Don Van Vliet was born in Glendale, California, on January 15, 1941, the only child of Glenn and Sue Van Vliet. Don began showing artistic talent at a very young age but Glenn and Sue were none too keen on having an artist in the family. “Cause you know, all artists are faggots,” Don explains. When he was young, the family moved to the Mojave Desert, an isolated, brutal environment that they hoped would bleach the creative juice out of their son. But Van Vliet’s drive to translate the world around him into art only intensified; in 1966 he introduced himself to the world as Captain Beefheart.
Beginning with his debut LP, Safe As Milk (1966), and continuing through 11 subsequent albums, Captain Beefheart replaced conventional approaches to language with a startling marriage of rural folk tales, voodoo, ecological propagandising, punning, free association, and a spectrum of sound that stretched from Charles Ives, Stravinsky, jazz, and delta blues to the natural sounds of the Mojave desert, Beefheart’s five-octave vocal range allowed him to slip from character to character as he ruminated on his pet themes: the wonderfulness of women, nature, man’s stunning stupidity and spiritual sloth, and the splendour of everything in the galaxy from Halley’s Comet to a rusty nail.
Often dismissed as a charming eccentric, Beefheart never fared too well in the musical market-place, and in 1982, after his eleventh and what he claims to be his last album, Ice Cream For Crow, he moved from his mobile home in the desert to northern Arizona, and devoted himself to his painting. In 1985 Julian Schnabel helped arrange a showing of Van Vliet’s paintings at the Mary Boone Gallery in New York. The show was well received, and exhibitions at the Michael Werner Gallery in Cologne, Germany, and the Leslie Waddington Gallery in London followed. Beefheart now shows his work regularly in London and Cologne, and recently published a book of his poetry and paintings called Skeleton Breath, Scorpion Blush. He now makes a comfortable living as an artist – something he was never able to do as a musician. Though he continues to compose and play music for his own pleasure, he says he has no intention of trying to sell his musical wares.
What’s your sense of the future?
The future is random – I choose to think that because the alternative is too frightening. Then again, death isn’t that frightening, although we’re certainly taught to be afraid of it. Society does a real good job, doesn’t it? As far as the immediate future, Charlton Heston will probably be our next president. God, I can’t stand that guy! We’re gonna have a big yellow tooth on TV and it’ll be President Heston. I hope my prediction doesn’t come true, but it wouldn’t surprise me if it did.
Would you classify yourself as an angry man?
When I was three years old I was very disappointed to open a dictionary and read “the great auk – extinct.” Now that didn’t leave me with much faith in humanity. The dictionary illustration of it is pretty good, too, and here they’ve been killed off! That gorgeous bird! What the hell! The passenger pigeon is gone, the snail darter is gone – we won’t ever see one. These things really bother me.
Is anger a productive emotion?
Yes, it is if you treat it right. Your heart won’t attack you if you’re nice to it.
What things make you sad?
First we have to find out what ”sad” is, which is something I don’t know. There’s that get-well-card idea of sad, but I don’t like that clown stuff. I do like the idea of painting a clown, only not the kind of clowns they clown around with. I have some funny clowns in my paintings.
What’s the most significant difference between men and women?
Women are more dolphin-like, and they’re obviously better looking. Proboscis monkeys look pretty good, too. Jesus, those things have wise faces. But men they’re shits! Shits! The whole race has a problem. They don’t like to be trained! I sound like one of those mean courtmasters or a German general, but when it comes to art I have a real streak of fascism. I want it to be exactly the way I conceived it, and if one line is changed, it’s like hey, fuck it, I don’t need it. The reason I quit doing music is because it was too hard to control all the other people I needed to play the stuff. I’d had enough animal training. I did enjoy playing with Eric Feldman, though. He’s really nice and his folks are the most incredible people I’ve ever met in my life. His mother and father used to come see the music and actually really dig it. Can you imagine that? They lived in a nice house in the San Fernando Valley near this cigar store called the Tinderbox, and he – his name was Harold – had a T-Bird and it looked good. He dressed really nice and he’d sit there, with Liz, and wait for us to go on. They weren’t there just to see their son, they wanted to hear some blow. One time I said to him, “Oh, you’re here to see Eric,” and he replied in this real serious way, “Watch it.” That was his way of saying, I’m here to see the whole thing. Eric lives in San Francisco on Haight Street now.
