RIP Don Van Vliet 1941-2010
"The largest living land mammal is the absent mind." - Interview from 1971
Don Van Vliet is known to music-lovers and musicians world-wide as Captain Beefheart, a man with a voice that could shatter microphones and whose challenging, difficult compositions catered to a crowd interested in seeing how far the rock medium could go. From late 1960's-era blues/rock singer to avante garde superstar to commercial "sell-out" to rejuvenated poet-singer, his musical output spanned less than 20 years but inspired enough musicians to last several lifetimes. To his bandmates he was often a tyrannical megalomaniac who used cult-like group think to force half-understood songs into a violent existence. To the rock press of the 1970's he was a friendly, charismatic god whose ability to generate an amazing quote meant that any article featuring him would guarantee readership, and improve the stature of the "rock journalist" in turn. To his friends he was a constant voice and companion who often called in the middle of the night to ask them to write something down in case he wanted to remember it later. To his wife Jan he was simply "Don."
I came to learn about Beefheart and his music the same way most others of my generation did: through his work and rivalry with Frank Zappa, a somewhat similar contemporary in that both had monstrous egos and musical visions created through sheer force of will. While Zappa had a genius-level knowledge of composition and musical technicality, Beefheart was an abstract idea-generator who relied on his musicians' slavish dedication to the work to bring those ideas about.
"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." - John Peel 
Like many other Beefheart fans, I'd heard that he was "just as weird as Zappa, but more bluesy..." One look at the Trout Mask Replica cover was all I needed to pick it up at Know Name Records in Minneapolis (then at the corner of 4th Street and University Avenue):
To say it was a shock to actually listen to the album was an understatement: Zappa's music was tightly arranged and immediately recognizable as highly proficient, while Beefheart's music was completely out-of-control, disjointed, noisy and hard to listen to:
To this day, "Trout Mask Replica" is an album I love but rarely listen to, in fact, I tend to prefer the 2003 release by the members of The Magic Band "Back to the Front" to hear the instrumental versions of the songs, if for no other reason than the sound quality dispels the notion that they are just "faking it" (well, not to mention the fact that they hit all the right notes more than 20 years after the original album was recorded.) Still, people looking for a taste of Beefheart should seek out "Moonlight on Vermont" as it perfectly captures the incredible musicianship and powerful voice heard on that record in a way that remains somewhat accessible.
In recent years, Magic Band members have been more open to describing the tyrannical, cult-like, and oftentimes mentally and physically abusive environment that produced "Trout Mask Replica." They describe months spent eating little, earning no money, slaving away for 12 hours a day on band practice and compositional marathons, only to see the album recorded quickly and with their own credit for the work diminished in favor of the larger-than-life figure of Beefheart himself.
When I was younger, I tended to fall into a trap that many music-lovers do in thinking that these people are "like us, but better": Smart, creative geniuses who do no wrong and would be us if only the chips had fallen in our favor. Now that I'm older, I realize that the music I love is often created by people who are not nearly as nice as I thought they were; they have sides to them that shatter the crafted images we hold dear. There's no doubt after reading so much material by his friends and contemporaries that Captain Beefheart had a public persona that was funny, smart and intellectually creative, while in private he could be petty, abusive and insecure. To me that doesn't diminish the work, rather, it's likely that the work would not have turned out as it did were it not for both the good and bad sides of the life in which it was created.
One of the most important things that happened to Beefheart in his career was to make the front cover of Rolling Stone in 1970, as that article elevated his personality to public awareness, and described a world very appealing to the music-lovers and musicians of the time.
"Uh oh, the phone," Captain Beefheart mumbled as he placed his tarnished soprano saxophone in its case. "I have to answer the telephone." It was a very peculiar thing to say. The phone had not rung. Within a few years of "Trout Mask Replica" being released, Captain Beefheart and The Magic Band began making far more accessible music, still challenging but with more stripped-down, approachable beats, and featuring Beefheart's blues side more prominently. For many, these are the albums we put on when we want to listen to the group: catchy, funny and downright cool songs backed by a band with weird names and a funny stage presence.
