Gary Lucas and Captain Beefheart's Orchestrated Nightmare
A musician celebrates art that pushes boundaries.
Posted December 18, 2017
“Now which hand’s got it?
Bottom or the top?
Neither hand’s got it
It’s just got it
Hope it don’t stop”
From “Sun Zoom Spark” by Captain Beefheart
Gary Lucas likes the dark stuff.
“What I mean by dark is stuff that has been overlooked and obscured by the rollouts of all these mainstream cultural artifacts over the years that were pushed—usually by large corporations—and placed in front of people for them to fixate on,” Lucas told me. “The capitalist enterprise seems to fixate on finding lowest common denominator feel-good stuff to place before people in the market to maximize profits the easiest and blandest stuff...Whereas, there have been a lot of great artists producing quality work who are unfairly overlooked.”
Lucas feels that this practice is harmful to the most challenging and irreverent artists who do not receive comparable attention to those who adhere to the status quo. “To traffic in just mainstream—it doesn’t move the needle in any direction for me personally. It blands everything out of the landscape and becomes, ultimately, very boring. It’s damaging because it kind of bleeds out the essential elements that go into my sensibility of making successful or satisfactory art,” he explained. “To me, the best art raises questions and challenges perceptions and takes you on a journey—creates an aura of magic or enchantment around the objective question that you’re taking in with your senses.
“It’s a transformational experience.”
One of the bands that provided Lucas with this type of transformational experience early on was the Beatles. Lucas was particularly impressed with the Beatles’ ability to juxtapose darker music with comforting themes and vice versa.
“When they went on the Ed Sullivan Show it just felt so fresh...different from everything that had gone before...It just changed the equation,” Lucas described. “For example...the end of Sgt. Pepper’s (Lonely Hearts Club Band)—darkness now—Sgt. Pepper’s clarifying and unifying core principle...And also in the White Album —Good Night”...after a maelstrom of sonic chaos they bring you back with a comforting cup of tea.”
When it came time for Lucas to play music himself, he often sought out situations that pushed the envelope, including collaborations with artists such as Lou Reed, Patti Smith, Jeff Buckley, and Iggy Pop. And there are few artists as revered for pushing the envelope than Don Van Vliet, otherwise known as Captain Beefheart. Lucas reflected on his time playing with Captain Beefheart, particularly how Captain Beefheart explored contradictions between dark and light themes.
“It’s a ruggedly authentic, visionary statement emanating from just one guy. He remains a towering, singular figure in the landscape of art,” Lucas explained. “He has a reputation for being completely weird with actually many lovely moments. I think even people who can’t stand experimental music would embrace it.”
While Captain Beefheart’s music at times sounded improvisational and chaotic, Lucas is quick to point out that the music was intensely thought out and rehearsed. When Van Vliet died in 2010, Pitchfork described it as inspiring, “the way Beefheart combined extreme control with trust in chaos.” “Beefheart says the weirder music is an orchestrated nightmare...That’s the beautiful part of it,” Lucas said. “There was some improvisational playing, but everything else was worked out meticulously. What sounded like swirling chaos was rehearsed to death.
“It’s weird modern classical music.”
Early on, Lucas was delighted to find that he and Van Vliet both drew inspiration from horror films. “Horror films and magazines, particularly Famous Monsters of Filmland—that is the wellspring for lots of the music I’ve worked with. Don Van Vliet himself was a huge horror film fan,” Lucas recalled. “In fact, when I met him once backstage, I gave him a program from a horror film society that I ran at Yale University when I was an undergrad. And he said ‘horror films was the only true reality...That’s the way it is,’ which I thought was an astute comment.”
Now, in an effort to help keep Captain Beefheart’s legacy alive, Lucas has teamed up with Nona Hendryx in a new album, The World of Captain Beefheart. Lucas feels that while Captain Beefheart still remains highly influential, those who admire and reference his music do not necessarily grasp its essence fully.
“Over the years, the punks or the new wave artists pay lip service to Beefheart’s music and incorporate it into their music and that goes on to a degree.
"So much of pop or art pop is repeating past gestures. With someone like Beefheart, there becomes some sort of core constituent that’s impossible to imitate or break it down,” Lucas said. “So in trying to do this record which is to bring Beefheart to the fore once again...we tried to balance a mix of the weird with the more feel good and in-the-pocket mainstream sounds. There’s nothing as moving as encountering it in its raw state. We tried to reconstitute and re-imagine it through the prism of soul music.
“Hopefully, with this record, we didn’t sandpaper off the rough edges.”
Lucas is under no illusions, he realizes that the album might not be for everyone, especially those who like to be spoon-fed more simple straightforward concepts of dark and light. “Most people are not up to the challenge of Beefheart. I hope to change that. It’s relentless assault. It’s too much for people with tender sensibilities,” Lucas described. “Most people feel better when the monster is slain. It’s an archetypal mythological story of the beast eventually gets killed off.
“People like to see heroes that are usually triumphant at the end.”
But Lucas is still hopeful that there are some old and potentially new Captain Beefheart fans out there who want to celebrate his spirit. “People who are of a more rebellious nature in terms of not being able to accept the hand that’s dealt them—culturally, everywhere—will definitely seek out an alternative. Could be that well-adjusted people in the mainstream like a steady diet of blander music,” Lucas said. “But people who have a high sensitivity to their environment and what’s going on in it after a while may find the status quo to be too grim to dwell in without seeking some other sonic stimulation.
“A sense of boredom with a healthy rebellious strain may go into creating the Beefheart fan.”
But regardless of people’s reaction to the music, Lucas will always embrace Van Vliet’s spirit of exploring the darkness without having to neatly resolve things. “So much brutality exists. I’m still in search of beautiful moments. We are all imprisoned in this cycle of brutality and then a glimpse of a better world,” he said.
“That might be a contradiction in itself.”
Michael A. Friedman, Ph.D., is a clinical psychologist with offices in New York City and South Orange, NJ. Contact Dr. Mike at michaelfriedmanphd.com. Follow Dr. Mike onTwitter @DrMikeFriedman.