R.I.P., Captain Beefheart: One of rock's truest originals

December 18, 2010

 

 

The Associated Press blurb on his death barely does him justice:

Musician and artist Don Van Vliet, who performed a complex brand of experimental rock under the name Captain Beefheart, has died. He was 69.

The Michael Werner Gallery in New York confirmed Van Vliet's death Friday in California due to complications stemming from multiple sclerosis. The gallery exhibits his paintings.

Van Vliet was probably best known for the album "Trout Mask Replica," which was released in 1969 by Captain Beefheart and His Magic Band.

The album's angular, dissonant take on blues rock and its surreal lyrics put Van Vliet outside the mainstream, but staked his place in rock history.

In the 1980s, Van Vliet turned full-time to drawing and painting. He is survived by his wife of more than 40 years.

I'm sorry to say that I don't have a lot more to add--I tried mightily to interview Van Vliet for Let It Blurt, my biography of rock critic Lester Bangs, who was his most dedicated fan and biggest champion in the press (Bangs called him "one of the four or five unqualified geniuses to rise from the hothouses of American music in the Sixties")--but when the Captain turned his back on rock 'n' roll following his last studio album in 1982, "Ice Cream for Crow" (a disc as fine as any he released, making him one of the few rock greats to quit at the top of their game and know enough to get when the getting was good), he pretty much gave up on all music-related interviews, too. He's one of the few rock legends I wish I had bagged--placing even above Bob Dylan on my list.

It's paltry tribute, but here is the passage I wrote on Beefheart for Turn on Your Mind, my history of psychedelic rock, which is as close as anyone could get to pegging a genre on him, though in fact his music was and remains uncategorizable.

Rechristened by his old pal Frank Zappa, Don Van Vliet/Captain Beefheart had a much harder time getting his musical career off the ground. In the mid-’60s, he won a Vox battle of the bands contest and got to record two singles for A&M Records. The first, a garagey version of “Diddy Wah Diddy,” was a regional hit, but A&M rejected a debut album as “too negative.” Beefheart formed a new band and recorded Safe As Milk for Kama Sutra in 1967. It was straightforward garage-band blues distinguished by the captain’s remarkable vocals, which were strongly influenced by Howlin’ Wolf and Little Richard. But when the music took a turn for the weirder on tour, guitarist Ry Cooder quit just in time to force the cancellation of an appearance at the Monterey Pop Festival.

Released in 1968, Strictly Personal started to focus on Beefheart’s new sound, a music that was as carefully planned and orchestrated as Zappa’s but as raw as the rawest Delta blues and as unrestricted as the most adventurous free jazz. Unfortunately, the album was mixed without Beefheart’s participation, and the Captain was disgusted by the addition of superfluous psychedelic effects. (The music was strange enough as it was.) Beefheart was beginning to think he’d never get it right on tape when Zappa reappeared and offered him the chance to record for his new label, Straight Records. Zappa gave Beefheart the same sort of freedom that Andy Warhol gave the Velvet Underground. “When we did the album with him, Frank said, ‘Hey, let’s go into the studio and you rehearse the group and we’ll put down exactly what you want,”’ Zappa’s manager, Herb Cohen, told biographer Ben Watson. “It was the first album he ever made where he had total control of everything that went down.” Zappa’s level of involvement is hard to pin down; Beefheart later complained that he just fell asleep at the console, but Watson believes that Frank gave Beefheart the necessary grounding so that his brand of surrealism wouldn’t devolve into irrationality. Zappa’s bitter cynicism balanced Beefheart’s childlike charm.

The mix on 1970’s Trout Mask Replica highlights the recording in progress, including false beginnings, shouted cues, and flubbed vocal lines. The feeling of inspired improvisation contrasts with the knowledge that Beefheart obsessed over every note, carefully prescribing the intertwining guitar parts and preparing the drums by muting them with bits of cardboard to make the polyrhythms even harder to get a grip on. The influence of Delta blues and free-jazzer Albert Ayler are clear, but the album retains an essential rock ’n’ roll drive, and the Magic Band plays with a deliberate, primitive force. The music may or may not have been influenced by psychedelic drugs—“I can paint better than that,” Beefheart said about LSD—but the swirl of guitars, drums, clarinets, and saxophones creates its own reality, and it’s as disorienting as plunging into a sudden hallucination. The lyrics prompted Bangs to call Beefheart “the only true Dadaist in rock,” and they are a delight for anyone who savors the way words sound. “Children stop yer nursin’ unless yer renderin’ fun / The mother ship the mother ship / The mother ship’s the one / The blimp the blimp / The tape’s uh trip it’s uh trailin’ tail / It’s traipse’n along behind the blimp the blimp,” goes one memorable passage from “The Blimp (mousetrapreplica).”

Trout Mask Replica stands as Beefheart’s masterpiece, but that’s not to slight the albums that followed. Lick My Decals Off, Baby (1970) hones the sound of its predecessor, adds marimba, and reflects the influence of African music. The Spotlight Kid (1971) is simpler and bluesier, while Clear Spot (1972) has a harder rock edge. Unconditionally Guaranteed and Bluejeans & Moonbeams (1974) are both watered-down attempts to penetrate the mainstream, but Beefheart returns to his own idiosyncratic backwaters on Shiny Beast (Bat Chain Puller) (1978), Doc at the Radar Station (1980), and Ice Cream for Crow (1982). Always at odds with the business of making music and sensing that he had stopped breaking ground, Beefheart retired in 1983 to concentrate on sculpture and painting. His artwork now sells in the range of $40,000 per piece, and he rarely discusses his earlier adventures, making him one of the very few rockers who actually shut up once he said what he’d had to say.

And here are the links to some of Bangs' most eloquent reviews of key Beefheart albums, from the excellent fan Web site Beefheart.com:

"Trout Mask Replica," 1969

"Lick My Decals Off," 1971

"The Spotlight Kid," 1972

"Clear Spot," 1973

Village Voice profile, 1980

Finally, if you've never seen Captain Beefheart's performance on "Saturday Night Live" in 1980, prepare to have your mind blown, despite the sketchy quality of the video. (Damn you NBC for not putting this up online in proper form!)

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