I find television very educating. Every time somebody turns on the set, I go into the other room and read a book. - Groucho Marx

The Artist Formerly Known as Captain Beefheart

by Nathaniel Hoyt
Jan. 2, 2013

Trout Mask Replica first insinuated into my earholes with all the coyness of a street brawl. It still sits in my music library (and looks like it intends to stay) like a lump of undigested aural bulk in my music digestive tract. And I don't mean that as a bad thing. The album invites confusion and curiosity, and triggers endless questions, but also repeated listenings. The opener, “Frownland”, seems to start incorrectly, as if the musicians are playing different songs, or the same song at different times. Or are they playing in different keys? And time signatures? I reach for something to hold onto. I focus on a single voice, the rhythm guitar, or the drums, and try to exclude everything else. I like it – I am liking it – for all of four measures, before it's snatched away. There's no place to stand at all; one must take it all in, or none. I assume it's a joke. Nothing could be this self-consciously ugly without some subversive ulterior motive, right? Where is it going, and where is it taking me? Who is Captain Beefheart, and why does he want me to dislike him so much?

The BBC2 documentary, The Artist Formerly Known as Captain Beefheart, does a decent enough job of tackling some of those questions, although in the end it answers none. The producers knew that no amount of digging into the life and philosophy of Don Van Vliet would ever reduce his art to a facile morsel, easily consumed and easily digested, so they didn't try to. Rather, they gathered sources to tell anecdotes, assisted by live performance and home video footage provided by Van Vliet's wife, Jan. In simple three-part style (voice-over narrator, interviews, and primary source audio and video clips), the documentary academically explores Beefheart's style and process, eschewing over-the-top praises and tedious lists of followers for a more objective discussion of Beefheart's relationships with his music and his band. It's a safe formula, and went over well when it finally aired in 1997. Beefheart fans, perhaps, felt lucky to see it at all. Originally filmed in '93 for the Late Show series, it never had a chance to air because the show was abruptly canceled in '95. When a companion episode – Don Van Vliet and Anton Corbijn's "Some Yo-Yo Stuff" - aired on Dutch television in '96, it appeared the BBC had lost interest in ever airing the documentary. Luckily, it was resurrected and broadcast in '97, this time as part of the “Rock Cults” series, and then again in '99 as part of a tribute to John Peel.

Peel, the affable musical hierophant, sets the tone as narrator and fills in the details with effortless, if forgettable, British charm. The content of the documentary is unapologetically nerdy. The BBC even commissioned the arch-nerd himself, Matt Groening to lend some commentary. A diehard Beefheart devotee like Peel, Groening's inclusion is the only part that feels a little odd, and the fact that he's placed in front of a conspicuous pile of The Simpsons merchandise, as if this lends him some authority on the matter, makes it a little weirder. The best parts, however, belong to Jimmy Carl Black, original drummer for Zappa's Mothers of Invention troop. Black offers a unique and important third-person perspective on Zappa and Beefheart's relationship, which began in childhood and continued in some form or another for the length of each other's careers, dwindling to almost nothing after the contentious Bongo Fury tour, but reconnecting near the end of Zappa's life. Their falling out may have been contentious, but look elsewhere if you want proper scandal. In the long list of rock and roll feuds, Zappa and Beefheart's probably won't even make top ten, although that's not to say it didn't happen, or wasn't unfortunate. The documentary doesn't dwell on the subject, but allows Zappa himself (at the time suffering from terminal prostate cancer) to provide, at least, his side of the story. Former Magic Band musicians fill out the cast and provide their own insights, but the man himself is nowhere to be seen.

Much to fan's delight, the documentary exposes some intriguing trade secrets: the critically acclaimed magnum opus Trout Mask Replica was written at the piano (in a single 8½ hour session, supposedly), an instrument Beefheart had no experience playing whatsoever. After reciting the album, part for part, to his scribe John “Drumbo” French, the musicians would then relentlessly rehearse their parts. The result is something paradoxical: controlled freedom, repeatable spontaneity. Fred Frith, writing for New Musical Express in 1974, summed up this paradox best: “It is always alarming to hear people playing together and yet not in any recognizable rhythmic pattern. This is not free music; it is completely controlled all the time, which is one of the reasons it's remarkable, forces that usually emerge in improvisation are harnessed and made constant, repeatable.” This idea of repeatability is what drove Beefheart to such extremes, having his Magic Band live the album, in order to capture the essence of improvisational blues.

It is easy to idolize musicians like Beefheart, but admirable restraint is shown in the documentary to appear unbiased. Attention is given to the infamous house where the band lived and rehearsed in near Manson-like conditions, to Beefheart's autocracy, and to the crossbow incident. However, the speakers seem careful not to overstate the extent to which Van Vliet broke down and dominated his musicians. This carefulness is almost to the point of understatement. Vliet's uncanny megalomania is most discomfortingly evident in a thoroughly awkward interview in which he explains how he gets his musicians to perform exactly the way he wants. “A whip,” he says. “A kind whip. A kind... quip.” His charisma is obscure and dark. He explains in another interview clip that he hates hypnotics, but his intense eyes, heavy dark brows, ambiguous dialect, and uncontrolled hands make him appear even more like a conjurer. As Beefheart's legacy extends deeper into American musical folklore, stories of his dominating attitude have probably been exaggerated, mythologized. But after all, nothing about Beefheart's music suggests he was respectful of boundaries, so why wouldn't he stick band-mates in a barrel as a punishment, punch them in the face, or encourage in-fighting and competition? Like folklore: if it's plausible, it may as well be true.

Overall, The Artist Formerly Known as Captain Beefheart was a much-needed and pleasingly comprehensive addition to the growing body of work surrounding the elusive artist. For such seemingly mysterious artists, there can never be too much detail for the most dedicated fans, but enough material is presented here within an hour that it gives fans something to chew on for quite some time. This documentary wastes little effort on recruiting new fans, but doesn't avoid the fact that this is popular music, after all, where likeability counts. With focus, it shows how Captain Beefheart and His Magic Band succeeded in deconstructing blues to its most primitive elements, and from that seed growing something new, weird, and definitely entertaining. 


Nathaniel Hoyt is an inconceivably complex system of sentient organic materials dedicated to eating poorly and playing video games frequently. He has a Tumblr account that he doesn't quite know how to use, which you can view at dedolence.tumblr.com, although admittedly there's probably better ways to waste company time. As a do-er of many things, feel free to seek Nathaniel out if you have any things that need doing, like bicycle fixing, coffee making, artwork drawing, or opinion giving. END COMMUNICATION.