Did you spend any time in San Francisco when it was the centre of the universe?
Yeah, and I thought it was very corny, like a red movie, a real cheapo, low-budget horror movie. I mean, come on, lava lamps? Good God!
Have you ever spent time in a city where you felt something special and extraordinarily creative was going on?
Yeah, New York, but that was quite a while ago. These days it reminds me of a bowl of underpants. It’s filthy there. It did have some good periods though [Hums a few bars of “I’ll Take Manhattan”]. I stayed at the Gramercy Park Hotel and they were very nice to me. I liked the girl who worked there. She was going with a senator and she dug my music. I couldn’t believe it. She really knew my music. She must’ve been real hip and real bored.
How do you account for the fact that some people have an insatiable appetite for things that are intense and unusual, whereas other people prefer things to be calm and predictable?
Grey matter. The big trick. They have more to turn over I guess.
Was Freud right?
Absolutely not. He was an opportunistic imbecile. He thought the female vagina was comparable to the nostril. Now that isn’t funny! That’s a hell of a thing to put on women, for chrissake. I don’t think of it that way.
Why did people take to his ideas so eagerly?
Because people are stupid.
Which of the four elements are you most drawn to?
It would have to be fire.
What does fire signify to you?
Can I get in and out of it fast enough?
What are your favourite smells?
Ah, now we’re into tinctures. I like the smell of fungus, and loam is awfully nice, too. I like damp, outdoors smells. They have incredible moss where I live. I like the smell of cotton, too – I wear cotton pajamas quite often. Cotton and silk are my favorite materials. I just bought a wonderful coat made of faded cotton by this guy Calvin Klein who must be real hip. I don’t know anything about him, but he sure did turn out a good product.
Most people aren’t aware that you’re interested in clothes and are in fact a bit of a dandy. You’re also quite knowledgeable about beer, whiskey, chocolate, and cigars. Is there anything you care to recommend?
Hmmmm. Today it would have to be La Phraogue single malt whiskey.
There are a number of objects you’ve told me you’re extremely fond of – darning eggs, red enamel thumb tacks, and the Cootie, which was a large, plastic toy bug that was around in the fifties and sixties. What attracts you to these things?
They’re correct in every way – shape, colour, everything. You know, that guy Calvin Klein somehow got onto that Cootie consciousness – the colours he uses are similar to those things. Yeah, that’s some very intelligent work going on there.
What sort of landscape do you find most compelling?
I like the ocean and where it ends – the horizon line. That’s a good spot. I dig the fjords, too – they’re in Norway. I’ve seen some pretty unusual things – I’ve seen 19 saucers, for instance. Those were interesting experiences, and seeing them didn’t scare me – but then, I don’t know what fear is. The idea of safety is nice, but how can we protect ourselves? There are demons without and within. I wish they wouldn’t paint.
Is it true that your father drove a Helm’s Bakery truck for 25 years?
Yeah, he did. Have you ever had any of their stuff? You would’ve dug it. No preservatives. My father used to bring that stuff home but I wouldn’t eat it because I wanted to be svelte. I was really a screwball when I was younger. I’m talking about eating and running I used to do that. I wanted to look good in the clothing I had tailor-made. I started having a tailor make my clothes when I was 19. That was the only way to go. The first thing I had made was a suit with a vest, an English type of thing. The first time I wore it I went to this place called Pipp’s which was a damn good place at one time. I didn’t go there with a date but I had one by the time I left. Yeah, the suit worked quite well. But I kept worrying about her getting her damn makeup on my suit! Why would anybody wear makeup is what I’d like to know although I guess it’s alright once in a while, lust a little eyeliner.
Didn’t you used to wear makeup on stage?
Yeah, I did a couple of times, but it was distortive makeup. I’m talking about red lips and yellow eyelids – just nutty things, which was really stupid, but sort of hip, too. Not nearly as hip as somebody like Laurence Olivier, though. I mean, good God, you don’t even know he’s there!
Are you surprised that you continue to be a presence in the music world despite the fact that you vacated the premises six years ago?
Yeah, it is surprising. The people who still listen to my music must understand that I never meant them any harm – I just felt that some change was in order. There was nothing mean in what I was doing, although nature can be pretty mean, and nature is what that music was about. But not nature with a loincloth.
