CAPTAIN BEEFHEART: SAFE AS MILK (1967)
1) Sure 'Nuff 'n Yes I Do; 2) Zig Zag Wanderer; 3) Call On Me; 4) Dropout Boogie; 5) I'm Glad; 6) Electricity; 7) Yellow Brick Road; 8) Abba Zaba; 9) Plastic Factory; 10) Where There's Woman; 11) Grown So Ugly; 12) Autumn's Child.
Don Van Vliet has always been mad, he knows he's been mad, like the most of us are, but it always takes time to properly assess your madness, and sometimes you have to earn the right to becoming truly mad — you really have to work for it, you know. Thus, if you take the very first single by Captain Beefheart & His Magic Band, a cover of Bo Diddley's ʽDiddy Wah Diddyʼ, what you will find will simply be a garage amplification of a classic blues-rock number (no wonder it ended up on the Nuggets boxset), with some great fuzz bass and a raspy black man's voice, which, upon close scrutiny, turns out to be white, but you'd need a band photo to certify that anyway. But already the second single, ʽMoonchildʼ (ironically, written by David Gates, soon to be of Bread fame and as far removed from Beefheart weirdism as possible), is garage rock with psychedelic rather than bluesy overtones, reveling in blasts of conjoint fuzz bass, screechy slide guitar, piercing harmonica, and wild echo. Still relatively normal, though, at least, by the common standards of psychedelic experiments circa 1966.
By the time The Magic Band recorded enough demos for a complete album, though, it became clear that «garage rock» and «psychedelia» were mere stepping stones for Don Van Vliet — training material upon which he could cut his formative teeth as he prepared to launch a musical genre that would be his and his only. The general motto of beefheart-rock as we know it would be something like «Acknowledge authority only to challenge it», and Safe As Milk is the best place to perceive it, because on subsequent records, the huge influence of various respectable predecessors on Van Vliet would already be much less discernible (though no less important). Safe As Milk, however, could probably be called by some a «formative» record, one that still sounds like a cross between the traditional-conventional and the crazy-innovative — although I would rather reserve that word for the early singles, because as far as I'm concerned, Beefheart never really made an unequivocally better record than Safe As Milk. More challenging and stupefying, for sure; more influential, without a doubt; but more «meaningful» or «emotionally stunning» — well, I am not too sure about that.
Let us begin by stating that Safe As Milk is wonderfully eclectic, reflecting The Magic Band's healthy mastery of just about every style of American popular music in existence. Chicago blues (ʽSure 'Nuffʼ), Detroit-ish garage-rock (ʽZig Zag Wandererʼ), deep southern soul and R&B (ʽCall On Meʼ, ʽWhere There's Womanʼ), Nashville country (ʽYellow Brick Roadʼ), folky psychedelia à la Jefferson Airplane (ʽAutumn Childʼ) — they have it all worked out, but they are never content to merely offer passable imitations of all these genres. High above the solid musicianship (not exceptional, but always competent, which is really something when you think about how many different styles they have to master), including, for the record, the slide guitar talents of a very young Ry Cooder, reigns supreme the personality of the Captain, which, at this time, consists of three magic strands: (a) a highly flexible voice that can go from Howlin' Wolf to Wilson Pickett and back at a moment's notice; (b) totally crazy lyrics that can have a strong foundation in traditional blues and R&B clichés and then shoot away from them twice as fast as in the hands of Robert Zimmerman; (c) a splice-and-deliver vision that can, within the same song, take you in a completely unpredictable direction at any given moment.
In the future, point (a) is the only one of the three upon which the man couldn't possibly outdo himself — his singing, snarling, crooning, raving, ranting, and panting on this record is as far out as it gets — whereas the lyrics would certainly get crazier, and the melodies would get so complex that this initial set would, in comparison, look like Doris Day. Yet it is a level with which I am perfectly comfortable, and so, no doubt, would be any general fan of the «golden middle», not spoiled and misled by the constant heralding of Trout Mask Replica as the Captain Beefheart album par excellence — a trick that, as I suspect, has caused more people in history to turn away from the artist in horror rather than embrace him. The thing is, Safe As Milk is already a record that gives you a totally unique musical vision. Where Dylan showed how traditional musical forms may be revived and modernized with words, tones, and arrangements that are relevant to the 20th century, Beefheart goes one step further — he shows how they can all be driven to heights of insanity. If it's blues, it's got to be hellfire-demonic. If it's soulful pleading, it's got to be pleaded from a straitjacket. If it's nasty garage-rock, it's got to be nauseatingly nasty garage-rock, the musical equivalent of pulling your pants down and delivering a steamy one right in front of the old lady. Even if it's country, you still gotta giddy up, horsey.
