Author Recounts Friendship with Avant-garde Icon
By Don R. Aldridge, December 2010
American pop music has lost an artist of enormous influence. Captain Beefheart, composer, singer, bandleader, and avant-garde musician who was perhaps one of rock’s greatest unheralded geniuses, died in a Northern California hospital, Friday. His death was attributed to complications due to multiple sclerosis. He was 69 years old.
Born Don Glen Vliet, January 15, 1941, he became known to his worldwide fan base simply as Captain Beefheart. Of Dutch ancestry, the artist, who turned to painting after retiring from the stage in the 1980s, changed his surname to Van Vliet in the 1960s.
I knew Don well and deeply valued the friendship we shared for the better part of two decades. A lifetime sculptor and painter, who as a child appeared on local Los Angeles television and won but turned down a scholarship to study in Europe, he departed the stage in the 1980s to pursue life as a fulltime artist.
I met Don in 1965, and we remained in contact well into the 1980s, several years after he left music.
Praised and inveighed alike for his heavy-handed methods of achieving ingenious works such as 1969’s, Trout Mask Replica, I knew Van Vliet to be a kind and generous man. More than once he fed me, gave me memorabilia from his many travels and advised me on my career as a songwriter. Although we had our differences over the years I never lost respect for him as an artist or as a friend.
Perhaps the one thing that the historians will miss in recounting the life of Don Van Vliet will be his since of humor; it was at times riotous. Many of the send ups he has been noted for over the decades, his Paul Bunyan-esque yarns, were nothing more than that humor at its finest, what I will describe as folk humor. I often thought that he was delightfully amused that people took him so literally.
In the early years, we explored together the idea of creating a Monkees-like avant-garde band, which he would produce, called the “25th Century Quaker,” with me at the helm. In Beefheart circles I became known as the Quaker. Later, he did me the honor of paying tribute to our idea with the cover art on his antecedent oeuvre to Trout Mask, Strictly Personal.
As the leader of the Beefheart band, Van Vliet employed a number of top-flight musicians who would go on to notable success, including my childhood friends, John “Drumbo” French, guitarist Jeff Cotton and bassist Mark “Rockette Morton” Boston, as well as Ry Cooder, Gary Lucas and Morris Tepper.
Van Vliet was a contemporary and high school friend of songwriter-producer and leader of the Mothers of Invention, Frank Zappa, and followed him into avant-garde and Dada-esque rock during the mid 1960s. He once told me that he and Zappa experimented with backmasking and other avant-garde techniques in the late 1950s, a full decade before the Beatles. He and Zappa later worked together at Zappa’s fabled Studio Z.
Don Van Vliet has been widely lauded by many as a primary inspiration behind punk and new wave rock acts of the 1970s, such as David Byrne of Talking Heads, The Minute Men, Blonde, B-52s and The Clash, but his influence extended into the mainstream to include the Beatles. Tom Waits credited Beefheart’s influence as a turning point in his career. On more than one occasion I remember him telling me, “That cat should send me money,” when referring to one pop artist or another. One could hardly disagree.
Van Vliet’s 1969 double-album opus, Trout Mask Replica has been cited by dozens of music critics, musicians and insiders as one of the most influential rock albums of the 20th century. Simpson’s creator Matt Groening declared it the greatest rock album ever made.
“If there has ever been such a thing as a genius in the history of popular music, it’s Beefheart … ” said late British disc jockey John Peel. “I heard echoes of his music in some of the records I listened to last week and I’ll hear more echoes in records that I listen to this week.” DJ and critic Lester Bangs cited Van Vliet as “one of the four or five unqualified geniuses to rise from the hothouses of American music in the Sixties.”
Rock critic Piero Scaruffi cites Beefheart as, “Possibly the greatest rock musician of all times, and certainly one of the most original and influential geniuses of the 20th century, Don Van Vliet, also known as Captain Beefheart, completely erased all musical dogmas and simply reinvented music on his own terms.”
But while Don reached iconic status among fans around the world, his music was also often panned. Unlike Zappa’s 1965 debut release, Freak Out! his first effort, Safe as Milk, was noted for having no center and lacking direction. Actor Jack Black in High Fidelity would cite it as the album he “wouldn’t sell to an undeserving customer.” His wildly influential Trout Mask Replica has been plowed under by some critics as unlistenable while being considered by others as an incomparable work of genius. Over the span of his career he recorded 13 studio albums as Captain Beefheart.
On our last meeting, in the spring of 1984, Van Vliet and I revisited old times and played the newly-released Captain Beefheart: The Legendary A & M Sessions, which he later signed to me: “Luv Don, Luv Don.”
For me, perhaps Van Vliet’s greatest legacy is that he was the first truly out-of-the-box thinker of the rock era; his work has no pre-ancestry in the annals of the genre and a multitude of imitators, tributaries and out right rip-offs. He has been quoted as saying, “I’d never just want to do what everybody else did. I’d be contributing to the sameness of everything.” And that about sums up the Van Vliet I knew.
Over the years I had an opportunity to see Don in a great many venues, both personally and professionally and witnessed first hand his almost chameleon-like ability to either attract crowd-stopping attention, or meld as anonymously into the background as a lampshade. Although I never doubted his genius, Don often amazed me with his ability to communicate with those around him. Whether speaking with a garage mechanic or a UCLA physicist, he always seemed to know exactly how to draw in those around him and extract the most from them.
On our last meeting in the mid 1980s, Don spoke of his intention to re-enter music at a later time, perhaps after establishing himself as a painter, but I had the distinct impression that he was off to a new adventure, and that once he arrived at his destination he would not look back. That turned out to be the case.
It has always been difficult for me to say that Don Van Vliet was my friend, although I have said as much here, and often over the years; it always seemed to me that he viewed friendship as an abstract. Perhaps that is why whenever we met, whether we had seen each other the day before or a year prior, it was always as though we hadn’t been a room apart the whole time. He would often take up with a conversation we’d had in the distant past, as though he had only paused between sentences.
I have missed Don Van Vliet often over the years so it would be foolish to say that I will miss him now. I consider myself greatly enriched by having known him. He was a serendipitous discovery in my early manhood and I was privileged to know him as a person rather than a musical talent. So I’ll just say, So long, Don.
Read the other articles in the series:
- The Amazing Vanishing Spotlight Kid
- The Spotlight Kid Revisited: Two Decades with Captain Beefheart
- Captain Beefheart: Here I Am I Always Am — or Maybe Not
- Captain Beefheart: Live from Carolside
- Captain Beefheart: Brave New Twirl
- Captain Beefheart: My Human Gets Me Blues
- Captain Beefheart: Strange Fire
- Captain Beefheart: Don’t Drink the Tea
- The Movable Feast: Thanksgiving with Captain Beefheart