Don Van Vliet, aka Captain Beefheart, 1941-2010
“I don’t like hypnotics. I’m doing a non-hypnotic music, to break up the catatonic state. And I think there is one, right now.” - Don Van Vliet to Paul Moyer, 1980
Trying to explain the world of Captain Beefheart to the uninitiated is a fruitless task. The music that Don Van Vliet and his shifting crew of dedicated accomplices known as the Magic Band unleashed between 1965 and 1982 defies description and confounds any attempts at drawing a valid comparison. The phrase “Beefheart-like” has come to be used as shorthand by music writers trying to describe any old thing with a bent toward oddball beats and dissonant chords, but it’s impossible to get a sense of what Beefheart is about by listening to any or all of the bands trying to live up to that description.
Van Vliet played a lot of very different music in those years, ranging from semi-traditional blues-rock to lyrical singer-songwriter chestnuts to lengthy jam-band improvisations. But at his most far-left, as on 1969’s landmark Trout Mask Replica and the following year’s Lick My Decals Off, Baby, he was the closest thing rock has ever had to an Ornette Coleman figure, someone who came in and radically altered the landscape by replacing the music’s standard harmonics and getting rid of repetitive beats, creating an utterly alien sounding racket that rocked like hell.
These albums remain, forty-one years later, among the most out-there things you could possibly hear, more extreme in their conception than any hardcore or noise-rock outfit has ever been. Yet they also remain, for those who have found entry into those twisted passageways, things of great joy, hilarious, fist-pumping and thrilling, everything you could ever want in a rock and roll band. He found a way to get to that pleasure center that no one else did, and while plenty of people have poked around the entrance to his trail, hardly anyone’s really tried to follow him there. Certainly none of them made it there as successfully.
Van Vliet was a notoriously intense individual; reports from the Trout Mask band suggest a year or so during which the band were convened in a tiny house in Woodland Hills, made to practice eight hours a day, forbidden to leave the grounds or socialize, and given a single cup of soybeans each day to subsist on. While it’s hard to imagine how anyone put up with this lifestyle for the sake of art, generations of listeners will be forever grateful that they did. What if they hadn’t? We’d have a world without Trout Mask Replica, and a much poorer, flatter, less colorful place it would be.
Those who encountered Van Vliet on a non-employee basis, however, reported him to be a paragon of kindness and intelligence. Witness this fellow’s tale of having been talked down from an acid trip at a rain-drenched British festival by the man himself.
Retiring from music in the early eighties after completing the album Ice Cream For Crow, Van Vliet turned his attention to visual art, and became a world renowned painter. It was only a few years later that rumors began to circulate that he was suffering from MS, making any return to music unthinkable. A surreal video interview released by David Lynch and Anton Corbijn in the mid-1990s seemed to support this idea, Van Vliet’s voice on the tape weak and barely intelligible.
Some of his former employees tried to re-light the flame in 2003, forming a new Beefheart-free version of the Magic Band around drummer John “Drumbo” French. But the reunion was short-lived and only made one US appearance, at the behest of curator Matt Groening, at All Tomorrow’s Parties in Long Beach. Even without the Captain on board, their performance, which took place during a full lunar eclipse, was one of the most remarkable and inspiring I’ve ever seen, a peak experience.
It remains to be seen whether Captain Beefheart and the Magic Band will ever be so much as nominated for induction into the Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame. While he never had anything resembling a hit record, there’s a strong case to be made for his enduring influence. But Beefheart was never about fame, he was about art in its most uncompromising form. He is in the Museum of Modern Art, and I expect he’s perfectly happy in that company.
Ironically, it was announced just days ago that former Magic Band guitarist Gary Lucas will be presenting a “symposium” on Beefheart’s work at the Echoplex on January 13, featuring a chance to hear recordings and session tapes that demonstrate how he taught these unruly compositions to his band members. The event will surely take on the nature of a tribute given the timing, and I’d recommend getting tickets now.