Captain Beefheart by Kristine McKenna

This excellent interview was taken from the 1st May 1980 edition of Wet magazine. The photograph is by Leonard X and the drawing is by Don Van Vliet.

Captain Beefheart is a visionary / madman / genius who makes remarkably original music. A sculptor / painter / poet / philosopher of the primitive surrealist persuasion, Beefheart has never confined himself to the commonly accepted realm of possibilities. Perceiving the universe with magic and gleeful eyes, he tosses conventional approaches to language and music out of the window, and replaces them with an astonishing system of his own design. His startlingly irregular music marries rural folk tales , voodoo, free association, Dada, and Americana to a spectrum of sound that stretches from Charles Ives, jazz and blues, to the natural sounds of the Mojave Desert where he lives. Beefheart is a man of boundless imagination and heroic spirit and everyone should own the 7 albums that he’s made.

The Captain’s real name is Don van Vliet. He’s 39 years old, a native Californian, and lives in a mobile home in the desert with his wife Jan. He’s notoriously reclusive, but was generous enough to come to the Wet office in Venice, CA, for an interview (the last time he was in Venice he was carousing around with Lenny Bruce).

He blew into town like some wonderful shaman – probably found his way with a divining rod – and arrived laden down with books, drawings, tape recorder and a suitcase filled with tea, pencils and various sundry items. He brought cigars for everyone, and as we said goodbye in a parking lot at 3.00 am, he played a cassette of Jimmy Durante playing a tune called “I’m a Vulture for Horticulture”. All things great and small take on a profound glow in the company of Don van Vliet.

Do you think everyone is born with an equal appetite for life?

I don’t know. That’s a really good question. I can only speak for myself, but I’ve fought not to let it get pounded out of me. A lot of people allow themselves to become dull because they fear pain, but pain is a form of awareness. A lot of people don’t want to be more aware though, and it seems that as time goes on, more and more people don’t want to know.

I hear you tried to dive into the La Brea Tar Pits when you were a kid.

Yeah, when I was 3 years old my mother took me to the Tar Pits and she should have had a harness on me. I got away from her and tried to dive into ’em – almost made it too. Got some on me. It was nice. What a nice place. I was watching those bubbles. What beautiful music! You can’t hardly hear it anymore because of the cars.

You seem to be more in touch with your memory bank than most people. Why do you think that is?

Well actually, I don’t think I am. You should be around me longer. It’s very difficult for me to drive a car. It’s difficult for me to get home because I get distracted by what’s around me – things change so much! And if I go someplace I never return to the same place – it’s changed by the time I return.

Is that something that disturbs you?

No, I love it.

Is imagination a muscle that one can develop, or, is it a case of some have it and some don’t?

I think that lack of oxygen as an infant is a real deciding factor. Want a piece of gum? Good gum. Lots of Red Dye #2.

No thanks. You mean imagination is a simple case of biology?

It may be an allergy.

You once went without sleep for a year and a half. How and why did you do that?

Mental fast. I needed to purge myself of all the attention my parents had given me – I wasn’t neglected enough as a child. I got an art scholarship but my parents didn’t want me to be a sculptor because, well, you know, all artists are queer, so they moved me out to the Mojave Desert. My mother still feels guilty about moving me out there but I told her to forget it. I met a lot of nice Oriental Americans out there – that’s where they sent them during the Second World War. Isn’t it awful, them keeping those people out there.

I still live way out in the desert – it took me two hours of driving before I even hit pavement to come here. I live in a Mobile Home – I’ve never had a house, except once; I rented a log cabin. Imagine renting a log cabin! I have no neighbours other than animals and Joshua Trees. I don’t look like a desert person because I stay indoors most of the day and fool around at night. That’s what the desert animals do – they don’t have a tan either.

Anyhow, when I went on the mental fast I didn’t really judge the procedure. I just stayed up and up and up and ate nothing but fruit.

How do your parents feel about your career as an artist now?

Probably amoeba-like. My father’s gone. He cut out – died quite a few years ago. I mean, I love the people – I wrote a poem that may describe how I feel; ‘one nest rolls after another until there are no longer any birds / one tongue lashes another until there are no longer any words / I love fails no birds.’

Were you taken to church as you were growing up?

No way. I was a sculptor remember. But I have been in some very beautiful churches, then I’ve looked outside and seen people starving to death.

