We at the Observer can boast a couple of ancient links with Captain Beefheart, subject of tonight’s Rock Cults programme, The Artist Formerly Known as Captain Beefheart (BBC2, 11.15pm): Tom Hibbert’s band, the Angry Crabbers, played support to Captain Beefheart in a San Francisco club in 1981. `Nice set, son,’ rumbled the Captain when they came off stage. `I’ve got one word of advice to you: don’t sign with Virgin.’ Well, as those old cosmic links go, I was initially instrumental in signing the Captain to Virgin in 1974, after an eventful spring in Los Angeles that included composing a song with the Captain in an underground car-park during an earth tremor. And, as John Peel points out in his excellent and laconic narration, Captain Beefheart always fell out with his record companies.
`Authentically strange,’ is how Peel describes the musician who now prefers to be recognised as a painter and called by his real name of Don Van Vliet. Some of the extraordinary old film clips that have been unearthed of Beefheart playing with his Magic Band bear this strangeness out a surreal promotional gig on a beach; footage of the Captain playing demented harmonica and singing in his octave-leaping blues voice; clothes that still look insane 25 years down the line.
The opening music has some slide guitar which has to be Ry Cooder, who was briefly in the band until the Captain’s erratic behaviour made him so angry he had to go. Nevertheless, his interview clips, along with Frank Zappa and Jimmy Carl Black of the Mothers of Invention, give an in-depth and affectionate picture of Beefheart: `Frank’s good, but Beefheart’s the real thing.’ For fanatics there’s a visit to the house where the Magic Band were incarcerated for eight months rehearsing Trout Mask Replica before confounding their record company and studio engineers by recording the whole album in one take. In stark contrast is Beefheart’s later respectability and collectability as a painter, shown in the hushed cathedral atmosphere of a preview in a New York art gallery.
Van Vliet, now 56, has been a virtual recluse for the past 10 years in his trailer in the Mojave desert, suffering from a progressive illness which is immediately apparent in a short black-and-white film tacked on to the end of the documentary. The Captain’s memorably deep voice is sadly halting, its timbre gone. `The way I keep in touch with the world is very gingerly,’ he says, `because the world touches too hard.’
Caroline Boucher, 1997