The Spotlight Kid Revisited: Two Decades with Captain Beefheart

What the Fans May Not Know

by Don R. Aldridge, August 2010

In 1965, Don Vliet followed his boyhood chum Frank Zappa into the world of avant-garde rock ‘n’ roll with his group Captain Beefheart and His Magic Band. My birth name is Donald Aldridge, and I grew up in Lancaster, California, where Don and I became close friends in the mid sixties. He later changed his surname to Van Vliet.

Don’s songs have appeared in several Hollywood movies and TV shows over the years, including The Big Lebowski, Things We Lost in the Fire, and Entourage. Some of the experiences revolving around my relationship with Captain Beefheart can be found in Mike Barnes book, Captain Beefheart: The Biography. Although I was delighted to be interviewed by Barnes and have been interviewed about my friendship with Van Vliet several more times over the years, I have never been happy with the results of those interviews.

The interviewers have all quoted me accurately, but I never felt anyone wanted to know about Van Vliet the man. Instead the questions usually ran to events surrounding the band and the music. I will admit that this could have been my fault. When everyone started calling in the mid 1990s, during my involvement in the Revenant Records Grow Fins project, I too was pretty wrapped up in Beefheart’s notoriety; and I made quite a few inadvertent misstatements of fact, dates and so forth. It has only been in recent years that I have had time to reflect on what interested me most about the man.

The best times I spent with Don Van Vliet were when we were just hanging out at his home on Carolside Avenue in Lancaster, with his girlfriend, Laurie Stone, and his mother, Sue. Occasionally someone else might drop in, but it was rare in the early days.

It’s the little things I remember most fondly. I am about five years younger than Don, and, whether he would admit it or not, he treated me much like a little brother. But there was a man behind all of the trivia and—quite frankly the garbage—I have read about Beefheart over the years, and no one has talked very much about him.

Former Magic Band members have written several books over the years, and while they relate their experiences with him, experiences that I myself have called “Mansonesque,” I always come away with the feeling   that none of them knew the same Don Van Vliet I became friends with and maintained a friendship with for two decades.

While I cannot say that I was closer to Van Vliet than his band members, who probably spent much more time with him, I will say that I had a vastly different relationship with him. Ours was a friendship, not a partnership or a working relationship. I always felt that Don owned his band members, and while I can’t deny that he intimidated me at times, I was free to make my own choices.

In the 20 years I knew Don Van Vliet not one unkind word passed between us. There was only one instance in which we had any serious disagreement at all, and that was when a mutual friend told him I had accused he and Frank Zappa of dabbling in black magic. I made no such statement, although I had read a fan magazine in which Zappa had made a tongue-in-cheek remark about it. I told Van Vliet so and it ended there.

The things I remember most fondly about Van Vliet, especially in the early years when the band was just beginning to record, were simple the moments at home. Don almost never sat down, and we sometimes spent hours standing in his living room talking about anything from Eastern mysticism to politics.

Sometimes—not often—we would watch television, and I remember he liked a right-wing talk show host named Joe Pine and the Catholic archbishop Fulton J. Sheen. One evening we watched, standing up mind you, Monte Rock III, a New York hairdresser who was in his second incarnation as a rock singer. Rock later played the disc jockey in Saturday Night Fever.

Van Vliet took great exception to my owning a motorcycle. Night after night (he and there I was nocturnal) he ranted that the “thing” would get me killed, to which I would reply, “Whatta way to go.” One night when Don was out his girlfriend Laurie—with whom I was secretly smitten—and I made plans to “escape” and take a ride in the foothills. We were on our way out when Don came home.

I’m still waiting for the book that will delve into the more personal aspects of Don Van Vliet’s life. He was and is an amazing, if slightly bizarre, piece of Americana.

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