I discovered Don Van Vliet through a demo album of Frank Zappa’s music. The first album I heard was “Trout Mask Replica,” and I was taken with the freedom of the lyrics he creates as well as the looseness of the musical conception, without sacrificing a certain kind of rigor. His punning and word-play reminded me of James Joyce, Gertrude Stein, a bit of e. e. cummings. You could make your own associations. The music reminded me of a kid with an ear who has no training, sitting down at a keyboard and playing around with the sounds just for the joy of seeing what will come out. (I know this kid well; it was me at the age of 15 or so.) No pop musicians I know would be able to bring off this sort of thing, let alone conceive of it. I was fed up with all the other pop music that seemed dominated by an insistent throb and mindless lyrics.
I must say, though, the paintings leave me cold. All the freedom of the music and the lyrics seems here only a facade. I see again a certain amateurism, but it’s much more self-conscious and at times even derivative. The painter appears to say, especially in the later works, “Today I think I’ll be John Marin, but I won’t try that hard.” Or, “That Picasso bit was nice; what can I do like it?” You see the painter calculating and hesitating, for all the bravura application of material to the canvas. The lines, the representational parts in what would otherwise be some sort of abstract expressionism, do not show the loosness and flow one senses in more confident artists, like Helen Frankenthaler. Van Vliet’s abstract elements tend to be short, choppy, tight. Colors are muddled, as if arbitrarily picked and applied. There’s little sense of the overall harmony of elements, of things working together for a totality. Separate elements seem to be at odds with each other in the same space. You’ve got rather mundane representational portraits of people against a backdrop of muddy colors too lavishly applied. Sadly, they try too hard to be “free” but they never really let go.
I find this true of e. e. cummings as well, who in one of his “Six Nonlectures” said, “I think of myself as a painter, and only incidentally a writer.” The world of arts and letters would disagree–because his paintings are very arch in the same sort of self-conscious way. (One might argue about the poems, but that’s another subject.) He was a very ego-centric man, for all the elation in his poems. In fact he said, “I have yet to find a peripherally situated ego.” I wonder if Van Vliet doesn’t suffer from that a bit as well.
Be that as it may, the music is there. And I love it.
– Bob Brown, Beefheart fan since 1968