[alert_box type=”info”]Article from the Associated Press, published 22nd June 1995.[/alert_box]
A long time ago, in an artistic dimension somewhere in another galaxy called the 1960s, there emerged an unlikely musical hero, name of Captain Beefheart. At a time when others sang about peace and love – and played it safe with musical arrangements featuring jingly jangly guitars and thumpty-thump drums – there stood Captain Beefheart as a counterpoint.
There he stood, surrounded by bottleneck guitars, electronic pianos, trombones, French horns, Chinese gongs, clarinets, harmonicas – any instrument really, that sounded interesting when matched with his growling, 4 1/2-octave voice. But then – after 20 years and a dozen albums like “Doc at the Radar Station,” “Lick My Decals Off, Baby” and “Shiny Beast (Bat Chain Puller)” – Captain Beefheart was gone. He was gone off to visit another artistic universe, one where his wildly colorful images of animals and people co-existing in a world unspoiled by modernity could come to life on canvas.
“I had been painting since I was little bitty baby boy anyhow,” he said recently from his home on the rugged Northern California coast. “But I got waylaid along the way. That music thing waylaid me for 20 years.”
Now, more than a decade after the release of his last album, Captain Beefheart is back in a big way. He’s back as Don Van Vliet, the man who gave up music to pursue his first love, and who after years of struggle for respect, is emerging as one of the art world’s more renowned abstract expressionists.
“Don has really gotten to the point where as a painter he has his own language,” said Gordon Veneklasen, director of the Michael Werner Gallery in New York City, where an exhibition featuring 10 new Van Vliet paintings recently concluded. “His work doesn’t really look like anybody else’s work but his own,” added Veneklasen. “He’s become a really incredible painter.”
And, as the years drift by, he is becoming an increasingly famous one, with a large retrospective called “Stand Up to Be Discontinued” currently on a worldwide tour. With paintings from the ’60s to the ’90s, it arrives at the Cleveland Center for Contemporary Arts in August after stops in Sweden, Germany and England. It is also reproduced in a coffee-table art book that includes scholarly essays on Van Vliet and, in some versions, a signed print and a compact disc of him reading his poetry.
Although long a heroic figure to his music fans, such serious artistic acclaim didn’t come quickly to Van Vliet, who early on was sometimes dismissed as just another rock musician dabbling in art for ego’s sake. “The people didn’t get it,” he says with a hearty laugh now. “Well … they seldom do. They don’t have anything to do with my brush anyway.”
So just who does influence him? Nobody, he has long maintained, although he admits admiring such painters as Vincent van Gogh and Willem de Kooning. “They’re not really an influence on me, though,” he says. “No one is. I just paint like I paint and that’s enough influence.”
To an extent, everything he has seen, done or touched in his 54 years has been an influence. And Van Vliet, who loves to talk but not particularly about himself, shed a little light on some of that influence during a recent phone conversation that spanned three hours.
Born in the working-class Los Angeles suburb of Glendale, he grew up in a family that, he recalls, had absolutely no interest in art. “They were sweet people,” he says of his parents, “but they didn’t have a clue. They didn’t even know who Picasso was.” After staying in school just long enough to learn the three Rs, he decided it was time to educate himself. To his parents’ displeasure, he dropped out to spend his time studying music, sculpture, painting and drawing.
His father, a bakery deliveryman, eventually moved the family to a sparsely populated corner of Los Angeles County, on the edge of the Mojave Desert. It was there that Van Vliet first saw the images of cactus, sand, open space and exotic animals that would come to fill many of his songs and paintings.
It was there, too, that he met boyhood buddy Frank Zappa, his collaborator on the album “Bongo Fury” and producer of “Trout Mask Replica,” the work widely regarded as Van Vliet’s musical masterpiece.
“And then he had to go and die on me,” Van Vliet said quietly, recalling Zappa’s 1993 death to cancer. “He died too young – way, way too young.”
Over the years, there were efforts to compare Van Vliet to Zappa, and to such other musicians as blues legend Howlin’ Wolf and jazz great Ornette Coleman. Those who came later, including Tom Waits, the B-52s and the Sex Pistols, have been compared to him.
But none really sound quite like Captain Beefheart, who took a classical composer’s approach to what appeared to be spontaneous music, writing every note for every instrument and then demanding that his “Magic Band” musicians play it that way every time.
During all those music years, Van Vliet was painting, too, sometimes even during concerts. By the early ’80s, he decided it was time to concentrate strictly on that first love.
“I don’t think about music anymore,” he says now. “I don’t have time to think about it. That would just be keeping me away from the brush. And all I really want to do now is get as much out as I can through the brush.”
At one time he was known to paint nonstop for days. More recently, he said, he has begun to make accommodations to age, sometimes stopping after a day to eat or sleep.
What he won’t do is stop to go on the road, not to promote his paintings, to meet his public, not even to bask in his hard-earned glory. He hasn’t been to one of his exhibitions since 1990. “I don’t think being seen in public like that adds anything,” he says. “I think it’s just being commercial.”
After years of touring all over the world, he rarely ventures farther now than his front porch, where he’ll stop to paint pictures of ravens flying overhead or where he and his wife, Jan, can watch migratory whales swimming in the Pacific Ocean a half-block away.
But he denies being reclusive. “It’s just that I don’t like getting out when I could be painting,” he says. Then, after a moment’s thought, he adds with a laugh: “And when I’m painting, I don’t want anybody else around. That’s all.”
(Copyright 1995. The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)