Don Van Vliet, aka Captain Beefheart, a legendary musical pioneer, passed away yesterday from complications due to multiple sclerosis.
I first became aware of Don and his music when the Captain Beefheart and His Magic Band single, Bo Diddley’s “Diddy Wah Diddy”, became a local hit (if you’re a music fan, it’s good to live in Los Angeles). I was living in Thousand Oaks at the time, attending Thousand Oaks High School. While this pounding blues stomp was on the local charts, Captain Beefheart played a concert at the Thousand Oaks Rec(reation) Center, a small show venue for budding hitmakers. Mike Johnson, my band’s lead guitar player, went to the show and came back a Beefheart convert. About a year later, Safe As Milk, the first LP by Captain Beefheart and His Magic Band (and the first LP produced by Richard Perry), was released.
I was already familiar (via “Diddy Wah Diddy”) with the Captain’s Howlin’ Wolf-style growling guttural vocals and powerful harmonica skills. I was further blown away by the album’s sophisticated yet bluesy bottleneck guitar playing by a very young Ry Cooder. I became an instant fan of this psychedelic blues rock band.
Since Beefheart was local, it wasn’t difficult to catch scuttlebutt about the Captain. The first startling thing I heard was that Frank Zappa grew up (out in the desert town of Lancaster) with and idolized Beefheart. That blew me away, as Zappa’s reputation was that he bowed to no one. That made Beefheart even more intriguing.
His second LP, Strictly Personal, was much weirder than his first. Although there was no Ry Cooder to be found on this LP, several of the tracks still had a bluesy edge. No one in the music biz, however, was prepared for what followed. His third LP, Trout Mask Replica was bizarre in the extreme.
Produced by Zappa (who reportedly infuriated Beefheart by repeatedly falling asleep during the Captain’s grueling vocal recording sessions; the backing tracks for the double LP were recorded by the Magic Band in just 4 1/2 hours after practicing them for eight months, 14 hours per day in a house that, reportedly, Beefheart would not allow them to leave), this album is #58 on Rolling Stone magazine’s list of the 500 greatest albums of all time.
Quite frankly, I never warmed up to Trout Mask. I preferred (and still prefer) the Captain’s bluesier stylings. For the record, my favorite recordings by the good Captain are:
The Legendary A & M Sessions
Safe As Milk
The Spotlight Kid
“Hard Workin’ Man”(the killer main title track from the Blue Collar soundtrack; this “I’m a Man”-type blues produced by Jack Nitzsche reunites Beefheart with Ry Cooder)
“Willie the Pimp” (from Frank Zappa’s LP Hot Rats)
I became good friends with Rick Snyder, aka Midnight Hatsize, the Captain’s bassist on Beefheart’s last three albums. Rick’s day job was working at Poo-Bah Records, my favorite record shop in Pasadena (actually, my favorite record shop in the L. A. area at the time). Rick knew exactly the kind of music I loved and reliably special-ordered loads of imports for me without my even having to ask. I pretty much purchased everything that came in through Rick.
I met Don Van Vliet himself through my connections with the Firesign Theatre. I believe the Firesign’s manager, Lanny Waggoner, also managed Don for awhile (as did at one time, I discovered, the mom of my neighbors across the street from me!). We were introduced at one of Lanny’s parties. As soon as Don discovered I was an artist, particularly an artist who painted animals, we got into a deep conversation.
Don was an artist before he was a musician (a child prodigy by all reports) and what he loved to draw and paint more than anything was animals. By that time Don was pretty fed up with the music business. He had never made much money from it. His music was too out there for the public; his record buyers were a rabid but small cult following. Don wanted to make painting his a profession. He had actually never stopped drawing and painting. He pumped me for info on how to get a gallery show, how to sell work, where he might possibly exhibit, etc.
I filled Don in on what I knew and told him to call me whenever he had questions. Don did just that; he phoned me from time to time to get artistic advice — never about art, mind you (Don’s art style was already pretty locked in), but about the business end of art.
Don’s fine art career took off. He made much more money as a painter than he ever did as a groundbreaking musician, represented by the prestigious Mary Boone Gallery and, most recently, by the Michael Werner Gallery (both in New York). True to his childhood obsession, most of what Don drew and painted were animals.
Captain Beefheart (and particularly the LP Trout Mask Replica) influenced lots of budding musicians who veered toward The Weird, including The White Stripes, Devo, P J Harvey, the Talking Heads and John Lydon (Johnny Rotten). Here is what Tom Waits had to say regarding Captain Beefheart (quoted from an e-mail sent to the Los Angeles Times music critic Richard Cromelin):
“He was like the scout on a wagon trail. He was the one who goes ahead and shows the way. He was a demanding bandleader, a transcendental composer (with emphasis on the dental), up there with Ornette (Coleman), Sun Ra and Miles (Davis). He drew in the air with a burnt stick. He described the indescribable. He’s an underground stream and a big yellow blimp.
“I will miss talking to him on the phone. We would describe what we saw out of our windows. He was a rememberer. He was the only one who thought to bring matches. He’s the alpha and the omega. The high water mark. He’s gone and he won’t be back.”
Adios, Don; see you on Venus.