Captain Beefheart’s Musical Genius Back In Spotlight

This article was written by James Sullivan and appeared in 6th June 1999’s San Francisco Chronicle to coincide with the releases of Grow Fins, The Dust Blows Forward and the Buddha reissues. Many thanks to Richie for sending it along.

It takes an outsize ego to make great art. By all accounts that was the case with Don Van Vliet, a.k.a. Captain Beefheart, leader of the quintessential cockeyed rock ‘n’ roll band.

Creators of perhaps the most obscure critically revered rock record of all time, 1969’s “Trout Mask Replica,” California’s Captain Beefheart and His Magic Band epitomized rock’s version of art for art’s sake.

Misunderstood – even openly reviled – in its day, the band has been an inspiration for such disparate musicians as PJ Harvey, Joan Osborne, Tom Waits and the late Jeff Buckley. This month, Revenant Records, a small, meticulous reissue label in Austin, Texas, is releasing the long-awaited five CD Beefheart set “Grow Fins: Rarities (1965-1982).”

Also coming: Buddha’s reissues of early Beefheart recordings including the garage like Safe As Milk and a two-disc Rhino Records ‘best of’ compilation.

“It’s a bonanza,” says guitarist Gary Lucas, who played in Beefheart’s last line up and managed his career for a time. “It’s going to put a spotlight on the guy’s genius again.

“To me he is one of the titans. He laughed and stuck out his tongue, but I’d rate him right up there.”

Stubbornly unorthodox, the Magic Band showcased marimbas, free-jazz saxophones and Van Vliet’s far-fetched wordplay, sung in a preposterous Wolfman Jack rasp. The band was like a wrong-way tug-boat bobbing in the wake of the hippie juggernaut.

The acid-rock bands “were doing music,” says guitarist Bill Harkleroad, who went by the moniker Zoot Horn Rollo during his years with the group (1968-74). “We were doing art.”

Unfortunately, he says, life with Van Vliet was demanding. “1 would say I had a friendship with him, but I would also say I was completely brainwashed and brutalized by him.” To day, Van Vliet, who switched his focus from music to painting almost two decades ago, is reportedly suffering from multiple sclerosis. He is 58 and lives in seclusion with his wife somewhere in rural California.

Eerie tales of the Captains tyrannical leadership and the band’s communal existence in and around Los Angeles abound in Harkleroad’s new book, “Lunar Notes: Zoot Horn Rollo’s Captain Beefheart Experience” (SAF Publishing/UK).

“In hindsight it was a great learning experience,” says Harkleroad, who now lives in Eugene, Ore., where he teaches guitar and runs a record shop. “I was looking way deep in my soul as a 19-year-old kid. It was hell to go through.”

Van Vliet, a child prodigy as a sculptor, treated music making like an act of assemblage. Avant-garde jazz played as much a role in the band’s evolution as the electric blues that first inspired it.

“I was listening to Coltrane as long as the headphones would stay on my head,” Harkleroad says. “We got into Albert Ayler and Cecil Taylor, to the point where key signatures and keys didn’t matter anymore. And a Van Gogh painting might be just as important to creating this artistic mentality as any music.”

One strange result of the group’s audacity’ was that, at the height of the hippie era, the Magic Band’s core audience consisted of chemistry-set misfits. “Ninety-nine-point-nine percent of our audience were nerds with glasses and penholders,” Harkleroad says. “No women. Matt Groening, creator of ‘The

Simpsons,’ has often acknowledged his love for the music of Captain Beefheart and his occasional colleague, Frank Zappa.

Lucas first met Van Vliet and the band in 1971, when he helped organize a show at Yale University, where he was a student. ‘I talked to Don the week before they got there,” he recalls. “I have a tape of that somewhere. My voice was shaking.”

The show, he says, was life-altering. “That’s when I vowed if I were to do anything in music, I’d be in that group.

Over the years, he stayed in contact with Van Vliet. As the ever-changing Magic Band entered into a run of mediocre album releases in the mid’70s, Lucas saw many of the baud’s East Coast shows, bills shared by would-be rock stars like Bob Seger and Billy Joel. Eventually he revealed his desire to audition for the group as a guitar player.

Lucas joined for a cameo on the well-received 1980 album “Doc at the Radar Station,” then became a full-fledged band member in time for what would become the Magic Band’s swan song, 1982’s “Ice Cream for Crow.”

By then, Lucas had helped Van Vliet rebuild his reputation, landing him on magazine covers and in prestigious gigs including an appearance on David Letterman’s show. The guitarist recalls a 1980 New York show at which the extent of Beefheart’s influence was suddenly apparent: “I think David Byrne was in the audience. All the hipsters in New York came out.”

Such recognition only made Van Vliet bitter that he hadn’t gotten it years before, Lucas says. “He felt he was as relevant as he’d been before.” The realization that experimental punk bands such as the Talking Heads and Pere Ubu considered him a father figure, not a contemporary, hastened his decision to quit the business.

“The last thing I did for him was probably the thing I’m most proud of,” Lucas says. I hooked up his art career. I introduced him to Julian Schnabel.”

Staying in music would have compromised his art, Van Vliet believed. He didn’t want his canvases to be seen as a hobby, Lucas says, “like Red Skelton’s clown paintings.”

Lucas went on to establish his own acclaimed career; he has played with both Buckley and Osborne. Though he hasn’t had contact with Van Vliet for 15 years, he still holds his former boss in high regard.

“It got hairy at the end. I was torn up by his hollering and yelling.

“To tell the truth, the more I accomplished for him, the more resentful he’d get. But when I left, he sounded really shattered.”

Whatever “psychic abuse” he endured, Lucas says, it was well worth it. “I learned so much. It was kind of like being in Beefheart University. He certainly was the professor.

“He was always paranoid,” Lucas says “He’d come in and say, ‘what have you guys been doing, sitting around thinking up new ways to pants the professor?'”

And the debate still lingers: Was Captain Beefheart a musical genius or simply a genius at manipulating his own image? “He knew how good he was,” Lucas says. “Then again he’d say an artist is the one who has to kid himself the most gracefully.”

1 Comment

  1. Genius or madman – the jury is still out:
    What are the jury retarded? The guys so goddamn far ahead of the pack it’s scary. There’s never been anyone remotely as dynamic, exciting or creative as the Captain!! There never will be either. Those of you who grew up with & loved his music know exactly what I’m talking about. Those who did not, well I’m kinda jealous cos you can discover afresh the rapturous joy we dined on back then called Captain Beefheart & His Magic Band

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