While touring in the UK in 1975, there was a concert we played in a medium sized hall somewhere lost in time, where a bus brought in a group of about 16 wheelchair-bound individuals. After the concert ended, we were headed for our bus when Don stopped and watched as the handicapped individuals were tediously loaded one by one onto their bus. Our bus driver, a bit impatient, called out that we could go, but Don refused to budge. “I’m not leaving until they do. They had the patience to go through all this trouble to come see me, and I’m going to show them the same courtesy.”
Perhaps he had already been diagnosed with the early stages of the disease which eventually took his life, I’m not sure, but I stood with him, as it was an admirable thing to do – especially in the chill night air of December. It was a moment that was etched in my mind.
In the Fall of 1966, I was lying on the couch reading in my parent’s home and facing an uncertain future. The phone rang. It was Don Van Vliet asking me if I wanted to “blow with them.” I hesitatingly said, “Yes,” having no idea of the consequences of those words.
I had many run-ins with Don through the years. Conflict after conflict seem to arise between us, some of them settled, but most just left to rot in the dust of time. Occasionally a strong wind would come and blow the dust off, leaving the fossilized details clear in my mind of one too many episodes, and I would take leave and go breathe on my own for a time.
In a family, this happens. Time heals, and the cycle begins again. My three years of living with Don had made him family to me. I knew his habits, took up smoking with him, knew why he liked certain clothes, wore pajamas in which to sleep, and watched in amusement as he had one of his Bromo-Seltzers that he’d take like some people drank champagne. Occasionally, I’d have one with him, like a toast to nothing.
He liked Royal Crown Cola and, once finished, the mouth of the bottle became a target for his cigarette match throw; light, swing out the flame, toss at the bottle. It was about four feet away and occasionally, he would sink one. That was a moment of jubilance – sometimes an ironic contrast to the seriousness of the “talk” we may be having.
During “Safe as Milk” rehearsals, he once spied a Mosquito Hawk above the light fixture in the garage. He held everyone in the car, as though it were a Pterodactyl. Speaking seriously, but the whole time smiling, he selected me to get it out of the garage, but I couldn’t kill it, I had to catch and release the creature into the night air. Alex, Jerry, and Laurie (Don’s girlfriend) all waited in the car while we played out this faux-drama. I know I was the brunt of a joke, but there didn’t seem to be any way not to play along. After I succeeded in my mission, everyone was safely tucked in the house, he “praised” me jokingly for my bravery. Alex once said, “You were sooo naïve.” I asked, “when did you notice?” He answered, “when you walked in the door!”
There were the moments of creation, when some outside stimuli would trigger something in that unique mind and his voice would raise in pitch, “I gotta get this DOWN man!!” If words, Laurie with dictation, if music, me with tape recorder and Alex or Jerry on guitar. In later years, Jeff Cotton dictation and / or me at the piano. Occasionally, cigarette lightly held in lips, he’d whistle a part – and whistle well. Or stand in the living room blowing sax like a crazed elephant trumpeting in rage.
He’d often break rules and hated schedules. If he had to be somewhere, it seemed he would purposely stay up all night, and go into a deep sleep – claiming he needed a ‘short nap’ — with less than an hour before the appointment left, after filling a pad with hysterically funny drawings and writing five lyric ideas. Waking him was impossible. He was like a warm / lifeless corpse and the only giveaway was the breathing, which given his lung capacity, seemed to have the ability to bend in the walls during inhalation.
Don absolutely hated heaters, and so if the thermostat were touched to raise the temp, he would become nearly violent in his anger. I found out years later that those with MS are strongly affected by heat. The lights on stage must have been unbearable for him. I do recall being extremely cold during that first three years when I lived with him.
One on one conversation was always good. There was no threat until the group was larger than two, at which time a switch was made from a non-serious bit of chatting which could cover an enormous number of subjects, to a more controlled and controlling mood. Private chats would often be held in the bathroom with the cold water running. Or, when he desired, he would turn the hot on and scald his hand by slowly turning the spigot from completely cold to completely hot.
“The thing is…” was usually the start of any new subject. I don’t think he had a clue what “the thing was” at the time of saying the phrase, it was just an evasive maneuver until he could light upon his next fascinating subject, which usually occurred within moments, but until it did, there was a bit of a faraway look in his eyes. He once told me that he would often test how long he could keep someone from leaving by non-stop conversation, and would often succeed in keeping people standing by their car until the wee hours of the morning, when they had planned to leave the evening before.
Van Vliet had allergies, and his skin was constantly breaking out in a rash. This led to a lot of frustration for him – especially on the road, where the environment of constant change brought many surprises – some which made him quite ill and tired. I think he must have dreaded the road greatly.
During the birthing of Trout Mask Replica, we didn’t perform but once – at the Aquarius Theatre in Hollywood and that only after the recording had been done. Nine months in that house – it seemed like an entire lifetime of experiences compacted into one short span. We were like trees that had been planted too close together, and each time the wind blew, we knocked into one another and blamed our loss of limb on whoever seemed the most vulnerable.
It was a mild holocaust: turned down from 50 to 5. Just enough to keep our thoughts ragged and our bodies tired. Circus life was not all elephants and applause: there were falls without nets and trampling. The blame game sometimes drew blood, and the referee was often more puzzling than confirming. It was, magically, a parallel universe. We had all been sucked through a wormhole into an alternate reality in which words were twisted and behavior was inverted.
Tapes were played, lyrics were quoted, piano lines were re-copied in the correct order of appearance, and all of this took time and energy, but food was scarce and the talks were longer and longer.
