He retired over 25 years ago to paint and hasn’t made a record since. Even at his peak commercial success was elusive. He had a reputation for bullying musicians. He rounded on countless audience members for their real or perceived failure to treat his music with respect. His output in later years was patchy, bordering on the cynical. He was, and remains, a difficult bugger.
Yet Don Van Vliet has produced some of the most sophisticated, challenging and innovative work of the last 45 years. His influence on punk and new wave music was probably unparalleled. John Peel said of Don: “If there has ever been such a thing as a genius in the history of popular music, it’s Beefheart. I heard echoes of his music in some of the records I listened to last week and I’ll hear more echoes in records that I listen to this week.”
Born in Glendale, California to a working class family of Dutch origin, Don Vliet displayed a prodigious talent as a sculptor and painter from an early age. His works would be compared to those of Franz Kline, the abstract expressionist, whose bold canvasses were a lifelong influence.
But it wasn’t painting that brought the rare talent of Don to the world. At Antelope Valley High School in Lancaster, CA he met Frank Zappa. Lancaster was a small town on the edge of the Mojave Desert, off Hwy 14 in Southern California, God knows what it must have made of two freaks like Don and Frank in the early 60s.
They had soon collaborated on a film script, Captain Beefheart vs The Grunt People. The first use of the Beefheart name, Don claimed that it was inspired, if that’s the right word, by his uncle Alan. Uncle was fond of showing off his, erm, little uncle (his nephew?) to Don’s then-girlfriend Laurie. He would take a piss with the bathroom door open and lovingly squeeze his lad, murmuring “What a beauty: it looks like a big, fine beef heart.” My uncle plays the spoons, which I’ve never liked one bit, but there’s always someone worse off than yourself.
Dropping out of art college pretty swiftly, Don – under encouragement from Frank Zappa – began playing the harmonica and singing. He discovered he had a powerful bass and modelled his vocal style on Howlin’ Wolf, playing as few gigs at small Southern Cali clubs.
In early 1965, a guitarist called Alex Snouffer contacted Don about putting together what would become the Magic Band. Don had adopted the surname Van Vliet by now, but would of course perform as Captain Beefheart. The other band members were given (whether they liked it or not, by all accounts) stage names.
A couple of early releases, including a Bo Diddley cover, enjoyed some local success and the demos for what would become Safe As Milk were punted to A&M Records. The record company did not care for them, dismissing the material as “too negative” and they were dropped. But in 1966, Beefheart signed with the eclectic label Buddah (spelled like that) Records, where he sat on a roster alongside pop fripperies like the 1910 Fruitgum Company and Ohio Express, as well as hippy folkie Melanie and Gladys Knight! At this time, he hooked up with key collaborator John French on drums. French was an invaluable asset to Beefheart throughout his career, able to translate the Captain’s often highly esoteric requests/demands into usable material.
Stories about Beefheart’s working methods are legion. He would whistle parts, or play a little bit on harmonica and have French – rechristened “Drumbo” – transcribe them. At the last minute, he might decide he actually wanted a part played backwards. Later in the band’s career, then-Magic Band guitarist Jeff Morris Tepper was felt, by the Captain, to be too much influenced by the Beatles. Beefheart locked Tepper in a cupboard for three hours and played him the blues record Red Cross Store by Mississippi John Hurt over and over again. One of French’s successors on the Magic band drums, Cliff Martinez, was given a cassette tape of drum parts to learn; it turned out to be a recording of the Captain doing the washing up. Cliff could replicate those rhythms, right? Was Beefheart trying to record the innate rhythms of life or just being wilfully obtuse? Probably both.
For the making of Safe As Milk, the band recruited a 20-year-old guitar hotshot named Ry Cooder, who had already garnered a big reputation as a slide player alongside nascent bluesman Taj Mahal in The Rising Sons, and they finished recording in the summer of 1967. John Lennon was among the new devotees and wanted to sign Beefheart to the Beatles’ planned avant garde label Zapple. Not long afterwards, Beefheart finished recording on what would become 1968’s Strictly Personal. He put it about that this was all recorded in one night and that the producer had remixed the record against his will. There doesn’t seem to have been much truth in this, but it was clear even early in his career that Don was determined to create his own truth and his own mythology. Buddah didn’t like what they heard when played Strictly Personal – it probably frightened them – hearing Don barking “Ah Feel Like Ahcid” wasn’t everyone’s cup of steamed vegetables. The record finally appeared on Blue Thumb, the label owned by Bob Krasnow – who produced the sessions.
