Tuesday, February 26, 2008
What more to say about Van Vliet?
My first CB was "Lick My Decals Off, Baby". My recollection is that Rolling Stone published four reviews of this album, one by Lester Bangs. Checking, I see that these ran in the December 10, 1970 issue. I had already become aware of Zappa's music so Beefheart's name was known to me; in fact, I guess I already had Hot Rats with his stellar turn on "Willie the Pimp". So I was intrigued.
I sauntered into Recordland, Poughkeepsie's only record store. (Some of the department stores, like Merit and Bradlee's, had record sections, but pickings there were slim) It was a good-sized store, located near the intersection of Market and Main streets in downtown Po'town, run by an old cranky geezer and his two pudgy, slick sons. They used to slice a corner of the cellophane on each LP and stamp a capital 'R' in a circle on the back, so if you returned it they'd know it was theirs. I still have a few bearing that tiny insignia. So I wandered over to the rock section and was confronted with a choice: this weird Beefheart album that I didn't know if I'd like or not and.....Mott the Hoople's second recording, 'Mad Shadows', a follow up to the Escher-covered first album which was something of a favorite of mine at the time.
I wussed out and went with the Hoople. Terrible, terrible mistake. Not only because it delayed my first taste of CB for a few weeks, but the album itself sucked royally.
Anyway, I soon rectified this error. Good thing too as Decals about ripped off the top of my head. No problems whatsoever getting into this one. I quickly went back and got Trout Mask, I think Safe as Milk too. A key moment in the Olewnick musical history, especially given the door to Ornette that Van Vliet would open for me about a year later.
I won't go into Decals or Trout Mask here; done so too often elsewhere. Just to say, they're still probably my two favorite rock albums ever and sound as great to me today as they did then. Even so, in my mid 70s mission to rid myself of all things rock, I was ruthless and the Captain didn't make the cut. His period of exile was probably the shortest of any, however, and I quickly realized the error of my ways, repurchasing a bunch on vinyl in the late 70s, I think before Shiny Beast hit the stores.
I do have this British release oddity, going under the title "Top Secret" that cobbled together a few pieces each from Safe as Milk and Mirror Man. Good stuff, circa 1967. "Kandy Korn" is particularly amazing, the swirling psychedelia of the instrumental section as strong as ever.
For me, "Shiny Beast (Bat Chain Puller", while signaling a welcome return in the right direction away from those miserable mid 70s albums, isn't entirely successful. I'll pause and mention here that, long ago, Linda thought she was doing me a favor when she came across a CB album she was pretty sure I didn't have and brought it home for me. It was "Unconditionally Guaranteed". I've kept it for historical reasons, but it's quite possibly the very worst album among the 3100+ I own. Anyway, I've not read all the back and forth, but from what I gather, I tend to side with those who assign a good half the credit for the greatness of CB's earlier work to the musicians in the Magic Band: Zoot Horn Rollo, Rockette Morton, Drumbo, Art Tripp etc. To my ears, those assembled for Shiny Beast just can't compete. There's still a certain slickness present on pieces like "Candle Mambo", "Harry Irene", etc. The title track's the only one that really holds together for me. A few of the others chug along nicely and I'll admit that "Floppy Boot Stomp" sounded better to me now than it probably ever had before.
Still, I far prefer both "Doc at the Radar Station" and "Ice Cream for Crow" of the late work. I'm still not entirely sold on the personnel (a few of these guys--Feldman, Martinez, Fowler, at least--went on to have careers scoring Hollywood films, something I doubt Harkleroad ever had a chance or desire to do) but by this time they've gelled nicely and can rock out in jerky Beefheartian fashion to a good degree. "Dirty Blue Gene" is the one piece from the last three albums that, for my bucks, can stand with anything on TMR or LMDOB; perhaps not surprisingly, it's a piece Van Vliet wrote and played in the 60s.
There's also, of course, a wonderful, deep bitterness in Doc and Ice Cream, a real harrowing aura through many of the songs. "Telephone", from "Doc", is a marvelously malign take on the instrument, a venomous spew directed at that "plastic-horned devil". "Skeleton Makes Good", which closes his last album, is as harsh and horrific as anything he'd ever done.
About ten or so years ago, I saw an exhibition of Van Vliet's paintings at the Knoedler Gallery. I was surprised how impressive they were in a brute, animist way.