What do you do everyday?

Well, I run six miles on an indoor jogging device, which takes me about an hour and 45 minutes. And I write a lot. I write an awful lot every day. How do you like my shoes? [patent leather with coloured suede inlays] I got these in Beverly Hills. Got three pairs. Just had to have ’em. At the time I bought them I was smoking Black Russian Sobrani Cigarettes, just acting silly, and I thought it would be cute, the cigarettes going on up here and the shoes down there.

Do you believe in romantic love?

Oh yeah. It’s good stuff.

But isn’t it based on fantasy and illusion?

If you love somebody and you’re there and they’re there then it isn’t really an illusion. I’m a romanticist for sure.

Have you found that to be a blessing or a curse?

A blessing. It’s hard enough, and women get the worst end of the deal. I’m a woman freak, I’m all for women definitely. I haven’t met that many men.

Why do you think that is?

You know, I wonder about that and I think the sport element may have something to do with it, that ‘beat the opposition’ thing. Competition and all that jazz. Hey; how about Charlie Mingus? He shouldn’t have played on that absurd Joni Mitchell album. I think he did it because he wanted to have one final fling. But he was a wonderful man and a great bass player – one of the best that ever lived. He made music about the sheer horror he was presented with just going to the market.

Have you seen much of that horror? You grew up out in nature and there’s always been art in your life.

Well, I can see horror In a package of cigarettes, anywhere. I’m definitely schizophrenic.

Why do you think that?

Because when I see something I see it I don’t know how many hundreds of ways.

Do you find that to be a problem?

Oh no, I like it, but it’s definitely a problem when you’re doing business.

Have you always seen that way?


Do you think that’s genetic?

You know, it probably is. I don’t think artists are made, I think they’re born.

Do you know anything about your ancestry?

Yes, I had a relative named Peter Van Vliet who was a Dutch painter that went around with Rembrandt. But he was too hot to handle and had a lot of trouble with the kings and queens. And Richard Halliburton, the man who wrote “Golden Voyage,” was related to me. Halliburton was a daredevil – he dove into the sun-worshippers pit. [glancing at a cover of Wet] Can I turn that over please?

Why? Do you find it unappealing?

Yes, it’s horrible. Who’d want to see something like that. A little too slick for me. [flipping through Wet] You know, if you want to do something on me it’s gonna have to be better than this.. Hmmm. James Brown in the same magazine as Shakespeare?

Do you think that’s fair?

No. James Brown is important because he decorates the clock correctly and he’s good with lower mathematics. Don’t get me wrong – he’s good. I like James Brown – even like “The Goodfoot.” [Looking at poster on wall] That’s disgusting! What sort of abnormal person put that up? Girls scratching each others backs -yeecchh!! There are wonderful things about scratching – I do it all the time because I like the feeling, but I certainly don’t think there should be a poster made like that. A lot of people can’t handle those kinds of things. Somebody could come up and scratch you for no other reason than he saw a poster and was too stupid to comprehend how lame it was. I don’t like that S & M stuff. It’s exploited for no reason other than to make money, and mostly at the expense of women.

Why does the public consume it?

They’re too dumb to do otherwise. I think if it happened in their faces they wouldn’t like it.

People seem to be intimidated by the media into wanting to do things “right” to the point that they follow any and all instructions.

I’m afraid that’s true – that’s what happened in Nazi Germany, and much as I hope it never does, that kind of thing could happen again. Posters like the one on the wall at Wet sure aren’t a good sign. On the other hand, I really don’t believe we re headed for an apocalypse. Whenever it’s election time we’re led to believe there’s one just around the corner, but I don’t believe it. You know, I can always tell when we’re due for an election because the road crews are always in front of my house! The ants get upset and come in, so I give them a little sugar.

You feed your ants?

Sure. I would never kill a living thing, although I probably have inadvertently while driving automobiles. And I hate seeing those moths on the windshield.

But isn’t that part of the natural order?

Yes, but I’ve never been able to deal with that part of nature. It’s so violent – god, is it violent.

When viewed in the overall scheme, then, human beings manage to control themselves fairly well.

Not bad. Not bad at all really. But still, most dangers are man-made. Man has done a lot to make himself dangerous and animals get the worst of all of it. But then, man too is an animal.

Would we be better off it we were more in touch with that fact?

