When I was sixteen, forty years ago, I had a friend called Dave. We shared similar interests; girls, motorbikes, and music. We liked The Stones, John Mayall, and Cream. We hated The Beatles, The Byrds, and Rod Stewart. Apart from his oddly disturbing liking of Soul Dave and I agreed on music. Granted, he did not quite understand my burgeoning interest in real Blues, but, after all, Soul and Blues were cousins.
In 1968 Dave said that he had bought a LP that was so awful he was going to throw it away. I said I would take it off his hands. I had nothing to lose after all. He agreed so quickly that I was worried for a couple of minutes. When he gave it to me it certainly was different. A gatefold LP that felt very heavy. It was made from thick cardboard and the picture of the band on the inside was not the usual type of band shot. They were odd, and dressed strangely, all masks and leather coats. I could not imagine why he bought it in the first place, I had certainly never heard of the band.
A few days later I played the LP. The first track sounded like a country blues romp, but different. It was called ‘Ah Feel Like Ahcid’ and I recognised its first line “I got up this Morning” as the opening line of many blues songs. Then the next line came from another blues (Son Houses’ ‘Death letter’ as I found out later) it was “How do you reckon it read?” How did the first line connect to the second? What was the song about? Why was there a beating heart in the mix? Then it was finished and the second track ‘Safe as Milk’ started. This was ODD. It was jazz, nearly, it was blues, sort of, it was rock – but not as I knew it. I played the album through and then played it again, and again. I was lost to Beefheart.
I found out that ‘Strictly Personal’ was the second album made by Captain Beefheart and His Magic Band. Soon after that I bought the first LP ‘Safe as Milk’. I remember thinking. ‘Why call the first album after a song recorded on the second? That is not the way it is done.’ Perhaps he liked the title and then wrote the song to fit it. In any event this was obviously not a normal person running a band and making recordings.
‘Safe as Milk’ showed the same blues roots as ‘Strictly Personal’. The first track ‘Shure nuff n Yes I Do’ was ‘Rolling and Tumbling’, that I had heard being played by Muddy Waters, by another name. The other songs took the listener into different areas. Guitars swooped, the drums changed the rhythm mid track, and then there was the voice. The voice, and such a voice it was. It was a black voice in a white man. It was a blues voice in a rock singer. It was Howlin’ Wolf who was not Howlin’ Wolf. The voice was special, very. So was the way his brain worked
I became aware later that genius he may be but a musician he was not. An artist with no musical training The Captain heard the music in his head and had to have musicians translate his ideas into sounds. A tyrant at times The Captain has ‘lost’ many good musicians over the years. One of the first and most famous to go was Ry Cooder who left after the recording of Safe as Milk. That Cooder is a greatly talented musician is beyond doubt. I have wondered whether if he had been a musician band-leader would The Captain have realised what he had lost with Cooder going and lost confidence in his vision. I have my doubts as The Captain always seemed to have an ego big enough to fill a continent.
Safe as Milk has 12 songs. From the opening line of ‘Sure Nuff’ accompanied by a lone slide guitar to the end of the final haunting track ‘Autumn’s Child’ the record is packed with new ideas. There is a darkness to it that appealed to me then and still does. At the time it seemed to me that a huge talent had been let loose on the world. I now know that I was wrong. He was much more than a talent that was embarking on a musical career. He was a true artist embarking on a musical career full of controversy with moments of transcendent genius with lapses into banality.
The album ‘Safe as Milk’, that is where I should have begun. However, had I done that ‘Strictly Personal’, the discarded LP, would have been a strange follow up and possibly convinced me that there was no direction to Beefheart’s progress. ‘Safe as Milk’ was a strong record. Later I would learn that record executives thought that Beefheart would be a rival for the Stones. He could have been but that would deny the man expression of his genius. To imagine the Captain being a teen idol, having to write songs that made sense at the first pass, songs that kept a single rhythm throughout is unimaginable.
As it was I heard the traditionally difficult second album first and could see where he had come from, but could not imagine where he was going. Nothing could have prepared me for what was to come.