Plucking the nirvanic musical chord with Frank Zappa and Captain Beefheart
By Dean Graham
There I sat, bored and depressed at the Brewery in East Lansing, waiting for my childhood idol to sweep me away into a new life of excitement, stimulation and nirvanic exhaltation. And then, lo and behold, straggling across the stage came Captain Beefheard himself! Hope poundingly surged to my brain! This time the musical nirvanic chord would be plucked! Captain Beefheart would lead us all to a new revelation! And then I found myself....
Two days later, bored and depressed, in a Holiday Inn lobby in Grand Rapids, waiting to talk with Frank Zappa. Boy, I was really hoping this time. I mean, between seeing Captain Beefheart and talking with and seeing Zappa in the course of 48 hours, I was hoping for some new revelation to snake out and smash into my stream of consciousness. A new goal from the perfect gurus of the universe. And then, lo and behold, Frank popped into the lounge! My god! He's a mere human too!
Captain Beefheart played at the Brewery in East Lansing on Wednesday, April 17. Frank Zappa played at Grand Valley in Grand Rapids on Friday, April 19. Totally different concerts. Totally different concepts. Yet the names have been linked together for years. Didn't they go to high school together? Didn't Zappa produce the TROUT MASK REPLICA album, perhaps Beefheart's best to date? Didn't Beefheart simply scorch on the cut "Willy the Pimp" on the HOT RATS album of Zappa's? The correlations go on and on.
The hardest part about seeing a performance at the Brewery is that the show won't start until around 10:30 p.m. The doors open at 8:30 p.m. If you want to see any semblance of the stage, you'd better be there by 9:00 p.m. By the time that the main attraction comes on, everyone has been sitting around for a couple of hours. The only real pasttime for the audience in those hours is drinking. Therefore, by the time that the show starts, the band better be boogieing pretty hard and heavy because the audience is either too drunk or too bored to care for much more than rock and roll. Captain Beefheart's audience was a little too laid back and low-keyed. They were not bright eyed and attentive by any means. Now the Captain ain't gonna' get up there and boogie all night long for you. You've gotta pay attention to what he is doing and saying. One small group of hard-core Beefheart fanatics up next to the stage were apparently listening because they jumped up and applauded every song that was performed. Perhaps they were too fanatical to really listen. Much of the rest of the crowd was falling off of their chairs. At least they were staying through the entire performance. Beefheart's audiences have a reputation for walking out on him after one or two songs because of his unusualness. The Brewery folks were there to see Beefheart. And come hell or high water, they were going to stay and see him.
And what happened if you listened, oh ego-centered rock writer? Well, I'm a' gonna' tell you. You heard the amazing Beefheart voice backed by studio musicians. Make no mistake about it. Beefheart's voice is an amazing instrument to behold. It's overpowering. It soars and roars and screeches. The sound system is programmed so that the audience is aware of the vocals first and the music second. His music is best performed in a bar, or a smaller atmosphere than the concert hall. His music is that of simple blues, rock, and jazz concepts with interesting and amazing variations thrown in which somehow work within the context of the song, although one is never quite sure as to why the variations work. Viewing this simplistic approach at a place like Cobo Hall would lose much of the intimacy with the audience. Beefheart's musical image goes better in a smoky bar. Images? We'll get back to that point shortly.
The first few songs overpowered me. The voice, the bizarre boogie-rock songs, ahhhh the Captain was in fine spirit. The more songs that were performed, the more adjusted to his voice I became. I lost the initial interest in the voice and concentrated instead on the music. It was at this point that it became obvious that the Captain and his present band had only been performing together for two weeks. His songs have never been musically complicated, he simply throws unusual variations into them. By being together such a short time, the band was repetitive more than it was unusually varied.
Not trusting my own illusions of fantasy, I asked an innocent listener to give me his impressions of the performance. Not trusting my memory, he wrote it down on a slip of paper. This is what he wrote: Renowned American bluesman, the 'Captain' Beefheart appeared last nite at a run-down brewery on the outskirts of Lansing. Playing a mixture of 'Delta' style blues and more 'hip' Negro jazz, the 'Captain's' bizarre antics have given him international status among lower-class members of our society." – A EUROPEAN BLUES FAN.
Frank Zappa's music has grown much more complex, much more difficult and involved to perform live. Frank's music has become polished while the Captain has attempted to keep his music raw and basically simple. As Ed and I sat at the Holiday Inn in Grand Rapids, and later in the afternoon at Grand Valley watching the sound check, it became evident that Zappa is tremendously involved with and cares about his music and how it is performed. The concert started supposedly at 8:00 p.m. Zappa and the band were there by 2:30 in the afternoon. They run through a three hour sound check before every performance. The fact that this was the first stop on the present tour may be an explanation as to why so much care was taken as to setting the sound up. Zappa wanted to be sure that everything went well. The fact that Zappa and the band go through this elaborate and time-consuming sound check before every show points out how much they are concerned with performing the music on tour. Period. The music is what they are on the road for.
And guess what? Frank's a human being! He walks! He talks! He smiles! He puts his pants on one leg at a time!
