“GOD, PLEASE FUCK MY MIND FOR GOOD!” Captain Beefheart shouted at the end of Doc at the Radar Station, his second-to-last album. It was 1980, and it was a dare to whatever version of God might be present to receive it: his audience, maybe; music itself. Or it was a dare to time—the fifteen years since he’d made his first record, or the thirty years to come. Can you shut me up? Can you scramble my rhythm and my words until they’re a labyrinth I’ll never escape? I’ll do it first! His first record—a single that was cut in 1965 in Los Angeles, a street sign away from Glendale, where he was born Don Glen Vliet in 1941—was a huge, devouring version of Bo Diddley’s 1956 “Diddy Wah Diddy.” Diddy-WAHHHHHH, the by now renamed Don Van Vliet proclaimed, his voice lowering into a rumble that all but broke the needle on the recording console: “Ain’t no town, ain’t no city—” That was a dare: Wherever I go, I’ll leave confusion, awe, fear, and freedom in my wake. From Safe as Milk in 1967 to the double dare of Trout Mask Replica two years later, from Lick My Decals Off, Baby in 1970 through to Ice Cream for Crow in 1982, he performed as a crackpot, spouting riddles made out of puns, sketching conspiracy theories as winking and Grimms-like as the paintings—often featuring wisps of animal-human composites at once threatening and playful—that would occupy his last three decades. Legends surrounded him, stopping just short of claims that he’d been raised by wolves: that he ruled the musicians in his Magic Band like a cult leader, giving all of them new names, as if they had had no identity before him and would have none after; that he could predict when the telephone would ring, or make it ring to match his prediction. Nothing was so scary as the sense of certainty that drove his music like a stagecoach driver flashing his whip.
more from Greil Marcus at Artforum here.