Don Van Vliet, a.k.a. Captain Beefheart, thunders through the rock & roll jungle like some mythological beast, a fantasy creature with the body of a burly monster and the head of a vaporous poet. Like its creator, Beefheart’s current album, Doc at the Radar Station, comes charging at you in much the same way: the artist and his art go on a cultural rampage, ripping and tearing at dense, lush undergrowths of melody while hurling imprecations of the airiest, most elliptical wit.
The result is music of such heat, strength and passion that many listeners will get trampled or will simply choose to avoid the jungle of Beefheart’s music altogether and camp out in a safer, calmer thicket: e.g., the musical equivalent of driving through a controlled “habitat” where toothless lions loll on the hood of your car, gumming the windshield wipers.
Beefheart, by contrast, has always bitten too hard for most people. He insists on joining together what popular music has put asunder: Delta blues and free jazz, atonal freakouts and sweet lyricism, primordial yawps and delicate joking. The Magic Band, Beefheart’s tribe of sardonically dexterous musicians, follow their leader with unswerving faith. They cultivate and tend the jungle for the sole purpose of having their Captain rumble and cavort across it.
Their labor is extremely worthwhile. Doc at the Radar Station’s twelve compositions are wirier and more concise than the chipper anthems on Beefheart’s previous record, Shiny Beast (Bat Chain Puller), yet they share a similar insistence upon small, quotidian themes expressed in curt, violent music. The new LP’s fast, pounding opener, “Hot Head,” comes perilously close to being a bit of conventionally structured blues-rock, with crisply defined verse and chorus (the title is Beefheartese for an ideal woman: “She can burn you up in bed/Just like she said/’cause she’s a hot head”). But already, rules are being splintered: Robert Arthur Williams’ drums are so bold and prominent that they occasionally batter Beefheart’s words beyond recognition.
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After “Hot Head,” Doc at the Radar Station begins to “jungleize” in earnest. The next number, “Ashtray Heart,” sports an amusingly overwrought organizing metaphor (“You used me like an ashtray heart”), but it’s set to a rhythm that’s simultaneously stately and jerky: sharp, whining guitar lines cross each other and tangle in an effort to achieve the dominant melodic position. This kind of confusion and tension brings out the best in Beefheart, and both “Hot Head” and “Ashtray Heart” feature his most raspy, lycanthropic howls.
Unlike the majority of Captain Beefheart’s good work (i.e., just ignore the exhausted sellouts, Unconditionally Guaranteed and Bluejeans & Moonbeams). Doc at the Radar Station quite often entertains the idea of making normal, rational music. The songs here rarely shatter into headlong chaos without first showing us the comely, formal compositions they might have been. Indeed, they suggest part of the process that Van Vliet goes through to arrive at his marvelously complex, deracinated style (“an elegantly controlled use of the inexplicable,” as critic-painter Mannie Father once said of Billy Wilder’s movies).
In this sense, the LP serves as a way for Beefheart to combat his increasingly ponderous reputation as cult genius. Granted, any man who writes such peculiar and unique music, who assures showbiz isolation by residing in a trailer in the Mojave Desert and who paints pictures that look like cave-man de Koonings deserves both a cult and the imputation of genius. But being a cult genius is inimical to Van Vliet’s fiercest ambitions. While no AM-radio programmer will probably ever give airplay to Doc at the Radar Station, Beefheart is still busy aiming his grand, sweeping gestures at precisely that audience. Unfortunately, calling his fans a cult may prevent many people from asking to hear his music. And what is Beefheart’s willful primitivism — his fractured chords and schizophrenic syntax — if not a firm, overt denial of genius? On their most superficial level, tunes like “Hot Head,” “Telephone” and “Best Batch Yet” are forceful assertions that Don Van Vliet is bugged by the same things that plague us all: bad relationships, bad technology, bad government.
Because it acknowledges the loneliness and powerlessness that lurk beneath the comforts of cult devotion. Doc at the Radar Station is Captain Beefheart’s most meditative, heroic album. The record’s recurring theme of gentle, playful, uncomplicated lyricism — in the quick instrumentals. “A Carrot Is as Close as a Rabbit Gets to a Diamond” and “Flavor Bud Living,” in the sorrowful bleat of “Ashtray Heart” — might even be Beefheart’s method of alienating his cult, for whom his highest achievement will forever be that masterpiece of livid, frustrated communication. Trout Mask Replica (1969).
Though often funny and touching. Trout Mask Replica was harrowingly abstract, dark and coarse. Doc at the Radar Station is lit more brightly and speaks of less profound matters. In short, it’s a smaller work, but no less serious for its unpretentiousness. There are always light images and ideas glowing in the heart of the jungle.
Indeed, by previous Beefheart standards, the current LP offers a clean canvas on which the artist smears thick drum blobs, guitar brush strokes and vocal spatterings. The painterly metaphor is explicit in “Run Paint Run Run,” a piece of ranting art criticism in which the Captain would have you believe that it’s the paint that paints the picture, not the artist. This is an animistic aesthetic that remains remarkably consistent throughout Doc at the Radar Station.
In a recent interview. Don Van Vliet admitted that Franz Kline was a conscious influence. But Van Vliet, perhaps the most interesting of rock & roll painters, lacks Kline’s neurotic melancholy. The musician’s darker colors, like the somber tones of the guitar parts in his songs, are moody and contemplative, yet never despairing or agonized. This is where Captain Beefheart’s pop-art instincts jolt and enliven Van Vliet’s formal romanticism. When Beefheart arrives at some knotty problem, be it technical or emotional, he does what his assumed name suggests: he bulls his way through the dilemma and confronts it with stubborn but well-intentioned (good-hearted) resolve.
All of this culminates in Doc at the Radar Station’s final number. “Making Love to a Vampire with a Monkey on My Knee” is Beefheart at his most juicily sensuous, squirting sweet, funny images: “The pond shined dry like a lady’s compact/Lillies leaped like flat green hearts. “But the tune’s plot is exactly what its title proclaims. Over a wheezing, clanging accompaniment of strings, brass and drums, the singer ends each verse with the rhythmic reminder that he’s “making love to a vampire with a monkey on my knee.” Midway through, the lovemaking turns frustrating (“Gnats fucked my ears and nostrils”) and labored (the monkey is really getting in the way), and Don Van Vliet closes the album by unleashing all his artistic ambivalences. “Fuck that thing! Fuck that poem!” screams Captain Beefheart, and the rattle in his throat tells you he’s thinking “Fuck art” and “Fuck rock & roll,” too. Such conviction is as frightening as it is exhilarating.