I live in a house where the playing of Captain Beefheart’s seminal Trout Mask Replica is strictly forbidden. Like a surreptitious porn fetishist, I can only get fast and bulbous when there’s nobody else around. All attempts to plead the great Captain’s case, to convince others of both his genius and that of the album, have fallen on deaf ears. Or rather ears that just don’t want to hear anything other than something familiar. Something they’ve heard before. Over and over and over.
Beefheart was a one-off, a true original. This is a conviction many of us held long before he passed on last December. You see, the death of someone with a degree of fame (or, probably more accurately when discussing Beefheart, notoriety) has a tendency to bring the worms out of the woodwork. A kind of post-mortal deification of the deceased takes place. But let’s face it, for much of his life Don Van Vliet was regarded by most of the planet as either curio or charlatan. The same people writing heavyweight eulogies about Beefheart couldn’t have cared less about him when he was alive and producing art with words and music and paint that was – pardon the cliché – childlike in its essence.
Beefheart didn’t discard, he hoarded. His sound and vision was unencumbered by external constraints. He didn’t conform to any criteria. There was no plan. The Captain challenged us, dared us to listen for the flower in the barbed wire.
Speaking about his mercurial approach in 1991, he said: “I think that most people would like to think they have an idea. Well, I’m sure my mind thinks that I have an idea, but sometimes I fool it and get my best stuff.”
One of the many insights into a brilliant artist that can be found in a revised edition of Mike Barnes’ essential Captain Beefheart: The Biography, published by Omnibus Press.