It’s multimedia time again! And it’s a twofer!
I was casting about for a theme, a framework for this week’s offering. I knew I wanted to introduce you all to “My Head is My Only House Unless it Rains” by Captain Beefheart, but I wasn’t quite sure how to introduce it. Then, suddenly, it all coalesced and came together! Like an exquisite Jenga tower collapsing*, only in reverse.
I’m lying. It came together much as marionette whose puppeteer has just suffered a heart attack, crumpled against the floor in mute agony. The marionette, not the puppeteer. Hmm. Maybe both.
Captain Beefheart is one of those eccentrics who make the world a better place. He went to high school in Cucamonga with Frank Zappa. Yes, Cucamonga. The desert does weird things to a person, but if you’re weird to start with it’s another story altogether. That’s how Captain Beefheart (a.k.a. Don Van Vliet née Don Vliet) got his start. Untrained musically, he nevertheless had a talent. Some sort of talent. Mostly it was charisma. Imagine if Charles Manson’s record was well-received by the critics; he might not have become so disillusioned and frustrated with society and might have remained a harmless curiosity. That’s our Beefheart, except he wasn’t exactly marginal, since he influenced a lot of the more mainstream music down the pike.
But he was weird. Weird like he would claim that he needed to be alone in his hotel room all night so he could levitate. Weird like he claimed that he once slept for a year-and-a-half (“How did you do it?” “I ate only fruit”). Weird like renaming the talented but cultoid members of his band things like “Zoot Horn Rollo” and “The Mascara Snake.” His most famous album is called Trout Mask Replica (1969), which many people have heard of but not many people have heard. To the uninitiated it sounds like a bad dream being flushed down the toilet. It’s actually very good, but I’m not presenting something from that particular record today. You’re welcome.
“My Head is My Only House Unless it Rains” is kind of an oddity. Usually when Captain Beefheart tried to sound conventional or commercial it was a huge disaster. Not so with this one. It’s a love song, a truly affecting and beautiful love song, but it’s off-kilter and rough enough to be interesting. Tom Waits before Tom Waits, you might say. Incidentally, it doesn’t demonstrate his vocal range.
Framework, right. Octaves. This is October, so in honor of the eighth month (on the Gregorian calendar) the muck that holds this post together is octaves. Performers with expansive vocal ranges. Captain Beefheart claimed to have a vocal range of 7½ octaves, but most people agree it was more like 4 or 4½. But it wasn’t pretty. Growly at the bottom, screechy at the top, and in between mostly as if he had a few pieces of broken glass in his throat.
Digression time before I get to the other half of the double bill. Mariah Carey’s much-lauded vocal acrobatics are documented to be in the 5 to 5½ octave range, but her little flageolet-histrionics can’t touch the world-record holders. This page on Information Delight tells you all about the subject and has links to webpages about Adam Lopez (highest male note), Tim Storms (6 octaves and a bottom note so low it can’t be heard by the human ear), and Brazil’s Georgia Brown (8 octaves; her web page looks kind of like a porn site).
On to the next performer and song. Yma Sumac is the stage name of Peru’s Zoila Augusta Emperatriz Chavarri del Castillo. She, like Captain Beefheart, has a range claimed variously to be anywhere from 4½ to 7½ octaves. The symmetry of the post has been achieved. Whew. I do notice, though, that I am really going on and on withit, so I’ll try to wrap things up. Her heyday was the early 1950’s and she helped usher in the “Exotica” music style. The song I’ve selected is “Tumpa” (Earthquake) from her very first album, 1950’s Voices of the Xtabay. Unlike the Captain Beefheart song, her range is definitely on display here.
** Jenga Bonus! **
nb: Audio tracks will remain available for approximately 2 weeks after date of post; if you are interested in hearing something you have missed, please make a request in the comments.