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The outsider's outsider

Posted Monday, December 20, 2010, at 8:37 AM

While a lot of people march to their own beat, Don Van Vliet not only did that, he also led the band that provided the tune to which he marched.

While 'better known' might be a relative term in his case, Van Vliet was 'better known' as Captain Beefheart.

The ultimate outsider, Van Vliet -- rather Beefheart -- passed away Dec. 17 at age 69, from complications related to multiple sclerosis.

Never really even registering so much as a blip on the mainstream pop radar, Beefheart was still a hugely influential musician, artist and individual.

It doesn't take long to figure out why Beefheart never caught on with the radio-loving, record-buying masses, though. A quick spin through Trout Mask Replica, hailed as his sonic masterpiece, reveals the reasons why his music was not keen for mass consumption. Think of it as a Rubric's Cube for the ears.

Released in 1969, Trout Mask Replica is one weird blast of experimental freakiness from beginning to end. But somehow, it also landed at number 58 on Rolling Stone magazine's list of the 500 greatest albums of all time.

Flanked by his Magic Band -- chock full of colorful characters named Zoot Horn Rollo, Antennae Jimmy Semens, The Mascara Snake, Rockette Morton and Drumbo -- Beefheart crafted an album like none before it. And quite honestly, probably like nothing after it, either.

Produced by friend/collaborator/mentor/muse/competitor Frank Zappa (an outsider himself, who did find a way to hit the mainstream consciousness of America), Trout Mask Replica is a road-map of the by-ways of Beefheart's extraordinary complex mind.

At its very core lurked a foundation of deep, dark, distorted delta blues. On top of that foundation, Beefheart and the Magic Band tossed layer after layer of skull-jarring noise. Squawks, squeals and slabs of fuzz-toned white heat shared equal time with free jazz and spoken word, stream of conscious rants. Listening to Trout Mask Replica is a lot like watching as some twisted, avant-garde painting comes to life in a full blaze of Technicolor. It also helped inspire a legion of artists/musicians to do things their own way, from Devo to R.E.M. It was punk before there was punk.

Beefheart's ensuing releases in the 1970s were a tad more digestible, on the whole, than Trout Mask Replica was. Though with such song titles as "My Head Is My Only House Unless it Rains," " Upon The My-O-My," "Ice Cream For Crow" and "The Past Sure Is Tense" Beefheart obviously had no master plan for cracking the top of Casey Kasem's American Top 40 charts.

After a pair of fine albums in the early 1980s (Doc at the Radar Station and Ice Cream for Crow), Vliet mostly hung up his Beefheart persona and bid ado to the music industry. Instead of challenging brain cells with his audio genius, he turned to his true love -- painting -- and instead gave the eyes something to think about. Galleries all over the globe displayed his works of canvas.

Although never known to be a fact, it was often alleged that Zappa came up with the moniker that stuck to Vliet like glue, saying he (Vliet)"had a beef in his heart against society."

Whatever the case, that big 'ole weird heart , regardless of how society responded to it, was sure a wonder to behold.

We'll miss ya, Captain.

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Since my own high school sports career fizzled out before it really reached its zenith, I have managed to live vicariously through the student/athletes of the 16 high schools I've covered for Areawide Media since 2001. I've witnessed the highest of highs in the form of state championships. I have also seen first-hand the sting of disappointment when the ultimate prize was within reach, but still eluded the grasp of its pursuer. But through all the ups and downs associated with high school sports, my respect for the young competitors that suit up each night, along with the men and women who guide them, remains unwavering. Blog mission: With my passion for music, especially live music, running second only to my passion for sports, I'll try to devote this space to both. Especially when it concerns our region and what's happening around it. Look for commentary and features on area sports figures and musicians, along with things to get out and do in the beautiful Spring River/Ozarks area. But I'll not totally ignore the outside - I'll also hit on some national happenings in the wide worlds of sports and music.
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