Rhino box set: Riding Some Kind of Unusual Skull Sleigh by Don Van Vliet

Published by Rhino Handmade/Artist Ink Editions
ISBN 0 7379 0284 1
Deluxe Slip Case (23.5cm x 32.5cm x 7cm)
Limited Edition (1500) with original signed print. Individually numbered


Signed Coloured Etching (20cm x 27cm)

2 Books (both 19cm x 25cm) – “Splinters” (96 pages) & “Riding Some Kind of Unusual Skull Sleigh” (88 pages)

One is a collection of photos, lyrics, artworks, cuttings plus the text of the pieces on the accompanying CD. The other includes an essay by Ben Watson and 60 colour plates of Don’s paintings and drawings. – See full list of artwork

CD – “Riding Some Kind of Unusual Skull Sleigh”

A collection of 11 poem/song fragments recited, sung and whistled by Don. See full list of titles

DVD – “Some Yo Yo Stuff”

The short film made by Anton Corbijn already available on dvd. This appears to be a multi-region version.

Description from Rhino Website

Don Van Vliet aka Captain Beefheart was a visual artist before he was a musician. As a young child he drew serious accolades for his animal sculptures and was offered a scholarship to study in Europe. His parents declined; and while continuing to create in the visual medium, Van Vliet turned his attention to music, within ten years forming the first incarnation of the legendary experimental outfit Captain Beefheart and His Magic Band. The following 15 years are music history.

But in 1983 Van Vliet retired from music to pursue painting and drawing, the focus of this extraordinary boxed set. Riding Some Kind Of Unusual Skull Sleigh, named after a painting the artist completed in 1987, provides an opportunity to own one of his original, signed color etchings.

Overview by Steve Froy

Described by Rhino as a “…unique package [that] constitutes an irreplaceable work of art…” this is definitely an ‘art’-efact, something for collectors. I’m sure there are some people out there who will buy this purely because it is a beautifully produced limited edition in the hope of selling it at a profit in a few years time. And then there are the Beefheart fans most of whom will probably struggle to afford it. I’m a Beefheart fan and collector and decided to pay up but it hurt because I have never spent as much as this on any one item ever! Will this cloud my review of it? Yes, quite probably…

The whole package comes in a solid slipcase covered in green textured fabric, with the title, ‘Don Van Vliet’ and ‘Limited Edition’ added with white text on black shiny labels.

In this slipcase is another case, again covered in the same green fabric and trimmed with yellow fabric. On this is stuck a yellow rectangle of shiny material with the number of that copy – mine says “No. 437/1500”. This inner case opens (once you’ve fiddled with the silk ties) like a book to reveal the contents.

The Books

On the right are the two books, one on top of the other. A silk tab is fitted to allow the books to be lifted out of the hollow in the package. Both are strongly bound with fabric covered boards, ‘Splinters’ in green with a yellow spine, the other in yellow with a green spine.

‘Splinters’ is a fascinating collection. Don and Jan have made available numerous photographs covering the 1950s through to the 1990s including several of Don as a young boy with his family. There are also paper cuttings which finally throw light on the mysterious ‘Portuguese Sculptor’ that Don was supposd to have studied under when a child. The only annoying thing about this marvellous collection is that there is no accompanying text, no indication of when or where they were taken and who is actually in the photographs.

Interpersed with the photographs are some of the hundreds of scraps of paper that Don has drawn on over the years. These contain fragments of lyrics and poems, doodles and larger drawings. Obviously written down as they came to him these are a fascinating glimpse into how Don captured these inspirations before somehow moulding them into fully fledged songs.

A second section in this book contains nine photographs of Don by Anton Corbijn taken during the 80’s and 90’s. Many of these will already be familiar to most fans.

The rest of the book is taken up with the text of the eleven ‘poems’ included on the CD. See below for more about these.

The second book, ‘Riding Some Kind of Unusual Skull Sleigh’, includes the “monograph of sorts” by Ben Watson, writer of the Zappa book ‘The Dialetics of Poodle Play’. Running to seven closely printed pages this is really nothing more than an essay in which Watson attempts an analysis of Don’s paintings. His angle is the child-like vison Don has of the world and his acceptance of man as an ‘animal’. In his argument he aligns Don with a little known Danish artist, Asger Jorn. It is an interesting read but like any attempt to analyse art you end with a writer talking about the innocence, naivity and child-like elements of Don’s work yet being unable to explain it without overcomplicating matters. At least Watson does it without rambling on too much.

