Kronomyth 1.0: THE FALLOW LAND, THE UNTILLED FARM PRODUCES ONLY MILKWEED AT BEST. The yellow brick road of rock and roll, it turns out, leads to a madman’s shack in the Mojave desert strung with barbed wire and faded shrines to lost gods. That’s the sense you have listening to Safe As Milk today: that you shouldn’t be here and yet every step has led you to this unlikely crossroads of music, madness and more than a little marijuana. The polite thing to do, it seems, is not to stare at the human trainwreck that is Don Van Vliet and instead point out that the music is far ahead of its time or, more accurately, far out of its time. Van Vliet has the (beef)heart and eye of an artist, tainted with the craziness that plagues many great artists. He is apparently a difficult person to work with, and you get the sense listening to these songs that not one of them was easily birthed, but that each was breached in the brainbox of Beefheart and could only be cajoled out with liberal amounts of unctuous patience form Ry Cooder and the rest of the band. For their efforts, a freakish litter featuring the likes of “Abba Zabba,” “Electricity,” “Zig Zag Wanderer,” “Dropout Boogie” and the surprisingly sweet “I’m Glad” was spawned. The lyrics, written by Herb Bermann, are poems placed in Beefheart’s improbable marble mouth and spit out like THC-enriched tobacco juice (which is probably an accurate description of Van Vliet’s saliva at the time). Once heard, Safe As Milk isn’t soon forgotten. Reference points in 1967 for this music were hard to come by; a reverent (versus irreverent) Frank Zappa, maybe, or a postmodern deconstruction of Howlin’ Wolf or Screamin’ Jay Hawkins. I would tell you that Safe As Milk is a work of genius, though I don’t believe Beefheart to be the sole source of that genius, but rather a catalyst for it, as the man is more of a musical force than a musician. Maybe that’s the best way to describe this album: a force of a musical nature.
I am unhappy,
longing for the Nameless.”
– Allen Ginsburg, from “Haiku.”
I don’t give a sh*t for the blues. It’s like the musical equivalent of the haiku: sublime in its simplicity, but only if you buy into the idea that art has to be reduced to its purest, simplest form to communicate anything of power. I’ll take a little Lewis Carroll in my tea any day, thank you. Strictly Personal, Beefheart’s second album, embraces the nameless. It’s an unloosed Id running wild in a candy store of musical ideas: bottleneck slide, primal screaming, discombobulated rhythms and fitful grooves trapped in a gelatinous mass of psychedelic sound like chunks of fruit. The opening track purports to be the blues in its purest form, but it’s a red herring. Beefheart doesn’t really care about the blues; he’s an artist and a junk collector who happens to have a lot of blues on his palette, but it’s only one color in a regurgigated rainbow of surreality. You could argue that paranoia is a more important component of his art than the blues, or jugband music for that matter. For me, Strictly Personal has always held terrifying implications: “Trust Us” and “Son of Mirror Man Mere Man” tap into a nameless fear that our own sanity is tethered to our limited vision of reality and that, if we were to open the lens to a greater vista of potentialities, we too might drift away on the Captain’s crazy balloon ride. I understand the temptation to view Beefheart as a blues champion; relatively straight songs like “Gimme Dat Harp Boy” show an uncanny facility for the blues. But wanting Beefheart to play it straight is like expecting a fish to sing; it only happens in fairy tales. As for the psychedelic production from Bob Krasnow, I think it reaches sublime heights on the closing “Kandy Korn,” and I’ll pick sweet yellow and orange over the bitter blues nine times out of ten.
When the croci in my mind are blooming, then Frank Zappa’s whimsical and colorful genius must be in full flower. I see you in the back of the class, looking out the window while all this wondrous music plays on. Well, wake up! Thirty years on, your grandchildren may quiz you on Frank Zappa and Where were you when it all happened. Do you want to be the doddering old fool who pulls out a picture of the sofa bathed in the blue light of the television and point saying “There?” No you don’t. You want to tune into Hot Rats. The wonderful thing is, there’s still time. Oh, the good seats on the ground floor are already taken, but there’s plenty left in the mezzanine, as good a place as any to witness the miracle of “Peaches En Regalia” or “Son of Mr. Green Genes,” where the composer turns our concept of classical music on its head and gives it a much-needed spanking. Or, if that doesn’t push your button, than surely the sweaty and buck nakedly brilliant blues rock of “Willie The Pimp” and “The Gumbo Variations” must. I’ve spent some two-cent words and a coupla ten-dollar ones trying to sell folks on Frank Zappa’s music, but Hot Rats sells itself. If no other work from Zappa should survive (and somewhere in a conservative cabal sick with the smell of cigars, the possibility is probably being discussed right now), Hot Rats alone would keep the flame alive through the ages. The composition, the arrangements, the musicianship, the sheer entertainment of it all is initially too much to comprehend, but in time it sinks in, and gestates, and first it’s a little blue crocus, and then a white one, and a pink one, and before you know it you’re trading bootlegs with some guy in Holland who says you have to hear this killer version of “Valarie” with an alternate ending (or something like that). Stepping back from myself a bit, I’m sure that jazz/classical hybrids like “Little Umbrellas” could trace themselves back to Duke Ellington or some other modern composer without a trail of bread crumbs, but I don’t listen to a lot of that stuff, so for me Zappa’s the gateway to this new musical world. And, honestly, your grandchildren will probably be asking you stuff like “Ew, how could you have had a crush on Eminem (or Britney Spears)?,” so I wouldn’t worry too much about the Zappa shakedown from future generations. But if they do ask you about Zappa, start putting money away in a trust fund so they can go to Yale and eventually become president. I’d like to hear “Brown Shoes Don’t Make It” played at least once at an inaugural ball in my lifetime, and I don’t see any other way to do it.
A cleverly staged car wreck between Zappa and Captain Beefheart that, despite the creative velocity of the pair at the time, wasn’t the big bang some had hoped for. The disappointment of Bongo Fury might be that both artists weren’t looking to do something new together, but simply do what they do together. There are songs that represent an even union of sorts, where Beefheart takes the lead and Zappa’s band lays down the groundwork: the twisted “Debra Kadabra,” the sort-of-a-cowboy-song “Poofter’s Froth Wyoming Plans Ahead” and “200 Years Old” (the last two forming a kind of a bicentennial medley). These may be a little grittier and bluesier than Zappa’s usual work, but fans should eventually warm up to them. Beefheart also presents his greasy, look-what-I-found-under-the-refrigerator poetry on a pair of tracks: “Sam With The Showing Scalp Flat Top” (which introduces the “bongo fury” theme) and “Man With The Woman Head.” Frank even answers in kind with his own story, “Muffin Man,” that starts like a carbon copy of “Evelyn, A Modified Dog” before launching into a brilliant guitar solo. Zappa fans will take solace in the tracks that sound most like his usual work from this period: “Carolina Hard-Core Ecstasy” (cut from the same cloth as “Camarillo Brillo”) and “Advance Romance.” However, those fans would do better to pick up Over-Nite Sensation, Roxy & Elsewhere, The Grand Wazoo, One Size Fits All… well, you get the point. For the best blending of Beefheart and Zappa, seek ye Hot Rats. Two heads are better than one in the world of bongos, but in the live/studio world of Bongo Fury maybe not so much.