Sunday, 19 December 2010

The Captain's Dead - A Tribute To Captain Beefheart

I heard the news on Friday. It was one of those Twitter moments where a happening spill through and doesn't quite seem real.

The Captain, our Captain has gone.

It happens sometimes when a well-known figure dies that the blow is as real as if you'd known the person really well. This is one of those times for me.

Hard to say exactly why.

Partly, of course, it takes me back to my youth. Listening to John Peel on the radio playing as eclectic a bunch of music as is possible to imagine. The Good Captain was his hero. I remember him talking about meeting him. So John, another of those whose departure caught us as ripples moved outwards from where he lay, went over nervously to his hero. I'll not get this right, but the Good Captain said 'From here to here is too far. From here to there is not far enough.' The way I recall it, that was it. Brilliant and totally in keeping with the way I hold him in my mind.

So there was his music. It was like nothing else. Crazy lyrics and compositions, that ash-tray voice so good a mimic, poetry and politics and drugs and free love and madness.

Way I understand it is he was a composer. Had all this stuff in his head and let it pour out to be recorded so that we could share in it. There's stuff to dance to, smooch to, trip out to, party to, make love to, jump to, open the jaw to and mainly to listen to. You can hear different things every time. Maybe the make love to bit was an exaggeration - a track or two, but not a whole album.

Trout Mask Replica. Enough said.

Blues, jazz, R&B, hippy shit, poetry, folk, tribal. I'm sure it's all there and more besides.

Meeting someone who likes Beefheart is a great thing. It's something that immediately creates a bond. Tells you that the person you've just come across is made of the right stuff. Likes and knows their music.

Makes me think of friends. Tim, Martin, Greg and places Leytonstone, Preston, my imagination.

Tim, if you ever get to see this, you took me to see Snakefinger in Camden Town. I went partly on your recommendation and partly because the bass player had been in the Magic Band for a spell. It was the history of the blues and it was superb.

I could try and talk a lot about the stuff the Captain's done, but others will do that bigger and better.

My tribute is this.

6 years or so ago I had a few drinks and collapsed into my smoking room (yes, selfish and ugly inside I was) to get high and empty the whisky bottle. I put on Safe As Milk and floated away with it. And it came to me that the man was such a genius, such a one off product of place and time that there'd never be another, that I'd write a novel based on him so he could read it out in the desert - you need to remember I was out of my skull.

I was inspired.

I took a notebook with me on a visit to a friend in Hamburg and wrote. Crazy rambling it was, but I wrote none-the-less.

Orinoco Pony I called him. He was Beefheart in my mind, though I'd scarred his face in a car accident.

The synopsis went like this:


Two stories have been woven together in alternate chapters, the first detailing the life of ORINOCO PONY in the 1960s and written in the third person; and the second the pursuit of a story by journalist JOSH PORTEOUS, written in the first person and the present day. The ending sees the two elements come together as one.

Prologue - An old man stands in a river catching fish by hand. The routines of survival dominate his life. The summer heat has been unprecedented. A plague of flies has been keeping him awake at night and he has been having visions; in them he sees the arrival of the man he’s been waiting to see for many years.

Theme one - Orinoco Pony’s biographer found it difficult to find out about his early life because he created new stories about himself to fit his mood. Even the genesis of his name was open to question; in one story he had himself inventing a writing system, in another he claims that it reflects the fact that he was ‘hung like a horse’.
EWAN PORTEOUS and KATYA, Josh’s father and mother, meet at a DANDELION ADVENTURES gig in New York. They are present at later gigs, studio recordings, a visit to Warhol’s Factory and an evening at The Exploding Plastic Inevitable. When the band become disillusioned with New York the couple follow them to San Francisco. The band set up a juice bar (Obscura) in Haight Ashbury and later move to Big Sur where they form a commune known as the Post Office. Things begin to unravel when two of the women become pregnant. Orinoco Pony accidentally shoots guitarist WILSON BROWN whilst obsessively chasing a fox and the band miss out on Monterey. The final nail in the coffin for the commune comes in the form of a forest fire. Josh is born just after JESSICA BROWN. Playing at an anti-war event they burn their backdrop of American flags and are arrested. Their trial prevents them from playing at Woodstock. A demonstration of support closes down the Golden Gate Bridge and the band are cleared on a technicality. To end the decade the Dandelion Adventures play for a party in LA. Orinoco Pony and Katya drive away as the fireworks are set off. Orinoco Pony comes up on the acid he has taken. The car crashes and Katya’s body is found next to the vehicle.

