Lost Chords & Serenades Divine #12 by Stephen McClurg and John King
Captain Beefheart and His Magic Band: Safe as Milk (1967)
STEPHEN: Unlike Machine Head, Safe as Milk has been a favorite album for about two decades, though I felt late to the Beefheart party.
After college, I played music regularly and met several Zappa fans. I knew Zappa as a pop culture reference, a guest on The Monkees. These guys discussed how Zappa and Don Van Vliet (Captain Beefheart) went to high school and played in bands together and I thought that was interesting.
Most of my friends were not into Top 40 music. Everyone had a few overlapping tastes, but I had a friend into noise, a friend who played fingerstyle blues, friends playing jazz, etc. I had unknowingly played a few Beefheart songs in one band. I played to the chords, since I hadn’t heard the songs, but they stood out to me and I wanted to hear more. When I found out it was The Magic Band, I asked what I should hear next.
Mistakenly, I was told Trout Mask Replica.
While it’s not my favorite Beefheart record, I do like Trout Mask now, but upon first hearing it, I felt cheated. Initially, I thought, “They’re playing two or three songs at once. Ok….” I had heard so much about this record over the years and I just didn’t get it. I know I’m not the only one who has had or will have that experience. It’s not an easy record to digest.
I gave up on Beefheart until I heard “Electricity” on a documentary. I immediately responded to that song and we started covering it. That made me want to check out Safe as Milk.
The album opens with “Sure ‘Nuff ‘n’ Yes, I Do,” a variation on the blues standard “Rollin’ ‘n’ Tumblin’.” It’s funny to think of this band–known for being challenging–whose first song (on an album, I think they did some previous singles) is essentially a “girls-and-cars” song.
That first verse has a mysterious quality. The desert part happens to be true for Van Vliet and it seems to place it out of the traditional Delta blues, but it’s a quote from “Minglewood Blues” that the Grateful Dead eventually popularized–after this record. Mentioning New Orleans brings in the hoodoo, voodoo, gris-gris, and all that which is accompanied by the slide guitar, something more akin to the devil’s instrument–the fiddle–than to traditional European guitar. The “tornado” piece reminds me of American tall tales, Pecos Bill, in particular, and finally, I love “the moon stickin’ in m’eye,” but I feel like that comes from somewhere, too.
The rest of the lyrics are mostly about pursuing love or sex, which just gets old to me and probably why I listen to a lot of instrumental music. Sometimes I just find that stuff boring, particularly men singing about “girls.”
During the third verse they play a two-measure break. That rhythmic sense in that verse, moving from something relatively smooth and pulsing to more stuttering parts becomes a method that the band will use throughout its existence. It’s one of the ways that they build contrasts.
Part of the lyrics at the end make me laugh: “Stick with me and I’ll stick with me and you.”
The most exciting aspects of this track for me are Ry Cooder’s slide playing and John French’s drums.
JOHN: If memory serves, I first started listening to the good Captain while recovering from a hernia operation deep in Interzone, quadrant 9.7. The bat couriers were disrupted by the sulfur hurricanes, and on a really bad TV set with sandpaper reception I probably saw the same documentary that you did: The Artist Formerly Known as Captain Beefheart.
“Electricity” drew me into its web, too, in part because the song is an ecstatic hoedown with swooping and galloping slide guitars and a theremin and the Captain is yowling like the ghost of Wolfman Jack who wasn’t even dead yet. It almost sounds like a 1950s novelty record. Those tinkling high notes on the guitar recall the Indian whooping of young David Lynch indicating something about the passage to the Black Lodge. One thing I find strange is that this never made it onto the classic psychedelic songs featured on the radio.
STEPHEN: In one of the Black Lodge or dream sequences, there’s a close-up of a mouth saying “electricity.” And almost every film uses flickering lights or sparks as some sort of sign of evil or danger.
The original idea before theremin was to use a saw, but supposedly they couldn’t get a good recording of one. Saws on metal making music and sparks (metal machine music?) which oddly links with the future Lynch work. I’ve always imagined that they would have sounded similar to the various metallic sounds Peter Thomas was able to conjure in the 1971 Fists of Fury soundtrack.
JOHN: Safe as Milk might be the safest Beefheart record, but it sure punched a big psychic hole in 1967 and marked a major psychedelic turn, but it’s also a trippy march through so many classic genres of songs. On a first listen, Safe as Milk is both weird and very familiar.
STEPHEN: One of the interesting things about the record is the mixture of genres you mention. They do garage rock. They do soul/R&B, blues, and whatever “Electricity” is.
