Real Life Rock (09/80)

Van Morrison is 35, a Belfast-born mystic raised on the faith of Jehovah’s Witnesses and American R&B who lives in a house on a hill in Marin County. Don Van Vliet, a.k.a. Cap­tain Beefheart, is 39, a son of the San Fernando Valley, raised (by himself, it would seem) on avant-garde art, L.A. doo-wop, and Delta blues, who lives in a trailer in the Mojave Desert. Morrison is a near mainstream performer (his artistic progeny include Bruce Springsteen and Graham Parker) who has had hit singles and popular albums. Van Vliet is a cult legend (believers include Joe Strummer of the Clash, John Lydon of PiL and David Thomas of Pere Ubu) whose dis­cography covers everything from seminal masterpieces to failed sellouts, each one a certified commercial flop. Both Morrison and Beefheart are radical individualists whose work is about freedom—how do you get it, what do you do with it, how do you keep it?—and both can be expected to be working on the problem fifteen years from now, just as both were working on it fifteen years ago. Any summing up of Morrison or Beefheart, be it canonization or write-off, is a fraud—which is what makes their failures interesting and their successes incomplete.

Morrison’s new failure—his album Common One (Warner Bros.)—is interesting mainly because it raises the extremely difficult question of how he’s going to get out of it. Given that since the appearance of “Mystic Eyes” in 1965 you could say that as a soul man Van Morrison is a great lyric poet, his more visionary tunes (James Brown gathers heather) suggest, say, Yeats: On Common One Morrison insists on the connection, which means the tunes don’t remotely suggest it. With two of the six cuts passing by at more than fifteen minutes each (making them by far the longest numbers he’s ever released), Morrison has time to claim his roots—he damn near has time to research them, write up his findings, publish a book and watch it go out of print. Instead, he name drops. “Yeats and Lady Gregory corresponded, corresponded, corresponded,” he announces, his familiar obsessive repetition no longer a means to magic but a note on an index card. “James Joyce wrote streams of consciousness books.” “Did you ever hear about Wordsworth and Coleridge… Did you ever hear about William Blake?”

Since as a lyric poet, or even as a lyric poetaster, Morrison is a great soul man, this shouldn’t matter: On the hypnotizing “You Don’t Pull No Punches but You Don’t Push the River,” Van was searching for the Veedon Fleece, and no one’s ever figured out what that is. Van’s lyrics count, but rhythms and vocals pitched between heaven and hell can make the most cliched phrases new. On Common One the singing is so characterless and the sax- and trumpet-led ensemble playing so self-effacing that the mention of a famous name becomes an event­—something to hang on to. I mean, the highlights of this album include the ringing of the telephone, and the ringing isn’t on the record. Always a jazz fan, but never a jazz purveyor for more than a cut every few LPs, Van’s jazziest outing recalls not the rebellion of bebop or the witty elegance of Ellington but the refined and arid textures of something very much like the West Coast “cool jazz” of the fifties—music that in retrospect captures the mainstream spiritual emptiness of the Eisenhower era far more profoundly than such touchstones as “Mr. Sandman” or “(How Much Is That) Doggie in the Window.” Sure, there are hints of Miles Davis’s Sketches of Spain and even In a Silent Way here—hints buried in a tedium almost heroic in its refusal to quit.

Common One offers a Van Morrison with nothing to say and a limitless interest in getting it across—getting it across to himself, to whom what he has to say no doubt seems like anything but nothing. Neither the music nor the singing makes any move toward a listener. (At a recent concert Morrison barely acknowledged the presence of the audience, which is not unusual for him, and compounded the fifties-hipster persona implicit in his new songs by smoking five cigarettes in the course of nine tunes, which is.) Correctly understood as one of the handful of true and sustaining originals in rock ‘n’ roll, never enough of a star to fall from pop grace and for ten years sufficiently steady commercially to maintain label support, Van Morrison has access to freedom in popular art—freedom to experiment, freedom from the demands of a fanatic but fickle audience, freedom from the need to go disco—and this time around he’s come up with perhaps his most shapely version of freedom. It’s most shapely because it’s the most false: the purest solipsism.

