[alert_box type=”info”]This excellent introductory article to the work of Don Van Vliet first appeared in April 1981’s Down Beat.[/alert_box]
“My music is terribly personal,” Don Van Vliet says, his eyes fixed intently on me. “I think any artist is that way. I think there’s a lot of people out there that are kidding about art. I mean, literally kidding.”
Van Vliet speaks in a soft, slow Southern California drawl that sounds nothing at all like the raw, rasping bellow he usually affects when he’s singing under the name Captain Beefheart. But his intensity is the same, and he is every bit as captivating, clever, charming and sometimes exasperatingly difficult to follow in conversation as he is in performance or on record.
One of the most stunning, shatteringly original figures in rock music – if, indeed, he can even be fit into that category – Van Vliet / Beefheart is also one of the most misunderstood.
Many celebrated figures in so-called new wave have cited Beefheart’s music (and especially his epic 1969 double album Trout Mask Replica) as an influence, but he himself is not so sure that’s a compliment. Finding new wave “the same old tune,” he’s bothered by the fact that its practitioners stick to what he calls “the mama heartbeat” – the steady unvarying rhythmic pulse that he’s been working subtle variations on, snaking his way around, syncopating sinuously or avoiding altogether for 15 years.
“I think that beat is related to fascism, I really do. It’s so fixative, so hypnotic. And they make the stuff so synthesized – to where it’s dangerous to the heart, I mean, faster-than-the-heart disco – some of that disco is dangerous! It doesn’t mean it won’t sell! But then again, sugar sells, which I think is extremely dangerous!”
Many listeners associate Beefheart with Frank Zappa, understandably enough, since he has known Zappa for most of his 40 years (Beefheart has had almost no formal education, but when he briefly attended high school in Lancaster, CA, Zappa was a classmate). They have worked together; Zappa’s musician-alumni have worked with Beefheart, and Beefheart’s awesome Trout Mask Replica was released by Zappa’s Warner Bros.-distributed Straight label.
Yet the assumption that Beefheart is some kind of Zappa spinoff or discovery is wrong. In fact, Beefheart harbors considerable resentment for his old schoolmate, maintaining that many of the ideas for which Zappa first became known were stolen from a stream-of-consciousness home tape he and Zappa made in the early ’60s. Suggesting that Zappa “made it possible” for him to record Trout Mask, Beefheart responds:
“It was also me who made it possible for Frank to record ‘Suzy Creamcheese, what’s got into you?’ I said that. I said a lot of those things. My mother was in the room when I did it. We taped 11 and a half hours – an artistic explosion! I wrote Trout Mask in eight and a half hours, so you can imagine how much I did at that time. And he was taping me . . . I never thought that he was gonna play me!”
No matter who influenced whom, there are similarities between Beefheart and Zappa, both in their outrageous senses of humor and in the bizarre twists and turns of their music. But the differences between them are far mare important; taken in its entirety, Beefheart’s music doesn’t sound any more like Zappa’s than it does like anybody else’s.
That’s the startling (and problematical) thing about Beefheart’s music – it really doesn’t sound like anybody else’s. Beefheart himself, with an almost childlike mixture of pride and perversity, refuses even to admit that it has any influences. “My baby won’t let me have a baby,” is the way he puts it. “The artist in me won’t let me do that [take from other sources]. Because I feel that if I turn myself inside out, that’s what I want seen. I don’t want somebody else hanging from my left ventricle or something.”
Egotistical hyperbole? No artist is totally without influences – but Beefheart’s art, like that of Pablo Picasso) or Thelonious Monk, has absorbed, altered and mixed its influences so that it comes out as something unprecedented, a universe unto itself, a heady musical mixture.
But it is not, as so many seem to think, simply weirdness for weirdness’ sake, or a celebration of chaos. A close inspection reveals that there is always a method, however intuitive, to the apparent madness, and that dissonance and cacophony, while certainly important colors in the Beefheart musical palette, are far from being the whole picture.
Even some of his most passionate admirers seem to have missed the point. Doc At The Radar Station, Beefheart’s latest album (arguably the best of the 11 he has recorded, and the impetus behind his recent U.S. tour), has received almost universally enthusiastic reviews. But a Trouser Press reviewer, in the midst of a rave, claimed that “it’s a Beefheart trademark that his music sounds like nobody’s playing in time or in tune with each other” – a sad misreading of the way this music, which is replete with moments of beautiful unison playing and exquisitely-wrought counterpoint, really works.
