July, 1967: I am twenty-four years old; my brother is twenty-six. My wife and I are spending a week in California, a break in the intensity of my last year in graduate school. My brother is in and out of colleges while working a full-time job with a wholesale drug distributor. I’m not sure why he keeps switching colleges and I don’t understand why he is not completing college courses.
He calls and says, “I’ve got two tickets to a concert this afternoon. Do you want to go?”
“Let me see. I’ll ask Marilyn if we have plans.” We don’t have plans so I tell him, “No plans. You picking me up?”
“Yep. Be ready at two.”
“Okay.” Since he graduated from Antelope Valley High School and started junior college we have drifted apart. My last three years in Miami, Florida haven’t helped keep us close. I don’t like the physical and emotional distance. Even though he is older I worry about him.
I was best man at his wedding three years ago but his marriage came off the rails last year. He hasn’t talked to me about it but I never was comfortable with or around his wife. Her interpersonal skills aren’t very good. His aren’t either. For that matter, neither are mine. And, watching them together, I could never see any real love for him in her eyes. More like a chess player watching her opponent’s eyes as she plans her next move.
He climbs out of his Chevy, gives Mom and my wife hugs, and gets bear-hugged by me and Dad. “We better get going,” he says.
“Where are we headed?’
“El Monte Legion Stadium.” Eyebrows go up all around because El Monte is an hour and a half hard driving from Palmdale. And, my brother will drive hard. And fast.
On the way, I ask, “Who are we going to hear at this concert?”
“Captain Beefheart and His Magic Band.”“What?”
“Captain Beefheart and His Magic Band. I’ve known the lead singer, Don Van Vliet, and the guitarist, Alex Snouffer, since high school. All three of us were in band, then jazz band. I hear they might have another guitarist named Ry Cooder playing with them too. Frank Zappa does some arranging for them.” None of these names register with me.
“What kind of music does Captain Beefheart and His Magic Band play?” I speak the name of the band slowly, for emphasis, while thinking of all the crazy band names on the scene now: Jefferson Airplane, Rolling Stones, Steppenwolf, Grateful Dead. I’m wondering if I will be grateful to be dead at the end of Captain Beefheart. Or, perhaps wishing I were on a Jefferson Airplane instead of at the concert.
My brother listens to loud music. When we were high school students he would invite me into his room. “Listen to this!” He had to shout over the volume of his hi-fi.
I’d yell, “Turn it down!” Even with my hands over my ears I could hear my request being echoed by either Mom or Dad or both. As an example, he’d start with Per Gynt, Hall of the Mountain King, then switch to a jazz piece in which the saxophonist, during his improvisational riff, would play a version of Hall of the Mountain King. My brother is always doing this stuff.
In answer to my question, he says, “Hard to characterize…blues rock but not quite.” I’ll have a chance to characterize Captain Beefheart myself. I hope the “not quite” part is okay but I worry.
He asks about graduate school and I tell him about the irony of physical chemistry. As an undergraduate I started as a chemistry major. After getting a D in calculus I figured I wasn’t cut out for chemistry. One of the required courses for the major was physical chemistry which required calculus just to do the homework. I switched to biology.
In graduate school I proposed a physiological study on a marine fish species. My graduate committee thought it was a great idea but required me to take physical chemistry, thinking it would be helpful in doing my research. After explaining all this, my brother is highly amused.
Chemistry is one of the topics we can discuss. He was the top student in his high school chemistry class, earning an A+. As a reward for his excellent performance his teacher let him use hydrofluoric acid to etch glass. The microscope slide he brought home had his name and A+ etched into it.
Four years ago, when I was taking organic chemistry in college, I’d tell him about building jigsaw puzzles as an analogy for building complex organic chemical compounds. I’d describe some of the biological uses for these complex compounds. He would counter with stuff he’d picked up about the pharmacological effects of some of these compounds he’d gleaned from his work at his job.
At the stadium we park and walk past the barricade to a queue of ticket holders. We can hear recorded music inside the building. I expect to see the exterior walls vibrating, the music is that loud. In we go.
My brother leads the way to the very front row of the stadium. I think this is a bad idea. There are rows of folding chairs but everybody is standing. With the preliminaries over, the announcer introduces Captain Beefheart. And, his Magic Band. They charge onto the stage and grab their instruments. Snouffer, the guitarist, waves to my brother. Van Vliet, aka Captain Beefheart, catches my brother’s eye and nods. Then, they begin.
