Monday, November 16, 2009

Songs from another planet: "Abba Zaba" (Captain Beefheart)

In the late 1950s, Don Van Vliet was selling Hoover vacuum cleaners door to door in California. One day, the story goes, he walked up to a house and knocked, and when the the door opened the man who greeted him looked very familiar. Within moments Vliet realized it was Aldous Huxley. Feeling suddenly out of place and embarrassed, Vliet, instead of going into his usual spiel regarding the vacuum cleaner, simply pointed down at the product and said: "Sir, this sucks!" Vliet, later known by the name Captain Beefheart, went on to become one of the greatest and most original musicians of the 20th century.

The song "Abba Zaba" from his debut album Safe as Milk (1967) has a zany, nonsensical, and cartoon quality to it, mixed together with a kind of jungle menace. If a mysterious spaceship were to land on Earth, I imagine Abba Zaba would be the song howling its way out of the vessel when the doors finally open and the alien prince steps out to greet us. His face would be adorned with an ancient mask, reminiscent of something African, and he'd be wearing a top hat and a fake mustache. Bongos would be hanging from his neck.

For people who have listened to Beefheart's more famous album, Trout Mask Replica, and didn't like it, Safe as Milk is a good way to open the door to appreciating some of his more challenging work (as is THIS one hour documentary).

Here is another song from Safe as Milk, followed by pictures I found by searching for images using phrases from the lyrics.

* * *

"You wanna do what? You wanna do what?"

"I told you what, I told you what"

"Go to school, go to school"

"Just cake, just cake"

"Dropout, dropout"

"Can't get a job, can't get a job"

"Don't know what it, don't know what it"

"What it's all about, what it's all about"

"You told her you love her"

"So bring her to mother"

"You love her adapt her, you love her adapt her"

"Adapt her, adapt her"

"Then what about after that? What about after that?"

"Support her, support her"

"You gotta support her"

"Get a job, get a job"


Hectocotylus said...

Tom Waits has said that his introduction to Captain Beefheart by his wife in the early 1980s marked a new direction in his music, kicked off with Swordfishtrombones in 1983.

Here is what Van Vliet said about Waits in a 1993 interview with Co de Kloet for NPS (Dutch public broadcasting):

CdK: I think you’ll like it, it’s very amazing, but one of the people who participated in that project was Tom Waits.

DvV: Ooh, ooh, ooh. Not a friend of mine.

CdK: He is, or he is not?

DvV: Not. To be perfectly truthful with you. No, he, uh – he just – he kind of is too slick, if you know what I mean. What do you think?

CdK: I don’t know him personally.

DvV: [laughs]

CdK: I know that he did an album with a title that - I think, that was – thought up by you, that was made up by you.

DvV: It was, uh –

[Together]: “Swordfishtrombone.”

CdK: That’s right.

DvV: Guess what? He calls me and he told me that title, and I was in the desert visiting my mother, and he asked me “So what do you think of that?” and I said “Well, I don’t know, should I think of that?” He said, “Well, I just wondered.” That’s kind of funny, that you got that comparison. Sounds like “Trout Mask,” right?

CdK: Yeah. Well, I like the…

DvV: …and…

CdK: …I like the word “Swordfishtrombone” anyway.

DvV: Yeah, but the very idea of him calling me and seeing if that went by me. Right?

CdK: Mm hmm.

DvV: Without a comment.

CdK: Mm hmm.

DvV: It’s kinda corny.

CdK: Would you say there’s more slick people in the music world than in the painting world?

DvV: I think so. But it’s quite a toss-up.


DvV: But, uh – this Wait(s) character, uh - he… (off mic) What do you think, Jan? (on mic) [laughs] She runs out. She doesn’t like him.

CdK: Let’s forget about him.

DvV: Wh…Who? [laughs] I think why I got away quick, he had the nerve to think he could sing like me.

CdK: But you go higher and deeper than that.

DvV: Huh, indeed. I’ll go as high as I need to go, and deep as I need to go to get by him.

CdK: [laughs] I think…

DvV: He’s rich!

CdK: He’s rich?

DvV: Yeah. Money. You knew that, right?

CdK: Well, I gather he is, but – but then again…

Hectocotylus said...

I almost put this song from Safe as Milk instead of Dropout Boogie. It's slightly more indicative of his usual sound: Autumns Child.