It was music, in retrospect, that was particularly befitting of the 1960s, the decade to which it was born. Like the time, it was young and ambitious and overpoweringly energetic. And it was without precedent; absolutely nothing that had come before sounded quite like it. It sent many a music critic running to a dictionary in search of adjectives with which to denounce it. Trivial, nonsensical, primitive and atonal were some of the kinder ones they chose.
At the same time, the music saddled Don Van Vliet with an obsessive band of fans who believed that his alter ego, Captain Beefheart, was an oracle who had somehow locked up the universe’s secrets in this wonderful music that defied description. Both groups proved annoying to the reclusive Van Vliet, who abandoned music a decade ago to work full time at his first love, painting.
Now, in his second artistic career, he says he has found true happiness, away from the madding crowd of exhausting concert tours, fans who “get in the way of the work” and critics who feel they have to categorize every artist. “Oh, I’ve had so much fun since I started just painting because now I don’t have to worry about somebody else,” Van Vliet said in a recent phone interview from his Northern California home. “I did that music thing for 20 years, and I tell you, I was a damn fool.”
Don’t get him wrong; he’s proud of his music.
Captain Beefheart & His Magic Band recorded from the mid-1960s to the early ’80s and their oeuvre includes “Safe as Milk,” “Ice Cream for Crow” and “Trout Mask Replica” which – though characterized as teetering between genius and madness – has been called the group’s masterwork.
And he treasures the friendships he made during two decades on the road. But painting was always his first love. “In my music days I used to even paint on stage,” he recalled. “Sometimes during a song, I’d be doing a painting or a drawing. I didn’t care if the audience liked it or not. I just wanted to paint.”
Now, with a steadily expanding reputation in the United States and Europe, Van Vliet may be on the verge of being hailed as one of the better abstract expressionists of his time. “Don is a very serious painter and a very interesting one,” said Gordon Veneklasen, director of the Michael Werner Gallery in New York, where an exhibition of Van Vliet’s work is on view. “He’s part of a tradition that in American painting goes back to earlier 20th-century artists like Arthur B. Dove or to abstract expressionists like Willem de Kooning,” said John R. Hale, the director of the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. “I’m very fond of him and interested in what he does.”
The 50-year-old artist brings the same intensity to his paintings as he did to his music, staying up for days at a time to work on a canvas, sometimes losing 10 pounds in the process. “I usually see the sun and the moon roll around the sky three or four times before going to sleep,” he said with a laugh. “I finally hit that point (where sleep is a necessity). But I fight it.”
The result of his labors are brooding works produced with vivid brush strokes and a wildly imaginative use of color and form. Within the paintings one frequently sees the images of animals and landscapes.
“It’s very much a California sensibility that’s highly conscious of nature,” Lane said. “They’re not paintings about cities, they’re paintings about the natural environment and the spiritual regions of the natural environment.”
Van Vliet, a soft-spoken but jovial man with a passion for conversation, can spend hours discussing the works of van Gogh, Shakespeare, Mark Twain, poet Philip Larkin, musical legends like Delta bluesman Son House, even the Los Angeles Lakers basketball team. (“Magic Johnson – now there’s an artist.”)
He’ll compare the blues efforts of the Rolling Stones with one of their inspirations, Howlin’ Wolf. (“They never quite got it right, did they?”)
But he’s generally loath to discuss his own work. “It’s very difficult to discuss in words what you do with a brush,” he said seriously. “Usually you sound like a naive artist, which is not what I am. Everything I do is on purpose.”
But he will drop a few clues here and there. If his paintings seem to reflect a concern for the environment, for example, one might consider how he came to call himself Captain Beefheart.
“It came from the beef in my heart about people stealing the land and covering it over; from the beef in my heart about the way people treat animals. It’s terrible what we do to animals.”
His own life has been a steady run from the crowds, noise and pollution of the cities; first from metropolitan Los Angeles, where he grew up, to a section of the Mojave Desert now being covered in houses as the Los Angeles sprawl moves eastward.
Finally, he settled some years ago on the rugged California coast just south of Oregon. “I’ve only seen about three other people since I’ve lived here. And I’m not kidding. But then I don’t get out much.”
Instead, he would rather stay home with his wife, Jan, listen to his blues records, gaze out the window at ravens, forests and the Pacific Ocean – and paint. On a rare trip to an exhibit of his paintings in Southern California last year he was besieged by Captain Beefheart fans. He graciously signed autographs for hours, but confided afterward that he hated the experience.
And although he still writes poetry, he doesn’t plan to record again, despite the fact the masses seem to have caught up with Captain Beefheart over the years.
He frequently wins praise now from critics. Groups such as the B-52s cite his influence and other musicians shamelessly copy him. But he’s not impressed by any of it. “There’s a lot of guys who copied me, and I think they’re crazy,” he said. “I think it’s a dangerous thing not to be who you are, to try to be somebody else. It doesn’t flatter me.”
– John Rogers, 1991