Do you ever miss being involved in the music business?
No. The first flash I had on everything I ever did was it for me. All the rest was just the laborious effort of trying to recreate that flash correctly. It was all about memory, really. I’m glad I have a good memory.
You think memory is a blessing rather than a curse?
It’s definitely a blessing. I sure as hell hate the idea of geriatric wards. Now that to me is sad.
How do you explain the disdain this culture has for old age?
This culture is out of its mind. I was old when I was young so I could be young the rest of my life. That approach seems to be working out quite well for me.
Can wisdom only be attained through painful experience?
I don’t think it has anything to do with that. Some people have the same painful experience time after time and they still don’t get it. Boring, aren’t they? I think wisdom is more the result of a lucky birth – either that or a frightening birth.
Does the art world treat you better than the music world did?
Oh yeah. I’ve met some incredible people in the art world. My dealer in London, Leslie Waddington, is a wonderful individual. He knew Matisse and lots of other great characters. Yeah, I’m much better off now. I’m just up here painting and getting beat up by my cats. These creatures are so intelligent it’s frightening, especially this cat of mine named Garland. He’s as smart as a chimpanzee and he tricks me in every way. You know they don’t know that much about cats. Cats just came in and started living among humans. You wouldn’t believe what I do for these things! I’m not that good at gymnastics but I bend over and pet Garland for 15 minutes while he’s eating. Garland likes Lightnin’ Hopkins but he has too much ego to listen to my music. If I’m listening to my music while I paint and Garland walks up I have to turn off the music or he won’t come in the room.
What was your most memorable encounter with an animal other than man?
During the time I was rehearsing to record Trout Mask Replica, I saw a coyote in Woodland Hills I think it was playing, but it hit one of my fingers and knocked me down. It was exciting and I wasn’t afraid – it was great seeing some wildlife. This happened exactly at 6:20 PM. It was almost dark, or damn near. It was twilight time, or whatever they call it. There’s a line on Trout Mask “It breaks my heart to see the highway cross the hill” – that may have something to do with my encounter with that coyote.
You’ve said that it’s highly unlikely that you’ll ever record another album of music. Is there a possibility you might record a spoken word album of you reading some of your writings?
That’s quite possible, but it’s a frightening idea. I get scared to death when I recite – even the thought of it makes my mouth dry. Poetry is scary to me. I think Philip Larkin may be the best poet I’ve ever read.
Better than Shakespeare?
No, nobody’s that good. I mean the idea of his name even . . . wow! Willie the Shake, that’s what Lord Buckley called him.
Were you a fan of Buckley’s?
No. He was a comedian for hippies with liberal tendencies and I can’t make that junction.
Is it true you met Malcolm X?
Yeah, I was 13 at the time and I met him in L.A. at the corner of Sixth and Spring. Why did they kill him? That really upsets me. He was one of the good ones. Anyhow, he was downtown giving a speech and I’d taken a bus down there to find a pair of shoes. Oh, I was a nut. I was looking for a pair of City Club shoes, which is a very plain, pointed opera pump. I found the shoes.
What are the sounds your paintings make?
Shadows breathing on themselves.
You recently told me that you thought that music sounded best over the phone. Can you explain why?
Because it’s monaural, and the way the phone distorts music is my favourite distortion.
What’s the most significant change you’ve observed in your self over the past year?
I’m more content because I’m doing exactly what I want to do and nobody can say anything about it. But then, how could they say anything about my music? Why did they? People consider music a collaborative medium but I was never collaborating with anyone. My cat Garland is probably the one creature on earth I’ll defer to. Garland and my wife, Jan. I try to get Jan involved in my painting but she refuses to be. She dances out of reach.
When you’re feeling psychically and spiritually depleted how do you restore yourself?
A Mrs. Grace chocolate fudge cake. I feel like saying “Take me to your leader” when I see one of those things.
What’s your favourite appliance?
A Hamilton Beach Mixer. We had one of those when I was little. When it wore out we took it apart and I mean, my God! Have you seen those brushes in the dark? When I was around two years old I looked inside that Hamilton Beach Mixer and I saw the universe in there.
Kristine McKenna, 1988