Beefheart walked quickly from his place by the upright piano across the dimly lit living room to where the telephone lay. He waited. After ten seconds of stony silence it finally rang. None of the half dozen or so persons in the room seemed at all surprised by what had just happened. In the world of Captain Beefheart, the extraordinary is the rule. - Rolling Stone, 1970 
"They can catch a straight line, but they can't catch a circle. I don't work in straight lines."
- Beefheart in a 1972 interview
People looking to check out a more approachable side to Captain Beefheart should listen to "The Spotlight Kid" and "Clear Spot", which remain available on one CD at many of the better record stores.
Unfortunately, by the time "Clear Spot" was released, The Magic Band had had enough of Beefheart's overbearing personality, and were simply starving and broke despite years of incredibly dedicated work. They left, leaving Beefheart with a nice record contract with Warner Brothers but no one to record his albums. In came a steady series of studio musicians who frankly couldn't cut it. They wanted to do well, but lacked the willingness to go through the same process of creation that the previous bands had, and to some extent lacked the technical proficiency to play such challenging work. The following two albums, "Unconditionally Guaranteed" and "Bluejeans and Moonbeams" are Beefheart's attempt at commercial success, but are extremely disappointing albums to listen to for most of his fans. I never blamed him for looking at contemporaries like Dr. John and thinking he could both do it better and do it commercial, but the end result left many of his fans feeling betrayed, and it took years for his avante-garde rebirth to happen.
Eventually it did, and we got the third and final phase of Beefheart's musical output. "Shiny Beast (Bat Chain Puller)", "Doc at the Radar Station" and "Ice Cream for Crow" are more angular, more harsh-sounding and almost pseudo-punkish albums that feature a rebirth of Beefheart as a poet. He sings on the albums, but is far more likely to deliver Beat-like poetry over a cacophonous bed of guitars, keyboards, bass and drums. These albums never reached the commercial success of "Trout Mask" or "Clear Spot", but in hindsight stand out as albums created by a musician for music's sake.
"The way I keep in touch with the world is very gingerly, because the world touches too hard"
- Van Vliet, speaking to Anton Corbijn in 1993's documentary "Some Yo Yo Stuff"
After the release of "Ice Cream for Crow" in 1982, Captain Beefheart abandoned the world of music to live a new phase of his life as a painter and sculptor under his "real" name of Don Van Vliet. His decision makes sense to people who have followed his life and read various biographies about him; he had always been a person who shunned large crowds (despite his stage persona), and had been painting since he was a teenager. The reason was also likely financial as he by all accounts did quite well for himself selling paintings that generally start in the thousands of dollars and go up from there. He also received a level of artistic renown among the avante-garde art world that was both similar to his musical renown, and different in that it was more "intellectual", which appealed to his personal mindset.
I've always wanted to buy a Van Vliet, here's an example of his work:
Van Vliet's death was not surprising, as rumors about him suffering from multiple sclerosis had been stated as far back as the early 1990's, but it is always sad to lose a visionary. My outlook on life and music has been shaped in no small part by my love of Captain Beefheart and The Magic Band, and I've long said that if I could travel back in time one of the things I'd do would be to see the group in person. Thank you Captain and crew for making such great music.
- Jerry Snook, December 18th, 2010
People looking for more on Beefheart should read:
For albums, I'd recommend:(Oh, and get them on vinyl if you can find them, they are meant for that medium!)
- Mike Barnes' biography "Captain Beefheart", released by Quartet Books in 2000 (ISBN 1-84449-412-8)
- John French's autobiography "Beefheart: Through the Eyes of Magic", released in 2010 (ISBN 0-9561212-1-7)
- Bill Harkelroad's autobiography "Lunar Notes: Zoot Horn Rollo's Captain Beefheart Experience", released in 1998 by Interlink Publishing. (ISBN 0-946719-21-7)
Finally, the absolute best resource for just about anything Beefheart and Magic Band-related online is the web site Beefheart.com.
Here's one of the last videos of Beefheart outside of Corbijn's short documentary (which actually features few views of the man, it's very avante-garde in its production...) Beefheart on Letterman in the early 1980's