When he died Dec. 17 at the age of 69, Don Van Vliet, a.k.a. Captain Beefheart, had not produced any music since 1982's Ice Cream for Crow. Nevertheless, his passing summoned an unlikely yet not unexpected outpouring from those who ignored him in life but found reader mileage in giving him tribute in death. Thankfully, he was not absorbed into the mainstream he shunned in the same way that his old buddy Frank Zappa was when he got induction into the Rock 'N Roll Hall of Fame months after his own passing, but once January rolls around, I bet the odd name that most had never heard before will disappear from people's lips as quickly as it appeared.
Rather than eulogize the man, which would require a knowledge of the other forms of art he produced after retiring from music that I do not possess -- though that certainly has not stopped some -- I would like to honor one of the most advanced and original artists I have ever heard with a review of my favorite album of his, one fans embrace but the critical press often relegates to the heap in favor of the legendary Trout Mask Replica. Beefheart always was the kind of guy who would never be allowed more than a single shot at recognition anyway.
Yet Trout Mask Replica's follow-up, 1970's Lick My Decals Off, Baby, takes the fractals of avant-garde brilliance from Trout and hones them. It is still, first and foremost, a work that defies easy classification, but the sound is clearer now, the compositions more coherent. The opening title track bursts out of the gate with precise guitar lines and carefully controlled percussion, a shocking harmony that Beefheart shatters with his trademark yelps and growls when he jumps in with the lines, "I wanna lick you where it's pink/In everywhere you think," and the sheer force of his weirdness instantly breaks the band, who splinter into the carefully controlled chaos that is Beefheart's specialty.
Decals brings back the bluesier influence of Safe as Milk and mixes it with the off-the-wall genre blend of Trout Mask Replica, delighting in the unleashed id but retaining a soulfulness in its fitfully recalled Chicago blues that Beefheart could always command. By vocalizing not only Howlin' Wolf's pained growls but the hideous-beautiful squawks of Ornette Coleman's saxophone, Van Vliet unites the avant-garde with the traditional and direct, and his free-associative poetry likewise blends the abstract with the articulately real.
Where some artists might couch their libidos in double entendre and innuendo that usually isn't half as clever as people think, Beefheart lays it all out there, so blunt that his explicit and graphic descriptions of lewd acts and almost medical close-ups of genitalia loop around into interpretive metaphor. On the hilariously titled "I Wanna Find Me A Woman That'll Hold My Big Toe Till I Have To Go" -- the title is so long Van Vliet barely has time to speak the words and a few other lines before the song reaches its conclusion -- Beefheart never goes beyond the stated body part but fills the mind with obscene imagery simply through the suggestive properties of his sex-mad yelps.
Yet, by and large, Lick My Decals Off, Baby does not place primary focus on sex as Trout Mask Replica did. Instead, vaguely political, highly apocalyptic imagery abounds. The "parapliers" (sic) tugging on the sky in "Bellerin' Plain" send the heavens crashing down around a locomotive engineer who pumps coke into the furnace in a futile attempt to outpace the end of days -- besides, where could he go, trapped on those rails? "Petrified Forest" hones Beefheart's lyrics for a devastating attack on the world's polluters choking the planet and its inhabitants. And nothing sums up the rapidly mounting social terrors afflicting the United States and the world at the onset of the '70s like the terrifying lines of "The Buggy Boogie Woogie": "One day I was sweepin' down by the wall/I bumped a mama spider 'n the babies begin' to fall/Off o' my broom/Now I gotta keep on sweepin' 'n sweepin'/'fore they fill the room." With all this pressure weighing down on matters, it's no wonder the good captain so often retreats into the only safe haven available to him: the birth canal of the nearest willing woman.
Van Vliet composed much of the album on the piano, which poses something of a problem as he did not know how to play the instrument. But part of the charm and purity of Beefheart's recordings was his penchant for having his band play anything and assembling something from the cacophonous results. Apocryphal stories abound regarding Van Vliet's authoritarian touch with his bandmates, the most infamous of which concern his supposedly cult-like breaking of will during the months-long rehearsal for Trout Mask Replica. Whether Van Vliet psychologically tortured his crew depends mostly on whose memoir you read, but what is unquestionable is that he took his players' musical training and unmade it, showing them how to break every rule before refashioning the shattered pieces into something that makes music.
Where the brief snippets of Trout Mask Replica represented the sound of the breaking apart, Lick My Decals Off, Baby shows off the reconstruction. Bill Harkleroad a.k.a. Zoot Horn Rollo took the tapes of Van Vliet's haphazard piano sketches and helped assemble the "I Love You, Big Dummy" loses the melody before it even begins, but it still works as a rollicking blues number that hides a danceable beat somewhere in its collapsing squeal. The instrumentals -- the best of them being "Peon" -- could be mistaken for warm-ups if the tones of the clanking, atonal instruments did not carry a passion one doesn't put into scales.
Even the philistines who would dismiss Beefheart as yet another charlatan hiding behind random noise as art could not deny that the world lost an original satirist Dec. 17. With scant lines and even less coherence, Captain Beefheart could skewer anything, from the aforementioned polluters to the re-homogenization of the post-Love Generation nuclear family ("Space-Age Couple," all condescending jabs toward those who incorporated the progressive into the reactionary). But I feel we lost so much more with this artist, whose five-octave range never sounded so expressive as it does here. Lick My Decals Off, Baby represents the apotheosis of Van Vliet's output, aligning the music to the same dynamic range as the captain's hoots, hollers, shrieks, growls, purrs and whoops while offering the best of his sexual imagery and his sociopolitical observations. Following this album, Captain Beefheart would move his Magic Band into increasingly mainstream waters until he shoved too hard and trapped them in the No Man's Land between commerce and the avant-garde where no fan treads. Van Vliet would later pull them back from the brink with his last three albums, all of them magnificent, but they all lacked the spark contained in these early albums. With Lick My Decals Off, Baby, Captain Beefheart said all he could say, and that just so happened to be more than anyone else to come along in the intervening four decades.