After 16 years and a dozen albums, the world has finally caught up with Don van Vliet.
IT’S A DOGSHIT DAY ON West Forty-second Street, the neon-choked main drag of Manhattan’s cheap-thrills district. As the daily midmorning traffic jam congeals into an unmoving mass, Don Van Vliet peers out a drizzle-streaked car window at the shuffling tribe of hookers, hustlers and head cases that clogs the sidewalks, then squints up at the lewd movie marquees looming above: SLAVES OF THE CANNIBAL GOD. SUGAR BRITCHES. THAT’S PORNO! Reeling out into the street, a sputtering madwoman, dizzed-out and in full rant, does battle with her demons, flinging curses at the soggy September sky Van Vliet perks up, chuckling in appreciation. “Tell you what, I like her style,” he says, flipping to a fresh page in the squiggle-filled sketch pad on his lap. “I don’t pay attention to peripheria. Only noises pull me in.”
Forty-eight hours ago, Van Vliet and his wife, Jan, were puttering about anonymously in their tiny trailer out in the sun-baked wastes of the High Mojave Desert. But now, in his capacity as Captain Beefheart – “The shingle that’s given me shingles,” he grumps – Don has ventured back down into the commercial lowlands to make yet another attempt at hustling art in the East Coast rock & roll casbah. Doc at the Radar Station, the eleventh Captain Beefheart album (twelfth, if you count Bongo Fury, his 1975 collaboration with erstwhile pal Frank Zappa; fourteenth, if you include two live bootlegs, Easy Teeth and What’s All This BoogaWooga Music?), had critics baying in adulation even before its official release. Not surprising: Beefheart has always been a critical icon and a commercial impossibility, one of the sadder facts of contemporary American music. But this time, after two years in eclipse, there’s a feeling of triumph in his return. Beefheart’s spiritual children – bands like Pere Ubu, XTC, Devo, the Contortions – have helped create a more amenable context for the master’s inimitable music. Now, his anarchic guitar wrangles, lurching rhythms, quirky animist poetry and seven-octave vocal swoops don’t seem nearly as weird as they once did. In fact, although Doc at the Radar Station must surely confirm Van Vliet’s position as a major American composer, it could also lay claim to being the ultimate dance album – depending, of course, on how many dances your body is capable of doing at one time. In 1980, Captain Beefheart and his Magic Band sound utterly contemporary, even though Van Vliet hasn’t altered his musical approach one iota in order to achieve that effect. “I’m not Chuck Berry or Pinky Lee or something,” he says. “I’m right now, man. If I wanna do something, I do it right. Look how long I’ve been at this, my tenacity. It’s horrible. It’s like golf – that bad. But it’s what I do.”
VAN VLIET HAD HIS own slant on things right from the start. Born thirty-nine years’ ago in Glendale, California, he taught himself to read at the age of three. At four, he dropped out of kindergarten (“They were playing with these gigantic blocks, and I never liked squares that much”) and took up sculpture. At five, while visiting Griffith Park Zoo in Los Angeles, he met a noted Portuguese sculptor named Agostinho Rodriquez, and soon young Van Vliet was displaying his artistic talents on Rodriquez’ weekly television show.
When he was thirteen, Don was offered a major scholarship to study sculpture in Europe. His parents, Glen and Sue Van Vliet, fearing that their only child might fall in with an evil – or possibly effeminate – crowd, decided instead to move him out to the desert, to the nice, safe town of Lancaster. There, Don met Frank Zappa, who was not a wholesome influence. The two spent much of their time auditing obscure R&B records. Sometimes they would sneak into the bakery truck that Don’s father drove for a living and fill up on the fresh-baked goodies inside. (Although they were fast friends then, over the years Van Vliet has come to resent what he sees as Zappa’s wholesale appropriation of his musical vocabulary; “He got a lot of goodies offa me,” Don says glumly “He never quit.”)
