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Don Van Vliet, aka Captain Beefheart, is one of the most fascinating, most creative, most challenging, and just plain weirdest Renaissance men produced by rock music. His music is an amalgam of delta and Chicago blues, rock 'n roll, free jazz, sea shanties, spontaneous poetry, psychedelia, and various strains of the experimental, avant-garde, dada, and bizarre, thanks to his vision and the collaboration of a series of capable and sympathetic musicians. Like other unconventional composers such as Harry Partch or Thelonious Monk Van Vliet's music is unique, almost instantly recognizable, and has exerted a remarkable influence on other musicians interested in exploring the boundaries of musical sound.
Vliet, he only added "Van" in the latter half of the 1960s, was born in Los Angeles, California. An only child, by all accounts he had a strange childhood. "I never went to school," he claimed in a Village Voice piece by Lester Bangs. "I told [my mother] that I couldn't go to school because I was sculpting at that time a hell of a lot. That was kindergarten, I think. I used to lock myself in a room an sculpt when I was like three, five, six." His artistic talent was remarkable enough that he was offered a scholarship to study art in Europe. His parents disapproved and moved to the Mojave Desert town of Lancaster, California, when Vliet was 13. "They wanted to get me away from all the 'queer' artists,' he told Bangs, "isn't that awful?"
In Lancaster Vliet met a number of musicians, including Alex Snouffer, Jerry Handley, and Frank Zappa, who were playing in various local bands. Vliet and Zappa spent time together listening to R&B records. When Zappa eventually acquired a primitive recording studio in Cucamonga, he and Vliet collaborated there on different ideas, one of which was a script Zappa was writing entitled Captain Beefheart vs. the Grunt People. The first of many myths about Don Vliet, who Zappa wanted to play the lead in his movie, would claim that Zappa came up with the name because Vliet had a beef in his heart against the world.
Snouffer, meanwhile, was putting together a blues band with Handley and asked Vliet, who played blues harp, to be the singer. Snouffer and Handley had already settled on a name for the band: Captain Beefheart and his Magic Band (CB&HMB). With Vliet, Snouffer on guitar , Handley on bass, Doug Moon on guitar , and Vic Martenson on drums, CB&HMB quickly became popular in the towns around the Mojave Desert. Its first big break came when it played the Teenage Fair at the Hollywood Palladium in the spring of 1965. Besides being seen by Bill Harkelroad, Mark Boston, and John French, all of whom would later join the Magic Band, the performance led to a new manager who had contacts with A&M Records. In 1966, they recorded their first single, a heavy, pounding version of Bo Diddley's "Diddy Wah Diddy." The record quickly became a regional hit and seemed destined for the national charts. In a one-in-a-million coincidence, though, the Remains had a hit on the East Coast with the same song and the two records ended up canceling each other out. To make matters worse, A&M co-owner Jerry Moss decided that Beefheart's music was too negative and cancelled the band's contract.
By mid-1966, Don Vliet was getting into avant jazz performers, like Ornette Coleman and Roland Kirk; he had also begun writing the songs that would appear on the first Beefheart album, Safe As Milk. Drummer John French had joined the band by that time and recalled in his Grow Fins liner notes that while Vliet would provide lyrics, assembled from scraps he carried around in a shopping bag, the composition of the music was a collaborative effort in which the entire band took part. Legends to the effect that Don Vliet was able to access levels of perception and existence off limits to mere mortals began around this time. One night, for example, after the band had lost their A&M contract and moved to a house in Hollywood, a spaced-out Vliet collared French and drove aimlessly around town until Vliet finally pulled into a delicatessen. According to French, record producers Bob Krasnow and Richard Perry were there eating and asked "Are you Captain Beefheart? We've been looking for you." They had been impressed with "Diddy Wah Diddy" and wanted to make a record with Beefheart. "Afterwards," according to French, "Don explained ... that's why he was so spaced out. He knew he was supposed to be somewhere and he didn't know where it was. He said 'You thought I was crazy but I knew what I was doing.'" Similar stories of Van Vliet's clairvoyance arose throughout his musical career.
The encounter with Krasnow led to a contract with Buddah [sic] Records, and in the spring of 1967 the band went to work making Safe As Milk. Vliet wanted guitar ist Ry Cooder to join the Magic Band. He had seen Cooder at the Teenage Fair in 1965. Cooder, put off by the rowdy, out-of-control atmosphere generated by the bikers, booze and drugs around the Beefheart band, resisted. But he eventually agreed to join, at least long enough to make the album, and his slide and Vliet's growling voice open the record's first cut. Safe As Milk, with Vliet's virtuosic vocals, its slithery slide guitar s, its thunderous bass and theremin, remained an exciting record nearly 35 years after it was made.
