Making Friends With Captain Beefheart

There's been a lot written about Captain Beefheart's musical and cultural legacy since his sad passing on December 17-about how his surreal, skronking music opened up new avenues for rock to clatter down; how his off-beat, wholly original lyrics and forceful singing set standards for musical avant-gardism; about how he truly and completely kicked hard butt as a personality and artist. All true of course, but I'd like to share a thought about why Captain Beefheart mattered so much to me: I didn't like people who didn't like him.

I remember burning a copy of Trout Mask Replica, Beefheart's best-known album, from my friend Adam when I was maybe 16-years-old. It was hard to warm to-aggressive, off-kilter, weird. It was probably two years before I could listen to the album all the way through, my ears finally having grown accustomed to music that didn't sound like some version of the Beatles or Black Sabbath. It promptly became indispensable-and a key resource in the battle between Us and Them.

I'd play a Beefheart album in my car and people would ask me to shut it off. I'd lend Safe as Milk or Doc at the Radar Station to acquaintances and they'd return them with sour expressions on their face, as if they'd been pranked. This was all instructive. Beefheart's music let me categorize other humans. There were the simpatico oddballs who got it and the rest that didn't. Later, you realize musical taste shouldn't dictate friendship and that what you thought sounded far out maybe wasn't. (Not long ago I described Beefheart's music to a friend in typically purple music writer prose. She replied it sounded to her like the Allman Brothers. Fair Enough.)  But when you're still in the process of defining your sensibility, it's good to be able to use someone as richly idiosyncratic as Captain Beefheart to help draw some lines. And, best of all, even after the lines have been washed away by age and experience, the music remains.

Thanks, Captain. You are missed.


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