Thursday, December 23, 2010

Joseph's Picks Of The Week 12/24/10 - Captain Beefheart & His Magic Band and Roscoe Holcomb

Don Van Vliet aka Captain Beefheart has exited this mortal coil, and it’s certain we’ll never see another like him. It’s true that he never sold a lot of records, particularly in proportion to the level of his influence, which was vast, yet mostly implicit. The guy’s considerable discography had a huge impact on my still developing mind as it navigated the yawning chasm of young adulthood, and in a manner that was much different than the seduction of my senses by the Velvet Underground. By the time I’d heard VU, they’d inspired a legion of often rote copyists that were clogging record bins all over the globe. A big part of the reason for this phenonenon was (and still is) that The Velvet Underground = Cool. But the Captain was just too flat out weird for that designation. Instead, Beefheart = Out, his grand manner registering as puzzling, fascinatingly so, attracting the attention of misfits of all stripes like ants to a deluxe picnic. And this weirdness wasn’t in the slightest bit affected; like Dali, William Burroughs and David Lynch, Don’s artistic whatsis was both sui generis and sincere, his only put-on being when he tried unsuccessfully to go commercial. For a long time Beefheart was synopsized in the mainstream press as a curious satellite/appendage of Frank Zappa’s formidable yawp, but even a cursory inspection illustrates that their personalities were substantially different, and as much as I dig Frank’s massive run from FREAK OUT to HOT RATS, I know I’m not alone in considering Van Vliet the greater artist. Zappa’s weird side was leavened with Lenny Bruce influenced satirical elements that eventually found him donning a suit in the ‘80s to combat toads like Robert Novak. By this point Don was a wizened recluse, having abandoned music for the greener pastures of visual art. Van Vliet was the rare bird that could effectively express in a variety of forms, and one of his most agreeably striking traits was a wild and twisted poetic streak, often delivered a cappella through a gnawing buzzsaw voicebox. If the young Zappa was ultimately a satirist with a love for Modern Classical (Varese!) and the untapped potential of rock, then the Captain is rock music’s foremost surrealist. And his finest document is undoubtedly TROUT MASK REPLICA, which stands as rock’s first truly uninhibited outsider document. Simply beyond psychedelic, the 28 tracks spread over four sides of vinyl combine spoken imagery, alien blues and angular skronk into an acidic, precise whole informed by the dry desert climate of California and the labyrinthine expanses of the unbound imagination. While the early work of the Magic Band, best represented by their debut album SAFE AS MILK and THE MIRROR MAN SESSIONS, fell largely between elevated garage rocking and Delta-blues infused psych, TROUT MASK was legitimately something new under the sun, so unique in fact that subsequent bands have very infrequently and then only fleetingly dabbled in approximating its essence. It’s a dangerous sound, requiring jazz-like discipline and comfort with caustic abstraction, and it’s no surprise that the greatness of this specific version of the Magic Band was like capturing lightning in a bottle. Even the greatest of his later units lacked the discombobulated telepathy of the TROUT MASK group, and if I was forced to whittle down my rock collection to just a handful of titles it’s a clear-cut cinch this would be one of them. Beefheart left the spotlight for the desert and a well stocked supply of canvasses just as my interest in music was beginning to take shape. I caught him on a rerun of Letterman around ’83 or so, where I got a glimpse of the video for the title track to ICE CREAM FOR CROW, his excellent final LP. It took a few years for me to track down the records, but once I did it was quickly obvious I’d found the true path, and TROUT MASK REPLICA sat at the apex of the journey. At this moment all I can say is thanks, Don - For the guidance and the music, and for pointing the way forward. Maybe someday we'll catch up.

Bob Dylan once described the music of Kentuckian Roscoe Holcomb as possessing “an untamed sense of control”, and if you think that reads like Bob being his often inscrutable self, well I can only guess you haven’t heard Holcomb’s stuff. My own introduction to the work of this diamond tough American original came from the soundtrack to Michelangelo Antonioni’s misunderstood counter-culture classic ZEBRISKIE POINT, where his “Single Girl” (titled on that LP as “I Wish I Was a Single Girl Again”) made a huge, mysterious impression, Holcomb’s raw falsetto leaving me unsure if I was listening to a man or woman, the playing open and violent like a fresh wound covered in dust from the ground. Looking back, that song almost certainly served as my gateway to the wide open style often called Old Time. This was back before Greil Marcus presented his detailed thoughts on the Old, Weird America and previous to my being hipped to the Harry Smith compiled ANTHOLOGY OF AMERICAN FOLK MUSIC. Sure, I’d been listening to a bunch of the early Delta-blues stuff, a form of music that at its undiluted best is undeniably heavy and strange, but the alien atmosphere of much early blues still registered to my young ears as the roots of a style that was very much a part of contemporary culture. At this point, the only context I had for Roscoe Holcomb was bluegrass, a framework that was somewhat appropriate since the title of the first LP dedicated solely to his work is THE HIGH LONESOME SOUND, a term coined by John Cohen that was used by bluegrass kingpin Bill Monroe in well considered assessment of his genre. I emphasize only somewhat appropriate however since the difference between Holcomb’s music and the bluegrass style is instantly palpable. Where the latter is inherently band/group music like jazz or rock, the work of Roscoe Holcomb is a fully formed expression of the self, performed solo (with few exceptions) and informed by deep traditions that were, by the time he began recording in 1958, inseparable from his daily life and vital to his musical expression. The intent of the folklorists that were capturing and preserving the music of rural musicians after World War II was largely anthropological, with the focus on the documentation of history and culture threatened with extinction by modernization. But in the case of Holcomb it was immediately clear that his music possessed an unusually high level of artistry, full of weary knowledge that ranged from dark menace to tender beauty, and it’s no surprise that he was recorded more extensively than many other “rediscovered” musicians. THE HIGH LONESOME SOUND does a great job of displaying the range and assured mastery of this Appalachian giant, with particular emphasis on his skill at both blues and Old Regular Baptist traditions. For those unfamiliar with Holcomb but versed in the above referenced ANTHOLOGY, the music on this classic LP recalls such similar yet singular artists as West Virginian country blues man Frank Hutchison, North Carolinian folklorist, lawyer and banjoist Bascom Lamar Lunsford, Tennessee songster and key rediscovery figure Clarence Tom Ashley and even hints of the wild style of another Tennessean, early country singer and Grand Ole Opry legend Uncle Dave Macon. The main difference between the work of these artists and THE HIGH LONESOME SOUND is how Holcomb’s style was allowed to age to an often eerie, haunting vintage as a pluperfect example of high folk expression un-tampered with by any commercially-minded interests, his late documentation delivering the wide spectrum of his work through the loving auspices of the aforementioned anthropological goodwill. If you own the CD version of THE HIGH LONESOME SOUND you already have most of the contents of this LP, but most ain’t everything (any grade-schooler with tell you the same), and by the end of the second side’s epic ten minute closer “Little Bessie” it becomes quite clear that the considerable thought and careful selection of this vinyl edition stands as a superior testament to the natural grace and eternal vision of Roscoe Holcomb.

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