Not long after the record had been cut, the band was invited to perform at the 1967 Monterey Pop Festival, the show that made stars out of Jimi Hendrix and Janis Joplin, among others. It was the band's chance to show the larger public what it could do. In preparation, Beefheart and the Magic Band played a concert in San Francisco. They got through the first song, but as the second began, Vliet froze, turned around and walked off stage, and collapsed. The band finished the song without a singer, then left the stage as well. After the show, Ry Cooder quit the band. They did not play Monterey. "That was the end of it right there basically," French said, "from then on we were an avant-garde band who was never gong to make any money."
Krasnow managed to organize a European tour nonetheless, during which they recorded a session for John Peel, the English disk jockey who had fallen in love with the band's music while he was working in California. Upon their return to the United States, they recorded an album that would appear under the name Strictly Personal, a set of longer songs which included more instrumental jams. During the tour of Europe that followed, Krasnow presented them with the first copies of the album. To Vliet's dismay, Krasnow had added a dose of phasing to the mix to give the music a fashionably psychedelic sound. To make matters worse, according to French, Krasnow returned to the United States with all the band's money. Unable to pay for hotels or food, CB&HMB cut the tour short and returned home.
Back in the States, Van Vliet he modified his name around this time moved into his mother's house. The Magic Band entered a period of great change. Jeff Cotten had already replaced Ry Cooder. Alex Snouffer, fed up with the deceptions of the band's management, quit, followed by Jerry Handley who had a wife and children to support. They were replaced by guitarist Bill Harkelroad and bassist Mark Boston. To Van Vliet's good fortune, his old friend Frank Zappa had been given his own label by Warner Brothers Records, along with complete artistic license. Zappa offered Van Vliet the freedom to record an album as he wished. The stage was set for Trout Mask Replica.
The band settled into a house in the San Fernando Valley where recording gear had been set up. He had christened the Magic Band with surreal new names: Cotton became Antennae Jimmy Siemens, Harkelroad Zoot Horn Rollo, French Drumbo, and Boston Rockette Morton. An entire mythology has grown up around the songs on Trout Mask Replica and their compositions: Van Vliet supposedly composed every song on the album in a marathon eight and a half hour session at the piano and then single-handedly taught the Magic Band how to play them. The process of the songs' development, according to French and other members of the Magic Band, did not happen in an uninterrupted burst and Van Vliet was, in any case, incapable of teaching them to the band because his grasp of music was entirely intuitive and unschooled. He simply did not have the vocabulary to communicate his wants on his own. Instead he relied on the expertise of others, at first French then Harkelroad, to translate his ideas communicated through piano, whistling, or evocative poetical images about what he wanted into information the band members could use.
It wasn't only personal limitations that caused difficulties. The music Van Vliet was hearing in his head was completely unlike anything ever set to vinyl. It was jagged and rough in places, interrupted frequently by blasts of saxophone noise; the Magic Band musicians were often playing in completely different keys and time signatures simultaneously! The musicians rehearsed the charts French had developed for six months. Rarely during that time did Van Vliet practice with them. In the end, Van Vliet persuaded Zappa, who produced Trout Mask Replica, to cut the album in a recording studio instead of their house as originally planned. Zappa booked them six hours, normally enough time to lay down two to three songs. He was astounded when the Magic Band was able to record 14 tunes in four and a half hours.
About a year after Trout Mask Replica was completed, Captain Beefheart and the Magic Band returned to the studio to record Lick My Decals Off Baby for Warner Brothers. The album, which Van Vliet produced himself, is except arguably for Trout Mask Replica the purest, most difficult, exhilarating, and "Beefheartian" of all the band's recorded work. It is marked by the same unsettling rhythms and harmonies, but the sound is denser over all, its pace more intense and unrelenting than the previous record. The addition of Art Tripp's marimba gave Magic Band music a texture unlike any other in popular music. Except Captain Beefheart and the Magic Band was not particularly popular.
The band was not earning any money and their next record, the more bluesy Spotlight Kid (1972), was made in an atmosphere described by French as one of "drudgery and grinding poverty." When0 was released later the same year, its grooving heavy rock like "Low Yo Yo Stuff," mellow soul like "Too Much Time," and showstoppers like "Big Eyed Beans From Venus," made it appear as if Beefheart had finally found the long-elusive formula for commercial success. It wasn't to be. After the band returned from another European tour, Snouffer, back with the group, discovered hard evidence that Van Vliet's management company had cheated the musicians out of money owed them. There was a confrontation, the Magic Band quit and eventually formed Mallard. No one but French would ever play with Beefheart again.
