Captain Beefheart: Here I Am I Always Am — or Maybe Not

by Don R. Aldridge, August 2010

Don Van Vliet, the man who was known for more than two decades as Captain Beefheart, always jealously guarded his privacy. Much has been made over the years about Don’s reclusiveness, but I’m not sure that would – at least during the Magic Band era – be an apt description.

I don’t know of any time when I was not welcome at Don’s house or wherever he happened to be. I can’t recall being invited to any sessions, but he always made it clear to others that I was welcome. I was in all of the sessions at Sunset Sound, when they recorded what have become known as the Legendary A & M Sessions. Not in the control booth, in the studio.

Still, there were times-times when I knew he was around-that he was not to be found, and I have to believe that was by design. Often, I would show up at 1 A.M. and we would have a marathon writing session until dawn, or Don’s mother, Sue, would get up and make dinner. I related in Mike Barnes, Captain Beefheart: The Biography, one time when Sue Vliet fixed an entire Thanksgiving dinner at 2 A.M. Yet, there were times when it was like he was in a parallel universe.

In the mid-to-late 1990s when I began to speak about my friendship with him I had occasion to correspond with Gary Marker. Marker played bass in the Rising Sons, and in several instances filled in for Magic Band bassist Jerry Handley.

I had seen Gary play with the Son’s on the Sunset Strip during the 1960s, and I knew that he had covered for Jerry, but I had absolutely no idea that he and Don were close, and I don’t believe he was aware of me. Gary later told me that he believed Don simply compartmentalized his life.

I believe that is Don in a nutshell. When Don didn’t want to be found, you didn’t find him. I can think of several times when he just “disappeared” people. He was never rude to visitors, as far as I can recall, but a number of times I can remember people just not being there anymore.

There were also people I knew instinctively would not go over well with Don, and I didn’t bring them around. They were usually the ones who would say, “How’s Beefheart?” or “Hey, I saw you with Beefheart.” I was never with Beefheart; I didn’t know Captain Beefheart.

However, there were times when Don would absolutely astonish me with his affability. One time he and I ran into each other at a local bar in Lancaster. We hadn’t seen each other in a while and so it was a pleasant reunion. A few bar denizens accumulated around us that my girlfriend and I had been quite frankly trying to lose. One of them, out of the blue, said, “Hey, let’s go to my place.”

Before I could respond, Van Vliet said, “Sure.” We went to this guy’s house where he played Humble Pie for two hours. He and Don discussed Peter Frampton. Huh? Other times I have stood in a parking lot with him at 4 A.M., while he spoke with someone he didn’t know.

One thing was certain; Don always got the most out of everyone he spoke with. He was a keen observer of people and an attentive listener. Walking away, he would sometimes comment, “That cat’s lame, man,” or, more than once I’ve heard him say, “Jesus, that guy is heavy.”

I have always had the impression that Van Vliet was not very serious about himself. Serious about his art; not necessarily about himself. He is probably the most complex person I have ever known, but that complexity did not seem to run to arrogance. Which is interesting, because his supposed ego has always been a topic of much discussion.

I hope Don writes an autobiography. I think he should. Because I believe that he is one of those individuals fated to be greater in death than in life, and the world should have his take before he goes.

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