Reviews

Captain Beefheart: The Biography

Sam Macklin

Attention-grabbing fact: ninety-nine percent of “serious” writing about “popular” music is one hundred percent useless. One reason for this is an ingrained belief that the social significance of the entertainment industry is more interesting than any actual sounds coming from people who make music. It may be unfair to include Theodore Gracyk, author of I Wanna Be Me: Rock Music and the Politics of Identity (Temple University Press) in such a broad statement: at least he seems to have a genuine love of pop music. But Gracyk tends to lump himself in with those others, whilst sticking to a rigid academic formula that flattens the life-affirming thrills/spills of his subject matter. Perhaps only fiction can truly capture the thrill of pop music: a far more successful exploration of music and fandom can be found in Pan (Highwater Books), a novel co-authored by Camden Joy and the rock satirist Colin B. Morton. This is the story of the English post-punk legends The Fall, whose acerbic magic realism is skillfully brought to life by the authors. Pan also suggests that Captain Beefheart’s unutterably strange Trout Mask Replica is the best-selling album of all time. If there’s a grain of truth in this claim, Mike Barnes’s Captain Beefheart: The Biography (Cooper Square Press) is essential reading for music fans everywhere. The book was written and published without the cooperation of its subject, but it is the first comprehensive biography of Beefheart, a.k.a. Don Van Vliet, a reclusive and mysterious musician and painter. Barnes attempts to provide insight into the Beefheart enigma using extensive research, solid storytelling and very little theoretical speculation. Amazingly, it works—which is a testament to the author’s skill as a music journalist, but which does not disprove the theory that only fiction can express the thrill of great rock music. The best anecdotes recounted here by Beefheart acolytes seem as if they are at least partly made up.

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