Still, it’s not hard to see why the Captain’s music has eluded so many people (he’s never had a hit album and of his early work, only Trout Mask is still in print). Like much of the post-Ornette Coleman free jazz to which it has sometimes been compared – and to which certain elements, especially the unfettered way Beefheart plays soprano saxophone, bear a clear similarity – it may sound abrasive and disjointed at first, but those who make an effort to listen closely find a bracing blend of power and playfulness; very unpredictable but marked by a sense of adventure (and fun) that makes repeated hearings increasingly rewarding. The problem is that many people are unwilling to go beyond that somewhat scary surface.
Beefheart understands this, and why the radio stations don’t want to play his records and why he and the record companies have never gotten along. He remains convinced that it doesn’t have to be that way:
“I just think my music doesn’t fit on the conveyor belt. But I think if they worked a little harder they’d be real surprised, because what I get is people really, really staying with me….. for years, 15 years. I think Doc could be a hit, if exposed enough. Three times they hear my record, they’ll buy it. I know that.”
There is no way to do justice to Don Van Vliet’s music in words. A new listener should heed these lyrics from Dirty Blue Gene (off Doc): “If you got ears, you gotta listen!” Still, a few pointers might help.
First, despite all its seeming randomness, the music is meticulously plotted down to the last bent note and twisted meter. Beefheart’s Magic Band (currently Jeff Tepper and Richard “Brave Midnight Hat Size” Snyder on guitars, Eric Feldman on keyboards and bass and Robert Williams on drums) is allowed no freedom to improvise; as Beefheart points out, they must be content with that arrangement, because there isn’t much money in it, and “as good as they are, I don’t think they’d do it unless they wanted to.”
Only Beefheart himself, on soprano and harmonica and with his astounding singing/declaiming/screaming voice that spans seven and a half octaves, occasionally deviates from the (unwritten) score, he basically confines his improvisation to the composing process. Most of his songs are conceived quite spontaneously and with little conscious thought, as are the amazing drawings and paintings that occupy as much of his time as his music. After he’s whistled or played tunes (usually on the piano) into a tape recorder, he teaches every member of the band exactly how to play his part, apparently through a blend of singing, playing, gestures and cajolery.
Keep this in mind about the music: while it’s certainly unusual, it’s not really that intimidatingly far-out. His songs do have hooks – you just have to dig a little to find them. Much of what he plays is quite firmly rooted in the blues; hear it in the jangling, whining slide guitars, in his fervid harmonica playing, and in his singing – it’s been written often, but bears repeating – at times he sounds almost exactly like Howlin’ Wolf. Not like a white guy imitating Wolf, like Wolf himself.
There is always a lot going on in a Beefheart song, but if you can isolate the individual components in your mind, and then put them back together, it begins to make more musical sense. (This is more apparent than ever on Doc; the first album Beefheart has produced by himself, it has a clarity to its sound that puts all the elements in sharp focus.)
Then there are the words. Beefheart loves puns and all wordplay. Some of his lyrics are among the funniest in modern music, but it would be a mistake to think of him as only a humorist. He is also an inspired, impassioned, and totally original wordsmith, and much that he writes – unlike most of the pretentious rock “poetry” that surfaced in the wake of Bob Dylan and the Beatles – really is poetry.
Literal meaning is only one ingredient that he uses in putting his lyrics together – the sounds and cadences of the words, the associations they trigger, his aforementioned playfulness, and a plethora of striking, dreamlike images of nature are among the others – but almost never are his lyrics without meaning. When he dabbles in nonsense (Woe-Is-Uh-Me-Bop, Abba Zabba), it’s inspired nonsense with an underpinning of sense, on the order of Lewis Carroll or Edward Lear.
Even his love songs (Her Eyes Are A Blue Million Miles) have verbal quirks; he’s also written straightforward indictments of war (Veterans Day Poppy, Dachau Blues) and, repeatedly, of humanity’s disregard for the environment and inflated opinion of its place in the natural order (in Flash Gordon’s Ape he mocks, ‘It makes me laugh to hear you say how far you come / When you barely know how to use your thumb”). Sometimes there is an alarming streak of misanthropy – in Wild Life, Grow Fins and Clear Spot he sings of retreating from the human species entirely – but more often his message is one of affirmation; the last words he sings on his current album (concluding Making Love To A Vampire With A Monkey On My Knee) are “Death be damned – life.”