His mood at the press conference was one of quiet politeness. He answered all questions without becoming upset by the stupidity of them. Ed and I were wary before the interview. We were afraid that if we asked a dumb question that Frank would put us down for asking such a ridiculous query. When someone asked him if this was his first news conference and all that he responded was a polite "No," our fears were resolved. It was going to be a pleasure talking with him. And it was. He talks in a very low voice and looks you straight in the eye when he is speaking to you. He's not challenging you by doing this, he is simply talking to you. He's very calm, seems to be very much in control of himself and aware of what he wants to do. I could never understand why he tours so much and records so much. That became easily answered. Because he has so much that he wants to do and so little time to do it in. There's another movie in the works, a soundtrack to it, the present tour, albums, interviews, his [DiscReet] record company, his family; the guy is a working fool.
And the concert itself? What are my impressions of it? Ahhhh... come on kids, you really didn't pay your quarter to hear some asshole tell you his own personal opinion of a music concert. Music gives different people different impressions depending on the person's surroundings at the time of the musical performance. My impressions are going to be different than your opinions, and mine aren't any more valid than yours. I've spoken with people who have been avid Zappa fanatics for years who believed that the concert was boring and predictable. They are right. I've spoken with people who have only recently followed Zappa. They thought that the concert was fantastic. They're right too. I listened in horror as some stud sitting behind me was trying to impress his chickie date by saying, "Now Zappa, no the fantastic thing about Zappa is that nothing that he writes has any commercial potential. And that's the way that he wants to keep it. And Aynsley Dunbar drums for him. Wow! I sure hope that Dunbar is drumming tonight because Zappa is nothing without Dunbar drumming for him." Yeah, well I'm sure that he got his fill of the concert too. I watched 4,000 nineteen-year olds file in to a performance to pay tribute to a musician when they had no idea as to how Zappa's music had developed. They simply had not been around long enough to remember FREAK OUT! when it first came out. As Zappa asked before performing 40 minutes of the FREAK OUT! album, "We're gonna do music now from an album that was recorded when most of you were nine or ten years old, so I hope that you can now get into it." The response was a predictable round of admiring applause.
You see, Zappa's music has progressed through so many layers of complexity, so many styles and images and presentations, so many musicians, that there is no way possible that he can get up on a stage and satisfy everyone or live up to anyone's expectations. Even if he sat down and played every note from every album for the audience, there would still be those who would be pissed because he didn't do more new material. How can you tell if his music and performances are good or not? Nobody else has come close to matching what Zappa has put on records, and nobody else performs the music the way that Frank does. So how are you going to say that it's good or not? Frank's music has become so developed, it has become so complex, that the concerts are complex events. Much is going on up on stage that is missed by the audience. Zappa has his lights programmed in such a way that they highlight who he wants highlighted when he wants them highlighted. If you are concentrating attention-wise and lighting-wise on two or three musicians, there are still eight other musicians up there on stage doing interesting things musically. The lighting often didn't let you see them.
Since I have successfully (or unsuccessfully, however you're reacting to all of this) dodged the issue of how the concert of Zappa was musically, the question should be raised as to how these performances should be viewed. Are they musical performances or social events? Zappa tours consistently to sellout audiences. His name carries so much prestige now that concert-goers don't have to like the performance. The fact that they were there the night that Zappa was in town is prestige a plenty.
Beefheart is even more of a big deal. You never see him touring. This present tour of Beetheart's marks the first time that he's performed in public in eighteen months, and that was in England. The U.S. hasn't seen the Captain in well over two years. I asked Bill Smith, the dude who books the boogie at the Brewery, for his opinion of the Beefheart show. "Well, I'm a Beetheart fanatic. The man could have walked off of the stage after two minutes and I would have loved it. That's how much I'm into the Captain. In my way of thinking, the fact that Beefheart performed at all is such a social event that what is performed is secondary."
Try to remember all that you've ever read or been told about Zappa and the Captain. The media has taken two human beings, spread them generously with a mystical, surreal image, and spit them out onto the general public as Gods of the Age of Aquarius. The only proper way to react to the name of Zappa is to shake your head, shrug your shoulders, and mumble in awe, "Zappa! Wow, a genius." There is no way that these two men can get up on a stage and live up to the expectations of each person in the audience. Each person has a different image of the performers. Rolling Stone, Creem, Crawdaddy, all of the large media "hip" news magazines have done an excellent job of instilling in the general public the concept that Zappa and Beefheart are some kind of artistic freaks who can never be properly understood by mortal man. Shouldn't we consider ourselves the fortunate few who are privileged enough to see these people live?
Well, I don't feel that way about Zappa, because I have seen him three times. He's becoming a mortal to me. But Beefheart? Ah,... that was an amazing experience to see him as I doubt that I'll ever have the chance to see him live again.
Both of these men have been recording for quite a few years now. My favorite Beefheart album is TROUT MASK REPLICA. But that was recorded four or five years ago. Can I demand that Beefheart live up to my five-year opinion of him now that he is five years farther on his own musical career? The same holds true for Zappa. The best lesson that I learned in those forty-eight hours with artists that have been as original and creative as Zappa and Beefheart is to stop thinking of them in the past tense and to try to wrestle with their present presentations. I shall always have my past impressions of Zappa and Beefheart, it's time that we created new images of them based on what they are creating now. That is the task that each of us have to do. You don't need some rock 'n' roll writer doing it for you. Create your own dreams.
Read by OCR software. If you spot errors, let me know afka (at) afka.net