Hear a Rare Poetry Reading by Captain Beefheart (1993)

When I find myself in times of musi­cal trou­ble, Cap­tain Beef­heart comes to me. His Mar­cel Duchamp-meets-James Brown shtick goes places no oth­er exper­i­men­tal prog-blues-jazz artist ever has—places of absur­dist vir­tu­os­i­ty where the gap between the artist and the mask dis­ap­pears, where words and music have rela­tion­ships that defy phys­i­cal laws. Many have tried, but few have so well suc­ceed­ed in the wild ambi­tion to make sur­re­al­ist verse cohere in songs that defy all tra­di­tion­al arrange­ments. For my exper­i­men­tal rock dime, no one has mas­tered the art so well as Beef­heart and his Mag­ic Band.

In fact, every musi­cian, I believe, should some­times ask them­selves, “what would Cap­tain Beef­heart do?” But what about Beefheart’s rela­tion­ship with the oth­er arts? We prob­a­bly know that the man also named Don Van Vli­et was a pro­lif­ic abstract painter through­out his career, the medi­um he chose for the last 28 years of his life after he hung up his sax­o­phone in 1982. But did his “strange uncle of post-punk” musi­cal sen­si­bil­i­ties trans­late into poet­ry, a relat­ed but quite dif­fer­ent art than that of even the most abstract song­writ­ing?

Well, if Bob Dylan can win a Nobel Prize—and why not?—I see no rea­son why we can’t con­sid­er the work of Cap­tain Beef­heart lit­er­ary art. And in addi­tion to his extra­or­di­nary Dadaist songs, Beef­heart penned restrained, mas­ter­ful­ly imag­is­tic poems with wry humor and crys­talline intel­li­gence. His work sure­ly belongs in Alan Kaufman’s Out­law Bible of Amer­i­can Poet­ry right next to that of Dylan, Tom Waits, Pat­ti Smith, Tupac Shakur, Gil Scott-Heron, Jim Mor­ri­son, the Beats, and dozens more non-musi­cal writ­ers. But it seems that Beefheart’s lit­er­ary genius has been most­ly over­looked.

That’s unfor­tu­nate. In tense, vivid­ly observed poems like “A Tin Peened Rein­deer,” he approach­es the ellip­ti­cal mys­tery of Wal­lace Stevens and the baroque lan­guage of John Ash­bery. Late songs like “The Thou­sandth and Tenth Day of the Human Totem Pole” con­dense the grotesque imag­i­nary of Dali into a few stag­ger­ing lines. Yet we don’t get a col­lec­tion of Beef­heart read­ings until 1993, when he appeared in a short doc­u­men­tary by Anton Cor­bi­jn called Some Yo Yo Stuff.

You can watch that film at the top of the post, and in the videos below it, hear Van Vli­et read poems and song lyrics in record­ings from his time with Cor­bi­jn. Both in the film and in the read­ings, it is evi­dent that the mul­ti­ple scle­ro­sis that killed Beef­heart in 2010 had ren­dered speech dif­fi­cult for him. But with patient lis­ten­ing, we hear that his sparkling wit and absur­dist genius remained at full strength, as in anoth­er, long 1993 inter­view with Dutch radio host Co De Kloet.

Beef­heart earned a rep­u­ta­tion as an auto­crat­ic-yet-capri­cious band­leader (record­ing a tongue-in-cheek spo­ken word piece on the sub­ject in ear­li­er years). But in inter­views, he came across as hum­ble, sweet-tem­pered, and gen­tle, and as an artist whose work was an authen­tic out­growth of his per­son­al­i­ty. These qual­i­ties shine through in even the goofi­est, most out-there poems and lyrics.

Fur­ther up, hear Beef­heart read the poems and songs “Fallin’ Ditch,” “The Tired Plain,” “Skele­ton Makes Good,” “Safe Sex Drill,” and “Gill,” and in the playlist below, he reads all of those plus his poem, “Tulip,” a short mod­ernist gem rem­i­nis­cent of both Ezra Pound and William Car­los Williams:

It could be
a tremen­dous black upside-down tulip
it could be
a black fish­es’ tail
it could be a day, artis­ti­cal­ly crimped
and buoy­ant
in its taped togeth­er way

Cap­tain Beef­heart’s poems will be added to our col­lec­tion, 1,000 Free Audio Books: Down­load Great Books for Free.

via Ubuweb

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Cap­tain Beef­heart Issues His “Ten Com­mand­ments of Gui­tar Play­ing”

The Night Frank Zap­pa Jammed With Pink Floyd … and Cap­tain Beef­heart Too (Bel­gium, 1969)

Hear Pat­ti Smith Read 12 Poems From Sev­enth Heav­en, Her First Col­lec­tion (1972)

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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