it came to be useful advice. Up to that point, Captain Beefheart had been the cacophonous sound on the other side of Dylan cassettes on family car trips. I wasn’t at all sure I liked it but somehow this comment helped me to come around. Not long after I did some tape trades with a research chemist, who I’d met through an internet bulletin board. We’d meet up and dub tapes. He gave me copies of Trout Mask Replica (his bonus tracks included the Dead Kennedys’ “Too Drunk to Fuck” and Naked City’s cover of “T.V. Eye”) and a cassette of Shiny Beast (Bat Chain Puller) and Doc at the Radar Station. I used to listen to Trout Mask Replica on endless repeat while doing my math homework and drinking cup after cup of cocoa with instant coffee added in. The music and the math started to blend together and I felt like I was understanding the math in a really deep, subterranean way only to find when we corrected the answers in class that I’d gotten everything wrong. I spent that summer at the place where my dad was staying with his girlfriend out in Clayton, California in Contra Costa County a suburb of the already suburban Concord. My father was selling fire-proof roofs door-to-door in the wake of the 1991 Oakland fires, in which the Bay Area’s eucalyptus trees had burned and begun exploding like popcorn. Sparks landed on the roofs of houses and caused the fire to spread quickly destroying over 3,000 homes. That summer we’d drive around looking for houses with bad roofs, particularly old wood shake shingle roofs and then leave flyers or sometimes he’d knock on the door and talk to the owner. You started to develop an eye for it where you would kind of be looking for it any time you were driving through a neighborhood. Sometimes we’d park and we’d each take half the neighborhood leaving flyers on peoples’ doors. He’d recently shared with me a tape of a KPFA radio program of Captain Beefheart outtakes. The host of the program was guitarist Henry Kaiser, one of the descendents of the Kaiser family known for cars and health insurance and right now is maybe best known for soundtracking the Werner Herzog Antarctica documentary. Kaiser had played with some of the musicians from Beefheart’s Magic Band including John French (“Drumbo”), who had often served as Beefheart’s interpreter to the rest of the band. Beefheart (Don Van Vliet) often made tapes of himself singing the different melodies and drum patterns and the French would have to interpret and explain these to the rest of the band. Beefheart had invented mnemonics to help the band remember the rhythms, including memorably the Peckaro Pete drum lick, which is to the rhythm of “uh-uh-and-a-peckaro-pete” and is used on Trout Mask Replica‘s “Ant Man Bee” among others. Great outtakes like the kind of latin-rhythmed “Odd Jobs” from the record label dispute-blocked lost album Bat Chain Puller but also blistering horn-less version of the endlessly inventive “Suction Prints.” A lot of covers of old blues songs. I’d listen to the on headphones while walking around and flyering stucco housing developments in sidewalk-less cul-de-sacs and often intense summer heat. Every time I listen to that tape I almost smell a certain scent of Glade that my dad’s girlfriend at the time used in their home. I often iamgined interning or hanging out with Beefheart in the undisclosed location where he was spending his retirement, where he was rumored to be slowly losing abilities due to multiple sclerosis. I’m not sure what I imagined would happen but probably some kind of celestial spiritual impulse or brilliance would be transferred to me. (At the time I had similar plans for working with Laurie Anderson at her SoHo loft.) The only thing I’d heard about his retirement was that it was in a desert California town (I always pictured a trailer) and that whales could be seen occasionally, which in retrospect seems like almost a mutually exclusive combination. At that time I was a firm believer in some of the (often self-invented) mythos around Beefheart, that he had written the entirety of the two-disc Trout Mask in a single 8-hour stretch, immediately after awaking from 24 asleep and rumors that he’d had to change his name after robbing some stores in the central valley. The stories about him and Zappa staying up all night eating Hawaiian bread from Zappa’s uncle’s (father’s?) bread truck (bakery?) listening to blues 45s, always reminded me of how my buddy Jascha would stay up late listening to strange music in the company of his arm-less army-fatigued mannequin while sometimes making our own cut’n’paste sound collages or playing homemade instruments. There’s the other famous stories, right? Beefheart driving around the central valley with a wolf head he’d sculpted attached to the hood of his car, the band living and starving together in a large house while creating Trout Mask Replica, which include stories of Beefheart as a kind of dictatorial band leader similar to James Brown (who famously would fine his musician’s pay checks every time they made a mistake) only much more so. Beefheart reportedly locked one of the musicians in a closet for several hours while he was on acid and played the same blues 45 again and again until he could convince Beefheart that he he really, truly understood the song yet. His odd stage name reportedly was what one of Zappa’s relatives would call his dick. “It looks just like a beef heart,” he’d say. The Beefheart-Zappa comparisons often seem a little overstated but the one that often seemed very apt to me was when some associate of theirs commented, “Zappa worked really hard on his music but Beefheart just played and played and played.” This always seemed to me a really beautiful version of creativity. Beefheart’s music always had so much earthiness and heart while Zappa’s seemed mostly clever. There were stories about how on the Bongo Fury tour they did together, when Beefheart was broke and had alienated most of his musicians and ended up on vocals in Zappa’s band that he had everything he owned in plastic shopping bags. At some point I made an odd illustrated version of the lyrics to the Beefheart song, “1,010th Day of the Human Totem” and sent a copy to Camden Joy, who was writing his strange ranting religious tracts about Frank Black, Al Green and Souled American. Camden wrote back that when he’d seen Beefheart play many years earlier the Beef had been “coked to the gills,” a phrase I’d never heard before. I guess knowing Zappa’s famous claims to be drug-free (“Don’t do speed. It will make you act like your parents.”) I was somehow surprised and disappointed to hear about Beefheart on drugs. I wanted to believe in being creative and very eccentric without reliance on drugs. (A complicated question of course, but I do feel like that whole idea of the artist as self-destructive, partially insane genius has done a lot more damage that good.) One of the things I liked about Beefheart was that, while Zappa was drawing on a lot of 20th century orchestral composition and other sources, Beefheart was listening to the same bunch of blues songs that all of the other bands of that day were but took this same source material and did something utterly different with it, putting it together in totally unexpected ways. I was recently listening to rap group Das Racist’s album Sit Down, Man and was surprised to hear a Beefheart shout out, some variation of his line, “A squid eating dough in a polyethylene bag is fast’n’bulbous, got me?” This is from one of his most ecstatic songs “Pachuco Cadaver,” particularly the section that fills the final two and a half minutes  To feel absolutely crazily alive, one need do no more than listen to the frenetic first minute of “Dirty Blue Gene” or the transitional section of “Veteran’s Day Poppies.” Thanks for everything, Don. May the death’s of our heroes remind us, not necessarily to perpetuate their legacies and styles, but to rise up to the level of engagement and explosive creativity that they demonstrated. -BB