The title of Captain Beefheart’s final studio album, Ice Cream For Crow, is a euphemism for “black and white” (black crow and vanilla ice cream). Captain Beefheart (Don Vliet*) was already in the early stages of multiple sclerosis, which is probably why he does more speaking than actual singing on the album, and the ultimate reason for his retirement from music. The cover of Ice Cream For Crow depicts an old man, even though Vliet was just 41 at the time. According to John French’s book “Beefheart: Through The Eyes Of Magic,” Don was already walking with a cane, and sometimes needed help getting off stage. French does not drum on Ice Cream For Crow, though he did coach new drummer, Cliff Martinez, who later played on the first two Red Hot Chili Peppers albums.
According to French, some of the Ice Cream For Crow songs date back to older ideas from the Trout Mask Replica and Spotlight Kid albums. “Hey Garland, I Dig Your Tweed Coat” was a poem from the Trout Mask era, hence the reference to “Pena." On bootleg recordings of The Spotlight Kid rehearsals, the riffs for “Ice Cream For Crow,” “Semi-Multicolored Caucasian,” and “The Witch Doctor Life” can be heard. "81 Poop Hatch" and “The Thousand And Tenth Day Of The Human Totem Pole” appeared on the original 1975 Bat Chain Puller album, which was shelved due to a legal dispute with Frank Zappa’s manager, Herb Cohen. French believes that Beefheart's older musicians should have been credited for helping with these songs, which is fair enough, though it's reasonable that Beefheart would revisit some unfinished songs before retiring.
Despite Beefheart’s ailing health, Ice Cream For Crow is probably his funnest (or funniest) album, which makes it a good note to end his career on. Unlike the previous (though probably better) album, Doc At The Radar Station, where Beefheart takes aim at New Wave and punk acts who he thinks ripped him off, Beefheart sounds resigned on Ice Cream For Crow - just interested in having fun while he still can. “The Host, The Ghost, The Most Holy-O” and “Ink Mathematics” practically come across as a grown-up Dr. Seuss poems. Beefheart gets very colorful with his imagery on the spoken word “81 Poop Hatch,” and likewise on “Hey Garland, I Dig Your Tweed Coat,” a stream-of-consciousness spew atop manic, atonal guitars.
Perhaps the standout track is “Cardboard Cutout Sundown,” which contains an actual laugh out loud moment (“longhorns sawed the buggy grass, and a cowboy blew a harp sitting on his chapped ass”), plus a brilliant, ominous guitar riff overlaying a sputtering drum beat. The "new" Magic Band, consisting of Jeff Moris Tepper, Richard “Midnight Hatsize” Snyder, Gary Lucas, and Eric Drew Feldman was not as good as the older lineups that recorded Safe As Milk and Trout Mask Replica, but still did justice to Beefheart's angular composition style, whereas “The Tragic Band” of 1974 did not. Lucas, in particular, shows his guitar chops on the complex “Evening Bell,” which was originally composed by Beefheart on piano.
Since Beefheart was such an abstruse lyric-writer, it’s hard to discern the meaning of his lyrics, if and when there is any. However, “The Past Sure Is Tense” seems like another one of his trademark ecological songs, railing against the incursion of industry into nature. “The Thousand And Tenth Day Of The Human Totem Pole,” which plunks along with a slow, mesmerizing groove, is ostensibly a metaphor for human hierarchy. Captain Beefheart’s 16 year music career, which revolutionized avant-garde music, comes to an abrupt end with the fiery 2 minute, 18 second cacophony of “Skeleton Makes Good.”
* Though Don always provided his surname as “Van Vliet,” the “Van” was added later in life because he thought it sounded more artistic.