Wednesday, January 15, 2014

DB's Song of the Day (day 15):"ICE CREAM FOR CROW" (1982) Captain Beefheart

Today’s birthday boy is Don Van Vliet (born Don Glen Vliet), aka Captain Beefheart—the one and only.  Born this day in 1941—two days after Jimmy J shuffled off this mortal coil!  The Captain followed suit in 2010.

Today’s song is the title track off Beefheart’s last LP, released in September 1982. That was the first Beefheart LP I heard, though a friend around that time tried to get me interested in Beefheart’s magnum opus, Trout Mask Replica, from 1969. I heard it, yeah. Much later—around its 30th anniversary—I gave a copy to my daughter. Others had tried to interest me in Beefheart way back in the Seventies, but I always shied away. Somehow my interest never really took off—mostly because there was a taint of the Beats in his persona, as I perceived it, all wigged out as it was and jazzy, man.

But I loved this track from the first minute I heard it. Let’s say I’d made my peace with the Beats by then; say also that new wave music and the need for “new sounds” had made a much wider range of music palatable to me—I recall picking up The Lounge Lizards first album around then too. So, jazzy and atonal and whatever, the Captain was ok, finally. The LP this song is from is about 2/3rds outrageously great and the other third is at least interesting. About Trout Mask I’m still a little uncertain. I admire and respect it more than I actually like it. But there are truly great things on there and other things that you can’t quite believe even while you’re hearing them. “Bulbous, also tapered,” y’know.

Beefheart began and ended as a visual artist—first he did sculpture, apparently, while still quite young. After he gave up on recording, he took up painting full-time—some of his paintings are displayed proudly in the video. Vliet always did artwork and, generally speaking, is an artist in every sense of the word. A guy so out-there there’s no easy way to make his career make sense in any typical fashion. Where does he fit in? Somewhere in the vicinity of Frank Zappa, sure.

But Beefheart is also a poet, but a fractured wordsmith. He shares some of the spirited grasp of absurdity that Zappa is past master of, but Beefheart’s lyrical textures are more dense and assured. You gotta believe this guy has actually read poetry—probably even Finnegans Wake. There’s an amazing and astute sense of pastiche in everything he does. So much so that you’d have to be way more versed in the blues and jazz and Cajun stuff and such (zydeco?) than I am to get a sense of where his musical ideas are coming from. But even if you do know, you have to allow for the fact that Beefheart is not trying to make music that fits any known genre.

And what about that voice, ladies and gentlemen?  Beefheart’s vocal range is often remarked upon; his ability to move at will all over the place is what gives his songs that element of unpredictable spontaneity and dangerous variations. It’s as if he’s making it up as he goes along, at lighting speed, either as response to what his “magic band” is doing or sometimes they seem to be trying to catch up with him. In fact this stuff is all worked out through painstaking—even abusive and health-threatening—rehearsal.

The song is an upbeat boogie. I love the guitar figure that comes in with “the sun ain’t stable” (about 1:59 on the video). And the harmonica at the close, and check out those vocalizings in the fade. And the title phrase is so magical. Give ice cream to a crow? Or: rather than “eat crow,” substitute ice cream. The crow, of course, is a totemic creature with a lot of associations, present in most of the world’s religions and mythologies. And ice cream, well, is something we might caw for and crow about. It’s just a great phrase. And the final sequence never fails to fill me with delight. Take it away, Captain!

tonight there’s gonna be
a feather treatment
beneath the symbol
we’ll all assemble
oh how we’ll fly
oh how we’ll tremble
cut the cake
we’ll all get well
turn up the speakers
hop flop squawk
it’s a keeper
ice cream for show
ice cream for crow
now now now that’s it
now you can go

And check out that video. Co-directed by the Captain and deemed “too weird” for MTV. It’s a keeper.


Tim said...

This is how great this song is. Tom Waits wishes he'd written it. And he's no slouch...

Donald Brown said...

Did he say so? I wonder if he's ever covered it.