Whose Face Is This?


CJ Stone

A mysterious face has made its appearance around Tankerton.

It’s a spray-painted stencil of the full-on face of a man with glittering eyes and a moustache. He appears in at least two places around the area: in one of the shelters on Tankerton Slopes and on a temporary board hiding building works on Tankerton Road. There may be others.

The image had also previously appeared on the side wall of William Hill’s betting shop. The shop front is on Tankerton Road, but the wall — a plain white stretch of plaster, large enough to tempt any graffiti artist — is on Graystone Road.

The face is accompanied by various small phrases or slogans wherever it appears. The Tankerton Slopes shelter stencil says “Nick Knox”, which I take to be the name of the artist. The building-site stencil says “777” and the lost one on Graystone Road used to say “Adapter” before it was painted out.

It is the word “adapter” that tells us who it is.

Surrounding the face is a transcendental array of stars and moons and planetoid blobs in various colours, giving the image a cosmic air.

I’ve seen various guesses of whose face it might be, including Burt Reynolds, James Taylor, Roy Wood and Frank Zappa, but it is obvious to anyone who knows who it really is.

The face belongs to none other than Don Van Vliet, also known as Captain Beefheart, a musical artist from the 60s and 70s, who became a painter in the 80s. He died in 2010, having suffered from multiple sclerosis for a number of years.


Captain Beefheart: instantly recognisable

Anyone who knows Beefheart would have recognised immediately where the word “adapter” comes from.

It’s from Dropout Boogie, from the 1967 album Safe As Milk by Captain Beefheart & his Magic Band.

Here are the lyrics:

You wanna do what, you wanna do what?
I told you what, I told you what
You wanna do what, you wanna do what?
I told you what, I told you what

Go t’school, go t’school
Go t’school, go t’school
Just cain’t, just cain’t
Just cain’t, just cain’t
Dropout, dropout, dropout, dropout
Cain’t get a job, cain’t get a job
Don’t know what it, don’t know what it
What it’s all about, what it’s all about
You told her you love her
So bring her to mother
You love her, adapt her,
you love her, adapt her
Adapt her, adapter,
adapt her, adapter
‘n’ what about after dat?
what about after dat?

Support her, support her
She says you’d support her
Get a job, get a job
Get a job, get a job
You gotta support her
You told her you love her
so bring her to mother
You love her adapt her,
you love her adapt her
Adapt her, adapter,
adapt her, adapter‘
'n’ what about after dat?
‘n’ what about after dat? 

The phrase “adapt her, adapter” appears insistently throughout the song.

It’s not quite clear what the words mean in this context. “Adapt her” and “adapter” sound exactly the same. It could just be the same words repeated — “adapt her, adapt her” or “adapter, adapter”, or some combination of both — over and over and over again.

Whatever the meaning, the repeated refrain becomes something like a chorus in the song, which, given the jagged insistence of the music and the stabbing pentagonic rhythm, makes it very memorable.

According to one of the members of the band, John French, also known as Drumbo, the song refers to the situation which Don Vliet was in at the time. He was living at home with his parents and his girlfriend and his grandmother, looking for work. He’d been a delivery driver, a shoe salesman and a vacuum salesman, and was obviously dissatisfied with his situation.

The idea of “dropping out” was very current in 1960s California. The term originated with Timothy Leary, the acid guru, who at the so-called Human Be-In, a gathering of 30,000 people in Golden Gate Park in San Francisco in 1967, famously declared that they should all “turn on, tune in, drop out.”

Not that Captain Beefheart had anything to do with either Timothy Leary or San Francisco. He was from the rival city of Los Angeles, some 382 miles away, which had a much more cynical approach to psychedelic culture.

As Frank Zappa, Beefheart’s good friend and occasional collaborator, once sang:

Every town must have a place
Where phony hippies meet
Psychedelic dungeons
Popping up on every street

Beefheart did, however, take a large amount of LSD in his time, something that is clearly evident in his music.

A Tin Teardrop

Quite why a reference to an obscure 60s song by a long dead artist, should appear in Tankerton, along with the stencilled outline of his face, is another matter. Presumably “Nick Knox” lives around there. I do know an artist called Nick who lives in Tankerton. Perhaps it is he. Or perhaps not. Maybe it is better not to know.

There’s another possible reference to Beefheart’s lyrics in the stencil in the shelter.

In his 1969 album Trout Mask Replica, on the song Pena, there’s a lengthy spoken introduction that includes the following words: “That’s right, The Mascara Snake, fast and bulbous. Also, a tin teardrop.” Is the teardrop in the image a reference to the “tin teardrop” in the song?

I’ve included a copy of Pena for you to listen to, but I warn you in advance: it’s not a normal piece of music. You might want to get yourself prepared by painting some voodoo symbols on your forehead and doing extended ritual exorcisms on your brain before you subject yourself to this weird and exotic aural abuse.

Even more mysterious is the reference to “777” on the board outside the building works on Tankerton Road.

It is unlikely to refer to the Boeing 777, the world’s largest twin jet, made by the Boeing company of Washington. Possibly it refers to the 777 online casino, which is owned by 888, another betting site. It may be that the number also appeared in the stencil outside the betting shop, which would suggest some kind of rivalry between the online betting company and its terrestrial counterpart; although quite why this should be attached to a picture of Captain Beefheart is another matter.

The most likely explanation, however, is that it refers to 777 and Other Qabalistic Writings of Aleister Crowley, a 1987 book edited and with an introduction by Israel Regardie, a collection of works by the famous magician first published in 1909.

The reason I prefer this explanation is that it offers us a kind of scenario for how the images came about.

There’s definitely something magical about them.

So you can imagine it, can’t you: a Tankerton artist called Nick, off his head on LSD or some other mind-bending chemical, reading the works of Aleister Crowley, and listening to Safe As Milk by Captain Beefheart? All of a sudden the word “adapter” appears with a niggling insistence:

“Adapter, adapter, adapter adapter.”

It’s like a message from the gods — “adapter, adapter, adapter, adapter” — drilling into his poor befuddled mind. It’s like the immortal Captain has risen from the dead with this hidden message just for him. It’s like brainwashing. The word keeps repeating in an endless loop in the psychedelic echo chamber of his cave-like brain.

Maybe he’s listening to the music on the internet with an accompanying image of the Captain beaming at him like some some disembodied space traveller from another dimension. Beefheart with the mad eyes. Beefheart with a direct connection to Synchron-i-City in the parallel universe next door to the betting shop. It is this that compels him to make the stencil and to go out in the middle of the night, spray painting it all around Tankerton as a secret message to us all.

As to what it means…

Adapter, adapter.

Adapter, adapter.

I have my thoughts. You can have your own.

More on this on Splice Today here:

Captain Obeah Man

The spirit of Captain Beefheart is haunting our town.

CJ Stone is an author, columnist and feature writer. He has written seven books, and columns and articles for many newspapers and magazines.

Read more of CJ Stone’s work here, here and here.

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