Sunday, August 23, 2015

Who's at The Wheel?

Song 265: This week's playlist song sails Upon the My-O-My by Captain Beefheart and The Magic Band, written by Don Van Vliet, Jan Van Vliet and Andy DiMartino. The first name among the songwriters on this cut is actually the Captain, going by his legal name, and  Jan Van Vliet was his wife. In the spring of 1970, during my freshman year at Northwestern, someone stuck a sticker for Captain Beefheart's Lick My Decals Off, Baby album near the entrance to my dorm building, so I remember seeing it a number of times, and the understated humor always made me smile, putting that one near the top of my list of favorite LP titles, but I had the impression then, having heard a few cuts from Trout Mask Replica, that Mr. B's sound largely ventured into an area of experimental rock and jazz that didn't appeal to me, so I didn't pay much attention to him. However, in early 1974, I had a good gig for a few months playing piano in a Shakey's Pizza place in Atlanta, GA, and around the time that the gig came to an end, in June, I happened to hear Sugar Bowl (Song 148) on my car radio one day, and I liked it so much, I decided to get a copy of Unconditionally Guaranteed soon after. This track opens the LP, in a very strong way, as I hear it, followed by Sugar Bowl and then 8 other cuts that I truly enjoy. The lyrics paint an impressionistic picture of some sort of happening aboard a ship at sea, and include the line "Tell me, Captain, how does it feel to be driven away from your own steering wheel?" Since this song, and all the cuts on the album, where written as collaborations between the Captain and his wife, I wonder if she actually originated that question, perhaps doing so in the context of a car episode. At any rate, despite how much Unconditionally Guaranteed appealed to me, the critics didn't like the LP, and when I tried to interest a friend or 2 in the album, I didn't get much traction. A few years after its release, the Captain disavowed the record as a commercial sellout, and some of his players have had bad things to say about the LP as well, but I never cared -- I always liked the album, from my first time through it. In fact, it got me interested in giving his earlier music a listen, and along that way, I discovered many other cuts that I really like. While the Captain came to disagree with the label of his record, I still feel that the LP qualifies as "100% Pure and Good" and that, 4 decades after its release, the warranty that applies to "all sounds, vibes, feelings, light waves, projections, auras, test patterns, etc., which originate from this record" still holds up pretty well. I would advise listeners, though, to heed the label warning that the album "could be harmful to closed minds" and so therefore take caution to "check ears and other sensory equipment for socially induced limitations" and act accordingly, especially if you might happen to venture anywhere close to the My-O-My.

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