Sep 042012

What are you laughing at, punk?

True Confession #1: Until last week I never owned The Minutemen‘s legendary Double Nickles on the Dime. For what it’s worth I own another Minutemen album, but it’s not the same. Over the last 5 years I have purchased a few of my favorite tracks from that album, but I’ve always felt guilty about not owning their entire double-album masterpiece. I know, I bought a digital download of a record that was meant to be enjoyed in its vinyl gatefold glory. At least I’m finally digging this album all the way through for its incredibly fluid, aggressive playing and—yes—integrity. I will no longer have to quietly step out of the room whenever a lovefest for the album breaks out among close personal friends such as machinery and hrrundivbakshi.

True Confession #2: I cannot tell a joke to save my life. A traditional joke with a punchline, that is—I don’t want anyone getting the idea that I’m not otherwise incredibly funny. My inability to pick up the traditional joke-telling tradition has affected my ability to enjoy music that is constructed in what I believe is a punchline-based format.

Hearing the music of Frank Zappa was probably my first exposure to this style of song construction. There used to be an advertisement for either the Apostrophe album or a coming Zappa tour on one of Philadelphia’s FM stations that featured that bit about not eating the yellow snow. There was some other excerpt about moving to Montana. Yuck, yuck, for sure, but those sort of lyrics were so far removed from what I’d been listening to! I ended up buying Apostrophe a few years later (actually I stole it, as part of the wild 70-album heist that a college friend’s old high school friend let us pull off in the suburban mall record store he managed), confirming for myself how foreign those snippets of lyrics first sounded on that radio spot. I got Captain Beefheart‘s Trout Mask Replica the same night I acquired the Zappa album. Beefheart pulled that trick as well, but his punchlines were usually completely absurd and delivered in a less self-conscious, ain’t-I-funny tone than what Zappa used. Beefheart and his crew struck me as truly weird.

American punk bands out of the loosely knit “hardcore” scene must have included a lot of Zappa and Mad magazine-loving jokesters. Their songs were loaded with punchlines, where the band would stop playing and the lead singer would utter some sardonic or self-deprecating quip. I’m going to depend on you, readers, to list your favorite punchlines from that scene and others. That stuff is still too foreign and uncomfortable to me to contemplate further than I already have. The practice itself, mind you, is not uncomfortable. My sense of discomfort derives from the shame I harbor over my inability to deliver a punchline.

[audio:|titles=The Minutemen “Political Song For Michael Jackson To Sing”]

The floor is open, should you choose to fill it, with your thoughts on rock ‘n roll punchlines. What are the most memorable ones that come to mind? The best? The flops? What are rock’s earliest examples of this practice of songwriting?

I look forward to your thoughts.

May 042012

It’s not often we get to see Robert Fripp laugh, is it? I forgot King Crimson played on the failed early challenger to Saturday Night LiveFridays. Clearly, Fripp had a good time that night.

Collective critical wisdom probably considers Robert Fripp to be an “influential” musician, much like it does his old partner in crime, Brian Eno. However, unlike the body of work Eno produced, I’m not sure Fripp’s work as a guitarist, composer, producer, conceptualist, and iconoclast actually influenced many musicians. Who else plays in that weird scale that’s so distinctive of Fripp’s work? Who else uses Frippertronics? What other rock guitarists play seated on a stool? Eno inspired a generation of non-musicians to produce music, and he actually helped change the way we hear music. Fripp’s body of work suggests a musician needs to spend a lot of time practicing. Baby, that ain’t rock ‘n roll!

I’m not criticizing Fripp, mind you. I like his body of work. I like that one circular scale he plays repeatedly—and the other one, involving 2 notes that don’t quite go together yet move up the neck in some weird harmony. I love those soaring, melodic solos he occasionally plays on Eno records and The Roches’ “Hammond Song.” I consider Fripp to be an inspiring musician but not an influential one, if that makes sense. Along the same lines, I call bullshit on most folks who claim Captain Beefheart as an “influence.” His music is inspiring, but how can one be influenced by Beefheart without aping him? “Yeah, man, I like to stick daggers in the blues and sing ‘out there’ lyrics!” With rare exceptions (eg, Pere Ubu, early PJ Harvey), that is Beefheart more than it is influenced by Beefheart. I think he’s too idiosyncratic to be that useful an influence.

If you can get on board with this concept, are there other musicians you can think of who may be so idiosyncratic that they do not leave much room for influence, in terms of “building off” their work?

Mar 022011

My teenage son has great taste in music—and I’m not just saying this because much of his tastes mirror his old man’s. However, as he just reminded me the other day, he still thinks Captain Beefheart is the worst rock ‘n roll artist he’s ever heard, even worse than all the stuff he is correct in feeling sucks. These occasional exchanges over his not liking Beefheart give me the opportunity to sagely nod my head and give him a “You’ll see…” talk. Isn’t it better he first hears one of these dismissive “You’ll see…” talks from his own father before he gets them from older guys in high school?

“You’ll see…” I knowingly spoke down to him, “you’ve got good taste. You’ll thank me some day.”

