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The Vaults

Meaty Samplings of the Beefheart Legacy

July 02, 1999|RICHARD CROMELIN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

**** CAPTAIN BEEFHEART & HIS MAGIC BAND

"Grow Fins: Rarities (1965-1982)

Revenant

When Captain Beefheart walked away from music in 1982, he abruptly ended a stormy, star-crossed career whose output has made him an enduring icon of artistic independence.

Most of the Captain Beefheart & His Magic Band albums remain available (a notable exception is 1970's "Lick My Decals Off Baby"), and occasional compilations have surfaced, but there's never been a Beefheart bonanza like the one we're experiencing now. This summer will see the release of three projects with a combined total of nine CDs.

It's hard to imagine an artist more deserving of both the sweeping overview and the microscopic, nuts-and-bolts examination provided by the different packages. Beefheart--who was born Don Vliet and later made it Don Van Vliet--was one of rock's prototype renegades, a force of nature whose vision rattled the cages and stretched the boundaries of popular music.

He emerged in the mid-'60s from Lancaster in the Antelope Valley as a mysterious blues bellower, and over the next decade he evolved into an utterly original character, a whimsical philosopher who delighted in playing with language in works that were simultaneously ribald, dark and full of wonder. In the "Grow Fins" booklet, a latter-day Magic Band member, Richard Redus, says, "I was really grabbed by . . . his picture of the world that was nightmarish and cartoonish at the same time."

His records didn't sell, but like the similarly ignored Velvet Underground, his influence has been vast. Much of the industrial, alternative and experimental music that formed the backbone of rock in the '80s and '90s owes its nature to his boldness, and his spirit hovers over such barrier-breakers as Beck. Figures ranging from the Red Hot Chili Peppers to "Simpsons" creator Matt Groening have declared their loyalty.

In an extensive memoir in the five-CD set "Grow Fins," Magic Band drummer John French, a.k.a. Drumbo, recounts the odyssey, from the group's origins as a tradition-rooted blues band in Lancaster to a virtual cult, confined in a San Fernando Valley house and driven into a frenzy of over-the-edge creativity by their demanding Captain.

The result of that ordeal was a watershed in underground rock. The 1969 album "Trout Mask Replica" was an album that rewrote the rules, a record that made you feel as if your nervous system had been rewired.

The players--a bizarre-looking crew whom Beefheart gave such names as the Mascara Snake, Zoot Horn Rollo and Rockette Morton--negotiated the quirky, shifting tempos and dissonant musical language with discipline and power, setting a surreal stage for the leader's enigmatic epic. James Joyce meets Ornette Coleman, produced by Frank Zappa--Beef-heart's adversary and patron since their high school days together.

The beautifully packaged treasure "Grow Fins" (released on Revenant, a small label owned by another cult hero, guitarist John Fahey) turns to the "Trout Mask" music for its centerpiece--one full CD of the instrumentalists' home rehearsals for the album. The compilation even offers a guide to programming the chronological recording to create a "Trout Mask" replica.

Elsewhere, the package offers evidence that if they hadn't headed into parts unknown, the Magic Band could have been one of the '60s' great blues groups, a legitimate rival to the era's Butterfields and Mayalls. In addition to all the live cuts, demos, outtakes and conversations, there is rare, enhanced-CD film footage of the group performing on stage.

French's essay offers plenty of reasons--beyond the difficulty of the music--for the rockiness of the band's career. The accounts of treachery, back-stabbing, miscalculation and eccentricity sometimes have the makings of a psychedelic "Spinal Tap."

In one memorable and crucial episode, Beefheart suddenly froze up and fell off the stage during a 1967 show in the Bay Area--aborting the band's scheduled and possibly career-making appearance the next day at the Monterey International Pop Festival, and also triggering the resignation of one reluctant band member, the teenage Ry Cooder.

Beautifully packaged and prodigiously documented, "Grow Fins" is a graduate-level immersion. A two-CD anthology, "The Dust Blows Forward," is due in August from Rhino Records, and it's a more panoramic survey, compiling mostly available music. Both releases were preceded by reissues of two early works by Beefheart, who has lived in Northern California and pursued a career as a painter since his retirement from music.

*

**** Captain Beefheart & His Magic Band, "Safe as Milk," Buddha. Beefheart's 1967 debut is a charming set of psychedelic blues, garage-rock, soul music and pop, reflecting the currents of the times while hinting at the idiosyncrasy that would soon blossom. Featuring Ry Cooder, "Safe as Milk" is the most conventionally accessible Beefheart you'll find.

The four-star rating is for the original album itself. This reissue adds a load of baggage left over from the companion release, "The Mirror Man Sessions," which didn't have enough storage space.

*

*** 1/2 Captain Beefheart & His Magic Band, "The Mirror Man Sessions," Buddha. An attempt to reconstruct a double album Beef-heart purportedly had in mind. These 1967 tracks (some of which were released in 1971 as the album "Mirror Man") showcase the Magic Band's improvisational side in extended jams. They also spotlight Beefheart's deep communion with the blues and his gift for taking the raw material of Robert Johnson, Howlin' Wolf and the eerie Blind Willie Johnson and making it into startling art of his own.

*

Albums are rated on a scale of one star (poor), two stars (fair), three stars (good) and four stars (excellent).

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