The Movable Feast: Thanksgiving with Captain Beefheart

by Don R. Aldridge, November 2011

It was a Tuesday night, or more accurately very early Wednesday morning in 1966. I had just gotten off my shift at Lockheed Aircraft in Burbank, California and had made it back to Lancaster in just over an hour. Good time for the Thanksgiving Day traffic, which had already begun its bleed on the Los Angeles freeway system, out of the city. I had driven straight through, pulling up in front of the house on Carolside Avenue at just after 1 a.m.

I was coming for Thanksgiving dinner with Captain Beefheart.

It’s a little remarkable to me that so few people, even today, are aware of the music of Captain Beefheart. The man’s influence on pop music is incalculable. I cannot even imagine the Beatle’s White Album, had he not been around; the guy took a bulldozer to the wall of convention and influenced virtually everything that followed him, from his first album on. The Clash, Sex Pistols, B-52s – all of the groups of the ’70s and ’80s we typically think of as cutting edge today – would have never existed as we know them, were it not for Don Van Vliet. I hear him in so much of the sound that is out there currently.

I should say here that I never referred him as Van Vliet in those days, and neither did he; I believe he always thought of himself, at least during those early years, as Don Vliet, and those are the names I used.

I was not a Beefheart music fan, at least not after he turned the corner in 1967. The Beefheart I liked so much, at least the artist closest to him, can be heard with Ry Cooder in the soundtracks to Blue Collar, and later, A Civil Action . If you can visualize Don and me sitting in a room on any of the several occasions he previewed one of his albums for me, I was the one who was not snapping his fingers.
That is not to say I didn’t understand the impact of what he was doing, however. I think I knew even then that the music was important. But I was, rather, a fan of the man’s one-on-one intellect. Some of the best times I had with Don were standing out in the desert on a cold winter night swapping views on everything from the arts to philosophy to politics.

If you were going to know Captain Beefheart during the 1960s, it was more than likely it would be because you didn’t use the night much for sleeping, so I suppose I was lucky to be working the nightshift. Ours was a nocturnal friendship. Whether we were cruising the desert or haunting the stygian underbelly of after-dark Los Angeles, Don Van Vliet and I were invariably to end up in a coffee shop like Duke’s Tropicana in Hollywood or the Antelope Valley Inn back home at 3 a.m. But tonight we were staying in.

Although I’m sure that I spent at least two Christmas’s with the Vliets – Don, Sue and Don’s girlfriend Laurie Stone – during the 1960s, it is this one particular Thanksgiving that has always stood out.
Holidays with Vliet were otherwise not that memorable and I don’t believe he paid much stock in them. I do remember one year Don had on some new clothes, I think a sweater and cord trousers he had received for Christmas, and another year Sky Saxon sent a sifter. That’s right kiddies, we sifted the seeds from our pot back in those days; “budology” was still in its infancy; we smoked the leaves because the seeds popped. Get it? Sky Saxon and the Seeds? Sifter? This was, in a word, a groovy Christmas gift. Another year Zappa sent gifts via Jim “Motorhead” Sherwood.

Laurie Stone met me at the door. I had probably been dropping in after work for about six months by this time and Laurie was usually the one to let me inside. On this night I seem to recall that music was playing – Lightnin Hopkins I believe – as I came through the hall into the living room, and Don was at the kitchen table with a sketchpad.

As was usually the case, Sue was nowhere to be found and presumably in bed at that time of morning, but I was soon to realize that tonight would be different. To this day I have absolutely no idea what possessed these people to put on the elaborate kabuki that followed. As far as I am aware no one else was expected. Doug Moon (guitar in the original Magic Band) would sometimes drop in, but it was never an occasion for celebration. Anyway, after the initial greeting and after Don had stowed his eggshell sketchpad, he called out to Sue, “Sue! It’s time.”

Sue Vliet was like the Electric Grandmother. I thought of her as a kind of Merry Widow, always there bustling through the house and always up for whatever her son had on the calendar. Although this was the only time I can actually remember Don waking her in the middle of the night, Sue was always chipper and always exclaiming, “Oh Don!” with a tittering laugh, whenever the son she doted on would pull one of his outrageous stunts. Tonight would be no different in that respect.

