Come Back, Captain Beefheart

By  |  December 15, 2013

Come back, Captain Beefheart, come back! I was a mere prat of a child when my friend Bob dropped a needle into Clear Spot. I was just twelve, maybe thirteen, the youngest disc jockey in the country, or so said the man who swore he could get me on Johnny Carson but never did. My friend Bob used to come to the little 1000-watt AM station where I worked in the afternoons after school, and he would drop off albums for me to play. Bob told me you were a child prodigy, Captain Beefheart, and people were buying your sculptures when you were four, is that true? That you met Frank Zappa when you were twelve, maybe thirteen, is that right? I know you played on Zappa's Hot Rats and Bongo Fury. How old were you then?

When Bob came into the little radio station that afternoon, I think I was playing Savoy Brown. Bob just came in the studio and stopped the turntable and dropped the needle into Clear Spot, and we turned up the studio monitors so loud the ladies next door at Town and Country Beauty Parlor complained. But the station manager didn't call. He had quit calling after the times he called up to say Clapton's solo on the extended play "Layla" sounded like someone killing a cat; that Grand Funk Railroad made him want to drive his car into a telephone pole; that he had seen the album wrapper for Mott the Hoople and they were obviously all queer as three-dollar bills. Why couldn't I just play the old rock 'n' roll like Pat Boone and Simon and Garfunkel? 

You see, Captain Beefheart, ours was a small Southern town and this was the late '60s, early '70s, before album rock made it to our FM stations. My voice plummeted overnight. I hear that's more common in Africa among boys who've grown up chanting. I would have said to you that my voice, in its depth and inflection from that day to this, is a cross between Barry White and Richard Burton, the ebonies honestly homegrown in our black-majority though Nat Turner-killing Tidewater Virginia county; the anglophonic faux Brit O's merely leftover cradle rot from the spawnings of nearby colonial Williamsburg. Richard Burton? My wife laughed in my face when I told her. More like Barry White and Foghorn Leghorn, she snorted. 

I got the job at the radio station because my father thought working for two dollars an hour would keep me out of trouble with the police in whose jail I had already sat, age twelve. Tiny, tiny, small was our radio station, with its antenna speared on the edge of our cemetery so that when we were driving past the tombstones on the way to school, the signal broadcast itself through the car radio even if it was turned off. Some people said they could hear our radio station playing in some of the graves, having something to do with the metal vaults and the fillings in the heads of some of our deceased moldering down there. Your music, you could faintly hear it, Captain, rattling the molars, tweetering, woofing in the skulls of old dowagers way down in the ground, songs like "Click Clack" that I played over and over. That song, that train ride, a masterpiece. A masterpiece. Do you see how your songs became a secret language in a small Southern town among me and Bob and our friends who used to come by the station on Saturdays with armloads of albums for me to play so they would have something to listen to when they took their hippie girlfriends out to the sand pits to smoke reefer and drink beer and all go skinny-dipping? My other friend Steve and I used to scrawl your song and album titles across girls' lockers at school. Lick My Decals Off, Baby. They used to love that one. And how easy to put off our mothers or teachers, or somebody, with a shrug and answer, "There ain't no Santa Claus on the evenin' stage." Steve and I were in our gothic, pre-driver's-license days, him already over six feet, and both of us shrouded in our army-surplus trenchcoats, ghoulish and processional through neighbors' yards at dusk just as they were sitting down to their chicken-fried bacon-seasoned dinners, both of us chanting through their open windows, "Bring out your dead!" There was nothing to be done with us, no reason to call the station when we played ''I'm Gonna Booglarize You Baby" instead of the National Anthem on Saturday night sign-offs. Your music, Captain, was a passport to a place from which I never returned. 

They say your first album that you made with the Magic Band, Safe As Milk, was John Lennon's favorite album, is that for real? Your album The Spotlight Kid I think is my favorite. When I went to college I wrote a collection of short stories I presumptuously titled The Adventures of the Spotlight Kid. Some of the stories were about going to the sand pits to smoke reefer and drink beer and skinny-dip with hippie girls. I wrote a novel called Fishboy based on your song "Grow Fins" ("If ya don't leave me alone, I'm gonna take up with a mermaid, an' leave you land-lubbin' women alone"). Come back, Captain Beefheart, come back. Maybe my favorite album after all is Shiny Beast (Bat Chain Puller). I always go back to Clear Spot, though, for songs like "Sun Zoom Spark" and "Long Neck Bottles," which any Memphis player would have loved to have cut for himself. The song "Clear Spot" is Faulkner's The Wild Palms. I read once that you wrote the twenty-eight songs on Trout Mask Replica in eight-and-a-half hours. Zappa produced it and let you do whatever you wanted to do. And that you wrote all the music for everyone in the Magic Band—you wrote all the music and then showed them how to play it on their instruments, because you could. And all that cover art you drew and painted. Big books of it now selling for hundreds, thousands of dollars. I hear that's what you do now, that you're holed up in Northern California in Denis Johnson country and painting. Is that right? No more music? We could really use some mystery in our music these days. I could really use it. I "get" most songs on the radio on the first take, so it's hard to listen to them again like I listen to you. 

My friend Bob says he met you once right in our small Southern town. On the main drag all that was open after dinner was Galloway's Gulf Gas Station, where a bunch of our friends worked over the years, Bobo, Hatch, Al. Bob says he and Hatch were making the nightly perimeter check around town in Hatch's little TR6 with the top down, and they circled back to Galloway's and found two professional wrestlers, Brute Bernard and Skull Murphy, pumping their own gas at the pump in the days before self-serve. Bob said, Aren't you Brute Bernard and Skull Murphy? and Bob says Brute Bernard and Skull Murphy weren't happy about being recognized out of the ring. Bob says he and Hatch took off again, making another perimeter check of the town in Hatch's little TR6, and when they came back to Galloway's, there was a Chrysler New Yorker at the pump pulling a U-Haul. Inside the station were a bunch of guys dressed up in zoot suits and big hats, wearing all sorts of things. Bob says he went into the station where the guys were paying for the gas and buying cheese crackers and cokes and said, Who are you? and one of the guys said, Jethro Tull is playing in Norfolk tomorrow night, and Bob said, Yeah, but you're not Jethro Tull, and the guy said, That's right, we're Captain Beefheart's Magic Band, we're opening for Jethro Tull, and Bob said, Where's the Captain? and the guy pointed out to you sitting in the dim recesses of the backseat of the Chrysler New Yorker. Bob says he went out and introduced himself to you and talked to you for about three minutes, and Bob says that you were completely uninterested in talking to him but he says that was all right, and the next night he and Hatch went to see you open for Jethro Tull in Norfolk. He says the drummer came out wearing panties on his head, his hair sticking out the leg holes in two big shocks. Bob says that after you finished playing he and Hatch were among about twelve people who actually clapped but that Bob had stood up and clapped until his hands were sore even though he says he didn't get what it was all about. He says he looked around at the rest of the Jethro Tull audience. They definitely didn't get it, Bob says. And Bob says when he looked up at you onstage, he wondered if you got what it was all about, either. 

Did you, Captain Beefheart? Did you get it? 

Come back, we need you. Give us mystery again. I dread our cemetery, and I fear the music that might now fill my skull and teeth with eternal yearning.

Mark Richard’s first collection, The Ice at the Bottom of the World, won the 1990 PEN/Hemingway Foundation Award for a first book of fiction. Following this were the acclaimed story collection Charity and the novel Fishboy. His writing has appeared in the Oxford American, Harper’s, Esquire, Vogue, Spin, and elsewhere.