Hear the Song That Two Teenage Musicians, Frank Zappa and Captain Beefheart, Recorded Together in 1958

Rock and roll needs its out­siders, its prodi­gious weirdos, trick­sters and pas­tiche artists to rein­vig­o­rate mori­bund gen­res and put things togeth­er no one thought would go. No two peo­ple fit the descrip­tion bet­ter than Frank Zap­pa and Cap­tain Beef­heart (Don Van Vli­et), some­time col­lab­o­ra­tors, fren­e­mies, and par­al­lel evil genius­es with crack teams of musi­cal hench­men at the ready—Zappa the genre-hop­ping vir­tu­oso and music busi­ness supervil­lain; Beef­heart the mad blues­man with a Beat poet’s heart and Mer­ry Prankster’s sense of humor….

Their intense on-again-off-again musi­cal rela­tion­ship threat­ened to come apart for good dur­ing the record­ing of Beefheart’s Zap­pa-pro­duced weirdo mas­ter­piece Trout Mask Repli­ca. These trou­bled stages of their asso­ci­a­tion are what we often talk about when we talk about Zappa/Beefheart, when they dis­cov­ered, writes Ulti­mate Clas­sic Rock, “that their cre­ative process­es and work habits—Zappa was dis­ci­plined and exact­ing, while Beef­heart pre­ferred to be spon­ta­neous and freeform—couldn’t have been more at odds.”

A lit­tle over a decade ear­li­er, before either of them had musi­cal careers neces­si­tat­ing work habits, the two began record­ing togeth­er in “either late 1958 or ear­ly 1959,” notes Dan­ger­ous Minds. They had known each oth­er since high school in Lan­cast­er, Cal­i­for­nia, where their shared sen­si­bil­i­ties brought them togeth­er: “The two found they had a sim­i­lar taste in music, and quick­ly bond­ed over a shared love of blues, doo-wop, and R&B records.”

Pre­sag­ing all of the ways they would go on to warp, can­ni­bal­ize, and mash up these gen­res, “Lost in a Whirlpool,” with music by Zap­pa and lyrics by Van Vli­et, was one of sev­er­al songs they had begun writ­ing while still teenagers. Zap­pa tells the sto­ry of the record­ing in a 1989 inter­view:

“Lost in a Whirlpool” was taped on one of those tape recorders that you have in a school in the audio/visual depart­ment. We went into this room, this emp­ty room at the junior col­lege in Lan­cast­er, after school, and got this tape record­ed, and just turned it on. The gui­tars are me and my broth­er (Bob­by Zap­pa) and the vocal is Don Vli­et.

The sto­ry of “Lost in a Whirlpool” goes back even far­ther. When I was in high school in San Diego in ‘55, there was a guy who grew up to be a sports writer named Lar­ry Lit­tle­field. He, and anoth­er guy named Jeff Har­ris, and I used to hang out, and we used to make up sto­ries, lit­tle skits and stuff, you know, dumb lit­tle teenage things. One of the plots that we cooked up was about a per­son who was skindiving—San Diego’s a surfer kind of an area—skindiving in the San Diego sew­er sys­tem [laugh­ter], and talk­ing about encoun­ter­ing brown, blind fish. [laugh­ter] It was kind of like the Cousteau expe­di­tion of its era. [laugh­ter] So, when I moved to Lan­cast­er from San Diego, I had dis­cussed this sce­nario with Vli­et, and that’s where the lyrics come from. It’s like a musi­cal man­i­fes­ta­tion of this oth­er skin­div­ing sce­nario.

Scat­o­log­i­cal skin­div­ing seems like such a per­fect con­cep­tu­al sum­ma­ry of the shared Zappa/Beefheart ethos it’s a won­der they didn’t use the title them­selves. Despite their grow­ing cre­ative dif­fer­ences and incom­pat­i­ble tem­pera­ments, they col­lab­o­rat­ed into the mid-70s.

In 1975, twen­ty years after cook­ing up the sto­ry of skin­div­ing in the San Diego sew­ers, they “regaled their fans with the amus­ing­ly titled (most­ly) live album, Bon­go Fury,” Ulti­mate Clas­sic Rock writes, “a his­toric cease­fire in their oth­er­wise tur­bu­lent rela­tion­ship that would sad­ly prove all too fleet­ing.” The record is the result of an “inten­sive, 30-date tour” in which “Beef­heart con­tributed har­mon­i­ca, occa­sion­al sax, and numer­ous dis­plays of his eccen­tric poet­ry and one-of-a-kind vocals to the [Zap­pa] ensemble’s reper­toire.” Above, hear Bon­go Fury’s “Advance Romance,” as clas­sic a slice of Zappa/Beefheart odd­ball blues as their very first record­ings from the late 50s.

via Dan­ger­ous Minds/Ulti­mate Clas­sic Rock

Relat­ed Con­tent:

The Case for Why Cap­tain Beefheart’s Awful Sound­ing Album, Trout Mask Repli­ca, Is a True Mas­ter­piece

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

Hear a Rare Poet­ry Read­ing by Cap­tain Beef­heart (1993)

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

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