The turkey had to have already been prepared and in the oven before I arrived because there would not have been time to fix a bird between 1-and-3 a.m. when we were served. So some care had gone into the preparation feast we were about to enjoy.

I have no recollection of how we passed the time between my arrival and dinnertime, but often Vliet would pick an argument. It was most often good-natured, but he enjoyed giving me a hard time over Bob Dylan, whom I liked and he wasn’t crazy about, and the accursed motorcycle I had taken to riding after I met him.

I do remember that he flip-flopped on his musical tastes. Whether Don liked a certain performer more often than not hinged on 1) whether or not he’d met the performer and 2) whether or not the performer was a Captain Beefheart fan. This is how I learned to broach certain entertainment subjects; if I initiated the conversation, a favorite opener would be, “Have you ever met so-and-so?” Yada yada yada.
But several times I can remember he later changed his opinion upon learning that said musician indeed was a fan. He presumably, at that time at least, had either not met Dylan, or he had, and had learned something from Bob he hadn’t shared with me. (You are supposed to have a LOL here).
After nearly 50 years memories have a way of blending, but I remember many nights sitting at this same kitchen table writing lyrics with Don. We may have done that on this night, or we just as likely could have broken out the rest of his blues collection and loaded up his 45 rpm turntable.

Dinner is Served

The bird was BIG. I mean enough for the entire Magic Band and a cortege of groupies. Don Vliet was without exception the most unconventional human being I have met on this planet, but this meal reeked of traditional Thanksgiving.

Zappa, it seemed to me, was the best kind of genius; he could converse on the plane most of us would think of as normal, while at the same time thinking way beyond the box, which undoubtedly facilitated his accumulation of enormous wealth in rock music. But Vliet’s genius was different. Don was always out of the box whatever his surroundings. On the “natch” he called it. Not that he was incapable of down-to-earth conversation, but that he was always just a little ahead of it all. That I understood this was probably one of the secrets to our friendship.

Which was also why this particular night would stand out so clearly after these many decades. It was like a convergence of dissimilar universes, the height of American family tradition meets a live Salvador Dali exhibition.

I have wondered for years whether Don Vliet had thought the whole thing out beforehand, but I’ll never know. I’ve always regretted not having brought it up the last time I saw him. But when Sue served the turkey with the obligatory trimmings (it was all there: stuffing, corn, buttered yams, cranberry sauce) the man immediately ripped off a drumstick and instructed me to do the same. Similarly, he began to stuff his mouth with potatoes and rolls, tossing the remainders over his shoulder when it struck his fancy.

I cannot imagine following him in this exercise but I am absolutely certain he directed me to do so. It does seem there was talk of Henry VIII. For most Americans it is no biggy that the Tudor king serially lopped off the heads of six wives. Our memories will forever be of Charles Laughton slinging all that food around.

I don’t remember whether I joined in or not, but as I said I was 19 at the time, and if Don had told me to jump off the Golden Gate I would have at least given it some thought. Still, I don’t remember specifically tossing even one drumstick over my shoulder.

I do, however, recall Sue, true to form, tittering and flittering around the kitchen and saying repeatedly, “Oh Don!” while good-naturedly picking up the tossings. And I will say this, it was amazingly good performance art; Andy Warhol could not have choreographed anything better.

I have titled this piece “The Movable Feast,” after Ernest Hemingway’s posthumous memoirs for a reason having little to do with the Papa himself. It is said that after Hemingway died, his friend and biographer A.E. Hotchner recalled a conversation with the author in which they discussed Hemingway’s early years in Paris. “If you are lucky enough to have lived in Paris as a young man,” someone said, “then wherever you go for the rest of your life, it stays with you, for Paris is a moveable feast.”

Hemingway’s feast was Paris; mine is these moments with Don Vliet on that Thanksgiving so many years ago. No matter where I am on Thanksgiving night, whatever the circumstances, it is impossible for me not to have Don with me, and to remember the most interesting, albeit unusual, Thanksgiving of my life. And to laugh.

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