Oh yeah, definitely. But people use funny toilet paper because it means they’re rich if it’s perfumed – and I think perfumed toilet paper causes rectal cancer. You can almost judge how screwed up somebody is by the kind of toilet paper they use. Go in any rich house and it’s some weird coloured embossed stuff.

What sort of music do you listen to these days?

I don’t listen to nothin’ – I don’t need to. Bob Dylan impresses me about as much as.. well, I was gonna say a slug but I like slugs. ‘You gotta’ serve somebody’ – shit, trash poetry. Too much LSD. You know, they usually do that – they go right up to Jesus. What about Buddha? He seems like a lot more fun.

Johnny Rotten. He’s a big fan of mine. I used to see him out in the audience in England and he’d stand up and holler. He’s funny. Smart too, and a nice guy. Don’t think he’s a jerk because he isn’t. Too bad he had that Sid Vicious thing happen around him. That Sid Vicious was obviously a schizophrenic, kind of a mean one too.

What do you think of composers like Phil Glass and Steve Reich?

I think it’s bullshit. I just don’t think they’re very creative. There was a girl named Pauline Oliveros who did a piece I like. And a lot of good electronic music comes out of Germany, Stockhausen for example.

Have you listened to much music of other cultures?

A little, but I’ve always found it to be somehow lacking. I think Shakespeare is really the one. Words as music and music as words. Everything he wrote was good, which is really frightening. Shakespeare. Under the skies of fiction comes a lot of reality.

Is it hard for you to get people to play things the way you hear them in your head?

VERY difficult. I’ve been pretty fortunate though in that I seem to be able to bring things out of people the way I want them. It’s very selfish, but to play with me you have to be able to forget what you’ve learned before. But then, the human mind does that automatically.

Are there some things that have been in your head for a long time that you’ve never been able to get on record?

Oh yeah, many. The wind is a very difficult sound to get. It’s always changing.

Do you think you hear differently than other people?

Hmmm. I know I’m here differently than other people, but I don’t know if I hear differently. I think that people cut off their hearing ability and why they do that is something I wonder about a lot. What do you think the largest living animal is? Well, I’ll tell you, it’s the absent human mind.

What is sound for?

I don’t even know what sound is, much less what it’s for. It isn’t to make money that’s for sure. I’ve never made any.

Are you more attracted to the system of natural sounds, or musical sounds?

Natural sounds, other than Stravinsky. Stravinsky was brilliant in all ways. He invited me to come and visit him before he died but I was in the middle of doing “Trout Mask” and I missed the chance. If I had it to do again I’d have met Stravinsky and not have had “Trout Mask” come out.

Who’s working now that’s of comparable talent?

Me. Me. Me.

Who else in the past?

Who in the past? Who in the hell. I think painting’s gone further than music. I brought along some books by some painters that I like. Franz Kline – oh wow. Yeah.

Do you think we’re going through a sparse period right now as far as great thinkers?

Seems like it doesn’t it. They seem to be dormant at the moment.

How have you dealt with fame?

With kid gloves. And I’ve spent a lot of time signing ‘love over gold’ hoping that people would realise. I’ve gotten a few autographs myself. Lenny Bruce, Durante, Mort Sahl, Dick Gregory, John Coltrane. And Roland Kirk. He was wonderful. He had a great facility on his instrument but he never let it overpower him – he always got out the true feeling. Anyhow, I’ve got my autographs in a book and I look at ’em occasionally and it reminds me of the people.

You seem to have an unusually intense bond with nature. Do you think that’s because you grew up in the desert?

No, I think it’s because I’ve always known I’m an animal.

Most people struggle to block that knowledge out – how have you kept those channels open?

Tenacity. And the truth is so obvious – it’s impossible to be cut off from dirt because gravity keeps us in and of it. You can’t escape gravity.

Kristine McKenna, 1980


  1. Don used to come over my house all the time. I lived on the west side of Lancaster and I usually had a lot of cocaine. I met him in a nightclub and invited him over, he taught me one saying, paranoia is a good propeller. How weird.

  2. Back around 1983 Don used to come by my house all the time. Primarily cuz I had a bunch of cocaine. He was hilarious and confusing. I still have a couple of pictures he drew of me and my dog Burt. Anyway he usually did all my drugs and left. But a great conversationalist. He drove a blue Volvo station wagon if anybody wants to call me a liar. I really don’t care.

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