The next two albums, Unconditionally Guaranteed and Bluejeans & Moonbeams represent the low water mark of Beefheart's recorded work. Again, Frank Zappa came to the rescue and, in 1975, Van Vliet appeared on Bongo Fury, essentially a Mothers of Invention album. The tour for Bongo Fury proved a serious strain on their friendship. Van Vliet's lax musical discipline and unpredictability clashed with Zappa's desire for control and structure. Despite Van Vliet's questionable treatment of his band musicians over the years, John French returned to the Beefheart fold in 1975 and set about putting together a new Magic Band which cut an album called Bat Chain Puller. The record, never released, has circulated for years as only a bootleg.
Bat Chain Puller provided material for the last three Beefheart records, which represented a renaissance of the career of the renaissance man, Don Van Vliet. Shiny Beast (Bat Chain Puller) (1978) and Doc At the Radar Station (1980) marked a return to the "hard" Beefheart style of Trout Mask Replica and Lick My Decals Off Baby. Van Vliet's dealings with the Magic Band seemed to have mellowed considerably though. In the late 1960s and early 1970s, he had been demanding, paranoid, and often distant. The attitude may have grown out of his experience with his first band, founded and led by Snouffer, which did not take him or his ideas seriously. By the time the 1970s were ending, Beefheart had proved to have a decisive influence on a whole generation of younger musicians, like Devo and Pere Ubu. The new Magic Band, with the exception of French, were all young and rabid fans of the earlier Beefheart recordings. Perhaps Van Vliet didn't feel as personally threatened by the new musicians as he had by the older ones. Or maybe it was just because he had gotten older.
Listening to much of the last Beefheart album, 1982's Ice Cream For Crow, one can almost hear Van Vliet bidding good bye to music. Frantic, almost desperate music was still being played by the Magic Band. But it often seemed like Captain Beefheart himself was no longer interested in singing, like he'd rather just recite his poetry. As if to confirm his adieu the band did not tour for the record. They did release a video of the title track which, much to Van Vliet's disgust, MTV refused to air. Ice Cream For Crow remains a powerful recording. Cliff Martinez, speaking to French on Grow Fins, expressed what most members of the different Magic Bands felt: "I never played anything with more energy. I mean, I played with a bunch of punk bands which was supposed to be high energy and angry. But that was never quite as close as the Beefheart thing."
The release of Ice Cream For Crow began, to the dismay of his cargo of cult fans, the long musical silence Van Vliet. Not the artistic silence, though. Since then, he devoted his life to painting, splitting his time between the desert and redwood country. He showed his work regularly at galleries in New York and other great cities, and his paintings regularly sell for five figure prices. At the end of the 1990s he was said to be in poor health, evident on a small recording of a poetry reading released in Italy in 1996. The voice falters and is but a pale shadow of the sonic weapon Van Vliet wielded in previous years. But the frail voice merely amplifies the power of the words once hollered so mightily on Trout Mask Replica: "When I get lonesome the wind begin t' moan/ When I trip fallin' ditch/ Somebody wanna throw the dirt right down/When I feel like dyin' the sun come out/Stole my fear 'n gone/Who's afraid of the spirit with the bluesferbones/Who's afraid of the fallin' ditch Fallin' ditch ain't gonna get my bones .
by Gerald E. Brennan
Don Van Vliet's Career
- Selected discography
- Safe As Milk , Kama Sutra, 1967; reissued, Buddha, 1999.
- Strictly Personal , Blue Thumb, 1968.
- Trout Mask Replica , Straight Records, 1969; reissued as CD.
- Lick My Decals Off Baby , Reprise, 1970.
- Mirror Man , Buddah, 1970; reissued as The Mirror Man Sessions, 1999.
- The Spotlight Kid , Reprise, 1972; reissued as CD with Clear Spot.
- Clear Spot , Reprise, 1972; reissued as CD with The Spotlight Kid.
- Unconditionally Guaranteed , Mercury, 1974.
- Bluejeans & Moonbeams , Mercury, 1974.
- Shiny Beast (Bat Chain Puller) , Warner Brothers, 1978.
- Doc At the Radar Station , Virgin, 1980.
- Ice Cream For Crow , Virgin, 1982.
- The Legendary A&M Sessions , A&M, 1984
- Grow Fins: Rarities 1965-1982 , Revenant, 1999
- The Dust Blows Forward , Rhino, 1999
- Los Angeles Times, July, 22, 1999
- Rolling Stone, May 14, 1970
- San Francisco Chronicle, June 6, 1999
- Village Voice, October 10, 1980
- Additional information for this article was taken from the liner notes to Grow Fins: Rarities 1965-1982.
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