The Basement Vapes, Volume 18: Captain Beefheart Is For Kids—A Party Of Special Things To Do!

Dust off your blue jeans and moonbeams. MAGNET’s Mitch Myers tells you how to create a homegrown Captain Beefheart event for children. It’s unconditionally guaranteed!

Hey gang, I’ve got an idea: Let’s put on a show! Years ago, I was talking to guitarist Gary Lucas, who told me that an indie record label wanted him to make an album of Captain Beefheart music for kids. Nothing ever came of the proposal, but I always thought their juxtaposition of content and context made a lot of sense.

So, let’s cast off the worn-out premise that Captain Beefheart is too far out for regular folks. It all depends on how you look it, and I say the Captain’s crazy-quilt/avant-garde/surrealist rock style is well-suited for the little ones. People spend immense amounts of time and energy devising entertainment for children. Surely we can bother to create a young person’s guide to the world of Beefheart simply by channeling the Captain’s obtuse innocence, mirthful wordplay and ironic eccentricity.

Think of Beefheart—also known as Don Van Vliet—as pop music’s favorite American Primitive from the 20th Century. In the old days, indie-rock groups like the White Stripes and Sonic Youth would salute the good Captain. Now, we need to do it again for the sake of generation next, and we really need to get them while they’re young.

The brave and creative challenge, dear hipsters, is to book a neighborhood fest, recreation hall or red-barn theater and assemble your own Beefheart for kids show, replete with spoken word, costumes, frivolity, dance and song! Fun for the whole family, right? It takes a village, and what’s wrong with somebody singing “Big Eyed Beans From Venus” anyway?

While there’s much adult innuendo found in Beefheart’s work, the man expressed many simpler and purer ideas over the years as well. His childlike nature has been on full display since the beginning: Captain Beefheart And His Magic Band’s 1967 debut, Safe As Milk, included one tune called “Yellow Brick Road” and another hypnotic chant entitled “Abba Zaba,” which was named after the Captain’s favorite candy bar of his own youth.

So, push back against the fabled notion that Captain Beefheart is too dada-esque; tell everyone he’s really daddy-esque. Just find an appropriate master of ceremonies—maybe a local performance heroine or somebody’s drunk uncle who’s super eager to recite “The Dust Blows Forward ‘N The Dust Blows Back.” Remember not to skimp on the pageantry, and try to remain idealistic and playful at all times. It’s for the children!

If you build it, they will come. The trick is to get one noteworthy special guest to commit to your show, and then everyone else will follow suit. Assuredly, you’ll find a nerdy aficionado to help suggest appropriate songs for your cast of performers. Of course, some special folks will have their favorite Beefheart piece picked out already, which is all for the better. 

Bittersweet ballad “Harry Irene” could always use a good whistler, and any blues harmonica player should be able to find a place for a hoodoo hoedown during the show as well. Orientation isn’t an issue, and contributors can be any age—we just need people with guileless flamboyance to perform “The Floppy Boot Stomp” or perhaps even “Tropical Hotdog Night.”    

Thematic inspiration for dress, costume and visual style could draw from early editions of the Magic Band, whose members were presented with adorable monikers like Drumbo, The Mascara Snake and Zoot Horn Rollo. Whatever you name the show and regardless of available headliners, maybe label your house band the Spotlight Kids along with the Safe As Milk Singers—or use some other clever Beefheart references—and you’re well on your way.

There are plenty of proper songs to consider, and one can interpret them straight or take things way out. There’s an oddball sea shanty, the elemental bomp of “Diddy Wah Diddy” and several beat-driven temper tantrums like “Hot Head,” “Mirror Man” and “Run Paint, Run Run.” The loveliest song in the Beefheart canon is “My Head Is My Only House Unless It Rains,” and if you can’t relate to the Captain’s own version, please consider the charming cover by Everything But The Girl.

Of course, whoever performs “When I See Mommy I Feel Like A Mummy” should have the option to segue right into “I Love You, You Big Dummy.” Funny hats and extreme facial hair are both acceptable, but be prepared for the random dude who wants to wear an actual trout mask and recite “Orange Claw Hammer” or some other bit of hallowed Beefheart nonsense from long ago.

A few of the Captain’s later albums were disparaged for their commercial leanings and uninspired material. While those recordings weren’t as arresting as his earlier works, several tunes from that era have withstood the test of time. Bluejeans And Moonbeams was his 1974 LP and not remembered too fondly. Still, the title tune is reflective, soothing and idyllic—hopefully not too plaintive for the youth of today.

In any case, I’ll leave it to you to curate the Beefheart for kids show as you see fit. Just draft some willing personalities and match them with the songs that fit best, as youngsters do require and deserve complete sincerity. Your revue will be challenging and require a few rehearsals, but just loosen up, put on some extravagant duds and have a grand old time. And if you do print out a program for your marvelous event, please remember to put my name under the special thanks.