[alert_box type=”info”]This article was taken from the 2nd September 1994 edition of The Independent newspaper.[/alert_box]
Recording artist: Don van Vliet, the artist, is now back in touch with Captain Beefheart, the legend. Robert Hanks spots the difference.
When he was a boy, back in Glendale, California, in the Forties and Fifties, Don van Vliet wanted to be a sculptor; at the age of 13, he even won a scholarship to study in Europe. But his parents thought that was kind of cissy, and wouldn’t let him. Instead, he went off to become Captain Beefheart, performing upright, manly blues-stroke-dada-stroke-field hollers- stroke-atonal collective improvisation with his Magic Band. Presumably his parents wished they’d left well alone.
With the albums Safe as Milk and, particularly, Trout Mask Replica he created a new kind of music: jolting cross- rhythms and discordant strumming, twanging in an apparently random relation with Beefheart’s meaty growl – reputed to cover a range of four-and-a- half octaves. The lyrics are a compendium of surreal imagery and playful assonance – at the start of Trout Mask Replica he explains: ‘A squid eating dough inside a polyethylene bag is fast and bulbous. You got me?’ The whole album comes across as a sophisticated joke, the kind where you’re not entirely sure that you get the point but you’re fairly sure it’s a hoot.
Trout Mask Replica ought to have been seminal, except that nobody else ever managed to come up with anything that sounded even remotely like it. But the Fall and Pere Ubu are two of its byproducts; and Beefheart won the eternal admiration of John Peel.
All the time he was being a sort of rock star, though, Van Vliet’s hankering after the visual arts never went away. He turned to painting and drawing, providing sleeve designs for his later albums, and since the Magic Band’s last outing, Ice Cream for Crow in 1982, that has been his main artistic outlet. An exhibition visited London a few years ago; but ‘Stand Up to be Discontinued’, arriving in Brighton this weekend from Denmark and Germany, is the first to present the paintings in the context of the music, offering Beefheart posters and memorabilia, taped interviews and a video alongside the canvases.
It also offers, in the beautifully produced catalogue, some unnecessarily convoluted attempts to provide a joint rationale for the music and the painting. Actually, the connections are easy to spot. For one thing there are the titles, many of them derived from Van Vliet’s own poems and songs. A few describe his semi-abstract, quasi-figurative works (Gorillacrow for one), while others come across as improvised post facto explanations of otherwise baffling images (Riding Some Kind of Unusual Skull Sleigh). Most seem to be there for the thrill of the sound they make: Beezoo, Beezoo, Bromboline Frenzy, Japan in the Dishpan. Compare track titles on Trout Mask Replica: ‘Pachuco Cadaver’, ‘Neon Meate Dream of a Octofish’, ‘Ant Man Bee’. The other thing that connects music and painting is the way that a surface impression of something slapdash dissolves on closer examination. Although the early albums were largely based on improvisation, on the later ones Beefheart laid down every note played. Similarly, in the paintings what looked like blank spaces are actually areas of densely worked white paint: no part of the canvas escapes his attention.
Where the big divergence from his earlier career occurs is in the matter of influences. Beefheart’s big heroes were rural American bluesmen – he is supposed to have imitated the sound of the late Howlin’ Wolf so accurately that one of the Wolf’s musicians believed he had returned from the dead. Now though he has gone legit, moving into a mainstream Eurocentric tradition: he cites Van Gogh (not uncommon for rock musicians) and the American abstract impressionist Franz Kline as his favourite painters. You can see too traces of other contemporary artists, the rough, inverted figures you get in George Baselitz, say. After years of joking, the impression is that Don van Vliet is finally asking to be taken seriously. No doubt it comes as a relief to his Mum and Dad.
‘Stand Up to be Discontinued – The Art of Don van Vliet’, 3 Sept-13 Nov 1994, Brighton Museum and Art Gallery (01273 713287)
– Robert Hanks, 1994