The first thing Don Van Vliet does when you meet him is to bring you immediately into his world. “Those people over there take too many showers,” he said to me seconds after I walked into his manager’s Greenwich Village apartment for our interview.
“There.” He led me over to a window and pointed across the courtyard to a large living room. “They parade around there in their bathrobes!” I hadn’t even taken my coat off, but I felt comfortable already. Van Vliet / Captain Beefheart is a fun guy to be around.
We sat down and he pointed to my light blue socks, commenting, “Those are nice.” At that moment I realized my long-held impression of Van Vliet was wrong. There’s nothing distant or unapproachable about the man.
Yes, he articulates his thoughts in a novel way. At one point I asked him if he had a dog.
“No,” he replied.
“No. I have one, though, a West Highland terrier. She catches birds and eats them, no matter how much we feed her. Maybe she likes the bird feathers to tickle her throat.”
As with Van Vliet’s music and paintings, trying to define his talk in traditional terms is a frustrating task. But surrender yourself to his magical world and it can be quite enjoyable on its own terms.
Van Vliet was in New York to promote his new album (his eleventh), Doc at the Radar Station. It may be his finest, full of wonderful juxtapositions – grotesque next to beautiful, dissonant next to consonant – that make Captain Beefheart’s music so alarmingly original. Although he should know better after 13 years of bad experiences with record companies (his current Virgin contract is his seventh), Van Vliet sees no reason why this can’t be the album that finally reaches a wide audience.
“Commercial potential? Why not? Since I breathe air, I am commercial. Everybody’s commercial. There just aren’t that many good publicists and ad people and there aren’t that many good record companies. I think kids are bored enough that if they got a chance to hear my music, they’d like it.”
While he says he’s happy with his Virgin Records affiliation, Van Vliet’s new record will probably receive less promotion than any of his past releases. Virgin has terminated its distribution arrangement with Atlantic Records and is now working with RSO Records on a limited basis. Doc at the Radar Station, the last Virgin/Atlantic release, is no doubt lost among the latest Foreigner and Genesis albums.
Doc at the Radar Station has a punchy clarity not found on past Beefheart LPs (although it is similar in many respects to Lick My Decals Off). Beefheart, however, is completely disinterested in discussing the new record, comparing it to older ones, or explaining the genesis of particular songs. He accepts compliments graciously, and responds, “Yeah, that’s right,” to a particular interpretation of a song. He would probably agree to a completely different interpretation as well.
When asked about the two instrumentals on Radar Station, he replies, “My baby was in an instrumental mood.”
What about the new emphasis on guitars? “My baby’s idea.”
The reference to his baby is not a freaky word game, nor is it a tribute to his wife, Jan (who served us Tiger’s Milk at the outset of our conversation). Van Vliet’s baby is his artistic self – whatever puts lines like “Gnats fucked my ear” and “I feel like glass shrimp in a pink panty” into Beefheart’s mouth.
The idea that an artist has an outside force for inspiration is not a novel one. The Russian writer Aleksander Blok wrote in 1908 of “an intangible ‘third force’ that does not belong either to me or to others. It is this force which makes me see things the way I do and interpret all that happens from a particular perspective, and then describe it as only I know how. This third force is art.”
What Blok refers to as his “third force,” Van Vliet calls his baby. Fifteen years ago it forced him (so he claims) to stay awake for one-and-a-half years, writing 180 pages of autobiography a day. It also keeps him and his wife childless: “My baby won’t let me have a baby.”
Van Vliet’s baby forces him to run rehearsals like a dictator and demand no creative input, only subjugation, from his band members. “My baby and me are the artists,” he says. “It won’t let me have anything else. If you’re a painter you sure don’t want anything to do with group paintings.”
When he’s in New York, the baby pouts. “I usually spend all my time drawing, and since I’ve been doing all these interviews I haven’t had any time for that.” Calling himself Captain Beefheart can be seen as coming to grips with a third force – the baby.
The baby keeps Van Vliet in the Mojave Desert in a trailer. He doesn’t have time for dinner parties and other people. He eats breakfast standing up and has over 5000 songs on tape. Whichever songs he happened to be working on immediately before a recording session appear on an album.
It’s tempting to think of Van Vliet as a recluse chained to piano and easel by his baby – an old-line hippie who rejects society. The album art from his early records (check out Trout Mask Replica) certainly supports this, but he’s not the hippie recluse at all. If Van Vliet weren’t constantly painting or writing songs he’d explode with creativity. He seems happy with his plight.
In many ways his values and priorities are quite traditional. Van Vliet shows off his $70 Pierre Cardin belt, asks his interviewer if he’s read the latest Esquire, and whines about missing a Charles Laughton movie on TV the night before that his New York host forgot to tape on a VCR.
And, contrary to what you’d expect from someone who lives in a trailer away from civilization, Van Vliet loves people. He treats everyone like a long-lost friend, and his love songs are as touching as you’ll find anywhere. “I miss you more hour by hour,” he wrote for “Love Lies” on his previous album, Shiny Beast. “The roses seem to smell sour / Street lamps flutter like fireflies / I wish I hadn’t told you all those love lies.”
It’s typical of Van Vliet to employ plant and animal images in describing human emotions. His bizarre metaphors and descriptions reflect an obsession with all living things. We can learn through the simplicity and natural beauty of plants and animals, he seems to be saying. A poem off the back cover of Lick My Decals Off is titled, “You Should Know by the Kindness of uh Dog the Way uh Human Should Be.”
“Have you ever seen a blow-up of a mosquito?” he asks. “What a machine. I mean, ooh, what a beautiful thing. [Animals are] utterly amazing. People should see this too. Yoga is from small animals – the way a cat will get up and stretch before it moves….”
The doorbell suddenly rings with the next eager reporter. As I finish my glass of Tiger’s Milk and head out of the room, I can almost hear Van Vliet’s baby whimpering, sad because he is too busy to paint.
Jeffrey Peisch, 1981