Friday, December 17, 2010

Brainiac Fingers - A life with Captain Beefheart, 1941-2010

"Cast your dancin' spell my way,
I promise to go under it."
-Don Van Vliet by way of Bob Dylan

Ways Captain Beefheart oscillated
with my lifelines:

January 1970:
Heard Trout Mask Replica at age 12. Destroyed me as utterly as reading Gravity's Rainbow at age 16. Wondered what this free-form poetry stuff was all about. Repeated lines about squids eating dough and orange claw hammers.

December 1970: Received Captain Beefheart's Lick My Decals Off, Baby as a Christmas present and decided this album described my life, even more so than TMR. Have not really altered that belief in the 40 years since that epic Christmas. Became particularly infatuated with 'Bellerin' Plain' as a song of 13-year-old alienation that described things more aptly than any damned catchers in the rye...

May 1973: Completed my English term project by analyzing the lyrics to Trout Mask Replica. English teacher Mary Lou Sabin was convinced I had behavior issues, particularly after screaming performance art to 'Veterans Day Poppy.' I saw Mary Lou in October 2010 and we had a good chuckle over this.

September 1973: Saw Captain Beefheart in East Lansing, right around the time Clear Spot was released. Was driven to complete a series of short poems centered on "Oh those golden birdies look at them!"

November 1975: Beefheart's collaboration with Frank Zappa, Bongo Fury, was released my freshman year at Michigan State University. Designed a T-shirt that said "Make me grow Brainiac Fingers!" Did not stop saying that phrase on a regular basis until the late 1980s.

April 1978 - January 1980: Shiny Beast (Bat Chain Puller) and Doc at the Radar Station were released in a very dangerous and unsettled time in Tempe, Bisbee, et. al., Arizona. Fit in with the punk aesthetic of the time.

November 1980 -- Beefheart played Saturday Night Live a few days after Reagan was elected. My significant other in Tucson at the time, Dawn, was in a deep depression, convinced of impending apocalypse. I convinced her that, with Beefheart on network television and Henry Weinhard's beer now available in Arizona, the universe was a kind and loving place.

April 1982 -- Beefheart retires from all public appearances just in time for me to graduate from the University of Arizona. The spring of 1982 was marked by a near-starvation diet of millet, the brutal murder of a close friend, and an obsession with X's Under the Big Black Sun describing a world that had already gone mad.

June 1984 -- I viewed a rare TV interview with Beefheart during a time in Albuquerque filled with such inexplicable and surreal happenings, it could have been a scene from Trout Mask Replica. This is the last Beefheart public appearance. I hear odd tales of his visual art and his battles with multiple sclerosis over the next 26 years.

December 2010, 3:10 p.m. -- Dan Coffey sends me a message to tell me Captain Beefheart is dead. The geniuses are leaving us. Pynchon, Powers, Merwin, must carry a little more of the load.

Thank you for the awakening, Don Van Vliet.


CraigM said...

Very cool tribute, Loring. Thanks for posting this.

James Snider said...

Hi Loring, I had no idea that the Captain had passed on. Thanks for letting us know. Alas, I liked his most mainstream album, Clear Spot. Not nearly so adventurous as you.

Loring Wirbel said...

Craig, did you prod Rick M. into doing a Beefheart cover last night? (tonight are next-door parties from Flobots and Low/Charlie Parr, I hope one of the three does a cover of ummm... Neon Meate Dream, maybe?

James, nothing wrong with mainstream, danced a lot to Clear Spot - though I must admit, there wasn't too much to like in those mid-70s "Unconditionally Guaranteed" and "Bluejeans and Moonbeams" albums!

Great NY Times obit in the Saturday paper, btw.

Harlingen Kin said...

Nicely done, Loring. My own time line rolled straight across my brain pan while reading yours. My first exposure to the Captain was via "Lick My Decals Off;" it wasn't too long afterwards that I started listening to Trane & Dolphy. Along with learning to drive a stick shift, those should be required, "entry level," experiences for all teenagers.

Loring Wirbel said...

If you went from Decals to Dolphy, then the Captain's mission on this planey was absolutely successful. Cheers!

Ruth said...

What a creative write-up, Loring! These passages are so sad, and sadly we have more to come. It's important to reflect on them as you've done, honoring those who mean so much to us, and indeed shaped us!