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The Odyssey of Captain Beefheart: Rolling Stone's 1970 Cover Story

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Beefheart still believes that in nature all creatures are equals. Man in his perversity forgets this and builds ridiculous hierarchies and artificial systems to set himself apart from his roots. "People are just too far out. Do you know what I mean? Too far out — far away from nature." He still sets out sugar for the ants, creatures that he considers most similar to man in their mode of life. "If you give them sugar," Beefheart contends, "they won't have to eat the poison."

In songs like "Wild Life," "My Human Gets Me Blues," and "Ant Man Bee" Beefheart presents with great subtlety the truths which students of ecology are just now beginning to recognize. "Now the bee takes his honey/Then he sets the flower free/But in God's garden only man 'n the ants/They won't let each other be." It is entirely possible that it is in this area that Beefheart will eventually attract a wide audience. If those who are delving into ecology would listen carefully to Trout Mask Replica, they could advance their understanding by leaps and bounds. Beefheart has lived these crucial lessons from his very first days.

Another definite carryover from Beefheart's unusual childhood can be seen in the marvelous quality of his lyrics and poems. Since young Don Van Vliet decided that civilization was a trap, he refused to use civilized English in a linear, logical way and learned the entire language as a vest and amusing game. As a result, virtually everything that he says or writes turns out to be poetry. In a conversation with Beefheart the entire structure of verbal communication explodes. A barrage of puns, rhymes, illogicalities, absurd definitions, and unending word play fills the dialogue with a wonderful confusion.

"You can't make generalizations," he said to me during one such conversation.

"Why not?" I replied taking the bait.

"I wonder if anyone's ever made General I. Zation?" he continued, this time apparently talking about the sex life of some unknown military hero. "If all the generals came in here right now, I bet they'd bring those IZATIONS with them." Could he be talking about some secret weapon? There was no time to think about it, for in a flash Beefheart had gone on to a discussion of people who were "trying to put bandaids on The Flaw." The Flaw?

I have seen several occasions in which visitors to Beefheart's home have totally freaked because of this manner of talking. Not many people, after all, feel comfortable listening to the English language collapse before their very ears.

All of this wonderment, of course, comes through very clearly in Beefheart's lyrics. In "My Human Gets Me Blues," for example, the Captain sings, "I saw yuh dancin' in yer x-ray gingham dress/I knew you were under duress/I knew you under your dress." One way of getting into songs like this is to understand that Beefheart is primarily fascinated with the sounds of words and their many ambiguities rather than the explicit meaning of terms. He believes that all truth comes from playing rather than from planning. Playing is what children do, what lovers do, and what musicians and poets ought to do, if they could escape the chains of structure and see the light. In both his music and his lyrics Beefheart is constantly engaged in an ongoing process of play. Behind the onslaught of words stand certain insights that Beefheart wishes to communicate.

The secret is, however, that they can be communicated only after the listener surrenders his neurotic reliance on words and established forms. "I'm trying to create my own language," Beefheart observes "a language without any periods."

In his discouragement with the music business Beefheart has now turned much of his energy to writing as an outlet for his creative demon. The closets of his house are strewn with thousands upon thousands of poems and at least five unpublished novels. The song "Old Fart At Play" from Trout Mask Replica is a tiny excerpt from a long novel of the same name which Beefheart hopes to publish soon.

The formlessness and intensity of Beefheart's music have often led people to conclude that he is merely another product of the drug culture. Sadly, much of the promotion material on him in past years has implied that he is the king of the drug heads and hip freaks. Nothing could be further from the truth. Don Van Vliet does not use drugs and does not allow members of the Magic Band to do so either. Like his friend Frank Zappa, Beefheart admonishes everyone to stay away from LSD, speed and marijuana. The reason for this is not only that he believes that drugs have harmful and irreversible effects, but also that each person has the power to get "there" all by himself.

In my conversation with the man, Beefheart would often smile broadly and tilt his head far back on his neck and say, "You know, I'm not even here. I just stick around for my friends." Moving his hand up and out from his temple and wiggling his fingers (the Beefheart — "Far Out" sign) he would then say, "You're not even here either. You know that. Don't kid yourself. You just stick around for your friends too."

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A country-folk song of epic proportions, "San Francisco Mabel Joy" tells the tale of a poor Georgia farmboy who wound up in prison after a move to the Bay Area found love turning into tragedy. First released by Mickey Newbury in 1969, it might be more familiar through covers by Waylon Jennings, Joan Baez and Kenny Rogers. "It was a five-minute song written in a two-minute world," Newbury said. "I was told it would never be cut by any artist ... I was told you could not use the term 'redneck' in a song and get it recorded."

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