WHERE'S THE BEEF?

Four new releases don't tell all of the Captain Beefheart story

There's a good reason that so many members of the public see music critics as twerps: Plenty of us are. Scribes with pretentious stripes routinely disregard the stuff that real people enjoy hearing (regardless of its quality or lack thereof) in favor of the outré (regardless of its quality or lack thereof). It's difficult to pin down why such a considerable percentage of our fraternity reacts in this manner, although being mistreated by football players in high school probably has a lot to do with it. But in the end, the predictability of these responses undermines the opinions such writers are so determined to express. The more full-of-themselves reviewers huff and puff about the greatness of some obscurity, the more apt the typical reader is to turn on some Shania Twain.

Given this seldom-acknowledged truth, there's something almost poignant about the rapturous notices that have greeted the sudden cascade of previously unreleased and/or newly reissued material by Don Van Vliet, more commonly known as Captain Beefheart. The Captain, after all, is the quintessential critic's baby — a guy who's so widely revered by arbiters of hipness that his name has become an adjective (how many songs have you heard described as "Beefheartian"?), despite the fact that most of his albums never made it further than the lower reaches of the Billboard charts. Of course, sales success is hardly a barometer of excellence; otherwise the Backstreet Boys would be the finest act of the late '90s. But no matter how many music journalists rave about the Cap, he'll never be widely embraced by consumers. All but a few of his creations are too flat-out weird for that, and his occasional attempts to smooth out his rough edges for mass consumption come across as aesthetic and conceptual missteps.

At the same time, simply dismissing Beefheart as an insignificant fringe character isn't justified, either. Van Vliet, who stopped making albums after 1982's Ice Cream for Crow in order to concentrate on painting, stands as a considerable influence on acts as disparate as Devo and Tom Waits, and though a little of his music can go a long way, his best stuff is raw, intriguing and funny folk art that rips through boundaries with casual aplomb. But, unfortunately, the latest additions to the Beefheart oeuvre don't present his attributes in a cogent manner. Grow Fins: Rarities (1965-1982), a five-CD boxed set on Revenant, Safe as Milk and The Mirror Man Sessions, a pair of reissues put out by Buddha, and the two-disc Rhino Records compilation The Dust Blows Forward fail to capture the scattershot energy and charming madness that permeate such albums as 1969's Trout Mask Replica, 1970's Lick My Decals Off, Baby and 1980's Doc at the Radar Station. Perhaps because Van Vliet wasn't involved in assembling any of them, they are unable, for a variety of reasons, to get to the heart of the Beef.

Grow Fins certainly comes in a lavish package, complete with a colorful 112-page mini-book featuring an essay by Rolling Stone regular David Fricke and interview collages overseen by longtime Beefheart drummer John French, a.k.a. Drumbo. But Beefheart's absence turns the package into a tale told by others — Citizen Beefheart, if you will — and the attempts by the supporting musicians to claim credit for assorted songs gives off an unpleasant scent. Van Vliet, in the days when he granted interviews, tended to imply that his songs sprang full-grown from his Zeus-like brow, even though he received collaborative assistance from bassist Roy Estrada, guitarist Jeff Moris Tepper, keyboardist Eric Drew Feldman and a slew of equally gifted and innovative instrumentalists. But there's no question that his vision shaped the overall sound, and to nitpick about who came up with what melody or riff is ultimately pointless.

The music on Fins doesn't deserve the same descriptive, but it puts forth a very incomplete picture of Beefheart's range. Disc 1, covering the years 1965-67, finds Van Vliet in the guise of a commercially viable blues-rocker, and he does a decent impersonation. But if his gruff, untutored voice is still worth hearing even when he's sticking closely to the melody, the material seems fairly pedestrian: "Just Got Back From the City" is a standard choogler; "I'm Glad" could be the work of just about any bluesy balladeer; and both "Yellow Brick Road" and "Plastic Factory" paint by the numbers. The second CD changes that equation somewhat, with two renditions of "Electricity" introducing Van Vliet trademarks such as shifting vocal tones and structural anomalies and a demo of "Korn Ring Finger" mating a jazzy bass line and a field holler. But "Rollin n Tumblin" and "Yer Gonna Need Somebody on Yer Bond," though raucous, tend toward commonplace blues jamming.

For its part, the box's third disc collects a series of mainly instrumental work tapes in an effort to prove that Beefheart and company shaped the songs from Trout Mask Replica in advance rather than simply vomiting them out in the studio (a matter of largely academic interest), and CD No. 4 supplements some curious footage viewable on computer with just over 12 minutes' worth of Van Vliet and buddy Victor Hayden jabbering with a neighbor as a typewriter taps in the background. That leaves only disc 5, a wide-ranging compilation of live offerings and demos from 1969-82, to provide anything approaching a legitimate overview and consistent listening pleasure. Among the highlights are a tumultuous 1971 run-through of "When Big Joan Sets Up"; a folkie-friendly 1975 reconsideration of "Orange Claw Hammer"; and "My Human Gets Me Blues," which longtime Beefheart associate Frank Zappa introduces by saying, "Be quiet and pay attention to this man's music, because if you don't, you might miss something important." Too bad more of Grow Fins doesn't bear out this warning.

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