The early Sixties found Zappa and Van Vliet in Cucamonga working on a concept for a band, the Soots, and a movie, Captain Beefheart Meets the Grunt People. Neither project panned out, and Zappa soon departed for L.A. to form the Mothers of Invention. Van Vliet returned to Lancaster with his new moniker (“I had a beef in my heart against the world”) and started gathering musicians. By 1964, he was gigging locally and before long, Captain Beefheart and the Magic Band were signed to A&M Records, which released a single – a version of Bo Diddley’s “Diddy Wah Diddy” – that became a local hit in 1966. A&M, of course, wanted to follow up with an album, thinking it had a hot white blues-rock group on its hands. This was the first in a series of executive misperceptions that have plagued Van Vliet throughout his career.
A&M found Van Vliet’s original material profoundly perplexing, and passed on putting out an LP. Buddah Records was willing to give Don a shot, though, and in 1967 released Safe as Milk, which contained such Beefheart classics as ‘Abba Zaba” and “Electricity” The next year’s Strictly Personal, however, was grotesquely distorted by phasing – an obnoxious studio effect of the period – which was grafted onto the album without Van Vliet’s approval. Fortunately, at that point, Frank Zappa reappeared and signed his old buddy to his new Straight label. Assured of complete artistic freedom, Van Vliet sat down at a piano and in eight and a half hours composed twenty-eight astounding songs, combining field hollers, fatback boogie and free-jazz blowing into a stupefying new sound that still seems exhilaratingly avant-garde thirteen years later. For those won over by Trout Mask Replica, run-of-the-mill rock & roll would never again seem quite sufficient.
Van Vliet’s genius continued to flower on Lick My Decals Off Baby (1970), The Spotlight Kid and Clear Spot (both 1972). Unfortunately, not many people bought those records. His career hit what is generally regarded as its nadir in 1974, when he signed with Mercury and released, in quick succession, Unconditionally Guaranteed and Bluejeans and Moonbeams, two unabashed bids for straight commercial success. (The former is an album of simple but engaging pleasures; the latter, a true turkey). After the holding action of Bongo Fury in 1975, Van Vliet found himself labelless. Zappa helped him organise the sessions for what was to have been his next album, Bat Chain Puller, and eventually, most of this material appeared on 1978’s Shiny Beast (Bat Chain Puller), which also introduced the nucleus of his current Magic Band. However, a legal dispute between Van Vliet’s American and European record companies prevented the album from being released abroad until late last year, effectively scuttling any major impact it might have had.
GIVEN THIS CHRONICLE of woe, it is remarkable that Doc at the Radar Station is one of the strongest and most uncompromising albums Van Vliet has ever made. “The people at Virgin Records told me that their favourite things were Lick My Decals Off Baby and Trout Mask,” he says. “They said that it wouldn’t bother them at all if I just went all out and did some things like that, and I said, ‘No problem.'”
The album’s twelve tracks were essentially cut live in the studio, with roaring performances by the Magic Band: Jeff Moris Tepper on guitars, Eric Drew Feldman on keyboards and bass, Robert Arthur Williams on drums, Bruce Lambourne Fowler on trombone and John “Drumbo” French – the original Magic Band drummer – on guitars, marimba, bass and drums. (Gary Lucas contributes French horn and fingerpicks a solo Stratocaster on the tricky neomadrigal, “Flavor Bud Living.”) Produced by Van Vliet (who plays soprano sax, bass clarinet, Chinese gongs and harmonica), the album is a dizzying blast of pure, unadulterated Beefheart, from such (relatively) straightforward stomp-alongs as “Hot Head” and “Run Paint Run Run” and the delicate, glimmering ‘A Carrot Is as Close as a Rabbit Gets to a Diamond” to the monumental flailings of “Sue Egypt” and especially “Sheriff of Hong Kong.” Listening to the latter track, it’s hard to comprehend how Van Vliet, an unschooled musician, is able to compose each instrument’s part – from crashing guitar chords to the tiniest sizzle of a cymbal – and then teach each musician how to play it. In effect, he’s responsible for every sound on the record, and he says it just comes to him naturally.
