Ahm gonna tell you the story of how I came to meet Don Van Vliet. Well, to be honest, I stood in front of him, yes, but whether that qualifies as a “meeting” I’m not sure.
In May 1985 about 30 galleries in Cologne were having exhibitions of new artists or new work of old artists. I don´t keep my eye on this stuff, and it was purely accidental when I saw his name in the advert for this gallery-event all over town. I was on my way home from school – Jesus, this is so long ago! I called the gallery, asking whether the artist would be there, and to my excitement, the answer was yes.
Gallerie Werner is located right in the centre. There are about 3 rooms, one of which is rather large and with enough wall space to pack those big paintings. It was a Sunday; the same day ex-US-president Ronald Reagan and ex-German-Chancellor Helmut Kohl were visiting a graveyard in Bitburg, Germany. This was quite a scandal at the time since some SS-nazis are buried there, too.
I’m guessing at the exact timing here; memory fails. He was due to arrive at the gallery at around 12 o´clock. When I arrived there were already about 40 people hanging around. Some of them were like me, obviously misplaced fans, some obviously journalists, and some of them were art-scene-dudes with nice black suits and big cigars, and if looks could kill all of the fans would have been dead right on the front door.
Van Vliet was late. About 1.5 hours. Finally he arrived, directly transferred from Frankfurt Airport by car (2 hours’ drive) with his hat and his wife Jan. He seemed to be in a good mood, even a little shy, since everybody was starring at him (the fan-section) or trying to look not too impressed (the artist-section) or just curious. So he walked around, talked a little with some people, took a look at his pictures, got himself a drink and a cigar, and began to make longer conversations to those around him or those who came to him.
There was this “artist” called Julian Schnabel (above) from New York. By that time I didn´t know he was a “popular artist”, but the way he behaved classified him as a downright asshole. He kept calling a Dutch journalist (a woman who just wanted to have a short interview) “Blondie” in the most arrogant way, even when she made it clear that she didn´t want to talk any longer, he shouted something like “Hey Blondie, come back” after her. There were others like him, who at least ignored those not of their standard. You can see them in the pics, with their black suits and cigars.
Don Van Vliet was talking to people, got some drinks, talked, smoked, talked, and obviously got pretty drunk. He ended up in one room in the gallery, sitting in the chair, laughing, talking to a couple of people at the same time, began reciting poems, but words failed him, so he grabbed the exhibitions catalogue with some poems in it and read them. As far as I can remember it was either “Skeleton Makes Good” or “Falling Ditch” (or both). Sorry, its 13 years ago, I was 17 years old and kinda nervous and stuff. And boy, he was in the mood and pretty drunk. But what I remember was that his voice filled the small room. Real loud and full, and not the broken voice on the “Stand up to be discontinued” CD. I stood for a few minutes, thinking that this is my reward for never having seen a concert. People were taking pictures, and the fan-section was just looking happy. I must have been smiling like a jerk.
Finally someone must have decided that the show was over. That’s when autograph-time began. Suddenly the fan-section produced their vinyl-albums from their bags, and I realised I hadn´t brought any. While I was in the queue waiting with some scrap of paper for him to sign, I realised with a twinge of fear that he was chatting and asking people things. You know, for people who only learned English in school, understanding something like “whhasssupnme” is hard work. Eventually I worked out that he was asking each person’s name to sign it, and writing “Love over gold” in huge letters on the album covers. The guy’s name in the queue before me was “Werner”, like the gallery, but Van Vliet wrote his name with a “V”. The guy corrected him, and Don began to laugh, “What, with a ´W´, like this?” and tried to correct his mistake. Afterwards, the name looked more like one of his abstract paintings.
So I got some photos, his signature with my name on it and I left very happy.
It was years later when all of this reoccurred to me. I got on the Internet in 1992, I think. Shortly after I discovered what a “newsgroup” was, I read this posting in alt-fan-frank-zappa, where a guy called Gerry Pratt placed an add for the first issue of a Beefheart-Fanzine. That’s when I remembered the photos I shot, wrote him an email, offering him the pictures in exchange for the fanzine, and Gerry was so thankful that I got free copies of all the zines he produced. (This is another story, I never met the man or anything, and we didn’t even talk about anything other than Beefheart in our emails, but when I got this email from one of his colleagues, saying that he was dead, I was really shocked and sad. Strange kinda virtual-friendship-thing, I guess).
So that was my Don Van Vliet day. Gallery Werner did some more exhibitions with his paintings, but Don never came back in person. I still think that it was kinda stupid of me to go there with just one film in my camera, and trying to take pictures of the paintings instead of buying the catalogue, but I didn´t have that much money, and developing a film was a small fortune to me then. Stupid me.
I should have pushed the button at 3 frames a second.
Photographs and text copyright Carl Berger.
Many thanks to Carl for his account and permission to use his photographs.