Here’s a first for the Recordmecca Blog–a guest columnist. Our friend Gene Sculatti, well known music writer & historian, former record and television exec, and all-around great guy shares my love of Captain Beefheart. On hearing of Beefheart’s passing this week, I asked Gene if he’d be willing to write a remembrance of the Captain. Happily, he agreed.
The Dust Blows Forward, ‘N The Dust Blows Back
by Gene Sculatti
It’s impossible for me to think what the world would be without Captain Beefheart’s music in it. Amidst the bad news, the good is that his music is, and hopefully forever shall be, in the world.
This reminiscence is strictly personal. I had a little one-on-one interaction with Beefheart; mostly the relationship was between me and his powerful, funny, touching recordings and performances. I first encountered him in the spring of ’66 at Frisco’s Avalon Ballroom, when he and the Magic Band were the latest in a line of surprise visitors on the underground railway that weekly shuttled north L.A. bands like Love, the Rising Sons, Sons of Adam, etc. My late cousin and I, teenaged blues-heads (whose knowledge store then extended to the first Butterfield LP, Muddy Waters at Newport and Howlin’ Wolf’s ‘rocking-chair’ album), were floored by Don’s act, which then consisted of spot-on versions of “Evil” and other catalog items, and his scary-good harp playing. We made it a point to catch him whenever his name appeared on a bill, and I bought the “Diddy Wah Diddy” single.
Some months later I hit the Avalon, and Beefheart and the Magic Band, like almost everything in those change-is-now days, had gotten magic-er and weirder and I-don’t-know-what. But it was great: same bottom-heavy voice and slammin’ band, but Beefheart was wearing Sun Ra-type shades and some kind of embroidered Music Man bandleader coat, knotting and retying the old blues chords into bizarre odes to confections like Abba Zabba and Kandy Korn (with the MB roaring behind him, he stalked the stage tossing the yellow and orange Halloween treats to the crowd). My God!
Then, sometime in ’67 in a Berkeley record shop, I stumbled across the previously unannounced Safe as Milk. I’d never—no, I have never seen a cooler LP cover. Here, in the year of that famous summer and long, long, longer hair and suspect platitudes, as unpretentious dress slid into medieval costumery and cultivated slovenliness, CB & TMB were dressed in ties and tailored suits, casual but formidable, staring out from those redwood slats in Guy Webster’s fish-eye photo as if to say, “What’re you lookin’ at?” The question would soon become “What’re you listening to?” as friends, just as immersed as I was in the orthodoxies of the wild new world of Dead/Airplane/Dylan/Doors, wondered what were these bizarre howls and growls spinning on the Sears stereo about “Autumn’s Child” and “Electricity”? Hey, what can I tell you? I was in love. With his voice, his inspired entanglements of verse and melody, the look, the aura of strangeness permeating the whole act, right down to the grinning-baby Safe As Milk bumper strip that fell out of that issue of Rolling Stone.
Like Jeff Gold, I count Safe as Milk as my favorite Beefheart set. But there is more. Strictly Personal upped the oddness ante but it also cooked (“Gimme Dat Harp Boy”). And Trout Mask!! This guy was giving notice: He was in the business of busting, following his muse to left turns no one else would even consider taking. So dazzled by Trout Mask was a roommate of mine that he kept a copy in his car—often instructing passengers to hold it up to the window as he gunned past slow-pokes, I guess to ‘blow their minds’ or something. Clear Spot: best meditation ever on female power (“Lo Yo Yo Stuff”)…Decals and that whole hair-stacked look of Spotlight Kid… the fleeting pleasures of those Mercury LPs (“Sugar Bowl,” “Upon the My-O-My”), and later Doc at the Radar Station and Shiny Beast (Bat Chain Puller).
I was working at Warners by then, and my boss, Pete Johnson, took on the job of producing Beast. His reports from the studio suggested Don was now Pete’s boss, and everybody’s, but rough times yielded an underrated classic, where the Captain cuts a mean “Candle Mambo” outside the lesbian-run canteen of “Harry Irene” and leaves the world one of his funkiest gifts in “Tropical Hot Dog Night.” Jesus!
It was around this time that I spent a bit of time with Beefheart. Frustrated that Warners wasn’t pro-actively marketing some acts, co-editor Joe Robinson and I decided to use the label’s house organ, Waxpaper, as a bully print-pulpit to pump up the volume on them: We’d utilize the publication’s back cover to do our own ads. Which led to us taking our art director and a photographer up to Antelope Valley, meeting Don at a Denny’s (he was already in a booth, sketching on a pad), then heading for cactus country, where we spent the day shooting away, enraptured by his rap and big heart. The ad ran in our Feb. 12, 1979 issue. “There’s a Voice in the Wilderness. Captain Beefheart’s,” read the head, over a shot of Don standing in the fading desert light.
May that voice go on forever.