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Even among the freaky human artifacts of the Sixties, Captain Beefheart and His Magic Band stood out like six Day-Glo thumbs on an inflatable hand. It wasn't the lanky hair and thrift-store finery that set them apart from their flower-powered L.A. peers. That, like their communal lifestyle, was perfectly normal. And certainly, lots of people were sporting unusual names at the time. But Drumbo (Jon French, drums), Zoot Horn Rollo (Bill Harkleroad, guitar), and the Mascara Snake (Victor Fleming, bass clarinet), rang a little weird even in hippie circles, where handles like Moonflower were the norm. And their music was just a little too "out there" to fit in with even the farthest gone.
Nobody else explored the possibilities of rampant blues-based cacophony quite like Beefheart and Co.: They attacked a song frantically in different keys and time signatures, all the while grounded by drumming that sounded like a whole lot of tennis rackets falling out of a very large closet. Don Van Vliet (a.k.a. Captain Beefheart), intoned inspired non sequiturs like a wheezy Southern Baptist minister doing Howlin' Wolf impressions at a dada fete. Or he ripped through soprano-sax figures that made Ornette Coleman seem as safe as Kenny G. And that's just the music. The 1969 landmark Trout Mask Replica saw Beefheart's lyrics take an even more adventurous turn. Take, for instance, "The Blimp": "Tits tits the blimp the blimp/The mother ship the mother ship/The brothers hid under the hood/From the blimp the blimp." It comes as no surprise that despite the band's major-label distribution, their following always remained within cult range. Beefheart was even too much for MTV, who refused to show the band's highly acclaimed "Ice Cream for Crow" video.
In 1982, Beefheart retired from music for good. But like any preacher worth his congregation, he's had his share of imitators--most notably Zoogz Rift, who during the mid-Eighties put out what seemed like an album per week on SST. (That is, until the label pretty much went broke from releasing them.) But until last year--when guitarist Gary Lucas and saxophonist Philip Johnston formed Fast 'n' Bulbous, a seven-piece band devoted exclusively to the Beefheart opus--no one had ever interpreted the good Captain's singular compositions in a jazz-oriented context. For Fast 'n' Bulbous's performance at the Walker this Friday, Magic Band alumnus Lucas will play the audio/visual ringmaster, relating Beefheartian history and presenting archival footage from his personal collection. The difficult task of creating arrangements for the seven-piece band, however, will fall squarely on Johnston's shoulders.
"You couldn't reproduce the experience those people went through to create that music," the perpetually busy Johnston says about the Magic Band, speaking by phone from a Manhattan recording studio. "The stories that you hear are quite outrageous, and it's a different time, with different people and different music. We had to come at it from who we are."
Johnston doesn't exaggerate when he speaks of outrageous stories. According to experimental music sources like Resonance and the Wire, Beefheart was a bit of a mad dictator. Not only did Van Vliet maintain an extremely rigorous rehearsal schedule, but he also forced band members to gather for regular group TV-watching sessions and daily recitations of his lyrics. For a month, they lived on a ration of one cup of soybeans each day, which might explain why those seminal Magic Band records sound so manic.
Beefheart's way of leading his band could get ugly, too, as John French related in a Resonance interview. "We'd have these--what I used to call brainwashing sessions, where he'd decide someone in the band was Public Enemy No 1. He'd center in on them for two or three days, feed them coffee and not let them sleep until their sense of deprivation was such that they'd say, 'I'll do anything you say!' Then they'd fall apart and cry or something. I'm trying to make light of it as much as I can, but it was very emotionally disturbing to all of us and it took us a long time to get past that."
Unlike Beefheart, Johnston molds the music to the musicians rather than vice versa. He eliminates most of the mania from the original arrangements, stretching the compositions like an elastic waistband on Thanksgiving Day. This lends the inherent harmonic intricacies and good-natured bluesiness a place to breathe. The members of Fast 'n' Bulbous, who probably hate soybean rationing, sound grateful. They make relaxed-fit Beefheart music: spacious, open, and full of joyous jamming.
One can only hope that Don Van Vliet now has the opportunity to enjoy such expansive terrain himself. After successfully pursuing a career as a painter (imagine Joan Miró and Francis Bacon collaborating on portraits of imaginary animals), he contracted multiple sclerosis a few years ago and subsequently went into deep seclusion in a spot close to the Mojave Desert. Nearly 22 years after his retirement, Captain Beefheart's music probably inspires more fans than when he was musically active. Two new tribute albums are due out this month: Neon Meate Dream of a Octafish (Animal World Recordings) features contributions from Thurston Moore, Jad Fair, 25 Suaves, Monotract, and 15 others, while Mama Kangaroos (Genus) showcases the efforts of 30 adventurous Philadelphians--all women.
So how does Fast 'n' Bulbous stand out from the burgeoning pack? Simply by using Beefheart's work as a point of departure. As Johnston puts it, "I asked myself, how do you express your own personalities through playing this wonderful music? In that sense, it's just like playing Bach."