One song that offers the uninitiated listener a good introduction is Tropical Hot Dog Night from his 1978 “comeback” album, Shiny Beast (Bat Chain Puller). Musically, it’s among Beefheart’s more accessible songs, with its own kind of edge. The arrangement, (trombone and marimba prominently featured against a cymbal-heavy backbeat) suggests a loopy mariachi band. The lyrics, in addition to being festooned with images that are askew but evocative (the night is “like two flamingos in a fruit fight” – a wonderful way to describe a riot of colors), contain two lines which clearly state Beefheart’s open-ended artistic philosophy and world view: “The truth has no patterns” and “Everything’s wrong at the same time it’s right.”
Most importantly, they contain a succinct explanation of the impulses behind Beefheart’s music: “I’m playin’ this music / So the young girls will come out / To meet the monster tonight.” The “monster” is the very same “shiny beast of thought” that gives this album its title, and that shows up again in Dirtv Blue Gene: the creative energy that we all carry inside, which has been suppressed, and which Beefheart (who believes in “turning myself inside out”) has set free in himself and wants to set free in his listeners. He becomes even more explicit at the end of the song: his voice dips low to say he wants us not only to see but “also to be the monster tonight.” If you got ears, you gotta listen.
Don van Vliet’s life story, as you might imagine, is unusual. Born in Glendale, CA, in 1941, he was a precocious child. As he recalls, he refused from the time he could talk to call his parents by anything but their first names, and at five he decided he’d rather sculpt than go to school (except for that brief stab at high school he never did attend). For many years he studied sculpture with a Portuguese sculptor named Augustonia Rodriguez, and he briefly appeared on a local TV show, sculpting animals at the Griffith Park Zoo while Rodriguez looked on and commented.
At 13, he was offered a scholarship by a local dairy to study art in Europe, but his parents, who be says thought that all artists were “queer” refused to let him go and moved to the remote Mojave Desert to keep him out of harm’s way. (This is the way Beefheart tells it; as much con man as magician, he has largely fostered his own mythology. Both his music and his presence are sufficiently remarkable that I, for one, am willing to believe just about anything he tells me.) With characteristic perversity, Don took a liking to his barren surroundings; he lives today in a trailer in that same desert, with his wife Jan.
His adolescent run in with Frank Zappa was destined to alter both their lives, but that couldn’t have been obvious at the time, because Don didn’t become professionally active in music until the mid-’60s. In 1966, not long after he had christened himself Captain Beefheart (because he had “a beef in my heart” about the way the world was going), he assembled the original Magic Band – which included Ry Cooder on guitar – and cut a version of Bo Diddley’s Diddy Wah Diddy for A&M that became a minor local hit.
That success has never, to this day, been equaled. A&M rejected his album because the songs were “too negative.” Later released by Buddah as Safe As Milk, that music is positively cheerful to today’s ears, and also quite tame compared to what followed. But it didn’t sell, and neither did the 1968 album Strictly Personal, which showed Beefheart taking more musical chances but was marred by an ill-advised “psychedelic” mixing job done, he says, without his knowledge or consent.
In the trippy days of late ’60s rock, Beefheart began acquiring a cult. Some were reached by his musical message; others saw him as the latest manifestation of fashionable freakiness. But nobody could have been fully prepared for Trout Mask Replica.
“That’s a funny album,” Beefheart said in reflective understatement. When I said I found parts of it hard to listen to, his eyes lit up. “Oh, yeah! Me too! I never listen to it! I had to learn a lot of that stuff for this tour.”
Trout Mask is a sprawling, frightening, at times hilarious, at times heartbreaking, at times impossibly self-indulgent work. Beefheart’s claim that he wrote the four-sided magnum opus in eight and a half hours is believable – it sounds that wild and raw, the ravings of a man between genius and insanity, putting it all on tape.
Once he wrote it, he had to teach it to his band. Trout Mask is where Beefheart’s music first breaks loose from conventional confines of rhythm, harmony and melody, and it is the first album on which he taught all the musicians how to play everything. The new Magic Band members had even been given bizarre new names by their leader: Zoot Horn Rollo, Rockette Morton, Antennae Jimmy Semens, The Mascara Snake, and – although he is not credited on the album – Drumbo, also known as John French, who has played with Beefheart off and on from the start.
Originally, Beefheart claimed that he had taught these musicians from scratch; now, he says that they knew how to play their instruments, but had told him that they didn’t.
Well, nobody but Beefheart could have taught them to play like that; the proof is his current Magic Band, which captures the same timbres and textures as the old band did. That isn’t the sound of a band; it’s the thoroughly distinctive sound of one man’s musical vision, painstakingly transmitted by well-rehearsed musicians.