The first chord literally blows me back a step, it is that loud. I glance at my brother and, no surprise, he is grinning fiercely. As their first piece progresses everyone is stomping and shouting. At least, I assume they are shouting based on the movements of their faces. I cannot hear a single person’s voice, even my brother’s. The music is that loud.
As the first number ends I tell my brother that I have to leave. He can’t hear me. In fact, I can’t even hear me. I have to pantomime and use my fingers to make walking motions to get across to him that I have to get out of the building. “Okay,” he signals.
I sit on the hood of his Chevy while I wait and notice the airplanes flying overhead and the street traffic. It is the movement I detect, not the sounds. The only sound I can hear is the roaring in my ears induced by Captain Beefheart and His Magic Band. It was that loud.
We are almost back to Palmdale when my brother yells, “What did you think of that first song?”
I yell back: “It sounded like Beefheart was coughing up a hair ball…at 150 decibels.”
Back home he visits, has dinner with the rest of the family. We have fried chicken, mashed potatoes, corn on the cob. He and I trade puns for a while and Marilyn, my wife, gets in one too. The fact that she entered the game between two brothers makes both of us laugh. We both hug her at the same time. As he leaves, I give him a bear hug. “See you next summer.”
“Yeah, next summer.”
August, 1968: We just flew in to LAX from Miami; Marilyn, our 12-month old son, and me. We have a few days to buy a car, do some packing, and drive to Alaska for my new job. My brother told Mom that he is too busy to come up from San Fernando. I call anyway.
“Hey, any chance you could get a week off and help me drive to Alaska?”
“No way. This is a busy season in wholesale drugs. Sorry, man.”
“Understood. You sound down. What’s going on?”
“Just lots of overtime.”
“Alright. See you at Christmas.”
“Yeah, Christmas.” Since Marilyn is four months pregnant, I ask Dad to drive up with me. Marilyn and Andy will fly up after we get there and find a place to live.
November, 1968: It’s 2 a.m., and someone is knocking. I open the door and the next-door neighbor says, “The Troopers want to talk to you. They are on my phone.” We just moved into this place from the motel we’ve occupied since we got to Fairbanks. No phone.
“We got an urgent message. You are to call your Father right away.”
“Could I use your phone to make this call? I’ll pay whatever it costs.”
A long pause is finally broken by, “Your brother is dead.”
“Don’t know yet. He was at home, sitting in his recliner when they found him.”
December, 1968: The autopsy showed a massive dose of barbiturates was in his stomach. Also, traces of amphetamines in his system. Up. Down. Up. Down. Accident? Suicide? Who can say? What I can say is this: Captain Beefheart was a megawatt cry for help and, somehow, I didn’t hear it.
Music can hold enormous power in memories and experiences, transporting us instantly to an age, location, or person. What sonic joys, mysteries, disbelief, and clarity have you experienced? Identify songs of influence in your life and explore them like variations on a theme, melding syntax and song structure, recalling the seriousness or levity that accompanies. Whether it’s an account of when a specific song first entered your life, the process of learning to play a song, teaching someone a song, experiencing the same song in different places as it weaves through your life, unbelievable radio timing, sharing songs with those in need, tracking the passing down of songs, creative song analysis, music as politics, etc, I am interested in those ineffable moments and welcoming submissions of your own variations on a theme, as drawn from your life’s soundtrack. Please email submissions to email@example.com and keep an eye out for others’ Variations.
**(“song” is a broad phrase: could be a pop song, a traditional tune, a symphony, commercial jingles, a hummed lullaby, 2nd grade recorder class horror stories, etc)**
Ron grew up in northern Arizona, New Mexico and desert California. He moved to Alaska fifty years ago from Miami, Florida, and retired from the University of Alaska Fairbanks in 1999. His writing has drifted from scientific papers to science writing, to non-science nonfiction to fiction to short nonfiction. He is the author of three books: Interior and Northern Alaska: A Natural History, How Not to Die Hunting in Alaska, and a novel, Undeserved Punishment. Two short pieces were published in Watershed Review and Cirque. He and his wife Marsha spend part of the winter in Wenatchee, Washington. Ron can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org