“Safe As Milk” by Captain Beefheart and His Magic Band (1967)

Antelope Valley High School in Lancaster, Calif., must have been an interesting place in the late 1950s.

Two of the school’s students went on to become legendary in the music industry, one ending up posthumously in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, the other ensuring his place among the truly distinctive artists in the medium. As Frank Zappa (1940-93) recalled in “The Real Frank Zappa Book”:

“I spent more time with Don (Captain Beefheart) Van Vliet when I was in high school than after he got into ‘show business.’ He dropped out during his senior year, because his Dad, who was a Helms Bread truck driver, had a heart attack and ‘Vliet’ (as he was known_ took over his route for a while – but mostly he just stayed home from school.

“His girlfriend, Laurie, lived in the house with him, along with his Mom (Sue), his Dad (Glen), Aunt Ione and Uncle Alan. … The way Don got his ‘stage name’ was, Uncle Alan had a habit of exposing himself to Laurie. He’d piss with the bathroom door open and, if she was walking by, mumble something about his appendage – something along the lines of: “Ahh, what a beauty. It look just like a big, fine beef heart.'”

OK, some of that might explain what the late Don Vliet eventually recorded, most notably the Zappa-produced “Trout Mask Replica” (1969). My college roommate, Mike, once played that for his 3-year-old cousin, who absolutely loved it; otherwise, we used to put it on the stereo to clear people out of the room.

I, of course, purchased “Trout Mask Replica” as soon as it was issued on compact disc, to replace the dubbed-cassette version off Mike’s LP. It’s a true work of art, just not one that’s going to appeal to anything resembling a mass audience.

But I prefer the debut by Captain Beefheart and His Magic Band, “Safe As Milk.” While it lacks the field-recording ambiance of “Trout Mask Replica,” it’s infinitely more accessible as a rock album.

The Captain actually broke in as a fairly straightforward act, recording a dynamic cover version of Bo Diddley’s “Diddy Wah Diddy” for Herb Alpert’s fledgeling A&M Records (produced by future Bread front man David Gates, believe it or not). The follow-up, Vliet’s original “Moonchild,” was decidedly more out of the ordinary, and the label dropped the band.

Enter Buddah Records, which had made a mint on the Lovin’ Spoonful and decided to sign some more rock acts. The Captain fleshed out his Magic Band with a 20-year-old guitarist named Ry Cooder, and everyone was ready to record.

The result was “Safe As Milk,” easily Don’s most accessible album during his 16-year recording career. A mix of straightforward blues-rock and the individuality for which the Captain became immortalized, the project presents a musical aggregation that could have fit right in with the late-’60s recording industry had different circumstances prevailed.

As it was, the album failed to make the charts, although John Lennon placed two of the album’s promotional bumper stickers on a cabinet in his home. (I’ve seen the photographic evidence.)

“Safe As Milk” opens with Cooder’s slide guitar ushering in “Sure ‘Nuff ‘N Yes I Do,” a tune that puts the Captain’s braggadocio on display with lines like “Hey, hey, hey all you young girls, whatever you do/Come on by and see me, I’ll make it worth it to you.”

The album alternates between blues-based songs, proto-metal, ballads and a few tunes that start to put Don’s unique performing style on display. One of those is “Electricity,” which features a theremin “played by Sam Hoffman, who is supposed to have been a friend of Dr. Theremin, the instrument’s inventor.” At least, that’s according to the liner notes for the 1999 re-release.

“Electricity” also is notable as the song during which “Beefheart’s vocal literally destroyed a $1200 Telefunken microphone,” Langdon Winner wrote in a 1970 article for Rolling Stone. “Beefheart’s voice simply wouldn’t track at certain points. Although a number of microphones were employed, none of them could stand the Captain’s wailing “EEEE-Lec-Triccc-ittt-EEEEEEEE” on the last chorus. This, incidentally, can be heard on the record.”

Much of the cohesiveness of “Safe As Milk” compared with later Beefheart material can be attributed to Cooder, whose “role in all of this was to translate the Captain’s wilder notions to the rest of the band and generally act as musical director,” the liner notes state. Cooder went on, while still in his early 20s, to work with such musical luminaries as Randy Newman, the Rolling Stones and Little Feat before launching his solo career with Warner Bros.

As for Don Vliet, he went on to work with high-school pal Zappa and make some of the most distinctive music in the history of sound. The Captain’s recording career ended in 1982 with an album called “Ice Cream for Crow,” as he opted instead to concentrate on his painting. Unfortunately, he suffered from multiple sclerosis and used a wheelchair the last two decades of his life.

Like his classmate Frank Zappa, Captain Beefheart left a musical legacy that never will be even remotely duplicated.


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