I can't remember who said this or where I read it, but I once heard that if you took a room full of kids, and put a copy of one of Captain Beefheart's albums on the turntable, they'd get it instantly. Unlike adults, who tend to analyze things in terms of what they're used to, kids would just HEAR it, and that would be enough.
I don't know if this is true for every kid, but it was true for me. Back in my grandpa's house, in that den/sun room, my brother and I were sitting on the floor trying to sing along with "Ella Guru," rather unsuccessfully. Occasionally my dad passed in and out of the room, quoting bits of the album. We didn't really know what the words meant but we liked them. We couldn't have told you why the music felt fun. But it did. It felt really good.
And then, sometime after that moment I lost touch with Captain Beefheart and His Magic Band. At some point I moved on to poppier, more conventional bands. I'm not sure what happened or why. I guess I just moved on.
Fast forward to college, and I found this massive tape hoard in the basement of my parents' house. There in a shoebox were tapes made from Captain Beefheart and Arthur Brown's entire discographies. Also the band Love. Also The Move. Also some others that I'm probably forgetting.
I remembered some of the titles. Everything off Trout Mask rang a bell of course, and I could even remember the words and music to some of the songs. But there was other stuff in there that I hadn't heard before, like Safe As Milk and Unconditionally Guaranteed. As I was to learn later, Captain Beefheart made quite a few albums, and Trout Mask was only the best known of these.
I spent the following summer driving around in my Mazda 323 while working my way through those tapes. This would have been in the late 90s sometime, not sure exactly what years. Safe As Milk blew my mind. Ditto for Shiny Beast/Bat Chain Puller. Unconditionally Guaranteed? Bluejeans and Moonbeams? Not so much. I listened to all of those albums and couldn't believe how fresh they still sounded.
Not long ago I was in a friend of a friend's house and they started talking about the blues. They professed a great love for it, and began playing songs that they liked. After a while I put on a Beefheart song, one of the tamer numbers from Safe As Milk. Their response? "WHAT IS THIS SHIT??" and then a quick switch to the next blues standard.
But there you go. That's Captain Beefheart in a nutshell. Brilliant if you're ready for it. Brilliant if you've got an open mind. Brilliant if you're a kid. But not so brilliant perhaps if you're waiting for the next Howlin' Wolf or Willie Dixon number. Not so brilliant if you've already decided what "music" is. And this phenomenon only grows worse with later albums in Beefheart's discography. Selections from The Spotlight Kid, in fact, have been known to clear an entire room in minutes.
I love his stuff, however. I'm also glad I was introduced to it early. You never know what kind of music you'll enjoy if you're young enough - and/or open enough - to hear it.
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