Archive for the ‘Captain Beefheart’ Category

Following up on Bryan’s post on Beefheart, which I largely agree with. I think you have to also look at this (Cptn Beefheart in the 1970s–sorry about the irritating british guys setting up the video):

I don’t know what to think about it–is it the consumate joke, the big swindle, or does that crazy look in his eye make it something else? Incidentally, it’s quite interesting to check out the comments thread on youtube–there is no consensus on this; rather, it seems polarizing, probably because of how it plays out with regard to artifice and authenticity.

I would throw in the Shaggs here as well.

I mean, I LOVED the Shaggs in college, and I still have a fondness for them. But not really a fondness that I indulge by listening to their albums; it’s more a fondness that I indulge by thinking about them, remembering the songs, and smiling. What’s not to love–“Rich people want what the poor people got; skinny people want what the fat people got.” But the pleasure is the feeling that you are listening to something without artifice. I also loved a Madison-area street musician named Art Paul, and who sung songs like “My Cat Was Taking a Bath” and “Pink Pants” (“Tell all your uncles and all your aunts/You ain’t never lived till you’ve worn pink pants”).

People think of this music as having child-like qualities (the Shaggs, especially, but in general, music that seems to come out of some savant-like space), and I think we do because we often think of mentally compromised people as child-like (not that I know the psychological status of ANY of these artists, only that their music projects something like crazyness). I don’t have a good analysis of this, except to say that I played the Shaggs for my 10-year-old son the other day and he hated it. Somehow the fact that the “childish” appeals only to adults intrigues me.


Just now, after picking my kids up for school I was re-watching the Art Paul video, and my six-year-old said, “That’s not funny,” and walked off. I asked her what she thought of the Shaggs. That also received her derision, and to my surprise, the question, “how is that funny?” Needless to say, she did not care for “Upon the My Oh My” either.


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During our seminar over the past few weeks, it has been suggested that authenticity plays a role in why listeners identify with particular musical artists. Increasingly, the word seems to have no fixed meaning when it comes to rock music. One listener’s definition of the authentic artist may be totally different from another. While this seems to be essentially problematic, it actually opens up a different notion: is there actually one type of authenticity at work in rock music, or are there several? If we accept that there are several types of authenticity that people use to qualify artists, we can then stop fixating on finding one actual definition for authenticity and shift the conversation to what finding out what kind of authenticity is being displayed by a particular artist.

Two weeks ago, Professor Solis posed the rather simple question: “Why Beefheart?” Indeed, what is it about Captain Beefheart that appeals to listeners and critics? Surely it’s something besides the pure enjoyment of his music. I grant that someone may reply to this post and say “I love the music of Captain Beefheart because it moves me on an extraordinarily deep level and that’s the only reason.” This statement would be totally valid, but I venture to say that in the majority of cases, there is something else at work here in relation to why a listener would be drawn to Captain Beefheart. This something else is a type of authenticity I’ll refer to as the genuine article.

Here I’ll turn to Christgau: “Zappa’s distance from his audience is a calculated means of bullying it into respectful cash-on-the-line attention. Beefheart really doesn’t give a shit. Zappa plays the avant-gardist and Beefheart is the real thing. He does perform, but for once performance and self expression are almost identical: his detachment is in some sense pure and even innocent, and at the same time he is arrogant as only the pure heart can be arrogant.” (from Any Old Way You Choose It) In other words, both Zappa and Beefheart are weird, but Zappa is being weird. Beefheart is weird. Thus Zappa is a poser and Beefheart is the authentic artist, worthy of reverence and whatever else. To Christgau, it would seem that if Beefheart were playing music in his living room, he would be playing it exactly the way he was on stage that evening. There is no seperation between Beefheart the person and Beefheart the performer, and he is thus the genuine article.

So how does Christgau (and countless others I presume) know that Beefheart isn’t simply acting the part? Here’s where I’ll draw a parallel to another artist who exhibits similar qualities, Daniel Johnston. (If you haven’t experienced him, rent the film The Devil and Daniel Johnston.) On stage, both Beefheart and Johnston are weird, but there’s something about their persona that projects more…they’re almost like idiot savants, and they clearly don’t just play that on stage. Because of this quality, it would seem that they are immune from posturing, from record companies, from the corruption of big time rock, and they are in fact genuine artists.

It is this “purity” that draws people to Beefheart and Johnston. I don’t deny that their music speaks to people, but it’s the feeling of authenticity that creates a substantial part of their lure. Because of their idiot savant like nature, they project the image of the genuine article, and thus serve as an example of authenticity that many listeners look for in their artists.

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