Frownland Gets a Face Lift

by Don R. Aldridge, August 2010

Much has been written over the years about Don Van Vliet’s, relationship with his parents, and I remain uncertain as to whether any of us who actually witnessed it understood what we were witnessing. I’m tempted to title this article, Captain Beefheart: Live at the Delivery Room: Bake One. Because much of what I saw was classic Only Child Syndrome, if I may coin a phrase. (JAMA will pick this up and put it on Oprah, I’m sure).

Interviews I’ve read with people who have witnessed an incident or two between Don and his mother, Sue, seem to almost unanimously suggest that the man known as Captain Beefheart was anything from a spoiled, over-indulged child, to an outright parent abuser. In fact, although I cannot recall any specific statements I’ve made in the few interviews I’ve given, I am fairly certain I myself have left a less than accurate – or at best an incompletely explained – impression of the complex arrangement that existed between Don and Sue Vliet.

But suffice to say none of us, including Frank Zappa – who was perhaps one of the few people to have witnessed this unique personal correspondence closer than I – have served history well, when it comes to Don Van Vliet’s relationship with his family.

I met Sue Vliet and Laurie Stone (Don’s girlfriend at the time) either on the day I met Don or shortly after. Sue was one of the most even-tempered individuals I have ever met, and I liked her immediately. What I doubt Van Vliet knew was that Sue and my mother were acquainted. Indeed I did not know it myself for some time. Don was probably also unaware that Sue and I developed a personal friendship, outside of my time there with he and the Beefheart band.

Don Van Vliet, as Captain Beefheart, was given to histrionics. I say this only because Don was generally as even-tempered as Sue, and often even jocular with me. When he was in one of these moods he often referred to me as “Little Donnie Aldrich.” I had just written and recorded two tunes with Johnny Otis when we met, and was completely naïve to the publishing business. One day I asked Don what BMI (Broadcast Music Inc) meant. Both Otis and Don were BMI writers and Don responded, “Better Music Incorporated.”

Without question Don ruled the roost at home, as he did the Beefheart band, and whenever something raised his ire, everyone, me included, tucked our tails. I cannot recall offhand any specific exchanges between Don and Sue, but I can remember more than a few times when he went into a tirade with a twinkle in his eye. And when Captain Beefheart saw that I was on to him, he would point a finger at me and say something like, “And I mean that, too.” To which I would dutifully give a machine gun nod.

In other words, there was banter. Don had a healthy, if wicked, sense of humor, and a hissing, sometimes mocking laugh that could turn my face red, keeping in mind that I was still a fairly sheltered kid from Lancaster.

This banter existed between Sue and Don, and was most evident when he would say something that almost anyone would consider outlandish. Don experimented with words and phrases, and I got the impression at times that he put them together conversationally, just to see how they sounded or played to an audience, me being the audience most often.

Sometimes, when she would hear Don make a particularly wild statement or an off-color comment, Sue would step around the corner from the kitchen and say, “Oh, Don.” Ever the glowing, doting mother. Of course, Don would say something like, “No, really,” and look at me and say, “Really, man.”

There was one case when I recognized genuine family strife at the Carolside house. It involved “Bob the Shoe Guy,” and occurred about a year after I met Don Van Vliet. Bob the Shoe Guy, a shoe salesman at Scott’s Department Store in Lancaster, was the only dating experience I ever knew Sue to have. Understand, the Carolside house served as the Beefheart band headquarters, as well as Van Vliet’s home.

In fairness to Bob, I have to say the dude had no idea what he’d walked into; the Magic Band was serious business, and nobody wanted to deal with a World War II vet with a Marine haircut. In fairness to Don, Bob was obnoxious.

This is a case where Van Vliet was rude, albeit only after Bob more or less challenged his authority. Bob was of the mistaken – and oh how mistaken – impression he was in Sue’s house. Don was 26 years old and had long ago become (if he had not always been) the head of the Vliet household.
Bob the Shoe Guy was one of the people Don disappeared.

Still, there was affection between Van Vliet and his mother. Is that the word? Perhaps not, but I certainly witnessed friendliness and camaraderie. They got along most of the time I was there, and I would not have wanted to be the guy who brought harm to either Sue or Laurie.

While I have said that Don Van Vliet was clearly in charge, his relationships with the women I knew were not mean spirited, at least not that I ever witnessed. Even on the one now infamous occasion when he stuffed Granny Annie in the closet, he did it as a lighthearted joke, brought on by Granny’s offended sense of Southern propriety. When he at long last released her, Granny Annie actually had an embarrassed smile on her face.

In summation I end where I began. If I was at a loss to ever really understand Don Van Vliet – and I was – I was doubly so when it came to his personal relationships. What I can say is that in all the years I knew him, even up until 1984 when we last spoke, he always took care of Sue Vliet.


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