Doc at the Radar Station
If solipsism is a dead end for Morrison, it’s Don Van Vliet’s starting point. Having just released his eleventh album, Doc at the Radar Station (Virgin), the man remains a hermit who complains that lack of promotion has kept him from fame and financial security—as if his cranky, grating music and Captain Ahab’s voice were ever promotable. Though you can tote up any number of good “influences” for Van Vliet—the crazed Southern California fifties R&B of the Coasters, the Medallions and Richard Berry, the city blues of Howlin’ Wolf and the country blues of Charlie Patton, the flights of Charlie Parker—none holds still long enough for comfort. His lyrics are difficult to follow—even his song titles (“Flavor Bud Living” is a new one) may discourage the curious. Far more than Van Morrison’s, Van Vliet’s career depends on a belief that the artist molders in his garret (or trailer), forgotten, rejected by his time, honored only by history.

However deeply Van Vliet may hold to these verities, though, his music explodes them. His voice is serious but not solemn, and sometimes his maddeningly dense songs are merely wildly complex jokes, the pun working for him as blind and holy repetition works for Morrison. As with the painter Henri Rousseau, with whom Beefheart may have more in common than any rock ‘n’ roller, the surreal reveals the prosaic, the prosaic reveals the surreal—Van Vliet’s music only seems hard to hear, and were it ever played on the radio it might sound perfectly obvious. And Van Vliet has not been ignored: Were it not for his epochal, two-record Trout Mask Replica, released in 1969, punk might never have come into being and certainly would never have sustained itself past 1977. Captain Beefheart was the text his followers plundered when they needed to find out how to turn rant into style.

Van Vliet will never be a star in his own country (maybe in Japan…). He cannot make his music “accessible”—when he tries, as he did in 1974 with the hopefully titled Unconditionally Guaran­teed, he just sounds stupid and worn out. Either he’ll make hermits’ records that implode or put together a set of blazing prophecies that will find its listeners no matter how fast it ends up in the cutout bins—and it’s the latter that he’s done with Doc at the Radar Station.

“God, please fuck my mind for good,” Van Vliet calls out at the end of this record; it’s a cry of amazing, harrowing power, but after Radar Station‘s twelve songs it doesn’t seem likely God could do it. The album is a rampage that pulls back again and again into fragments of synthesized “string sections” for relief, a breath of air, a new point of view; as he’s always done at his best, Van Vliet plays his band like an instrument, every moment apparently thought out, every nightmare fully analyzed. These lines from “Brickbats” (“Brickbats fly my fireplace,” it begins, pun in place) catch both the musical momentum and the images that suspend it:

My mind caught by the corner
Gradually decides it’s safe
Becomes a bat itself
Flexes its little claws
Tests its leather wings with loud hollow pops
Around the room threatening to dash its brains
Somehow at the last minute retreats

Beefheart’s songs may not be “accessi­ble”—that is, conventional—but anyone’s terrors, and anyone’s delight at seeing them plain, are accessible through his songs. What’s also accessible (air play, distribution, and promotion aside) is his commitment to his muse and his demons, bat and God alike. Van Vliet’s version of freedom is the mastery of a man who cannot make anyone else’s music.

As he has proved in the past, a man who can’t make anyone else’s music is not the same as a man who won’t. His committeemen, presented with the force of Doc at the Radar Station, can be inspiring, but it can also be a trap: Saying no to whoever’s making the rules doesn’t guarantee vision—and a lot of people simply don’t have anything to compromise. Many rockers less talented than Van Vliet—John Lydon, for example—can listen to him, buy his myth and find themselves seduced by the sentimental, nineteenth-century romanticization of the artist that sustains Van Vliet; but what they’ll miss is the fact that while that notion of where art comes from may sustain him, it couldn’t interest him less. What interests Van Vliet, perhaps in spite of his better judgment and his peace of mind, is what has often interested artists who make a difference: the fate of humanity, the boundary between dream and waking, the nature of language, the truth of being. Stuff like that.

Real Life Rock Top Ten

  1. Carlene Carter, Musical Shapes (Warner Bros.)
  2. Pere Ubu, The Art of Walking (Rough Trade)
  3. UB40, “Madame Medusa,” from Signing Off (Graduate import)
  4. Son Seals, “Leaving Home,” from Chicago Fire (Alligator)
  5. Elvis Costello, Taking Liberties (CBS)
  6. Rockers, a film by Theodoros Bafaloukos (New Yorker Films)
  7. Billy Burnette (CBS)
  8. Earl Zero, “None Shall Escape the Judgment” (Epiphany twelve-inch EP)
  9. John Eskow, Smokestack Lightning, a novel (Delacorte)
  10. Cabaret Voltaire, The Voice of America (Rough Trade import)

New West, September 1980 [date TBC]

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