I've started my quest to understand the intersection of rock musicians Frank Zappa and Don Van Vliet aka Captain Beefheart. I justify this for many reasons, none of them particularly respectable.
First, anytime I blog about Zappa, my traffic goes up. Second, I consider this background research for when I listen to all those classical ensembles making wimpy attempts to play Zappa's music, especially anything related to Beefheart -- a rather manic guy as far as I can tell. Next and similar to SFMike's counter-factual conjecture about what if Charles Ives left the insurance business and moved to California, I wonder what would have happened if, unlikely as it is, Zappa didn't try to balance being popular and being serious and instead truly focused on his art as Beefheart ultimately did with painting. This is the questionable aesthetic equivalent about asking what if Bernstein had specialized on composition. More trivially, I am also seeking confirmation that Zapaa really did ask for, as a childhood birthday present, a phone call to the avant-garde composer Edgard Varese. Finally and somewhat tangentially, I think this is all culturally relevant to the 1960s consciousness awakening era, a captivating period becoming increasingly archaic.
To experience a taste of those times, last night I downloaded Frank Zappa and the Mothers' first album, Freak Out from 1966. I wasn't all that impressed except as an early indicator of the cultural eruption to follow. Also, the music had more love songs than expected, even if they were ironic and "anti-love."
Then, I've just read the book Necessity Is... The Early Years of Frank Zappa and the Mothers of Invention. Unfortunately, Captain Beefheart doesn't get much mention. The book does describe how the two (FZ and CB) were high school buddies listening to records together. By the late sixties, FZ signed him to his Bizarre record label where CB recorded Trout Mask Replica (an I Love Music thread on whether that album is really listenable or not here). Overall, the various members of the Mothers paint FZ as serious, compulsive, hard-working, an anti-drug use advocate and overall perfectionist while CB was warmer, less calculated, and more broadly talented.
As I continue my schooling in Frank Zappa 101, the most interesting fact so far was Don Preston, Mothers of Invention keyboardist and friend of Detroit's jazz drummer Elvin Jones, modestly making an audacious claim:
Because I knew Elvin, I used to go over and talk with him when they [Coltrane group] were playing in town. One night when they were through playing and packing up, I cornered Coltrane. I said to him, 'I have something very important to tell you. Do you agree that everybody (in jazz and contemporary music) looks up to you as a main influence with your saxophone playing?' He said, "I never thought of it that way." ... I then said to Coltrane, 'The evolution of music -- to change music and to play something new is the most important aspect of music. Now you've been playing and you play wonderfully and you are exemplary in the way you choose everything -- except one thing -- you've been playing the same way ever since you started playing with Miles. I think it's your duty to evolve and change musically.' And that's all I said. And he looked at me and went, 'hmmm - I'll have to think about that.' It was right after that Coltrane became this other person and changed his whole style of playing and everything and started playing this far-out music! So I felt I was in some ways responsible for that.