Trout Mask, which also was Beefheart’s recorded debut an saxophone (he claims, with a straight face, that he took up the instrument because at the time he smoked long pipes, and he didn’t want to take his pipe collection on the road “so I bought an alto”), is flawed, and marred in part by Zappa’s obtrusive production, but it served notice that an original had arrived. The following year, Beefheart co-produced Lick My Decals Qff Baby, bringing the diverse elements of Trout Mask under tighter control and into clearer focus without totally losing a manic edge. It contained some of Beefheart’s most lighthearted music as well as some of his most serious, and included two sublime, pristine guitar pieces that marked a new facet of Beefheart’s development as a composer. A more accessible album than its predecessor (and, in my opinion, a better one), still Lick enjoyed nil sales.
Then, strangely (or perhaps, in retrospect, not that strangely), Beefheart released on Warner/Reprise a couple of less adventurous, more overtly “commercial” albums. The Spotlight Kid, which emphasized the blues roots of Beefheart’s music, and Clear Spot, a collection of concise r&b oriented selections, seemed to his devoted fans like sellouts. With the passage of time, they sound a lot better; conservative, maybe, but true to aspects of Beefheart’s musical personality and really full of good songs. Neither one made a dent in the marketplace, and in ’73 Warners let Beefheart go.
What happened next is a little fuzzy, and Beefheart’s own recollections shed little light, but he then signed with Mercury and released two LPs in ’74. They were somewhat sad attempts to leap into the commercial mainstream. Who was making these decisions? Beefheart was working with an outside producer (the first time he wasn’t at all involved in production since Trout Mask), but he was still doing most of the writing, and the band on Unconditionally Guaranteed is basically the one he’d been using since 1969.
Unconditionally Guaranteed and the subsequent Blue Jeans And Moon Beams (recorded with a studio band after the remaining Magic Band members left under vague circumstances which have left Beefheart quite bitter) are Beefheart at his worst. He is in good voice on both albums, but the music doesn’t fit him; quite simply, he’s trying to be something he’s not. Possibly he walked through Blue Jeans because he owed Mercury a record and was eager to get out of his contract. He claims today that both albums would have sounded fine if they hadn’t been so poorly mixed, but he’s wrong. The music is trite and uninspired; his heart isn’t in it. He even seems to acknowledge this on Guaranteed’s opening, Upon The My Oh My, when he sings: “Tell me, Captain, how does it feel / To be driven away from your own steering wheel?”
Both albums went nowhere, and it was hardly surprising when Mercury and Beefheart parted company. It was surprising, however, when he and feud-mate Zappa teamed up for a tour and an album in ’75. Zappa, at the height of his popularity, helped raise his old friend’s visibility and income by featuring Beefheart in his group; but after the tour it appeared Don Van Vliet would lapse back into obscurity and lack of outlet in the Mojave desert.
Instead, Beefheart put together a new band. When Shiny Beast came out in 1978, it was a revelation for those who cared – a new band that played with all the intensity and nuance of the old one, an album with all the power of Clear Spot but which took far more chances, and a new contract with Warner Bros. Unfortunately not too many cared, and Warners, caught up in the great record industry slump of 1979, dropped Beefheart before his album had a chance to gather momentum. Once again, Beefheart was commercially down, but not artistically out; he went back into the studio and came out with the astonishing Doc At The Radar Station.
It’s almost certainly his most intense album yet, with less of the old playfulness, but plenty of power. The sound of the band has been altered by the addition of synthesizer and mellotron. (Beefheart says that the technology of such an instruments is “ecology if it’s used correctly. I’m trying to eke out of that instrument what I want.”) His compositions are tougher, somehow, and his musical range is broader.
But record business vagaries have victimized Beefheart again. Doc was recorded for the British-based Virgin label, which at the time had a U.S. distribution deal with Atlantic. A few weeks after Doc’s release, that deal ended, leaving the album in catalogue limbo.
This fazes Beefheart, but only slightly. Content with the way his tour had been going, he talked eagerly about music, about art and about how much fun he was having – rather than be bothered by business, he was encouraged by his appearance on Saturday Night Live, packed houses every-where and favorable press notices.
“I read my reviews occasionally,” he allowed, “I think it’s very nice of them to even try to explain an artist. I think it’s really gallant. Brave.
“I like painting the most. Van Gogh-whew! I mean, really talk about nerve! I’ve tried to trace [paintings], but I can’t do it. It always goes off in another vein.
“It’s the same with music. I couldn’t copy anyone if I wanted to. The music just comes out of me. It always has.
“I hope it doesn’t quit.”