“Zig Zag Wanderer,” again, in some ways is a rock-and-roll cliche: the drug song. Most of the time that’s also boring to me. Zig Zag is a type of rolling paper.
I do like the fairy tale imagery. I feel like “the wanderer” here isn’t going to lose his house because he is in some ways his house and is always traveling with it. “You can dance, you can prance. / These old timbers got strong beams.” The house is well-built: he’s got strong legs.
Again, like that “stick with me” line, I love “Heaven’s free, ‘cept for a dollar.”
JOHN: The lyrics get so specific for Beefheart, even if I don’t really follow what he is saying. Maybe I am not listening hard enough, or maybe I am listening exactly as lucidly as can be without going crazy. This was the same year The Doors released Strange Days, The Grateful Dead released The Grateful Dead and Anthem of the Sun, and The Beatles released Sergeant Pepper and The Magical Mystery Tour, though “I am the Walrus” certainly reaches Beefheartian levels of lyrical disjointedness.
STEPHEN: I love the bass and vocals section of “Zig Zag Wanderer.” The bass sounds like a tuba. There are a lot of complaints about the way this recording sounds, especially from the musicians involved, but I’ve always liked it. It’s not clean, but it is full of character. I know there were quite a few overdubs, but it captures a band playing together in a room really well.
JOHN: Compared to the Beatles, the good Captain seems to be recording in a tin outhouse somewhere in Albuquerque. “Zig Zag Wanderer” is a bit repetitive to me, and a bit too on the nose–the song doesn’t zigzag as much as the lyrics would suggest. Not a bad vamp, and wow that bass is fat, but not a lot of surprises outside of the general crusty texture. Honestly, the strength of this record is its profoundly crusty texture and the odd arrangements.
STEPHEN: The only record I know well on that list you mentioned is Strange Days and it has marvelous production, but I agree, the texture and arrangements here help make the character of the record. I’ll take odd and crusty as much as marvelous.
“Call on Me” always makes me think of the intro to The Byrds’ “Turn! Turn! Turn!” It’s partially because the guitar effect sounds somewhat like a 12-string. The lyrics don’t do much for me on this one.
JOHN: “Call on Me” is rhythmically interesting. The jangly guitars bouncing with the harpsichord bits make this a seasick adventure in the best possible way. The lyrics are vapid, instructing the listener that the singer can help appease her (his?) loneliness while the music is a bit batshit, suggesting that the singer is lonely and weird and maybe not the most reliable antidote to loneliness, but then again if you are lonely you probably need someone weird to identify with. But frankly when listening to Beefheart, I often ignore the lyrics, except when he speak-sings poetry.
STEPHEN: I’d never thought of that, but Beefheart’s narrators come off as unreliable as Poe’s.
I like the horn parts on this and that they fade into the riff from “Then He Kissed Me,” which turns up in a lot of places.
JOHN: “Dropout Boogie” is the first great song on Safe as Milk.
STEPHEN: Yeah, even though the voice is stylized after Howlin’ Wolf, this one feels like the first “Beefheart” tune on the record. He sounds menacing even though the lyrics, again, aren’t much to me, though I love this section:
You told her you loved her,
So bring her the butter.
You love her adapt her.
You love her adapt her.
Adapt her adapter.
Something about “Adapt her adapter” reminds me of early domestic relationships in Cronenberg films.
And then there’s a great pseudo-waltz section with marimba that transitions to solo guitar that builds the phrase higher and then when the main riff slithers back in it just sounds even dirtier. The rhythmic sense of this track has nice off-kilter moments like the “What about after that?” phrase.
JOHN: The feel is if The Trashmen had a cold and were covering The Kinks and forgot the lyrics, with the odd dainty flourishes of the marimbas.
STEPHEN: “I’m Glad” is fine as a soul track, but it’s not my favorite thing that the Magic Band does.
JOHN: It’s a cross between The Philly sound and Van Morrison. What’s weird is how not weird it is.
STEPHEN: It does serve as a kind of palate cleanser for “Electricity,” which we’ve discussed a little. But, yeah, imagine being in a crowd and seeing them play “Electricity” and then “I’m Glad.” I would be energized hearing “Electricity” last, but confused if “I’m Glad” were last.
