Wednesday, November 22, 2017

The Camel Wore a Nightie: Appreciating the Artful Music of Frank Zappa and Captain Beefheart

Frank Zappa and Don Van Vliet (aka Captain Beefheart).

“Musical structure? I think it’s really a laugh. Frankly, I don’t see what you need all those sandbags for, just to keep your river in place . . . ”
– Don Van Vliet (aka Captain Beefheart)
Back when I was still living in Toronto, before moving to Vancouver, when we could still see more of each other, my good friend Kevin Courrier and I used to enjoy arguing about drastically different kinds of music and films. Though we also shared many favourites of the same genres, and though our arguments were only pretend in nature, we often enjoyed disputing the merits of films that told human stories in a narrative way viewers could relate to their own lives (his preference) versus films that were cold, antiseptic visual experiments of a photographic and philosophical nature (my preference).

Being a fine film critic, of course, he did embrace many highly demanding and experimental cinematic achievements, as long as they privileged the art (the tale) over the artist (the teller), whereas I was always more accepting of the morbidly self-indulgent and self-absorbed (even solipsistic) filmmakers who eschewed the audience altogether in favour of their own personal visions. I remember with great delight one disagreement about the way in which visual artist/directors such as Tarkovsky or Angelopolous, or Greenaway, say, would appear to set up their camera and simply walk away, allowing us to stare at a tree for what felt like a small eternity. I saw movies as a form of painting with film.

I recall once driving him crazy with the admittedly silly claim that, as far as I was concerned, it was perfectly okay for a clearly self-obsessed director such as Werner Herzog to cause the deaths of a few extras on the mountain while filming Fitzcarraldo (with fellow loony Kinksi) as long as it resulted in that amazing finished artifact. It was a remark delivered only half tongue-in-cheek but it proved very effective (to roil and rile up a close friend) at the time I intoned nit. I’ll admit that I’ve since softened my icy solipsistic tone and my apparent allegiance to works of art that are hyper-subjective and massively obsessive.

Bongo Fury by Frank Zappa and Captain Beefheart, 1974.
Courrier, who along with his late friend David Churchill was one of the founders of Critics At Large, and I, perhaps best known as an art critic, also loved to pretend to clash over which side of the Frank Zappa canon should be taken more or most seriously. I would often elaborate a stern disdain for what I facetiously termed his “comedy music,” the satirical jibes at pop culture that he delivered so incisively, and I maintained a preference for his “serious music,” either the serious rock with less banter, or the serious neo-classical with no lyrics at all. So in a way, the same clash of friendly sentiments can also be identified in a collision of drastically acquired tastes such as Zappa and his frequently bonkers collaborator Don Van Vliet.

If Frank was the Fellini of rock music, then I imagined Van Vliet, an expressionistic painter better known by his performance art persona, Captain Beefheart, until he retired from music in disgust in the eighties, would have been the Herzog of rock music. I also claimed that Zappa’s true greatness rested solely in his lava guitar style (I was a big fan of his multiple disc-sets called Shut Up and Play Yer Guitar) and that his highest achievements were Hot Rats (spectacularly featuring Beefheart), Weasels Ripped My Flesh, and Chunga’s Revenge, and, maybe on a good day, Waka Jawaka (followed later by The Perfect Stranger with Pierre Boulez, and by his London Symphony and Ensemble Modern experiments).

Luckily for both Kevin and me, we agreed that a true mountain peak in both their rocky careers was Zappa’s inspired production of Trout Mask Replica for Don, as well as Bat Chain Puller (Shiny Beast) and their mid-'70s tour together, resulting in the furious frenzy of Bongo Fury. Just as unfortunately for all the rest of us, Don (the outsider artist par excellence who likely suffered from Asperger's Syndrome) ended up turning on Frank (an eccentric but quite grounded genius who may have been criminally sane) in a pretty clearly paranoid manner. They went their separate ways, with Don beefing about Frank for the rest of his life, a life made somewhat more bearable after he left the music industry (which he hated because it never gave him the Grammy Award he thought he deserved . . . yes, he was that nuts) and made quite a successful career in the so-called serious art world, with serious dealers and serious collectors acclaiming his primitive but eminently serious art brut status.

Cat’s Got His Tail by Don Van Vliet, 1995.

But fortunately, given their stormy soap opera-like relationship, some of that bad mojo weather resulted in some remarkable music made in tandem. Trout Mask Replica, a seminal record released in the seminal musical year of 1969, is certainly one of the least known records in pop history, and yet it’s also one of the most oddly influential and permanently inspiring. Composed, if that word can be used to describe the process, by one of the most iconoclastic and certifiable musicians to ever reach a relatively mainstream audience, Captain Beefheart, and produced by the certified visionary Frank Zappa, perhaps a better known but still rarefied and acquired taste, it stands as both an epochal artistic achievement and a dark testament to the vagaries of a creative marriage made in hell.

