Don Van Vliet – a.k.a. Captain Beefheart – is no longer with us, and the world is a sadder place for it. He lived to be 69 years old. Born on January 15, 1941 – he passed December 17, 2010 due to complications from multiple sclerosis.
Even though it had been 28 years since his final album of new material, his music remains enormously influential.
Beefheart’s most famous recording is Trout Mask Replica (1969). Produced by Frank Zappa, the double-album is a stunning tour de force of blues, rock, jazz, spoken word, psychedelia and more. It is a very difficult record to describe, as it often sounds as if it were recorded as a complete improvisation.
Stories of how the album came together are legendary. First of all, The Magic Band – which is what he called the musicians he played with, all lived together communally. Plenty of anecdotes from the people involved attest to an almost cult-like atmosphere. Drugs, violence — both physical and verbal — and other “brainwashing” techniques over this period have since emerged.
What is undeniable is that the music, which sounds completely spontaneous, was actually fully composed by Beefheart. He would rehearse the group for hours and hours daily in order for them to get it down. This is incredibly complex material that would challenge even the most seasoned player. With all of the rehearsal time they put in, The Magic Band managed to get the nearly 80 minutes of basic tracks recorded in a single six-hour session.
Trout Mask Replica is often considered Beefheart’s debut, although it was actually his third album. The two previous efforts were titled Safe As Milk (1967), and Strictly Personal (1968). Neither had much of an impact commercially. Milk was heavily blues-influenced, a form of music Beefheart loved. It also featured a young Ry Cooder on guitar. John Lennon reportedly liked the record so much, he had its poster displayed prominently in the house he shared with Cynthia and son Julian.
The story behind Strictly Personal is an early example of Beefheart’s many battles with record labels. Briefly, the tapes were “doctored” by producer and Blue Thumb label owner Bob Krasnow to make them more commercially appealing. All of this was done without the good Captain’s assent, which naturally pissed him off to no end.
Trout Mask Replica assured his place as one of the most uncompromising musicians ever, but he released another nine albums before calling it quits. As is often the case with “difficult” artists, they came out on a variety of different record labels, basically because none of them actually sold.
The immediate follow-up to Trout Mask Replica was the appealingly titled Lick My Decals Off, Baby (1970). Most of The Magic Band personnel were on hand, and the album is considered by many as superior to Trout. The songs themselves are longer and more fully realized than many of the snippets that appear on the previous LP. Beefheart himself considered it his finest.
A number of other records followed, exploring various styles, for either (attempted) commercial success, or just plain artistic interest. These include Mirror Man (1971), The Spotlight Kid (1972), Clear Spot (1973), Unconditionally Guaranteed (1974), and Bluejeans And Moonbeams (1974). All have their merits, and I am certain that Beef-Heads will argue each of them to their dying days.
For me, it was not until Shiny Beast (Bat Chain Puller) (1978) that I thought the Captain was back in top form. Doc At The Radar Station (1980), and the final Ice Cream For Crow (1982) round out this “comeback” period. Oddly enough, they coincide with the rise of punk and (especially) post-punk. All three are highly recommended.
Don Van Vliet left the moniker Captain Beefheart, and the music world behind to concentrate on his often brilliant visual art next. For all of the reputed snobbery in the world of serious art, Van Vliet was warmly accepted, and always said that he had been treated much better as a painter than he had ever been as a musician.
He lived out the rest of his life with wife Janet in the California desert, and was apparently quite happy. The MS was a constant battle however, and he had been wheelchair bound since the early 1990s.
The influence of Captain Beefheart’s music over the years has been immeasurable. Notable artists who have specifically cited him include: John Lydon, XTC, Sonic Youth, The Fall, The White Stripes, and Kurt Cobain – just to mention a few.
R.I.P. Captain Beefheart. Your music was decades ahead of its time, and you will be missed.