Experiencing Captain Beefheart always has felt like a bit of an acid trip to me.
Shape-shifting, mysterious and occasionally frenzied, Don van Vliet’s gravel-voiced Beefheart persona and his aptly named Magic Band, like painters on bad bread, spread all of the colors of the rainbow and then some across the musical/muse-ical ceiling, then proceed to tear down the house and rebuild it brick by brick. It’s an exercise, even a kind of performance art, in audio deconstruction and psychedelia, to be sure, but to call this “psychedelic rock” is amazingly reductive – and just plain wrong. In van Vliet’s able hands, psych-rock, the Mississippi Delta blues and free jazz — even touches of 70s funk and 50s beat poetry — all blend on the palette into something quite unlike anything you have seen (or heard, to muddy the metaphor) before. And you either see the light or you don’t. These are not soundtracks and visions for the in-between.
Enter Sun Zoom Spark: 1970 to 1972, the recently issued Rhino box-set/gemstone that collects three LPs and a smorgasbord of outtakes. Cue it: amazing, mind-bending stuff, without question in re-issue of the year territory.
On the discs, we find ourselves in the months and years immediately following the landmark Trout Mask Replica, most listeners’ front door to van Vliet’s house of colors, and Captain Beefheart and his merry mischief-makers spasm and soar in top form without a break for air and whatever drug(s) of choice fueled these fantastical compositions. The first disc – a remastered Lick My Decals Off, Baby – is alone worth the price of admission, offering the lug-and-lurch freak-out title track, the bluesy “I Wanna Find A Woman That’ll Hold My Big Toe Till I Have To Go” and the percussive but percussionless thrum of “Peon.” Then there’s the “classical” acoustics of “One Rose That I Mean” and – apologies here to the Zappa/van Vliet competition trackers, who will recognize FZ collaborator Art Tripp on marimba – the Zappa-esque vibraphonics of “Woe-Is-Uh-Me-Bop.” Not a blank shot is discharged and we’re all the better for it.
I could spend a lot of time waxing poetic about Captain Beefheart’s “sound” on vinyl or the sonic fidelity of the new master tracks, which I previewed on CD, as well as via compressed digital files. It’s worth a grain of salt or so. Nonetheless, Spotlight Kid stand-outs like the funky “I’m Gonna Booglarize You, Baby” and the hypnotic “Click Clack” have never sounded better, and I’ll stand by that statement next to the analog-philes. The guitar intro to “Too Much Time,” for example, sounds positively contemporary and the verses that follow it — complete with bongos, backing vocals and fairly conventional horn arrangements, especially by Beefheart standards — punch through your speakers just itching to be soaked up by your ears.
Elsewhere, van Vliet sounds more like a soothsayer than solely (solely?!) a deliverer of sonic pastiche; parts of the Clear Spot-closing “Golden Birdies” – and I’m not just talking about van Vliet’s spit-take delivery – and the bottom-end drive behind “Glider” seem to hint at the origins of punk and proto-punk, for Christ’s sake. And that says nothing of how van Vliet provides a storied career avenue for the seemingly inimitable Tom Waits, who provides some prose in the liner notes, on the twisted carnivalesque of “The Spotlight Kid.” Critics like Lester Bangs don’t drop terms like dadaist and genius on everyone, dontcha’ know?
The out-takes disc, 14 songs in all, also is replete with more and more and more diamonds in the rough, from an instrumental “The Witch Doctor Life” to an alternate take on the epic “Alice In Blunderland” (only Captain Beefheart could capture a song of this scope in less than four minutes) and two versions of “Dirty Blue Gene” that would be nearly unrecognizable if they faced each other in the mirror. The angular “Kiss Where I Kain’t,” a bassy blues walk over funk guitars that just begs for the Captain’s rough-throated bark (but never gets it, goddamn), steals the scene. As does the somber-ish “jazz” ballad “Harry Irene,” with its spare acoustic shuffling over van Vliet’s laments.
Much energy and word-power has been spent delineating van Vliet’s bizarro-world dictionary of pop and sub/counter-cultural contexts/reference points, and trying to make hay of how a man who cited Howlin’ Wolf and Bing Crosby as “influences” could sound this out there. Sure, sure. And some might say that Beefheart is an acquired taste. I’ll bite. But Sun Zoom Spark, against either point, firms up the argument that Captain Beefheart and His Magic Band clearly were onto something more than drug-delirium experimentation. This is a constructed genius. Its four discs still pack a wallop four decades later, as no successor to the Beefheart mantle, sans maybe Waits, has stepped to the fore. And, baby, it still wails, hella guru. O Captain, My Captain, indeed.