Captain Beefheart: Strange Fire

by Don R. Aldridge, October 2010

In 1965, I walked into the world of Don Van Vliet, the man who would become renowned internationally as the avant-garde rock artist Captain Beefheart. What I did not realize at the time was that I would be a witness to the complete evolutionary process of both the man and the artist.

My birth name is Don Aldridge and knew Don Van Vliet for twenty years. I still consider him my friend although we have not spoken in many years years. And I miss Don Van Vliet. I miss the esoteric banter and friendly discussions we had in the earliest days of Captain Beefheart and His Magic Band. I miss his perspectives and perceptions on everything from music to politics and I even miss his sometimes-heated rants on everything from rock and roll to my day job and cherished motorcycle.

What I do not miss is Van Vliet’s masterful ability to control and manipulate those around him. I have said several times that when Don was in the room the air belonged to him. That was true in all the years I knew him, and I imagine it is true today, although I hear that his wife, Jan Van Vliet, whom I have never met, is quite a remarkable and strong woman.

I know now that Don Van Vliet had only a slight inkling of the direction he would take in life when I met him. It was a full three years after we met that I believe he became locked in to his destiny. I dropped in on a Captain Beefheart who, in retrospect, was both conflicted and in constant transition as he sorted out exactly what that destiny would be.

I can only relate my perceptions of this amazingly complex man, but I believe that music was a diversion, and an odd one, from his lifelong intention to become an artist. I believe his meeting Frank Zappa was the impetus for that diversion. Indeed, I believe music detracted for at least a short time from Don’s credibility as a modern Expressionist painter. On our last reunion in 1984, he told me that he would never have credibility as an artist while performing as Captain Beefheart. I agreed.

In 1968, Captain Beefheart and His Magic Band left the Antelope Valley of Southern California and moved to Laurel Canyon in the Hills over Hollywood. Don and I would only see each other periodically after that move. Prior to this relocation, however, I noticed a band in turmoil, although much of the tumult remained cloaked in affected loyalties.

Our periodic reunions in the intervening years for me, however, served as distinct – and at times stark-snapshots into the evolution Van Vliet the man and the artist. To a certain degree this can be attributed to my transition into full adulthood, but Don matured and changed as well. But as the years progressed I began to like Van Vliet even more than I had in the early days of the band, when he and Laurie Stone and I spent so much free time together. I began to see Van Vliet the artist instead of Don Van Vliet the con artist. And that is truly what I came to believe of his Captain Beefheart portrayal.

Van Vliet the artist as I knew him was a quiet man. This was a compartment of his life to which I was not admitted entry, although he sketched and drew almost constantly while we were together, whether at home or in a coffee shop at four o’clock in the morning. He never spoke of his ultimate desire to paint and sculpt, but over the years I began to form the opinion that these were his true calling, almost as though music was some blasphemous form of idolatry with which he’d experimented – strange fire for a backslidden artist genius.

In retrospect, I think he seriously believed in the early years that he was on the threshold of commercial success as Captain Beefheart, but as that window slowly closed he began to revert to his original ambition as an artist; in fact, I believe, Captain Beefheart became a character in a one-man play. While he certainly enjoyed the creative aspects of his music, I don’t think he any longer had faith that the media or the general public would accept it.

Trout Mask Replica and the albums that followed were part of a transition that would bring Van Vliet full circle to what he had always known deep inside was his destiny. In viewing some of his post-Beefheart paintings recently, that becomes clearer to me; the man is a bold Expressionist, and I regret not having observed that part of his character on a deeper level. While I initially didn’t care for his painting any more than I did his music, I always appreciated the quality of his work, and I have come to like his paintings very much over time.

An essay on the Lowe Gallery website says:

His music fans were, of course, heartbroken. Even though they had known he was a self-taught painter all along – many of his best album covers were created by Van Vliet – they never imagined such a complete change of medium. They were also, rightfully, afraid for their hero because the art world is fraught with former athletes, rock stars, or actors who have taken up painting in the hopes of cashing in on their notability. This was not, however, to be the case with Van Vliet because, unbeknownst to his fans, he was considered a visual arts prodigy long before his fame as a musician.

Here the essayist nails it. Van Vliet’s change of medium as an artist was not from music to fine art, but visa-versa; he had always been a painter and sculptor, music was always the distraction. It just so happened that it was an ingenious distraction. However, it was all visual art for Don Van Vliet.

His dabbling in the idea of producing me in the character of the “25th Century Quaker” convinced me of this rather early. The idea was literally to form a pop art Monkees, a scripted avant-garde band that would in a sense be a parody on modern rock and roll. Even that, I thought at the time, was ingenious. To some degree the B-52s did the same thing later.

Former Beefheart drummer John “Drumbo” French and I once had a friendly disagreement while discussing this, when I expressed my opinion that Van Vliet was a genius. John contradicted me, leaning toward the thought that Don had a certain musical genius but was not a true genius. In that regard I think that John was standing too close to the picture. Don Van Vliet is in my opinion one of the great artistic geniuses of our time, and, as is the case with many artists, he excelled in more than one form. In the end it may have been a matter of subjectivity but I don’t think so.

Captain Beefheart was, almost from the beginning, performance art for Don, meaning stage art, as though he intended every performance to be a theatrical production. In fairness to French, the tumult that occurred in the creation and rehearing of the album Trout Mask Replica had to be an overwhelming experience, and it was my impression that for many of the members of the Magic Band it became a defining factor in their assessment of the man.

My one visit to the TMR house, which I will relate in a later instalment, was my greatest disappointment with my old friend, but I never once considered that he was not the same Don I had always known. Contrarily, I had had glimpses of this “mad artist” many times over the years, and as disappointed as I was, I believe that even at the time I understood what I was seeing. Don was slinging paint; he was in the “Automatic Method”. And when that happened it was time to either sign up or get out of Dodge.

Next time I will discuss the events leading up to my visit to the house on Ensenada Drive during the rehearsal for Van Vliet’s pivotal opus, Trout Mask Replica.

Read the other articles in the series:


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