“‘Sheriff of Hong Kong’ was done on a grand piano,” Don explains. “I played that damn thing exactly the way it is. I think guitar on one hand, bass on the thumb and the other guitar on the other hand. Pianos are great to compose on, man.” He also wrote some songs on his latest acquisition, a Mellotron, the original, now-antiquated string synthesizer. “I heard them played so many horrible ways that I got interested in getting hold of one of them. The Mellotron’s the only thing that can get that Merthiolate colour, you know what I mean?’ Really abused throat”
Although Van Vliet is only marginally aware of the many admirers he has among New Wave musicians (“I’ve heard a few things they’ve done that kind of annoyed me”), some of his new songs suggest that he resents the way certain of his techniques – usually the jangly slide guitars and discombobulated rhythms – have been adapted for fun and profit by some young bands, while he remains generally unheralded and basically poverty-stricken. In “Sue Egypt,” he mentions “all those people that ride on my bones,” and in ‘Ashtray Heart” he sings:
You picked me out, brushed me off
Crushed me while I was burning out
Hid behind the curtain
Waited for me to go out
You used me like an ashtray heart
Don insists that ‘Ashtray Heart” is “purely just a poem,” which may well be. He couldn’t be blamed for holding at least a slight grudge, though.
Bolstered by the clamorous reception accorded Doc at the Radar Station, Van Vliet is now itching to get out on the road. “Our sets will probably be an hour and thirty minutes, I think. That’s too long, but after the Grateful Dead and Zappa, what can you do? I mean, if you don’t have it, man, you have to play longer. It makes me feel funny. It’s an insult to people to stay up there that long.”
Long sets also mean more lyrics to be recommitted to memory – not an appealing prospect with a repertoire as complex and lengthy as Van Vliet’s. “I have to learn all of that vomit, you know? It’s like reaching back in a toilet, bringing it back up. God, that stuff is so far back to me at this point I mean, Jesus Christ, I can’t even remember where my keys are in my pocket.”
Van Vliet and the Magic Band (with new guitarist Richard Snyder replacing the recently departed Drumbo) will kick off a major US tour on the East Coast in late November, then head west after a brief holiday break. First, though, the group will embark on a two-week tour of Europe. Don likes visiting Europe.
“My favourite wine I ever had was in Brussels,” he recalls, obviously relishing the memory “This stuff was old – seventeenth century There was a petrified spider in the cork. I thought it was about time we had some good wine, so I bought everybody in the band a bottle and charged it to the room. I did – charged it to Warner Bros. It was good. And it was snowing in Brussels, and the snowflakes were like white roses falling in slow motion. Ooh, it was wonderful – especially on that wine.”
His enthusiasm is understandable – such conviviality is hard to come by back in the High Mojave. “I split a bottle of wine in the desert with this black hobo,” Don says. “Very hip fellow. He’d hitchhiked down from Oakland. He didn’t take a train anymore. He said, ‘I don’t ride the rails because the young people, they kill tramps now, you know.’ I said, ‘That’s disgusting.’ He said, ‘It isn’t like it used to be, Don…'”
BREAKING FREE FROM the Forty-second Street traffic impasse, we head north toward Central Park, where a photo session has been set up at the Children’s Zoo. The photographer has decided to shoot Van Vliet with some dwarf goats, which sounds like a good idea. “I used to drink a lot of goat’s milk when I was a child,” Don explains. “Now they say you can get TB from it, but that’s a bunch of hooey. Man already has TB, especially the government – Tired Butt.”
The goats are nowhere to be seen, having retired inside their wooden shelter at the first sight of humans bearing photographic equipment – an entirely reasonable reaction. As soon as Don swings one leg into their pen, however, they come trotting out. One of them nuzzles his knee. Another chews lightly on his trouser cuff. Not only that, but a pair of squirrels come scampering up the walk to observe the scene, and as Don chats away, a totally unexpected banty rooster steps out from behind a nearby bush. It’s really something to see: Doc and his radar.
Being around Don Van Vliet for any length of time, it’s hard to repress the feeling that he’s in direct contact with some benign but alien force. Or maybe he’s just open to it. In “Dirty Blue Gene,” a song on the new album, he mentions “‘The Shiny Beast of Thought / Standing there bubbling like an open cola in the sun.” Where does it all come from – the poems, the paintings, the strange and wonderful music?
“Probably from a tortured only child,” he says. “It just all comes right out of my… sometimes cesspool, sometimes not. It’s always there. I just hope it doesn’t stop. And I hope my water doesn’t stop – wow, can you imagine that? I’m more afraid the water’ll stop. God have mercy: all of a sudden you can’t go to the bathroom. After all these years – what, thirty-nine years of going to the toilet. Wow it certainly is comforting.