Captain Beefheart: Electric black shadow runs ‘cross the sun’

Poetry Ireland News January/February 2011

I never saw anybody dance to words on paper’, said the late Don Van Vliet, better known as Captain Beefheart. For Tom Waits, he ‘inhabited the world right under noses with his brush, his voice, and his music. He listened with his eyes and he saw with his ears. ...Wondrous, secret, and profound, he was a diviner of the highest order’.

For many, Beefheart was that weirdo with the fish mask pictured on the notorious Trout Mask Replica. It’s an album that repels, then mesmerises. Jagged guitars cut across each other, drums are flayed, free jazz saxophones and clarinets blurt and bleat – and over this sonic hurricane comes Beefheart’s voice, veering from a deep growl to high-note yodelling. Even its greatest champion, John Peel, confessed he initially ‘suspected it was crap just because it was unlike anything else you’d ever heard in your life’.

Beneath the cacophony, there lies a universe of jazz, myth, history, pop and blues, meshed with lyrics that are both visceral and surreal. Here is pure poetry, emerging from a brilliantly imagined and self-referential landscape. Thus a phrase like ‘I feel like a glass shrimp in a pink panty’ at once makes no sense and all the sense in the world. Beefheart’s words dance through a world of unfiltered childhood perception, inseparable from the natural world. He sings of ‘the blackbird feeding on rice’, ‘mice toes scampering’, and ‘blue jay squeaks’.

Don Van Vliet dreamt of escape from humanity’s ‘frownland’ – I'm goin' up on the mountain / Find me uh cave ’n talk the bears / In t’ takin’ me in / Wild life is uh mans best friend’. He unleashed images of man’s destruction, and once recalled: ‘When I was 3 years old I was very disappointed to open a dictionary and read: the Great Auk – extinct. Now that didn't leave me with much faith in humanity. The dictionary illustration of it is pretty good too, and we've killed them off! That gorgeous bird! ...The passenger pigeon is gone, the snail darter is gone – we won't ever see one. These things really bother me.’

He sought ‘a natural excitement’. On ‘Ashtray Heart’ from Doc at the Radar Station he screams ‘someone’s had too much to think’. He wanted to be a conduit for the natural world in much the way that an animal is. ‘I can hear a coyote howl up ahead and he hears me howl. I think he howls music to prove he’s there, I just think that he’s doing a natural function, out of the mouth and into the air’. He might have been describing his own voice. On ‘Well’ Beefheart chants an unaccompanied blues that unleashes a torrent of dark images: ‘Light floats down day river on uh red raft o’ blood / Night blocks out d’heaven like uh big black shiny bug / Its hard soft shell shinin’ white in one spot well / It's hard place dat I’m livin’ but I’m doin' well well’. Beefheart’s booming baritone leaps from the speakers, it bites, it crackles in the air.

‘Well’ is a magical fusion of language and voice – the performance hardly pauses for breath. ‘I’m trying to do my own language, without any periods,’ he commented of his work, adding that ‘probably one of the main reasons why I’m a poet is because I couldn’t accept the English language as it was, and I changed it.’

Beefheart’s universe is one replete with folkloric shaggy-dog tales. In the sea- shanty ‘Orange Claw Hammer’ he tells us ‘I was shanghaied by uh high hat beaver moustache man / ’n his pirate friend / I woke up in vomit ’n beer in uh banana bin / ’n uh soft lass with brown skin / Bore me seven babies with snappin' black eyes / ’n beautiful ebony skin’. In its tone it echoes Hart Crane’s Cutty Sark section of ‘The Bridge’ – ‘I ran a donkey engine down there on the Canal / in Panama – got tired of that – / then Yucatan selling kitchenware – beads – / have you seen Popocatepetl – birdless mouth / with ashes sifting down’. 

Captain Beefheart died on 17 December 2010, and his death brought great sadness to his admirers, despite not having recorded an album for nearly thirty years. His albums range from the garage rock and blues of Safe as Milk in 1967 to the edgy experiments of Lick My Decals Off, Baby to the tender pop of the much-maligned Bluejeans and Moonbeams and the desert rock of Ice Cream for Crow in 1982. In his latter years, he became famed for his painting. His huge semi-abstract oils exude a primal energy, populated with crows, fish, cats, ghosts, devils and strange human-animal hybrids. This is the same alchemical world of Bat Chain Puller: ‘Bulbs shoot from its snoot / And vanish into darkness / It whistles like a root snatched from dry earth / Sodbustin’ rakes with grey dust claws / Announces its coming in the morning / This train with grey tubes / That houses people’s very thoughts and belongings’.

More than anything, Captain Beefheart celebrated life. His songs and paintings are poetry in every sense of the word. Life and art were of one weave. His credo might have been ‘Run Paint Run Run’ – a song that includes a phrase that sums up the man: ‘Electric black shadow runs ’cross the sun’.

Liam Carson is the director of the IMRAM Irish language Literature Festival and the author of Call Mother a Lonely Field (Hag’s Head Press).

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