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.