The rest of this book contains full colour plates of 60 paintings and drawings covering the years 1967 to 1999. Many of the paintings will be familiar to visitors to the Radar Station although many of the drawings (all untitled) may not. There is also an excellent Anton Corbijn photograph, unusual being in colour, of Don in his studio.

The Print

On the left hand side of this inner case is a black card folder with an oval piece of stiff yellow fabric holding the folder closed. Inside the folder is another folder, transparent glassine this time, within which is the signed print/etching called, according to the Rhino website, ‘Untitled (Self Portrait)’. As can be seen it is a picture of a head, threequarter profile, looking from below, in yellow and black. The smoothness of the face makes it looks like someone wearing tights over their face to disguise themselves.

At the bottom right is the number of the print (which is the same as the box) and Don’s signature in pencil, which is the thing that gives this publication its value. The signature is not the assured painterly flourish that Don demonstrated on the video of the Bluecoat Gallery interview. Instead the ‘van vliet’ is executed in mainly capitals and stretches right across the page beneath the print, each letter stands separately and they’ve obviously been written one at a time.

Now here’s a dilemma … do I have this print framed for my wall and thus devalue the box set or do I keep it tucked away in its folders?

The print folder is attached on one side to the inner case but if you lift it up you find the CD and DVD together in another green fabric package. The discs themselves each have their own black card folder with flaps.


When I first heard that this previously released short film was included I thought it was a pointless exercise. I now have to admit that it does sit well alongside the rest of the package and any additional live music footage would have seemed out of place. However, wouldn’t it have been worthwhile to have included some other items on the DVD … for example, a gallery of the paintings and drawings would have been easy to do.

The CD

Now this CD of ‘poems’ is definitely something special, and at 34 minutes you get more than the CD included in the ‘Stand Up’ book. These pieces have been put together from fragments Don has recorded on tape. Some are obviously ideas he’s recorded so he doesn’t forget as there is no attempt to ‘perform’ them. On the other hand, one, ‘Wooden Guitars’, starts off with Don trying to describe what he wants for the song ‘When I See A Mommy’ and he really gets into singing and trying to create the desired guitar sound.

These fragments have been recorded between 1977 and 1999 at different locations, some have ambient noise others do not. On one Don is talking with his mother, Sue. On most you can hear the recorder on/off button.

According to Rhino these “…readings have been personally selected by Don and Jan Van Vliet…”. It would be interesting to know if these existed as ‘poems’ before this project or have they been specially contructed from many other fragments to achieve what we have here. In a way this reflects Don’s method of song construction throughout his writing career, pulling together a number of disparate thoughts, ideas and creations into one coherent piece. The difference here is that they tend to remain fragmentary. But fascinating none the less.


So, 500 dollars for two books, a CD, a DVD and a picture? That does seem excessive doesn’t it? Yes, it does if that’s all it is. But it’s not is it? It’s much more than that. It’s pretty cheap for one of Don’s original signed prints and the rest of the package that goes with it is well worth having.

The price does take it out of the reach of many of Don’s real fans, but I wouldn’t be surprised if the ‘poems’ soon began turning up elsewhere in the not too distant future (as the ‘Stand Up’ poems did) thus making them more widely available.


It seems some purchasers of the box set have been disappointed with the signature on the print. It’s not the quality of the signature but the fact that much of it is not actually on the paper. One fan feels let down by Rhino who are not willing to replace what he considers ‘faulty goods’ and [temporarily] set up a website to warn others of this problem.


This box set was only available via the Rhino Handmade website. IT IS NOW OUT OF PRINT

However, some shops are offering copies for sale at vastly inflated prices, but you might be able to track down a copy for a reasonable amount. Some have turned up on ebay.


    1. I have #28, purchased on eBay in 12/15 for 45% of the original price. So they are out there. I think framing the print is fine and it can be put back in the box, but framing may add value to the set for resale. G Male, how did you get #1? Just jumped in as soon as it was available? What do you think of the set? A seller on Amazon describes the print as “tragic” that he can’t enjoy even as an artifact.

  1. I have some interesting information about the royalties. Contact me if interested.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *