Captain Beefheart and the Magic Band
Strictly Personal & Mirror Man
by Bill Bamberger
The tracks for Captain Beefheart and the Magic Band's second album were recorded between October 1967 and May 1968. One reason for giving the album the title Strictly Personal was that Van Vliet wrote all the songs, with no song doctor looking over his shoulder, as there was on the first album. The results are for the most part variations on the blues and more basic rock forms of the time. Where many of the tracks on the first album included both straight and slide guitar, Van Vliet here begins assembling his music around the rasping, whining sound two slide guitars make, a sound he would continue to favor. But even with the two slide guitars weaving and clashing, the sound of the album is much more monochrome, the songs much more sound-alike than those on the first album. Strictly Personal has an overall tone as unflashy as its manila cover art. Without Herb Bermann's input, the lyrics become more impressionistic, and at the same time they become sparser; some barely develop beyond their titles.
The music on Strictly Personal doesn't impress the way Safe As Milk does. The compositions are simpler, more a beginner's, even a naif's music---there is nothing here with the complex structure of a "Dropout Boogie" or the harmonic richness of "Autumn's Child." But neither are there any songs which seem to be aimed toward Top 10 radio play, as there were on the first album. What Van Vliet is doing with the music here is almost literally levelling his musical landscape, stripping everything down to its bare bones so that he can begin to build something new. While Safe As Milk is certainly the first album by Captain Beefheart and His Magic Band, Strictly Personal, true to its title, is the first album shaped solely by Van Vliet's sensibility. There is an immediacy and a physicality to the music which is missing from most of the previous album, which for all its originality comes from a more commercially calculated approach. Both compositionally and in its feeling of grinnin'-too-hard, Safe As Milk has more in common with the reviled Mercury albums of 1974 than it does with what came immediately before or after. The second album's cubist blues forms are in a direct line from the A&M singles. This album, rather than the more formally varies Safe As Milk, marks the beginning of the music to come.
The album opens with "Ah Feel Like Ahcid," Van Vliet's reworking of bluesman Son House's "Death Letter Blues." Van Vliet imitates something of House's urgent singing style, but is overall more relaxed. The words at once pay homage to and parody the themes of traditional blues- Van Vliet sings about a woman with big "chicken legs" and that he thinks "the postman's groovy," while the slide guitar is playing Mississippi delta-style blues behind him. The song fades, and chords like a puffed-out-chest announce the next song, "Safe As Milk." The lyrics may have been inspired by bachelor pad living- the refrigerator has a blown out bulb and holds spoiled food, but Van Vliet still sees its chrome shelves as "looking like a harp." The slide guitars work through the verses in call and response patterns, rising treble lines answering heavily rhythmic chord passages. The guitars cross one another like a knife and sharpener, and John French plays in an all-out pounding style. Bass player Jerry Handley is buried beneath French's toms. The end of the song is a blurry coda of feedback and slide-wiggling, set over French's drums as they turn and slow and finally settle into slow rolls wandering through some phasing effects which push the drums from one speaker to another. This was a very new technique at the time; Jimi Hendrix used it to great effect as well.
"Trust Us" begins like movie music suggesting an exotic island religion, with "ah-ahs" and a profoundly serious-sounding spoken intro. The lyrics- "Trust us; to find us you gotta look within," and an insistence that we all have to see before we see, be before we be, suggest the "us" in the title signifies our instincts, our inner feelings. One of the guitars plays a repetitive lick through most of the song. There are no solos as such, only variations on the repeated patterns. Again, as on "Safe As Milk," there is a meandering section where the guitars slowly investigate the notes they have been playing, and Van Vliet stretches out the syllables of a couple lines. This was the era of "raga rock," and early attempts at a Western-style electric trance music, and Van Vliet uses the repetitions in the music to great effect. The chant which ends the songs- Van Vliet repeating eight words again and again, intercutting them with ever more rapturous leaps into the falsetto, and French's drums being lowered by the production into the sound of a huge chamber- is indeed compelling, almost hypnotic.
The songs fades out and another fragment of "Ah Feel Like Ahcid" fades in. The first three songs, then, are a suite. Some considered it a set of drug songs, and a case can be made for that. But what's most interesting is that the suite form suggests that the most basic Delta blues riffs and the most current electronically altered experimental effects all flow together for Van Vliet. Listening to "Moody Liz," an unfinished recording from the same time, we hear Van Vliet and other voices singing long note chants over a busy rhythm track. This was recorded some time between October 1967 and May 1968, but not released until 1992, on the I May Be Hungry But I Sure Ain't Weird CD. (this may be Ornette Coleman's influence. Some of Coleman's most successful compositions- "Lonely Woman," most famously- have this dynamic). One of the things the voices chant is "Trust Us..." This suggests that Van Vliet may have envisioned a more complicated suite structure for the album, then abandoned it.
The fourth and final track on the first side is "Son of Mirror Man- Mere Man." The guitars again sound like anvils playing the blues. Van Vliet's comes up in the mix like a bullfrog attempting opera: "Mirr...orrrrrrrrr." The music is insistent, the lyrics a simple sing-song of opposites, "me / you," "Nearer than / farther than," that Van Vliet's voice turn to poetry. Half way through the track the rhythm changes, cuts itself in half and the band plays freely until Van Vliet's harmonica enters and the other instruments all step aside while Van Vliet plays, sings and scats, first fiercely and then more and more quietly until only a whispering harmonica reed remains. The phasing effects are at their most insistent here.
The second side opens with "On Tomorrow." The opening riff has much the same rhythm as Zappa's "King Kong," but stubbornly holds its place on the scale, rather than slowly swinging down as Zappa's composition does. French's tom-toms provide the steady pulse that guides the busy traffic of changes through the first minute of the track. There are a number of changes in rhythm and sound, including a sequence which employs total silence for full beats as a tension-builder. Again, there are free passages, where the guitars and drums abandon even the varying beats that have structured the piece, and play with no definite rhythm, and utilizing the slide guitar player's freedom to play any interval between the set notes of a guitar fretboard, they also play with no set pitch.
Some reverse guitar leads into "Beatle Bones N' Smokin Stones." A second, untreated guitar enters, apparently an electric guitar being played without an amplifier, from the dead sound of it. The melody has nothing in common with the Beatles' original ("Strawberry Fields Forever" is name-checked). The clearest musical reference is in John French's drumming, which evokes Ringo Starr's playing under the final fade-out section of the Beatles song. The lyrics have a simple springboard: if there are Strawberry Fields, then there certainly must be strawberry mice, strawberry butterflies, strawberry caterpillars, etc..
(John Lennon was reportedly not pleased by Van Vliet's reuse of his phrase, but if so Van Vliet bore him no ill feelings. According to Rick Snyder, "Midnight Hatsize Snyder" in the last incarnation of the Magic Band, Van Vliet had a clairvoyant episode the day before Lennon was killed, telling a journalist, "Something big is happening tonight---something horrible. You'll read about it in your papers tomorrow." The day after Lennon's assassination Van Vliet played a concert in New York City which began with him playing a soprano sax solo. He told the audience that the music was "from John, through Don, for Sean.")
"Gimme Dat Harp Boy" is a simple riff-driven blues. One fan described it as Willie Dixon's "Spoonful" played backward. Van Vliet's harmonica, naturally enough, dominates. "Kandy Korn," an ode to the little yellow and orange sweets is one of Van Vliet's most minor songs, both lyrically and musically. But he clearly had a soft spot for it, continuing to perform it in concert more than a decade later.
The phasing effects on Strictly Personal figure in the first of the feuds Van Vliet would have with record producers. According to Van Vliet, Krasnow put "psychedelic Bromo-Seltzer"- by which he meant phasing effects- on the record without his consent. "Phasing" is a technique whereby the sounds of two or more tracks go in and out of synchronization, the result being a whooshing effect, as if the sound were being carried and spun by a swift current. Phasing had been used as a technique to add excitement to records at least since Toni Fischer's 1960 hit "The Big Hurt." And just a month before recording began with Krasnow, in September of 1967, the English band the Small Faces released "Itchycoo Park," a heavily phased song which became a chart hit.
If Krasnow (who has since died) made any public statement about this, no record of it is to be found in Van Vliet literature. But rumors persist that Van Vliet is some way authorized Krasnow to alter his tapes, and an attempt at emulating the Small Faces' success could have been at the root of it. Some have said that Van Vliet authorized Krasnow to do this, and only after negative comments by others did he condemn the mix. But, despite the cries of the purists and of Van Vliet himself, the phasing doesn't really mar the music, and some aspects- some of French's drum solo work, for instance- even seem to have been arranged with the idea of leaving enough space in the music to accommodate such effects. Bill Harkleroad was present when Van Vliet first saw a copy of the album, but his account leaves open the possibility that Van Vliet's anger was directed at the fact that Krasnow misled him about the possibility of the album coming out at all more than objections to the phasing effects Krasnow added to the album. And Van Vliet remained not just a business associate of but friends with Krasnow after the album was issued. One of Van Vliet's statements about the album's mix reflect their mixed relationship:"I told Krasner, I said I hope you had fun, but I think you should start playing yourself so you don't have to do that to mine. It didn't make me that mad at Krasnow, because he wanted to play. He wanted me to make it- he didn't do it vindictively or maliciously, he just wanted me to make it."It is interesting to note that phasing began as a physical manipulation of the tape, with the producer or engineer dragging his thumb along a copy of the master tape to produce the effect. It is not known whether Krasnow used physical manipulation or if he by then had the ability to produce the effect electronically, but when Krasnow asked Van Vliet to name his new label, Van Vliet chose "Blue Thumb." (Strictly Personal is BTS 1.) Along with the name, Van Vliet gave the ultimate endorsement of his own thumbprint: it was Van Vliet's print that became the label logo, spinning round and round as the albums played. Was this some private reference to an agreement about phasing?
Strictly Personal is a short album, totalling just over thirty-five minutes. But it had originally been planned as half of a double-album set, with the working title of It Comes to You In a Plain Brown Wrapper. The second disc was to be longer performances. These were actually recorded before the tracks which became Strictly Personal. These long tracks, an additional fifty-plus minutes of music, were recorded in November of 1967 but not released until 1971, as Mirror Man.
These songs are even simpler than those on Strictly Personal, for the most part consisting of simple riffs repeated for up to nineteen minutes. "Tarotplane," is a two-chord groove, with occasionally slippery slide leads. The lyrics are Van Vliet's revision and knitting together of several songs: the old hymn "You're Going to Need Somebody On Your Bond," Son House's recording of "Grinnin' In Your Face," and (at an even further remove) Howling Wolf's "Wang Wang Doodle," as well as a couple more. The title is a pun on Robert Johnson's "Terraplane Blues," but Van Vliet makes no use of that song's lyrics or music. Van Vliet plays "first-time musette" (supposedly given to him by Ornette Coleman) as well as harmonica here. The musette is a double-reed instrument, which had made it into pop music consciousness via Brian Jones' interest in the Master Musicians of Jajouka. Van Vliet tightens his voice to form a sound close to that of the musette, does some of his formidable scat-singing, and even turns his mike on and off in places to add some John Cage-style indeterminacy to his vocal. The end of the track deliberately unravels, much the same as on "Safe As Milk," and "On Tomorrow" on Strictly Personal. These variations mean that, for all its basic musical simplicity, the track passes the test of time: it runs nineteen minutes and doesn't become boring. An eight minute alternate version of the logy "Kandy Korn" fails this test.
"25th Century Quaker" is based on a squarish two-bar ascending riff which is very close to the melody. The musette sounds out-of-place here (particularly at the end, where it sounds like a loon being strangled), and Van Vliet uses it sparingly. Here again he works his voice hard, using repetitions of words and fragments of phrases much the way Van Morrison uses them. Under this chanting the guitars slowly change the shape of the basic riff, while keeping everything available in small rhythmic boxes. The effect is again hypnotic, though the track as a whole is less successful than "Tarotplane." The guitarists here are Alex St. Clair and Jeff Cotton, and their playing is much looser than that of later Magic Bands. French here again provides the rhythmic binding that keeps the fragments together.
"Mirror Man" appears here in a much looser- limbed arrangement than on Strictly Personal. Where the earlier track had a hammering insistence, the longer version has an attractively swinging swagger. Its quarter-hour playing time passes pleasantly, but it doesn't leave the impression the more forceful short version does. Despite moments of excellence by the players, in the end this album is only a set of musical vocabulary and grammar exercises for Van Vliet as he searched for a new form.
See the rest of the Beefheart tribute
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