I suppose the saddest thing about Captain Beefheart’s death – which in many ways must have come as a relief after his decades of suffering with MS – is the BBC’s obituary of him. It stresses his ‘influence’, but talks about musicians like Oasis or Franz Ferdinand, who have absolutely nothing in common with him.
Even those artists who sound, at times, quite like Beefheart – for example Tom Waits – aren’t really influenced by him. He had an absolutely unique aesthetic – he’d actually thought out, in detail, what he did and didn’t want to do, and then very *very* rarely compromised that. While he came from the LA 60s rock scene – his first album, Safe As Milk sounds as much like the Monkees or Love as it does people like Howlin’ Wolf to whom Beefheart is usually compared – he soon abandoned any pretence at making ‘rock’ or ‘pop’ music, in favour of making *his* music.
Beefheart is actually less original than his music sounds, but he was one of the great imaginative *synthesists* of all time, putting together the timbre of Chicago blues with the tonalities and rhythms of Ornette Coleman, and adding beat poetry on top. He was often accused by collaborators of being a plagiarist, but it’s notable that none of them have produced anything of anywhere near the same calibre without him – he almost certainly *did* take elements of his musicians’ work, just as he took elements of Coleman and Varese and Willie Dixon, but the result was one of the most idiosyncratic, individual bodies of work in music.
Anyone who was *really* ‘influenced’ by Beefheart would be finding their own aesthetic, as different from Beefheart’s as his was from the mainstream. But it’s a lot harder to sit down and actually think out your music from first principles, throwing out anything that doesn’t fit, than it is just to do what everyone else does.
He will be missed.
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