“Electricity” reminds me of Blue Velvet, “Now it’s dark,” “In Dreams,” the lipstick scene, etc.:
High-voltage man kisses
night to bring the light
to those who need
t’ hide their shadow-deed
hide their shadow-deed
“Yellow Brick Road” is one that I normally wouldn’t like. Too positive, but besides “Electricity” it is one of the tracks that oddly defines the record for me. Lynch also uses Wizard of Oz imagery in several films. There’s a simple bell or xylophone that plays a simple, happy melodic line, and I’ve always liked the kind of bouncy, fairy tale, “peppermint kite” aspect of this track.
These works are all Americanizations of the European fairy tale tradition. Similarly, Lynch mines The Hardy Boys and ‘50s Big Boy culture in a way that Beefheart mines these American musical traditions.
“Plastic Factory,” for me, is like “I’m Glad”: It’s fine for what it is, I’m just not as interested in it. I like some images in the lyrics, the vocal whoops that Beefheart does so well, I’m not sure what they’re called, but it’s almost like an octave shift on a syllable, and the primal nature of the bridge that shifts into a three-feel.
“Where’s There’s Woman” has some cool echo or delay effects and creates a dangerous, sexy–maybe noirish?–mood. I think Zappa is on the backing vocals, but that’s about all I think about the track. I like what it evokes, but the details aren’t necessarily interesting to me.
JOHN: The tempo of “Where’s There’s Woman” is so fucking creepy, like insectile smoke unfurling into the mind of a city, and the lyrics seem to match:
Where there’s truth, the green valley steals cottonwood
Where there’s peace, a little cloud of music gleams brotherhood
STEPHEN: One of my favorite drum tracks is on “Grown So Ugly,” especially what French does with the high-hat accents on the verse. The guitar intro has that off-kilter blues sound the band could do well. Also, there’s a magnificent use of tension before the band shifts into what I guess is a pre-chorus of fantastic howls in a two-measure guitar and drum phrase that builds to those wolfman sounds (Oooohhhhh Baay–Bay!”).
There’s a sense of the wolfman’s story or something like a doppelganger, though it’s explained through the line about being in Angola prison for 20 years. Unlike “Where’s There’s Woman,” there are a lot of details in this one I find more interesting. The bass part is traditional, but perfect in this song.
JOHN: When white people appropriate the blues, it helps for them to find a gimmick that lets them in. Jack White used avant garde style with the costumes and color schemes of The White Stripes. But weirdos like Tom Waits and Beefheart seem to transcend the question of race, which is to say their blues are reconfigured into their own weirdness.
STEPHEN: For me, the weakest part of “Autumn’s Child” is the vocal lines with Zappa and the theremin that then become the chorus. They sound boringly psych-rock to me, but the rest of the track is spectacular. The song has a range of parts and maybe my favorite lyrics on the album. There are several spots I like, but I might as well quote the first verse:
Autumn’s child got a loophole ‘round her finger.
Halo rings her head.
Cornhusk hair makes me linger.
Her cat’s stare meets my dare.
A man’s chair greets my stare.
I’ve always heard that second line as “Halo razorhead,” but I guess the pronunciation is something like “Halo rangs’er head.” I’ll still probably always hear the former.
JOHN: You’ve skipped over the absolute best song on the album: “Abba Zaba”! The rumbling percussion with those madenning lyrics sung with such confidence:
Song before song before song blues
STEPHEN: Yeah! I don’t know why I skipped it. I feel the same way–everything works here, which is maybe why it was supposed to be the title track. The company who owns the candy of the same name had issues with it. The back of the record has the pattern that’s on the wrapper! I’ve heard the Babbette baboon reference is to the artwork or some kind of artwork associated with the candy, but I may be confused about that.
Of course, as a bassist I was intrigued that there was a bass solo. I should relearn it. I love how French, as usual, drives the song. I just find the lead guitar parts on this one beautiful: crackly, birdlike, sometimes insectile, but still beautiful.
The “song before song” lyric you mention is one of my favorites, along with “two shadows at noon” and “tobacco sky.” Pungently evocative imagery. It gives the listener a lot of room for interpretation and discovery.
JOHN: That dominant bass and noodling guitar reminds me of how gorgeously off-kilter Primus is. That is a fine bass solo, and the song is this rhythmic chant of joyous nonsense. Hopefully that description can be put on my tombstone.
Marc Maron bought the LP and a stranger who saw him asked, “Catching Up?” Aren’t we all?
Stephen McClurg (Episode 24) writes and teaches in Birmingham, Alabama. He co-hosts The Outrider Podcast, writes at Eunoia Solstice, and infrequently blogs. He has contributed music as a solo artist and with the group Necronomikids to past episodes of The Drunken Odyssey.