What was the nature of the unique musical partnership Van Vliet had with Frank Zappa? What is the alluring creative fascination we have for their amazingly fertile collaborations today? What did their partnership bring into being that simply wouldn’t have existed in either of their separate careers, as fruitful, diverse, and long as they both were? They seemed to play a wild and wacky game called double solitaire.

Why did their volatile relationship, originating in the teenage wastelands of the California desert, result in such breathtakingly original “rock” music that it requires a new label to even describe it, and yet their personal demons could not permit ongoing growth or shared artistic development? Why did the same kind of creative tensions, and even violent collisions, that seemed to fuel so many other musical teams (The Stones or The Who, for instance) fail to similarly cohere or coalesce in the weirdly unique case of Beefheart and Zappa?

Their twisted story is largely about a fierce debate from both creative camps: those who believe Zappa was a sinister Svengali figure manipulating the tortured genius of Don Van Vliet into playing the role of Captain Beefheart, and those who believe Van Vliet was a true original beyond definition who lent (some would sold) his distressed aura to the gifted producer who would bring him in, ever so briefly, from the musical wilderness. The fact is that, like most troubling questions which probe the reality behind the theatre, both scenarios are equally true.

1969.

To explore these two titans through the lens of a biographical portrait of their lives and work together is also to study the strange meanings of what it is to be an outsider, to be The Outsider, in our popular culture. The reason they both merged so beautifully and then clashed so horribly, over and over again, is quite simply that they are each only one side of the outsider coin. And by studying their characters, and their lively and challenging music made together, we have the opportunity to explore and understand that peculiarly unique “brand” they both inadvertently manufactured.

It’s an image and a history that strikes a vital nerve in the core affections for the “outsider brand” of surreal folk music which rest at the heart of American consciousness and all its manifestations in our popular culture. For hidden at the core of the idea of America itself are the outsider myth and all the utopian by-products which that myth inspires.

Frank Zappa in 1969.
To become a brand is to evolve into a household name, but to be a household name, the identity of which defines the brand but is misunderstood in the promotional campaigns that sell it, is also to become a mythology. Both Zappa and Beefheart have perhaps the healthiest, most entertaining and least understood mythologies of our contemporary popular culture: they have become “flavours,” readily recognized by consumers scanning the menu of popular culture but now only distantly disconnected from the original food that supposedly provided that flavor.

Frank Zappa: the quintessential outsider who created an alternative distribution system for his experimental work, circumventing a stifling recording industry and miraculously succeeding in selling his satirical message of viable alternatives to the hippie culture and peace movement of his time. A sudden insider, he developed a counter-culture to the counter-culture, known to him as freak culture, and he secreted it in a tissue of complex “comedy music” which incorporated startling avant-garde techniques unknown even (or especially) to his mind-numbed audiences.

Then, he managed to rise to great heights as a producer and independent corporate entity, achieving opulent popular success, only to later reveal himself, ironically, as one of the great “serious” orchestral music composers of the twentieth century, thus garnering much posthumous critical acclaim as an American original along the lines of his precursors Edgard Varèse, Charles Ives and Conlon Nacarrow.

Equally ironic, perhaps, was just how flimsy and illusory the “hippie-peace movement” actually turned out to be, and how long-lasting Zappa’s contributions to freak culture have turned out to be, much to the chagrin of the flower-power folks he so mercilessly lampooned along the way. They were the ones who bought into Enron, after all, not he.

Don Van Vliet, circa 1973. (Photo: Ginny Winn)
Meanwhile, we have Captain Beefheart: an angel-headed hipster character played to perfection by his alter ego Don Van Vliet, a brilliant visual artist and musical innovator with staggering personal challenges, ranging from innocent dyslexia and mild autism to full-blown paranoia and carefully crafted psychosis. He came from a hybrid fine art/musical background, a direct descendant of the beat sensibility of the late 1950s, which merged perfectly with the Delta blues/free-form jazz/psychedelic styles of his Beefheart avatar persona.

He was an outsider even to his Master Outsider mentor, who honestly attempted to bring his brilliant but arcane music to a wider public: a volcanic talent which the impresario Zappa tried, quite honorably, I believe, to guide, galloping around the circus big top for as long as possible, before realizing that this particular horse, though a fine thoroughbred of rare breed, couldn’t play with the other horses and he had to head back out to the range (in his case to the desert) to be alone again, naturally.

But who was the mentor, who the student, who was the protégé and who the master, who was the inspiration and who the blessed recipient, and most importantly, just who was The Muse of whom? The answers lie embedded in that very uniqueness which made them a marvellous concoction, in their briefly magical, mutant historical moment in our popular culture. The answers are also in the mercenary machinations of a global musical industry intent on marketing itself into obsolescent irrelevance, especially at the expense of people who bore and wore this outsider brand so magnificently.

If, as one historian has suggested, we are shaped by the very stories that we try to shape into history, and thus we become a product of our own imaginations, then the classical myths of Zappa and Beefheart, both together and apart, are an ideal ground to till for this purpose.

