It's sad but true, and always has been, and always will be, that we don't think much about the roots of trees. We notice and marvel at what we can see, but so easily forget, or even ignore altogether, the dirty, murky tangle that lies beneath the earth, giving life to everything above.
It happens in music too. And so, when we marvel and revel in the rough and gruff music theatre of Tom Waits, or in the savage disregard for convention and structure of no-wave sensations like Sonic Youth or of post-punk icons like Gang of Four, or in the wild and whacky rhythmic counterpoints of The Minutemen, or in the experimental free jazz of Naked City, it can be very easy not to realise that probably none of it would sound quite the same had it not been for the work of a strange, slightly disconnected, despotic musician called Van Vliet, better known - to the still sadly cultish bit of the music world that knew him - as Captain Beefheart.
Van Vliet died just a few days ago - on 17 December 2010, aged 69 - after living with multiple sclerosis for much of his life. He grew up with Frank Zappa as his school buddy, and their friendship cum rivalry cum animosity cum partnership weaves its way through the music of each of them, of both of them: music that splashes and bashes in the deepest waters of the experimental avant-garde, so that the casual passer-by might be a little concerned for its safety, but which the more observant musical lifeguards will see as the artful displays, and sometimes the showy tricks, of a very experienced, dexterous, athlete.
Surely the greatest, and perhaps also the most notorious, work of Captain Beefheart is his 3rd album - his 1969 classic Trout Mask Replica. It is weird, freaky, music that at first sounds like drug-fucked chaos: as if a slightly crazed lover of blues and free jazz had taken a cocktail of LSD and red cordial and, with a bunch of mates, drunk on a little too much garage rock, and a bundle of home made instruments, had been given access to a recording studio for a few hours.
But the trouble with music like this is that the first sounds are often the only ones people stick around to hear. So, overwhelmed by the bedlam, they miss what the crazies are saying. They miss the order of the chaos: the intricate interplay of rhythms, the counterpoint of guitars, the conscious scorn of traditional melody, where winds and strings slip and slide from notes to non-notes, as if the nuts and bolts of music have been melted down and turned to soup; they miss the way conversation and music are brought together, sharing and comparing little anecdotes; they miss the brilliance of a language that has its own rules, its own grammar, its own syntax, but which is a language nonetheless.
Trout Mask Replica was reportedly produced under circumstances that today would surely have landed its creator in prison - its musicians locked up in a house, with windows boarded up, in suburban Los Angeles, for eight months. They were, so some of the survivors allege, subjected to sleep deprivation, food deprivation, ritual humiliation and abuse, beaten and battered into submission, quite literally, to Vliet's artistic vision. Every note, and every thought behind every note, was shaped, iron fisted, by the Captain. They rehearsed and rehearsed and rehearsed. Some tried to escape. The drummer was beaten with a broomstick for playing some Zappa in his spare time instead of practising Vliet's music.
We can be, and we should be, shocked when we hear stories like this - outrageous, disgusting stories of musical megalomania. But they are stories that have littered music's history and, unless we are prepared to dismiss works like Wagner's Ring des Nibelungen or most of the symphonies of Mahler, then we have to find some way of divorcing great music from the less-than-great circumstances in which it was created. And, while that might be a divorce for our own convenience, our own peace of mind, the fact remains that that violent, vile union produced, in Trout Mask Replica, a brilliant, precocious, genius child.
Trout Mask Replica is one of those albums that sounds like nothing else, and yet its influence can be heard everywhere - more than anything else in the permission it gave for music to break out of even its more unconventional parameters, and to allow itself to be crazy.
Craziness can certainly have its frightening side at times: it can freak you out, it can intimidate you and yes, it can even assault and damage you. But then so too can sanity. So it really comes down to a question of which adventure you'd rather try. Try Captain Beefheart - he's really no more dangerous than the straight and narrow and a whole lot more interesting.
RIP Captain Beefheart - you will be missed, but it's good to still have you with us.