Graded on a Curve: Captain Beefheart and the Magic Band, Bluejeans & Moonbeams

Every Captain Beefheart fan knows that his releases Unconditionally Guaranteed and Bluejeans & Moonbeams marked the nadir of his career. Desperate attempts at commercial success, both LPs met with critical opprobrium and horrified the good Captain’s fans. Even Beefheart, aka Don Van Vliet, his critical cred in ruins, come to regret them; he labeled them “horrible and vulgar” and urged fans to take them back for a refund.

Remember that ’60s TV show Branded starring Chuck Connors, who played a soldier in the Wild West? Who, wrongly convicted of some crime, had his shoulder epaulettes ripped off and his sword broken in half during the opening credits, which ended with him standing stoically outside the closed fort gates, facing the grim prospects of surviving in the savage wilderness the best he could? Well that’s what happened with these albums. They were branded, given the bum’s rush, and left shivering in the rock wilderness, while Beefheart fans tried their level best to forget them.

But nothing attracts me like a spectacular disaster, which is why I’ve watched every Irwin Allen film like 38 times. So I was eager to listen to Bluejeans & Moonbeams, which is generally considered a bigger fiasco than Unconditionally Guaranteed, or the Titanic even, because Beefheart’s Magic Band fired him in disgust after Unconditionally Guaranteed, leaving him to round up a whole new Magic Band that was around only for Bluejeans & Moonbeams. What’s more, the untaught Beefheart, who had always counted on a musical director to realize the sounds he heard in his head, was forced to do without one on Bluejeans & Moonbeams. And finally, he was still seeking commercial success, which entailed his curtailing many of the quirks and idiosyncrasies that made his music so intriguing in the first place.

So what is one to do? Just write Bluejeans off and never listen to it? That’s one alternative. Then there’s what I do. I conduct a simple thought experiment whereby I pretend Bluejeans & Moonbeams is NOT an LP by Captain Beefheart, the sandpaper-voiced avant gardist, but an obscure and experimental LP released by that other great rock skipper, the Captain of the Captain and Tennille. And wham! Just like that it goes from being a debacle to a cultist’s treasure. I mean, it sounds great! It’s filled with great songs! How in God’s name did the Captain do it?

I’m no expert, but LP opener “Part of Special Things to Do” is good even by Beefheart standards. The guitars do the swamp while Beefheart delivers up his great vocals and the drumming is rough and tumble; this one would sound great coming out of some bayou roadhouse’s jukebox, an alligator at the back door, hoping some drunk will step outside to take a piss. “Same Old Blues” is tame by Beefheart standards; his vocals are less raspy, there are oodles of keyboards, and only Dean Smith’s bottleneck guitar and the Captain’s harmonica save the track from mediocrity. By Beefheart standards, I remind you; from almost anybody else this one would be a keeper.

“Observatory Crest” is where Beefheart purists jump off the bus; a sweet and melodic tune, Beefheart sings it in (presumably) his normal speaking voice, and its lyrics are completely lucid rather than abstract. And it is, I’m here to tell you, a lovely song, a song that anyone but Captain Beefheart (or his companion in crime, Frank Zappa) would be glad to call their own. The interplay between the guitar and keyboards makes the song, which I actually prefer to many of the songs off Beefheart’s more aesthetically successful albums. Even his decision to abandon his normal singing croak is the right one; the song’s seductive mood would have been destroyed by Beefheart’s scratchy vocals. “Pompadour Swamp” isn’t so effective, although I’d hardly call it an attempt at commercial success. What it is is a failure by the Captain’s own terms. I like the funky keyboards and the guitar work; what doesn’t work is the Captain’s singing. As Magic Band keyboardist Micheal Smotherman noted later, “Don was just as confused as he could be throughout the whole process… I would push his face up to the microphone and he would start singing. And when it was time to stop I would pull him back gently.”

“Captain’s Holiday” is fascinating not for its sound, which borders on commercial funk and features some overly smarmy female backing vocalists, but for the fact that no one seems to know who played on it. Evidently the track was discovered on a discarded reel in the studio. Which is where it should have stayed, although there are, amidst the female vocalists’ never-ending repetitions of “Eww, captain, captain,” interludes of melodic beauty, most of them played by, well, who knows? Presumably guitarist Dean Smith, accompanied by Smotherman on the keys. There’s also a lot of harmonica in the song, but Beefheart swears it wasn’t him playing it. This is where the Captain and Tennille really help me out. Had they come up with this, critics would have fallen over themselves, calling it a revelation and a marvel of nature.

“Rock ‘n Roll’s Evil Doll” is also a mediocrity by Van Vliet standards. The song has get up and go, but it’s more less-than-stellar funk, and Smith’s guitar can’t save the song from Beefheart’s vocals, which I’d have to call Beefheart Lite. “Further Than We’ve Gone” is completely off the reservation, a lovely and melodic piano-based ballad with a long and beautiful guitar solo that never fails to move me. I don’t give a shit if this one doesn’t sound a bit like a cut off Safe as Milk, it’s fucking great on its own terms. Beefheart goes at it like a raw-boned soul singer, and once again his vocals work, which makes me wonder whether Beefheart was clueless during the sessions as Smotherman claims.

“Twist Ah Luck” could be the Rolling Stones, if it weren’t for the good Captain’s vocals. It’s not a great song but it’s pretty good, what with Beefheart utilizing his normal singing voice and playing his harmonica all over the damn place. It’s not as quirky as Beefheart’s usual product, but I would hardly call it a sell-out. The beat is too good, and the Captain is too surly for that. I like this one a lot, and I don’t care who knows it. Ah, but album closer and title track “Bluejeans & Moonbeams” is a very different story. This one takes you into the realm of weird speculation, flying saucers and alien abduction and Area 51 shit, because there is simply no way Captain Beefheart in human form could have (1) conceived it and (2) actually concluded it would be a good idea not only to record it but to include it on an album under his own name.

Because “Bluejeans & Moonbeams” really does stray, all joking aside, into Captain and Tennille territory. It opens with some really hackneyed Carpenters-like strings, and the Captain sings it in his speaking voice, and this is bad folk rock, Bread tripe, with bassoons or something and only the guitar and the weird synth (I think it’s the “star machine” on the album’s credits) are worth listening to, and this really is the Captain making his great bid for stardom by aiming at the lowest common denominator and failing miserably. One can only shake one’s head in wonderment, because this baby is career-ending bad, and one has to give Beefheart his props for learning his lesson and going back (although it took a 4-year hiatus) to doing what he did best.

I have no more to say about Bluejeans & Moonbeams, except that the Captain’s failures humanized him. They demonstrated that he was not the cold fish on the cover of Trout Mask Replica, not the man with the unerring instinct incapable of making a wrong move, but a human being like everybody else. I find the LP endearing. He was lost, on uncharted territory, and the results, while they demonstrated that he had feet of clay, also made clear that his commercial ambitions weren’t completely mad. “Observatory Crest” will always make me happy, because it’s not the Captain of myth but the Captain vulnerable, lost and making a beautiful sound. I feel like I’m up there with him. He’s not the Captain Beefheart beloved by his huge cult. He’s on the heights, looking down, a man searching for his bearings. Sometimes you have to lose yourself to find yourself again. On Bluejeans & Moonbeams, the Captain wandered off the reservation, only to return in triumph with his later albums. Hot rats!


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