Captain Beefheart was a music legend; now he’s Don Van Vliet, genius of paint.
`You can physically drown in paint, you can mentally drown in music,’ declares Don Van Vliet, pronouncing one of his less obscure aphorisms.
Cult rocker turned successful painter (but still better known to the world as Captain Beefheart) Van Vliet can claim intimate knowledge of both mediums. While a devoted public continues to mourn his absence from the music scene, which he abandoned in 1982, Van Vliet’s status as a fine artist has risen steadily over the last decade. These days a canvas by the Captain will set you back between $10,000-$35,000 (that’s up to pounds 23,000). Given that he’s sold around 60 works, his brush has probably earned him as much as his records ever did.
The two strands in Van Vliet’s career (music and art) come together in a show opening at Brighton Museum this week. His first British exhibition of paintings, Stand Up To Be Discounted, will juxtapose expressionist canvases with memorabilia and concert footage from his Beefheart days.
The exhibition has come at a time of renewed interest in the music of Captain Beefheart. Strictly Personal, his 1968 album, has just been reissued on CD (amazingly, the only one of a substantial catalogue to be so honoured), and it’s once again chic to drop his name as an influence. Polly Harvey, singer-songwriter and leader of British band PJHarvey, recalls learning guitar to her parents’ Beefheart albums, while American groups such as Trumans Water and Railroad Jerk cite the example of the Captain’s psychedelic blues.
A BBC2 documentary about Beefheart is also in production.
Though the intense cult status that Beefheart enjoyed was never matched by commercial success, the reverence is easy to understand. Affecting a top hat, goatee beard and a voice that rumbled like a freight train while spouting surreal lyrics, he cut a singular figure in the hippy circus of the late Sixties and early Seventies. As much as anyone, he pushed rock to its furthest, crazed limits. Even 25 years after it was made, his sprawling 1969 masterpiece album, Trout Mask Replica (a discordant 28-track odyssey drawing on country, blues, free jazz and acid rock) still sounds like nothing else in popular music.
Always a rather retiring character, Van Vliet has become an almost total recluse in middle age, sequestering himself for six years in a trailer home in the Mojave desert before moving to his present house, perched on the Pacific seashore of northern California. Now 53, he sees almost no one other than Jan, his wife of 24 years, and his 80-year-old mother. `Give me lack of people,’ he drawls in the short film shot recently by his friend, the photographer and video-maker Anton Corbijn. A rumoured illness is perhaps one explanation for his seclusion; certainly the jellied voice that can be heard reading poems on the CD accompanying the exhibition catalogue is a distant echo of the awesome instrument that booms out on the records.
Art and music have long vied for Van Vliet’s attentions. As a child sculpting prodigy, he was given a weekly spot on a local television show hosted by Californian artist Antonio Rodrigues, who claimed to have discovered the infant Don in the lion’s cage at the zoo, happily modelling the inmates. And as a teenager, he turned down art college in favour of music, perhaps influenced by his boyhood friend Frank Zappa, with whom he would intermittently collaborate, quarrel and make up throughout his musical career. It was Zappa, in his role as the boss of Straight Records, Beefheart’s label, who allowed him the freedom to make Trout Mask Replica.
That album, and its successor, Lick My Decals Off, Baby (1970), established Beefheart as King Freak, a role he disliked and disavowed, though he wasn’t above playing along. On his first European visit in 1969 he informed British immigration that he’d arrived from Mars. `For my whole life they’ve repeated to me that I was a genius,’ he moaned in 1981. `But in the meantime they’ve also taught the public that my music is too difficult to listen to.’ More accessible if less inspir-ational albums arrived in the Seventies, as Beefheart jousted with commerce, the music industry and disgruntled members of his backing group, the Magic Band. `He was a raving jerk, albeit a creative one,’ said his guitarist Bill Harkelroad, complaining of Beefheart’s authoritarian, auteurist attitudes. Harkelroad’s stage name of Zoot Horn Rollo was typical of the offbeat soubriquets Beefheart bestowed upon his musicians.
Van Vliet’s paintings started to invade his album sleeves as early as 1971’s The Spotlight Kid; by the end of the decade they had displaced his portrait on the covers of records such as 1978’s Shiny Beast (Bat Chain Puller), which had turned back to the freeform ways of Trout Mask Replica.
Essays in the catalogue for Stand Up To Be Discontinued turn conceptual somersaults to forge links between musician and painter (for example, `The canvas became a recording tape on which to stratify sign experience’), but it’s a largely bogus exercise. Free and instinctive both may be, but the relationship of a harmonica riff borrowed from a Forties Mississippi delta bluesman to a Nineties’ canvas covered in semi-abstract animal shapes is always going to be questionable.
Some connections do remain. Twenty years after he growled `Clean up the air and treat the animals fair’, the world of nature, in particular the bird and animal kingdoms, continues to provide the principal obsession of Van Vliet’s paintings, with their bounding desert jackals and menacing bird shapes. `I like ravens because they clean up the land,’ comments Van Vliet in Corbijn’s short film, `and buzzards “ they clean up the mistakes done by humans on the highway. Hopefully, animals are smart enough to stay away from humans.’ Van Vliet makes certain that his own distance from humankind is considerable. `The way I keep in touch with the world is very gingerly, because the world touches too hard.’ Stand Up To Be Discontinued runs from 3 September to 3 November at Brighton Museum and Art Gallery, Church Street, Brighton (0273 603005) Strictly Personal is released on Liberty Records
– Neil Spencer, 1994