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With the release of the Captain Beefheart boxed set Grow Fins: Rarities (1965-1982), rock's ultimate eccentric is finally honored as a figure who influenced artists as diverse as Tom Waits and Pere Ubu. The five CDs offer 75 outtakes, as well as CD-enhanced live-performance tracks. Ironically, this long-overdue celebration of Beefheart's work, which is cause for exultation among fans, has reportedly drawn objections from the Captain himself.
"I'm not surprised," says Bill Harkleroad, known as guitarist Zoot Horn Rollo in Captain Beefheart's Magic Band from 1968 through 1974. "He probably doesn't want anything coming out because if he can't participate in holding his image out there, he might be seen for what he is. But I'm just guessing. I haven't seen the guy in so many years, I wouldn't know."
Beefheart, whose real name is Don Van Vliet, was the hippie era's mad genius, an image firmly planted in music history through Frank Zappa's production and release of the Trout Mask Replica album in 1969. For decades the album has been rated by critics as one of rock's most innovative records. Trout Mask Replica appeared the same year that Johnny Cash's Live at San Quentin, Iron Butterfly's In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida and Bob Dylan's Nashville Skyline were best-selling albums.
Beefheart's sprawling double disc catapulted rock into the twilight zone for the first time, shocking even the counterculture by mixing the Delta funk of Howlin' Wolf and outside honking of John Coltrane with Beefheart's own schizo lyrics. In "Pena," Beefheart sang: "Her little head clinking like a barrel of red velvet balls/Full past noise/Treats filled her eyes/Turning them yellow like enamel coated tacks."
During an era when acid was a synthetic form of venturing outside, Trout Mask Replica presented an angularity that, in Beefheart, seemed genetic. He told the press that he had written Trout Mask's music in a mere eight hours and spent the following six months teaching the bizarre tunes to his band.
"That's crap," says Harkleroad. "Beefheart revised things to the extent that much of it really isn't the truth at all. As a result, people have made this guy their hero. Don would tend to talk in poetry instead of responding with the facts. It was a form of creativity that didn't let up, and what was real and not real became kind of fuzzy."
Zappa's involvement in shaping Trout Mask's weirdness (described in Rock: The Rough Guide as having guitars that "often gave the impression that they weren't playing in the same room") has also been misrepresented, according to Harkleroad.
"Zappa had nothing to do with the music," he says. "He sat next to Dick Kunc, the guy who turned the knobs, and would occasionally laugh or say something while we were in there playing these funny songs. The album was on Bizarre, his record label, and he facilitated the recording, but that was about all.
"In fact, there were even a couple of condescending remarks by Frank: He was making an 'anthropological recording' of us. As far as doing anything in the studio or having anything to offer musically regarding what we did, he was nonexistent. Absolutely. He just sat there."
Disc three of the boxed set offers 73 minutes of Trout Mask outtakes--the material most curious Beefheart fans will find themselves playing first when they unwrap the collection. They'll find that Beefheart is seldom present, and the emphasis on shaping guitar lines validates Harkleroad's stance that the band deserves more credit for contributing to Beefheart's unparalleled style.
"Trout Mask is Don's album, his material, his concept, sure," he says. "But nobody knows about the sheer, Mount Everest-climbing effort that we band members put into re-creating his parts for each instrument, since he had no idea what was or wasn't possible on an instrument."
According to Harkleroad's book Lunar Notes: Zoot Horn Rollo's Captain Beefheart Experience, Beefheart would expect a seven-note piano chord to be reproduced on a six-string guitar.
"Don doesn't know one note from another," says Harkleroad, "so we just kind of pounded the shit out. I'm not saying he wasn't a major influence, he just wanted everyone to think he invented planet Earth. He liked to lay claim to a lot of things that just weren't his. He was exceptionally talented, but at the same time, we could have played the tunes backwards and he wouldn't have known it."
The band members found Beefheart to be as intense and aggressive as his music. "Many times, the next day he'd say to play it another way, strictly based on his mood," Harkleroad recalls. "He didn't have a specific intention apart from what his feelings were at the time, which were often very negative. At every gig we played, someone in the band was chosen to be the culprit, the horrible person. You played badly, and that's why he couldn't sing his lyrics. And the truth was, he never knew his lyrics."
Harkleroad claims that Beefheart was typically asleep in the next room. "He was there maybe 5 percent of the rehearsal time. He didn't practice the tunes with us, apart from maybe once or twice on a couple of the songs. And when he recorded the vocals, he didn't even have them going into his headphones. He just listened to leakage, which is why there's no sync to it. That explains the freeform feeling, which results in a very cool art-form thing, like Jackson Pollock throwing paint on a canvas.