At the end, we won the battle, but I often felt as though we had lost the war.
Further down the road, we met, again and again. Something would seem different enough to give it another go. The reasoning would always start like this: “The thing is…” and I would lean in to hear what was next only to find I’d been sucked into the wormhole again.
The Magic Band members fought like siblings for his attention, for those special moments that were just theirs, and I imagine we all fancied ourselves as “the one who really understood him.” Some because of the simple approach to mutually break musical rules and joining the starving artist brigade – others because education gave a more sophisticated viewpoint – perhaps evading the fact that Beefheart often quoted himself saying, “If you want to be a different fish, you have to jump out of the school.”
In truth, his multi-faceted personality guaranteed there to be enough to go around. Frankly, his artistic whims could drive any sane person to the brink, and many of us exchanged war stories about the often cryptic behavior – sometimes frustratingly, but often laughing about the irony.
Early in ’75, I helped he and Jan move from Northern California to the Mojave Desert, and spent two nights at their house in Trinidad. Jan made grilled cheese sandwiches and tomato soup. They called me into their bedroom and, as I sat at the foot of the bed in this intimate setting, Don requested his beautiful Jan to read me a poem: The Thousandth and Tenth Day of the Human Totem Pole. I laughed out loud many times, interrupting Jan, who patiently waited for me to contain myself before continuing. I had never heard a more concise and simplified analogy of the human condition.
They then played a tape which contained the autobiographical Apes-Ma and as it finished, I sat silent, wondering for a long time at this man’s ability to analogize such a complex condition in such a simple way. There was sadness here, a vision of predestination.
Later, before we played Knebworth Festival in 1975, I became musical director of the band and helped get a set list together for his re-appearance after the Tragic Band tour. He had received a lot of criticism and bad reviews and this had been his first chance to redeem himself. After a successful concert, I stood in the hotel lobby registering for my room and felt a warm affectionate hug from behind. I thought, from the tenderness, that it was a woman, but when I turned, it was Van Vliet. There was moisture in his eyes. “Thank you, man” was all he said, and walked away. After days of forcing him practically at gunpoint to review his lyrics, it was a welcome acknowledgement. He had done well, though relying heavily upon cue cards written meticulously by Jan.
Van Vliet had a real love for a movie called Jeremiah Johnson, and I could see why. It was a man’s film in the sense that it showed the bonding between Johnson and the character played by Will Geer. As Geer’s character walks away, after telling “Pilgrim” that he had done well, his farewell line was “watch your topknot and keep your eye on the skyline.” The brevity of their words made each hang in your ears and pulled you into the emotion and the bonding that had occurred between these two and you understood exactly what was going on between them in a way a billion words could have never described.
After “Doc” sessions, in 1980, on which I played mostly guitar, I had to walk away from Captain Beefheart for the last time. He had asked me to learn a ridiculous amount of music on the guitar in an impossible amount of time. After hearing my decision, he slammed his hands angrily into the door of my vehicle, and it was scary and sad at the same time.
A few months later, I drove by his mobile home one night. He looked out the curtain, as though he knew I was coming and came out to greet me. “I thought I’d come by and break the ice.” He said, “well, you picked a good night for it,” and gestured at the sky. There were tiny ice crystals falling. Not snow, not anything I’d ever seen – before or since — tiny crystals of ice slowly floating to the ground.
One night while I was playing with a jazz group, he happened into the club with Jeff “Moris” Tepper. After Tepper left, Don and I went to an old hangout from the early days of the band – before I was even a member – a coffee shop at The Antelope Valley Inn. We sat for a time as he told me that he was going to paint. He was moving to Northern California and said “Jan finally got the house she wanted – the one with redwood shingles.” I asked, “will you still do music?” and he said, “Of course!” As we know, he never did.
After observing a miniature drunken marine trying to pick a fight with one of the customers, I drove Don home. He got out of his car, turned to me and said, “Watch your topknot – and keep your eye to the skyline.”
I sensed then with sadness that it was the last time I would see him. He was gone, and though I spoke once with him later on the phone, requesting that he give me credit for drums on the CD release of Trout Mask Replica, I never saw him in person again, nor did I speak to him again after that phone call – which was quite entertaining and very expensive, as Don decided to play me a number of blues pieces I’d heard a thousand times before.
The phone number was soon changed, and though I sent Christmas cards journaling my marriage and the growth of my daughter Jesse, there was no reply and I rationed out a bit of grieving here and there until it ran out with the dulling of time. I heard the rumors of his physical decline, the last being that he was bedridden and could no longer speak. It came to me that it may have been God’s way of silencing him long enough to whisper His own message to him, to prepare him for his next journey.
I was gathering firewood in the rain when my cell phone rang and I received the news. Scott Collins, the guitarist from my Drumbo group said to me, “I don’t know if you heard yet, but Don died today.” I thanked him for relaying the information and became numb for a few days, then angry, then complacent.
I went out tonight and found my Sherman cigarettes, lit one, and stood in the door of my garage, staring out through the cool rain and the cloudy sky. “You would have liked this weather, Don,” I said to myself, and the words to a Richard Thompson song came to mind, so I sang them quietly into the night air:
“I am a bird, in God’s garden.
And I do not belong to this dusty world.
For a day or two, they have locked me up, in this cage of my own body.
And He, who brought me here, will take me… back again.
To my own country. To my own country.”
Goodbye Don. Watch your topknot, and keep your eye to the skyline.
– John French, 21 December 2010