Perfect Sound Forever

An appreciation by Jason Gross
(February 1999)

Most innovative, revolutionary artists don't intend to set the world on its ear. They just have good ideas that they follow. They problem is that this kind of work usually gets a lot of scorn because no one has done it before and it's more than a little precarious to cast your lot in with someone who's trail-blazing. After all, a lot of these people turn out to be cranks and charlatans.

Don Van Vliet is neither. Sad to say, it was only when he made the regrettable (and understandable) decision to retire from music that most people were able to figure this out. After that time, his ideas were common currency everywhere almost to the point of being a cliche. At the time though, doing away with a steady beat, neatly rhymed lyrics and tonal melodies were all dangerous, radical propositions.

At the time that he was concocting his work, he did receive SOME recognition but certainly not what was due- he was mainly an outcast that only some enlightened fans and writers picked up on. Once punk slogged off all popular music before it, it did have a soft spot for Beefheart. The legions of no wave, alternative, grunge, post-rock and whatever's-going-to-follow bands are all part of his legacy. What he actually created wasn't something from scratch- just like with matter, all music comes from somewhere. The question isn't necessarily how original any music is going to be in the end but how an artist can take what's come before him and what they can do with it. Beefheart certainly heard and knew about Delta blues, free jazz and beat poetry but who would have ever thought that all of these things belonged together? Just stirring these things together doesn't necessarily make it something for the ages. What set Beefheart apart was not just how he was able to combine all these disparate ideas but how he made them his own. It's not a coincidence that he came about this without the benefit of extensive formal music training- he had enough faith in his ideas to pursue them in an 'amateurish' way: 'I never took lessons,' he explained. 'I never rehearse.'

The way that he put his stamp on this crazy, inspired melange of styles was with his feral, gritty character that's seen in almost all of his work. Just like his moniker tells you, he's got a beef in his heart against the world. His music and his words were torn, barbed and furious as if they were reflecting each other, sometimes doing away with the words or sometimes doing away with the music (until both were gone). At the same time, Beefheart was not a cranky misanthrope- a lot of his plaints were against the destruction of nature and his lyrics were full of puns and alliteration. Just the fact that someone would create wild and wooly art that didn't have the life and the fun sucked out of it was revolutionary enough.

And so, his music is history now. His paintbrush replaces his microphone (and his harp and sax). His paintings have these same qualities that were found in his music as he's found it more satisfying to continue his work in another medium where he had less meddling with his work and more control over it. Some of his paintings graced his album covers, again making the connection between these different aspects of his work.

Listening to his music today, the most striking thing about it is how powerful it still is. It hasn't lost any of its power, its insanity, its drive, its challenge. This is the kind of work that still invites rediscovery, re-evaluation. There's always something surprising coming at you no matter how many times you listen. Any great figure in any field has a powerful legacy that's constantly studied, discussed and dissected. It's no different for Beefheart- his work is the kind that invites this and encourages it. It flows with life and energy, waiting for any listener to take its challenge up and see the world differently. Beefheart himself had the most accurate statement of all about his own work when he said this about this band (and not just referring to rock here either): 'we're the only people doing anything significant in modern music.'

See the rest of the Beefheart tribute

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