Theme two - In New York, Josh interviews DOUG TANOURY (manager), BILL BRAMPTON (octogenarian, communist poet) and Jessica Brown (whom he remembers from his childhood and to whom he is immediately attracted). As he gets closer to his past, Josh becomes less stable. The interviews suggest that Orinoco Pony survived the crash in which Katya died. Intent on finding Orinoco Pony in order to establish his own genesis, he begins to fantasise about exacting his revenge by killing him. He invites Jessica to San Francisco to join him on a trip to the Post Office, which he has inherited from his father. It is OCEAN HICKS, drummer, war veteran and only surviving member of the band, who confirms that Orinoco Pony didn’t die in the car accident. Josh is certain that he will find out all he needs to know at the commune and invites Jessica to accompany him. WAINWRIGHT, the heavily scarred caretaker, gives them a tour. Jessica and Josh have an intense affair.

Resolution - When Jess returns home, Wainwright offers to help Josh get over his loss with medicinal herbs. They become friends. Wainwright reveals his true identity (Orinoco Pony and Josh’s biological father) whilst Josh is hallucinating to the extent that there is no possibility of him exacting revenge for his mother’s death. When Josh comes round he is alone. Confused and disappointed about letting Orinoco Pony off the hook, he turns his back on his old life and decides to stay at the Post Office to live off the land as Orinoco Pony had done for thirty years.

I loved Orinoco Pony.

I loved the way he spoke and moved and I so wanted everyone else to see him walk and talk and breathe, my own personal replica of CB.

The Captain (Don) never saw it. Neither will you. Some I sent it to liked it enough to get back to me, but in the end I just couldn't turn it into an engaging read because I didn't have the skill.

Two years of work was distilled into one short story that made it up at Pulp Metal and you know what, it was worth every moment.

The real Captain was a crazy, musical poet and artist whom I loved. He said to me that it was OK to be a little mad, long as you were just being yourself. I gave up trying to hide my querks long ago.

The truth for me, because of my fiction, is utterly blurred.

I read an excellent biography to help me that I'd recommend - CAPTAIN BEEFHEART by MILES BARNES. You read that and you'll know. You'll see how things have changed and how a man like that was even more an anomaly to the human race in the sixties and seventies than he'd be considered now.

There was also a brilliant documentary by the BBC (Arena, I think) on Don Van Vliet as a painter, happily creating in the desert the most amazing canvases done by the BBC. Hopefully they'll show it again. If not, look out for it.

Nothing more to say.

I love Captain Beefheart still. Can't help it. His beard, his hats, his grumblings, his insanity and his primitive drawings. Most of all for his music.

Enough to have my son named after him (with a little nod to Donald Byrd on the sly).
And there's the name of the blog which was named after one of my stories Sea Minor that was published by The Reader ( ) which was named after...

And a track to go out on?

Apes Ma gets me every time. Seems perfect to say goodbye.


  1. Beefheart was a one & only.

    I remember that Beeb documentary too, a long time ago.

    "Keep on walking & don't look back!"

  2. A really original musician is gone.
    Everyone loves to talk about Trout Mask Replica but I actually like "Safe as Milk" & "Strictly Personal" better. I am not sure how this material was released in the UK. Check out "20th Century Quaker" (blue cheese faces indeed)and "Taraplane" as well as other longer continuously mutating songs.