Music from the innovative side of the fence

A 2-CD release offers a view of Captain Beefheart's career

Tired of hearing formulaic rock? Convinced that the once iconoclastic spirit of rock 'n' roll has been diluted by Top 40-radio pablum?

Never fear. There's now a two-disc career retrospective by Captain Beefheart with the various editions of his "Magic Band."

"The Dust Blows Forward" (Rhino Records) is a heartening reminder of just how innovative - and just how pleasurable - rock 'n' roll can be.

Captain Beefheart, born Don Van Vliet, was a southern Californian who shared an enthusiasm for pop music with his (now famous) music friend Frank Zappa during their college days. With Zappa's encouragement, Beefheart taught himself saxophone and harmonica, and vastly expanded his vocal skills by performing R&B. Both dropped out of school after a year. Zappa moved to Los Angeles and founded the satiric "Mothers of Invention." Beefheart went to the Mojave Desert and created the Magic Band - the most inventive band in history.

That may sound like a preposterously grand claim, but a close listening to any of the 45 songs (spanning the years 1966 to 1982, when Beefheart abandoned music for a successful painting career) on the generously programmed Rhino collection, quickly confirms this assertion.

Beefheart's blues-saturated vocals and four-octave range are showcased here. Backing him up are electric guitars playing a stylistic mlange on the cusp of traditional blues and rock psychedelia - unsettling, unresolved guitar riffs that occasionally veer off into atonality or childlike phrasing. Percussionists comfortable with the standard big beat sound like elephants attempting ballet steps in a bowling alley.

As if all of this weren't unconventional enough, Beefheart's lyrics reflect an imagination unique in pop music. He makes poetic, surreal statements on ecology and romance that seem worlds closer to literary luminaries Lewis Carroll and L. Frank Baum rather than music talents like Elton John and Billy Joel. Where else can disappointment in love be expressed in a lyric like "You used me like an ashtray heart"? The quest for married commitment is celebrated with "I want a woman who will hold me by my big toe."

While the blues-flavored psychedelic style and elliptical lyrics might suggest quirkiness for its own sake, what emerges from this retrospective is a coherent vision of rock as a revolutionary art form.

Even though Beefheart and his bands achieved only limited commercial success, they showed how profoundly and entertainingly rock could engage in experimentation.

At century's end, no rock band since Beefheart has demonstrated that thoroughgoing degree of rethinking what rock is about.

*Information on Beefheart's music and reproductions of his paintings can be found on the Web at www.beefheart.com

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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