The Original Cap’n Crunch…
I’ve been hanging on to today’s selection – one of my all-time favorite records – for a long, long time.
As is often the case with a piece of music that hits me in the deepest possible places, I often circle the record warily, looking for the right time to approach.
‘Zig Zag Wanderer’ by Captain Beefheart and His Magic Band is an absolutely perfect example of an artist in transition, from a place where they have at least a tenuous grasp on conventional musicality, through something strange, and on into something extra-double strange.
You can locate this sweet spot on mid-60s records by Frank Zappa (who’s later work holds almost no appeal for me), and the Fugs.
In these cases it is almost as if the artist decided to dip their toes into rock and roll, made a record or two while they were getting comfortable (or until they thought no one was looking) and then went, if not batshit, some approximation thereof in relation to their early work.
I’m one of those poor slobs who unwittingly – led on by early 70s rock critics – went out and bought myself a copy of ‘Trout Mask Replica’, utterly unprepared for the sounds packed into its grooves.
Naturally, this put me off of Beefheart for quite a while, until sometime in the mid-80s someone on the garage scene hepped me to Cap’s first 45, of ‘Diddy Wah Diddy’ (you heard it here a while back) and then a little bit later, offered me a tape of his first long-player, 1967’s ‘Safe as Milk’.
‘Safe as Milk’ is the perfect place for someone who wants to know what Captain Beefheart is all about, yet isn’t quite ready to rewire their brains.
You get all the components of the Beefheart sound, i.e. heavy blues influence, weird time signatures, surreal lyrics etc, yet they are all filtered through the rest of 1967, so you get it all couched in garage/psyche energy and frameworks.
The finest track on the album – in my opinion, anyway – is the mighty ‘Zig Zag Wanderer’.
Opening with a guitar riff that sounds as if it’s charging at you down a narrow hallway, followed by the whispered ‘Zig Zaaaaag!’, the song blows wide open, sounding like a psychedelic buffalo stampede, wherein all the buffalo are the bastard spawn of Howling Wolf and a Caterpillar bulldozer.
You also get (for this album only) the guitar wrangling skills of young Ry Cooder, who wails.
The good Captain hollers in a way that must have seemed good and freaky to the heads, probably scaring off more than a few, but at the same time pulling a few new converts into the cult.
If you dig ‘Zig Zag Wanderer’ you will probably like the whole album. I can’t say how you’ll feel about the later stuff, since that usually requires a whole lot of work, that not everyone is willing to put in.
So dig it, and I’ll see you next week.