Captain Beefheart 1941-2010

On the 10th June 1974, there was a strange, primal gig in the brutalist modern surroundings of Hove Town Hall. A raw, rough and dirty rock ‘n’ roll singer in the civic splendour. It was Captain Beefheart, and I was there. Kind of.

Nobody quite knows how children hear music in the womb. Some people suggest that classical music makes a child smarter. Others that children dance; certainly the foetus moves in response to music. Certainly, the baby can hear and recognise a parent’s voice and starts to learn its native language while in the womb. And seven days before I was born, my mum and dad went to see Captain Beefheart.

Captain Beefheart – real name Don Glen Vliet, although he changed Glen to Van – is certainly a cult figure. I remember my father playing me Trout Mask Replica, two slabs of heavy vinyl in a gatefold sleeve with a terrifying picture of a man with a fish head for a face and a shuttlecock balanced on his top hat. It opens with a broken, scratchy old blues song, dismembered and ripped apart and exposed as bare elements. Van Vliet’s voice holds it together, the voice of a shaman, a wise man, an ancient figure.

And it’s that voice that anyone who’s heard a Captain Beefheart remembers. A roaring, whooping, howling scream of a voice; a low, deep, swamp blues growl of a voice; a rambling, narrative, stories-from-the-start-of-the-universe voice.

Five full octaves, breaking microphones, hurting trees, calling to me in the womb.

Tied into twisted, atonal recordings and scratchy loops, broken samples and field recordings. Surrealistic humour, strange notes. Van Vliet surrounded himself with the best experimental musicians. Anyone who’s played experimental rock music – The Fall, Hawkwind, Roxy Music – owes the Magic Band a debt.

There’s hasn’t been any Beefheart music since the mid-80s. Instead Van Vliet has followed a successful career as a painter. His paintings are just like his music; scratchy, raw, experimental, elemental.

Beefheart famously said ‘I’m not even here really, I just stick around for my friends’. Not any more. The voice I heard a week before I was born is silenced. Goodbye, Beefheart.

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