Indeed, this startlingly original team of musical artists are also unlikely stand-ins for legitimate zeitgeist figures, people who capture the spirit of an age and seem to personify it (unless it is our myths about them which do so) in what the French (being French) call “mentalities”: a given society’s worldview and sensibility as reflected in the official fiction we call history. The critic Gerald Marzorati has recently described this phenomenon as a reflection also of “the more inward habits of thought and feeling as they develop among ordinary men and women during particular historical moments.” Therefore, to Zappa, Hot Rats was a “movie for your ears.”

Marzorati has also astutely pointed out that historians who explore “mentalities” are also doing the work we have come to expect from good novelists: delineating our cultural manifestations, practices and shifts, the jokes and fairy tales of a given epoch through the detailed stories of individuals, and showing how their personal stories inform our interior life. Most importantly to me, he has remarked that, “[a] hundred, two hundred years from now, a history of our mentalité might well want to investigate the role played by recordings of popular music.” By pop songs, in other words.

Dream Sloth by Don Van Vliet, 1988.

 And this path of investigation is perhaps equally important when studying the cultural contributions of these two undisputed kings of the outsider brand, especially in the case of Beefheart, whose music wasn’t necessarily as popular as Zappa’s, for obvious reasons, but which may be just as vital, and even more influential, in the long run. In that long run, an angry Van Vliet would reject the music industry entirely, retire and devote himself to the silent canvas, where his work as a painter garnered him even more success and notoriety.

Both players in this fascinating drama, at times an acid-soaked soap opera, were highly creative musicians with legitimate intentions as well as being the personification of everyone’s worst fears, for reasons not always easy to grasp. They often appear to be the Jekyll and Hyde sides of each other’s being, which might explain their early collaborations and later collisions. In some strange way each one wanted to be the other: Beefheart wanted legitimacy, recognition, success, even a Grammy, incredibly enough; while Zappa wanted to compose serious serial music and perform an avant-garde role in society similar to his boyhood heroes, Varèse and Anton Webern.

A collision course of mammoth proportions, one at par with Herzog-Kinski, Zappa and Van Vliet were also yet another tempestuous team of pop basket cases who used their fame to try and realize the brainiest dystopian dreams of the sixties. One of them actually succeeded in becoming independently wealthy and highly regarded; the other quit the performance stage and became an equally serious and successful life-performer, highly regarded but relatively unknown outside the visual art world.

Zappa was an awkward but superbly savvy outsider who became the consummate corporate player and entered the classical music pantheon; Beefheart was a paradoxical and probably autistic phenomenon, a lightning rod for extreme responses from every possible quarter, who gave it all up in a titanic rage and returned to his first love. Both were ideally American folk legends, together and apart. Zappa passed away in 1992, and Van Vliet joined him in 2010. They’re probably still arguing.

Dylisheus 1 (left) and Dylisheus 3 (right) by Don Van Vliet, 1984.

Their story is also a magnet of sorts, for all the wild and revolutionary energy, for the artists, musicians and social politics of the latter half of the twentieth century, and in the end, they have become an emblem themselves (whether they liked it or not) of the moment in time which created them, and the extraordinarily entertaining moment in time which they helped to create for the rest of us.

These two creatively competitive friends and enemies bestowed their brand on our popular culture more than half a century ago. We rewarded them with artistic blue ribbons certifying their contribution. By doing so, ironically, all of us became a living part of their wonky brand, unwittingly volunteering to serve as the willing satirical subjects they were skewering in their avant-garde laboratory. They deconstructed and critiqued us, right before our eyes and ears. But hey, don’t take my word for it; I’m just a cranky art critic who enjoys walking close to aesthetic cliffs almost as much as he enjoys aggravating his savvy friends.

For a deeper glimpse into the epochal albums on which they collaborated together, please refer to two excellent books by Kevin Courrier: Dangerous Kitchen on Zappa, and Trout Mask Replica on Van Vliet. In addition, check out the book on Zappa by another Critics At Large writer, John Corcelli, called Zappa FAQ. These three books by two friends are really the go-to volumes for a proper understanding of both Zappa and Beefheart, as well as a more intimate appreciation of where the borders of the inside and outside start to blur.

The amazing hinterland of these two remarkable musical artists awaits the intrepid traveller willing to let the stylistic river overflow its banks.

Donald Brackett is a Vancouver-based popular culture journalist and curator who writes about music, art and films. He has been the Executive Director of both the Professional Art Dealers Association of Canada and The Ontario Association of Art Galleries. He is the author of the book Back to Black: Amy Winehouse’s Only Masterpiece (Backbeat Books, 2016). In addition to numerous essays, articles and radio broadcasts, he is also the author of two books on creative collaboration in pop music: Fleetwood Mac: 40 Years of Creative Chaos, 2007, and Dark Mirror: The Pathology of the Singer-Songwriter, 2008, and is a frequent curator of film programs for Cinematheque. His current work in progress is a new book called The Devil in Miss Jones: The Soul Music of Sharon Jones and The Dap-Kings, being released by Backbeat Books in Spring 2018.

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