Don began work on what would come to be regarded as his masterpiece, Trout Mask Replica. Living together in conditions that John French described as “cult-like”, Beefheart, drummer Drumbo, “Zoot Horn Rollo” (guitarist Bill Harkleroad), “Rockette Morton” (bassist Mark Boston), “Antennae Jimmy Semens” (guitarist Jeff Cotton) and “The Mascara Snake” (Victor Hayden, bass clarinet and vocals) rehearsed together for eight months solid on the material. Practising 14 hours a day and living on welfare, the band were half-starving and a bit deranged. They were arrested for shoplifting food – Zappa, the album’s producer – bailed them out. Perhaps most outrageously of all, Don claimed that the band never took drugs.
This Manson-esque regime, though, meant that by the time they came to record, the band were complete masters of the intricate and extremely technical material. It must have been some challenge playing with him, on a personal level, as well as a musical one. He claimed to have taught Harkleroad and Boston to play from scratch; both were already highly accomplished players in their own right!
The result of all this was a 28-song work of unsurpassed invention, ambition and strangeness combining jazz, surreal poetry, blues, garage rock. It’s not an exaggeration to say that it defined the concept of the rock LP as work of art in the terms that people regard a painting or a play or a symphony. Not only was it ground-breaking, it was also a vastly influential piece of work, not necessarily in terms of its musical content – which is pretty much impossible to, er, replicate – but in terms of its idea of the album as fully realised creative statement. While in USA it evaded the charts, the UK embraced his insanity and put the album at 21 in the charts. This was a remarkable achievement for a such a wilfully uncommercial artistic statement
Another absolutely terrific record, Lick My Decals Off, followed in 1970 and charted at 20 in the UK, the band spurred onto even greater heights with the addition of Art Tripp from The Mothers Of Invention. The friendship between Zappa and Don was not above spilling over into rivalry or the luring of musos. Two further powerhouse wild, anarchic R & B records – The Spotlight Kid (44 in the UK) and Clear Spot – followed in the early Seventies but the Magic Band, of whom Tripp had emerged as the leader, began to tire of their Captain’s demanding behaviour. They ducked out to form Mallard and the Captain assembled what amounted to a pretty poor substitute – unkindly referred to as ‘The Tragic Band’ – for the soft-rockish Unconditionally Guaranteed and Bluejeans & Moonbeams. Unconditionally, with its more conventional approach to rock n roll, attracted him new followers, many of whom must have felt a bit funny in the head when they subsequently bought the aural miasma that was Trout Mask Replica. He made a fantastic appearance on Whistle Test performing Upon The My-Oh-My from this record.
He didn’t record in 1975-1977 as Beefheart, but did do a collaboration album with Zappa on the live album, Bongo Fury. Recorded in Austin in May 1975, it closes with possibly the finest version of Muffin Man committed to vinyl, with Zappa in uber-noodle mode tearing up the fretboard as only he could.
The Captain put together a new band towards the end of the decade. He covered Jack Nitzsche’s Hard Workin’ Man for the movie Blue Collar starring Harvey Keitel. After punk broke, he enjoyed something of a rebirth, upheld as a hero to new wave. A young, willing band – who had grown up playing his albums – formed around him and a superb triumvirate of 1978-1982 records Shiny Beast (Bat Chain Puller), Doc At The Radar Station and Ice Cream For Crow cemented his legacy. The title track of the first of these featured a return to the chanting necromancer of old that we had loved on the title track of Zappa’s Hot Rats, back in 1970.
There was even mainstream acceptance – appearances on David Letterman and Saturday Night Live seemed top indicate that at last, the world had caught up with the Captain.
Having finally achieved some measure of commercial and broad critical acclaim for his music, Don promptly retired. Maybe he felt that his job was done; that he had pulled the wheel on the ship of fools around to his position on the compass and had no need to sail any more.
He retreated to the California, a studio and a house by the sea, some painting in the desert, the company of his wife, Jan. His paintings are well regarded, a sort of neo-primitive abstract expressionism, but organic, powerful but not senselessly brutal.
He said of his art: “You know a lot of people can’t hear my paintings. And they should be able to. God knows, they’re noisy enough.”
A genius who changed the way artists saw the medium of the LP, Beefheart is a colossus of the alternative rock genre who is destined to influence, inspire, confuse and make hairs stand up on the back of necks for generations to come. He never had a hit album or single in his own country and yet remains a legend in his own lifetime.
A voice from the a world beyond the daily realities of existence, Beefheart’s music remains a shattering experience that is challenging and, ultimately, thrilling.
Related t-shirt Captain Beefheart