“Have you ever heard of Captain Beefheart?” said Rob, looking at the psychedelically dressed shaman front man of the band The Martians that now stood in front of him. He looked at me intently up and down and attempted to consider my proclivities. My appearance clearly signaled that I had not just opened the doors of perception but had kicked a thick wedge underneath them ensuring they were open permanently.
“No, I haven’t. Who is he?” I cautiously replied. The name that Rob uttered triggered old memories of the lamb’s hearts I had been forced to eat as a child, the result of a single parent desperately trying to feed two children with little or no money. Rob then asked me upstairs to the tiny room that he and his American girlfriend Mariola shared in the vast Gothic Hampstead squat that myself and several other disparate folk lived in.
He took out a piece of vinyl with the title ‘Safe As Milk’, started to roll a spliff on the cover and then turned up the volume of his record player. “I’ll make you a copy on tape if you like.” said Rob enthusiastically. “Brilliant. Thank you Rob.” I said, hearing the surreal and slick sound of a master at work. Thus was my first introduction to the world of Captain Beefheart in the early 1990s and things haven’t quite been the same since.
The one album that Captain Beefheart is often sited along with is Trout Mask Replica. In an oeuvre of 13 studio albums recorded between 1967 and 1982, Trout Mask Replica is the one single go to recording that, sounding like a mantra or magickal spell, is uttered with a breath that one would speak the name of a constellation like Alpha Centauri. A mythic place, distant, exotic and in terms of access, difficult to reach.
John Peel said of the work; “If there has been anything in the history of popular music which could be described as a work of art in a way that people who are involved in other areas of art would understand, then Trout Mask Replica is probably that work.” Lofty praise indeed.
And yet, the one driving factor of obsession and fascination that seems to unpin hardcore fans of this double album, which is considered to be Captain Beefheart’s magnum opus, and has appeared on many lists of the greatest albums ever made, is its construction and importantly its triple birth place locations namely Sunset Sound Recorders, Los Angeles, Whitney Studios, Glendale, California and 4295 Ensenada Drive, Woodland Hills, California.
From January 1999 to September 2005 I lived and worked in Los Angeles. For three of those years I was married to a musician and artist called Angel. We both shared an interest and one could easily say a full-blown obsession with music. My then partner had an obsession and deeply entrenched devotion with Robyn Hitchcock, a fine and wonderful musician who we both witnessed execute brilliant gigs as a solo artist and also with his legendary band The Soft Boys in a variety of venues in Los Angeles.
The arrival of a Hewlett Packard computer into the home radically changed our access and indeed interests in music. The Internet was only just learning how to power crawl and the selection of sites was somewhat restricted compared to today’s endless plenum. The day Angel discovered a site called Napster online was a truly memorable one. Trawling through the encyclopedic lists of rare, unusual and impossible to find music, that somehow were free and downloadable, seemed as though we were both on a vast and enigmatic spaceship of some kind, casually taking rare and in some cases what had been up until then completely off limits private music collections.
It then came into being that a gentle but real struggle began for time on the computer. Angel spent more and more time online. I asked her, after she began to exhibit nesting behaviors, what exactly was going on. She confessed to me that she had joined a discussion group called Fire Party People on the site Captain Beefheart Radar Station a tribute fan site run by Graham Johnston in Brighton. I had lost my wife to an Internet discussion board. Indeed, she revealed to me that she was at that point the only female Captain Beefheart fan on the site, a fact that had garnered her much attention and kudos therein.
After emailing Gary Lucas, guitarist and co-manager of Captain Beefheart, and spending much time and effort acquiring the information, which at that point wasn’t easily obtained, Angel finally and proudly told me that she had the actual address of the house that the album Trout Mask Replica had been recorded in and most importantly rehearsed in. I was impressed and intrigued. Like Peter Griffin buying volcano insurance I swallowed the bait and agreed to go with her on a pilgrimage to an avant-garde experimental music Mecca, a holy site of deep suffering, pain, practice, devotion and for a number of the Magic Band members, prolonged periods of hunger.
In the ensuing years since his death it has been recorded that Captain Beefheart (aka Don Van Vliet) wasn’t exactly an easy person to work with. In his fine and authoritative work Songs in the Key of Z, Irwin Chusid writes: “Beefheart was essentially a self-taught musical sorcerer who crafted an iconoclastic image, behaving, talking and dressing like a desert-baked Captain Ahab. At times this persona seemed to engulf him, straining relations with his patrons and sidemen and bringing him to the brink of career derailment. He was a control freak who tried to control everything but his own maniacal excesses.”
It then dawned on me that our little cutesy couple pilgrimage was indeed and in fact an act of magickal working in itself as we traveled through the complex freeway system of Los Angeles with the album Trout Mask Replica playing, inexorably towards our destination 4295 Ensenada Drive, Woodland Hills. Playing albums in the city of their birth is a highly recommended activity. Playing Forever Changes by Love while living in Los Angeles, as I did with Trout Mask Replica, yielded subtle and at times sublime nuances, which only further added appreciation and depth to your unfolding understanding. Resonance is found in the most mundane of places: street signs speak their wisdom; clouds take synchronistic shapes and the contours of the very land itself begin rolling and undulating in a continuous act of sacred geomancy.
After what seemed like a lengthy episode from Greek mythology we finally arrived to the sequestered canyon that the house stood in. Surrounded by trees and accessed by narrow and winding roads this imposing and then pink coloured dilapidated wooden two-story house stood at the top of a hill. Rampant flora and fauna surrounded the house. A veranda circled the upper level where I would imagine the Captain himself waking up of a morning, yawning like a ravaged demon and then urinating off the top balcony. A long stone stairway leads up to the porch. We both started to slowly but surely creep completely uninvited up the property, though my nerves and knowledge of the fact that homes in America invariably have guns, made our progress a tad ultra cautious.
Look, there’s the small bridge as featured on the photo art of Grow Fins Rarities (1965-1982) on the Revenant label. After my then wife took some photos of the house and one of each of us gleefully and foolishly holding the album like a couple of gloating geeks, and what I sincerely thought was an actual sound of movement from inside the house, we both quickly and quietly left the property. A while later Angel wrote and published a blog about our trip.
While I was there I perceived what I would call an atmosphere of dark foreboding and intense vibrations which permeated the scene. This concurred with what former Magic Band members have repeatedly stated that at various times one or another of the group members were put “in the barrel”, with Don Van Vliet berating him continually, sometimes for days, until the musician collapsed in tears or in total submission to Van Vliet. Magic Band members John French and Bill Harkleroad have stated that these sessions often included physical violence. French described the situation at the house as “cult-like” and a visiting friend of his said; “the environment in that house was positively Manson-esque”.
In a 1994 interview in the Independent newspaper Van Vliet said: “People don’t like to be used as paint. If they’re going to be used by me, that is the only way they’re going to be used.” My profound respect of the music and the many people that sacrificed themselves, their lives and practically everything else to make it is without question. Meeting Richard ‘Midnite Hatsize’ Synder (‘Ice Cream for Crow’ Magic Band member) and his lovely wife at a Brian Wilson concert confirmed to me the underlying compassion and overall charm and kindness of the large and wide Beefheartian alumni. However, hopefully like an environmentalist driving a fossil-fuelled vehicle, I am and will continue to remain enlightened and aware of the dark black necromantic oil made from the very animal and plant life of our precious planet that ultimately powers and drives it forward.
Screen shots of the house at Ensenada Drive, Woodland Hills are from the documentary The Artist Formerly Known as Captain Beefheart with John Peel and can be seen in full here.