Captain Beefheart still plays to a relatively minor following, but most of them believe, as I do, that he’s one of the four or five unqualified geniuses to rise from the hothouses of American music in the Sixties, an innovator whose instinctive idiomatic syntheses and wildly original approach to composition and improvisation preview an era of profound changes in popular music. Statements like that would be extreme anywhere else, but only Cap has managed to fuse the loose ends of rock, jazz and blues so effortlessly.
Because of all that, most people who will buy one of his albums at all would come close to buying absolutely anything he took a notion to put out, no matter how bad the critics or grapevine said it was. Now, with Decals just beginning to wear off, Mirror Man comes along and surprises us all. Recorded live in Los Angeles in 1965, it’s strictly a fan’s album, but those fans will find it an invaluable link in comprehending the man’s stylistic evolution, fitting neatly between Safe As Milk and the great AM “Bootleg Album” which went out to the press and others too busy to listen to it. bore “Diddy Wah Diddy” and three other very early singles, and should have been marketed.
Mirror Man is all of six years old, but sounds less dated than most other records, especially live sets, from its period. Amazingly enough, the personnel listed here is substantially the same as that of Cap’s current group. Only Alex St. Claire Snouffer has wandered from the fold (you’ve gotta watch that “Antennae Jimmy Simmons” character, because he’s given to fabricating new noms du disque with each album). At the time of this recording they were playing music with all the potential for the kind of free-flying excursions they’re into now, but just hadn’t broken through yet. Thoroughly blues-based, the four songs on this album sound much like the playing on Strictly Personal (released in 1968) stretched to extremes of prolixity usually unsuitable for records. “Tarotplane” runs 19 minutes, the title track 15, and the other two are longer than most groups can sustain interest on record even under the most carefully-planned studio conditions. None of them really build in intensity or end up anyplace other than where they started, and would most likely prove intolerable to anyone already a bit put off by Beefheart’s work.
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All that said, there are certain other factors favorable enough to justify the album’s release and the real enthusiasm with which some folks will greet it. One is that, no matter how excessive the time signatures, Captain Beefheart in this “formative stage” was still more instrumentally adventurous and verbally inspired (“Automatic Sam told Eveready Betty told Prestone Millie with the long black wavy mane…”) than most band-leaders of today. Sounding like a slice of unusually authentic Delta blues run through a clattering steeplechase of staggered rhythms and wildly idiosyncratic vocals, this must have been mighty heady stuff in ’65, and I imagine the audiences were absolutely dumb-founded. Although it may sound better now than it did then, because psychedelia generally seems to improve with age as it takes on a somewhat quaint charm we couldn’t see in its heyday. The extreme length of the songs diminishes that charm a bit here, but the album is still worth getting if you like period pieces or vintage psychedelia or any kind of long blues jam. If all those millions settled for Cream throttling “Spoonful” for 16 minutes, their attention spans shouldn’t have any trouble with this, which is not only better blues jamming but actually has more variety. On the other hand, anybody once galvanized with the Beefheart vision, who did handstands to Trout Mask and whooped at the rafters when Decals finally arrived, probably won’t even notice the timings till the side’s over.