But why did he throw it all in and go to live in the Mojave Desert? Mike Barnes finds out.
“I’M a genius, I was born with my eyes open,” said Captain Beefheart back in 1972. A lot of people still agree with him. John Peel is one of them. “If there has ever been such a thing as a genius in the history of popular music, it’s Beefheart,” he says. “I heard echoes of his music in some of the records I listened to last week and I’ll hear more echoes in records that I listen to this week.” Beck, PJ Harvey and Tom Waits have cited his influence, while devotees include Woody Allen, Matt Groening, creator of The Simpsons, and film director David Lynch.
Captain Beefheart, real name Don Vliet, started out in 1964 as the leader of the Magic Band, one of many groups influenced by British rhythm and blues who played in Lancaster, California. By the late Sixties he was being touted by Rolling Stone as potentially the greatest white blues singer. All he had to do, the magazine maintained, was to tone down things down a bit – in particular, his more eccentric lyrics and his Howlin’ Wolf-style vocal roar. Characteristically, Beefheart took no notice whatsoever of this, and the following year he recorded a double album which still inspires awe and incomprehension in equal measure. “I was 15 when I first heard Trout Mask Replica,” recalls Matt Groening, “and I thought it was the worst dreck I’d ever heard in my life. I said, `They’re not even trying, they’re playing randomly.’ I played it again and I thought, `It sounds horrible but they mean it to sound that way.’ By the seventh and eighth time I thought it was the greatest album ever made and still do.” The album found Beefheart taking various styles of American music – country blues, black free jazz and rock ‘n’ roll – chewing them up and disgorging a dissonant tangle of guitars, drums and raw sax playing. Over all this, he bellowed out the lyrics to determinedly uncatchy numbers such as Neon Meate Dream Of A Octafish and Ant Man Bee. But though superficially chaotic, the music was strictly arranged. Beefheart had evolved an intuitive method of spontaneous composition – with no doubt coincidental echoes of John Cage – by playing the guitar and bass lines on a piano, on which he was completely untutored. He would also whistle parts, or sketch them on harmonica, guitar or drums.
Drummer John French (whom Beefheart rechristened Drumbo) took on the arduous task of transcribing these parts and teaching them to the group. He admits the exercise “nearly drove me nuts”, because each song would be a mixture of different time signatures, and Beefheart might decide on some last-minute changes – telling French to play a drum part backwards, for example. The rehearsals lasted eight months.
He continued with this idiosyncratic way of composing throughout his career. The last Magic Band drummer, Cliff Martinez, now a film soundtrack composer, was once given a cassette of drum parts to learn, which turned out to be a recording of Beefheart and his wife washing up after dinner. Somehow he managed to approximate this “percussive activity”.
Under the media spotlight Beefheart was witty and eminently quotable. But as a leader he was a despot – not always a benevolent one. Unsurprisingly, there was a considerable turnover of band members. To stay, they had to meet his strict demands and work incredibly hard, usually for little financial gain. “It’s sometimes difficult to go through somebody when they don’t want to be gone through,” he explained. “But they will definitely be gone through. I’m a stubborn man.”
In the mid-Seventies, guitarist Jeff Morris Tepper was accused of listening to so many Beatles records that he was humming “C” in the middle of his head. To overcome this problem, Beefheart persuaded Tepper to sit in a cupboard for three hours while he played him Red Cross Store by blues artist Mississippi John Hurt over and over, until he really heard it.
Beefheart’s creative flow was both constant and unpredictable. He likened it to “going to the bathroom”. It couldn’t be turned off. Lyrics and musical ideas would arrive without notice and group members needed a tape recorder or note pad at hand to catch the inspiration as it flashed. Once, during a concert, Beefheart began yelling ideas for lyrics into keyboard player Eric Drew Feldman’s ear mid-song, and then demanded he recite them back after the show. He would also sketch onstage. “One of the band members would be doing a long solo, and what was I going to do? Stand there? I’d get my stuff and begin drawing. I couldn’t waste time,” he explained.
Captain Beefheart’s 12th album and swan-song, Ice Cream for Crow, was released in 1982. His record company, Virgin, explored some unusual avenues in an attempt to boost his career, such as trying to get him a part in the killer bear movie Grizzly 2. But he quit the music business soon after its release. Disillusioned that he had never achieved the commercial success he felt his music deserved, he disappeared into a trailer in the Mojave Desert and began to paint in earnest.
To distance himself from his musical alter ego, he is now known as Don Van Vliet (he added the Van). “It makes me itch to think of myself as Captain Beefheart,” he said, “I don’t even have a boat.” Following an early figurative period, his style has blossomed into a sort of rural expressionism. His canvases are landscapes teeming with creatures, pictographs and gestural marks. As a “newcomer” and worse, an ex-rock musician, Van Vliet was initially viewed with suspicion by the art establishment – especially when he landed an exhibition at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. “I’m moving my tail with a brush tied to it like a jackass. Hopefully I’ll be able to paint some funny things”. But while he exhibited widely in the Eighties, and to considerable acclaim, he has seldom been seen in the Nineties, fuelling speculation about a serious decline in his health.
There’s no doubt that Van Vliet’s painting is vital and imaginative. But his music is unique. All the latter Magic Band members say that they would be there for him if he needed them again – but that time has surely long gone. Van Vliet still listens to music and often calls Polly Harvey – whom he especially admires – for lengthy conversations about singing, advising her to listen to Mel Torme.
These days he lives as a recluse with his wife, Jan, in Trinidad, California, where he has a house and studio by the sea. He feels that rather than cutting himself off from the world, he has got more into it. He always maintained that he preferred the company of animals to human beings anyway. He’s busy painting, of course; the flow still can’t be turned off. “You know a lot of people can’t hear my paintings,” he said recently. “And they should be able to. God knows, they’re noisy enough.”
The Artist Formerly Known as Captain Beefheart is being shown on BBC2 on Tuesday at 11.15 pm, followed by Some Yo Yo Stuff, a short film about Don Van Vliet by Anton Corbijn. Mike Barnes is currently writing a biography of Don Van Vliet, to be published by Quartet next year.
(c) Telegraph Group Limited, London, 1997.