On the very first track, the dashing Captain tells us that he "was born in the desert, came on up from New Orleans... came up on a tornado sunlight in the sky" (I'm pretty sure he used to tell things like that to interviewers, too — Dylan's bizarre nonsense that he spouted at press conferences in 1965-66 is the acumen of truth compared to some of the things Don Van Vliet told journalists, and, creepiest thing of all, it is never known how much of that stuff he actually believed himself at the time of telling). He does it to the tune of ʽRollin' And Tumblin'ʼ, and, of course, the tradition of inventing one's own epic mythology is a long-standing one in the blues world — but "I went around all day with the moon sticking in my eye" may be a bit too much even for Muddy Waters. (Ultimately, it proved a bit too much even for Ry Cooder, who here is perfectly happy to carry across the slide guitar melody with plenty of color, taste, and fluency — but apparently the poor guy never truly understood what exactly it was that he was stepping into, thinking that this was going to be some sort of post-Paul Butterfield thing...).
Then there's ʽZig Zag Wandererʼ, which rolls along like one of those sexually charged, arrogant garage-rock nuggets, but instead of featuring a snotty, sneery, finger-giving teenager, it gives you an R&B-influenced howler, sounding like a man driven to paranoid insanity by the world closing in on him: "You can huff, you can puff, you'll never blow my house down..." ...because I'm loaded with dynamite and I'll take you and everybody else with me as I go. Musically, this track is very close to Zappa's style on Freak Out!, but where Zappa was all about sarcasm and satire, Beefheart takes this image very seriously — there's relatively little humor on Safe As Milk, as could probably be expected from the difference between a man who liked to feign and dissect insanity (Frank) and a man who was quite genuinely insane (Don).
Yet for a genuinely insane man, he does offer a staggering lot of psychologically and emotionally different insights and perspectives. There's the cocky, braggy, blues-influenced posturing of ʽSure 'Nuffʼ; the paranoid hysteria of ʽZig Zag Wandererʼ; the almost cartoonish cruelty and mockery of ʽDropout Boogieʼ, which is like a lyrical sequel to Dylan's "get born, keep warm, short pants, romance", only this time set to a ʽLouie Louieʼ-like riff-hammering for a stronger effect; the mystical appraisal of ʽElectricityʼ, done Howlin' Wolf style and combining both poetic admiration and deep fear of that supreme force of life (the way he carefully drawls out those syllables in the classic «sandpaper» style — "eeeh-laaae-ktreeee-citeeee..." — sounds like an evil magician casting a spell all by itself). There's some place for love in all of this, too, although good luck finding yourself a lady with a song like ʽWhere There's Womanʼ: Beefheart's howling delivery offers exquisite praise for the female sex ("where there's woman, honey wine, where there's woman, lovin' time"), but the psychological instability of the howling character is so well on display that you never really know in what way he truly sees the female ideal. It might be in the form of a beautiful wedding and living happily ever after, or it might be in the form of keeping her severed head locked up in the freezer — for the sake of eternal worship. (Fortunately, as it so happened, Don and his wife Janet spent 40 years happily married, but as far as I'm concerned, that was just a lucky coin toss).
It is important, though, that Safe As Milk is never as far removed from reality as we could think upon first hearing it. Most of the lyrics make some sort of sense — there's plenty of social commentary around, be it on the teenage state of mind (ʽDropout Boogieʼ can easily be pictured on a single concept album with Alice Cooper's ʽI'm Eighteenʼ), or on, ahem, the working class conditions (ʽPlastic Factoryʼ, with one of the most convincing "boss man let me be!"'s you'll ever hear), and even a piece of jungle-boogie nonsense such as ʽAbba Zabaʼ makes more sense when you learn that Abba Zaba is the name of a real Californian candy bar — apparently, here it is used more as a metaphor for drug-addled vision, but blame it on the manufacturers who gave that kind of name to a candy bar. (And, for the record, it has never been clinically proven that Beefheart never took drugs — he said that he didn't, but then he also said that he went a year and a half without sleeping, so...). The issues that are tackled and the answers that are given are always ambiguous and clouded, of course, but that's just the trademark of a good work of art — feet on the earth, head in the clouds — and that's the way I personally prefer it, rather than having to admire the consequences of a complete blast-off.
The only criticism one could make of the album is that it is nowhere near as musically inventive as Beefheart's future endeavors. The base melodies are often either «primitive» (ʽDropout Boogieʼ) or directly lifted from traditional sources (ʽSure 'Nuffʼ), and composition as such seems to have been far from Beefheart's first worry here — at best, he delights in splicing together various dissimilar melodies to form a progressive mini-suite like ʽAutumn's Childʼ, but there are still very few signs of the evilly twisted time signatures and head-bursting dissonances that would make him the cherished darling of the avantgarde movement. Naturally, this makes Safe As Milk less interesting for musicologists and daring musicians; but, sure 'nuff, this makes it easier for simpler people to assimilate and empathize. At least in terms of grabbing my attention and lifting up (and shaking out) my spirit, Safe As Milk is as good as it gets, and gets as high a thumbs up rating as is technically possible for a Captain Beefheart record.