And I believe he will. (I’ve got nothing more to say, on the other hand, to those of you who still don’t get Beefheart.)

What artist whose music you love is least likely to appeal to teens who will one day know better?

Dec 182010


Looking back over a week in which we lost Captain Beefheart and relocated our old friend Jimbo… Let’s just rock, shall we?

[audio:|titles=RTH Saturday Night Shut-In 7]

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Dec 182010

On the ride back from my company party tonight I listened to a rough demo of a new song I wrote a couple of weeks ago that attempts to touch on a fraction of the feeling I get from two of my favorite Captain Beefheart songs, the shattered glass blues of “Hothead” and the blow your speakers/blow your mind F-U of “Frownland.” In my humble songwriting efforts there are probably two dozen songs I try to draw power from, and while taking some pride in my latest efforts at internalizing these two songs I thought of the audio equivalent of time-lapsed nature photography of “Dirty Blue Gene,” my favorite Beefheart song ever. It was clear how much space Beefheart had cleared for my mind to run. Catching up with almost an entire day that I missed here in the Halls of Rock I have learned that Beefheart his died at 69 from complications from multiple sclerosis. Too bad. He was a great…artist.

Put this guy in the stupid Rock ‘n Roll Hall of Fame already. The world doesn’t need to pay any more attention to Neil Diamond. What can be learned from a closer look at his life, that he liked hash brownies? I’ve got no major beef with Tom Waits, but he’s no Beefheart. In fact, he wouldn’t be much of a Tom Waits if he hadn’t begun internalizing Beefheart beginning with Swordfishtrombones. This is not to dismiss his earlier albums, but it’s the Beefheart-influenced ones that cemented his reputation as an Artist and something more than the oddball of the LA singer-songwriter scene.

Hey, I really shouldn’t use Beefheart’s death to take shots and Diamond, Waits, et al. What I’d really like to do is celebrate the weird, driven musical world Beefheart created. Thanks for blowing open a clear spot in my mind.

Click here for an old post in which I tried to convince a friend who usually knows better that he should know better when it comes to the music of Captain Beefheart.

NEXT: Rock Town Hall’s Official Eulogy… Continue reading »

Jul 102010

Children’s books aren’t what they used to be. My daughter, for example, is reading the novel I Am a Genius of Unspeakable Evil and I Want To Be Your Class President by Josh Lieb. It’s story of Oliver Watson, an evil genius disguised as dorkish new boy who wants his father’s love and will do anything to get it. Yep, anything.

Even introduce middle grade kids to Captain Beefheart and Trout Mask Replica. Oliver explains to the reader why Beefheart was an evil genius:

…a musician so brilliant, so evil, he drove his own band insane. He would not let them eat. He would not let them sleep. He would not let them leave the house. He made them wear dresses (and they were not girls). He stripped them of their very names and subjected them to hours of abusive group-therapy sessions. When a dejected and desperate member of the Magic Band managed to escape the Captain’s clutches, Beefheart snatched him off the street and dragged him back to the practice studio.

It was cruel. Assuredly. Inhumane. Undoubtedly. Evil. Disgustingly so. And yet I defy you, today, to listen to Trout Mask Replica and say it was not worth it.

Being in step with the times, ie, aping Diary of A Wimpy Kid like mad, we also get a photo of Beefheart and the Magic Band in their pomp. And the cover of Trout Mask Replica. To a generation raised on Taylor Swift and Justin Bieber (whoever he is!), explaining Captain Beefheart isn’t easy.

Townsmen and Townswomen – how do you explain Captain Beefheart to a child of the 21st century? Where would you start? What song by Beefheart might best explain his strange magic? When I gave Doc At Radar Station a quick spin my daughter fled the room with ears covered.

Jan 312010

The title of this thread is more specific than it needs to be, but in an All-Star Jam comment on the current SHOWDOWN poll (ie, SHOWDOWN: Tom Waits or Captain Beefheart?), Townsman geo began to get at some of the issues I’m hoping we can explore:

I voted Captain Beefheart in the current poll, but I also really like Waits. Despite their apparent surface similarities, big, deep hollering voices and a tendency toward the aggressively harsh sound, they really come from different places. Waits is much more of a traditionalist. He brings a junkyard’s worth of musical detritus to what is, at heart, a traditional approach to songcraft. Beefheart, at his best, almost completely obliterates the most basic conventions of the electric blues based music that he started out in.

I’ve been revisiting Tom Waits recently, through his new live album, Glitter and Doom. The song selection is pretty good, the band sounds great, the recording is nice and live sounding… There’s a lot to like about this as a live album, including a second CD entitled Tom’s Tales, which I’ve yet to spend time with and which I suspect may be the best part of the concert. However, I can’t help but thinking that, compared with Captain Beefheart, an artist I love and an artist who must have been influential in Waits’ early-80s refashioning of his musical arrangements along “junkyard” lines, I am lukewarm on Waits.

For me, as geo notes, Waits is still a traditionalist at heart. I find his vocal style and all the junkyard trimmings to be a little distracting. “You don’t have to work junkyard,” I want to tell him.
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