O Captain! My Captain Beefheart: An Appreciation by Gary Lucas

Originally published in the Wall Street Journal
December 19, 2010

Noted avant guitarist and composer Gary Lucas was a colleague and friend to Don Van Vliet, better known as Captain Beefheart, who died Friday. Calling him “the most compelling conceptualist I’d ever heard,” Lucas once told the Journal that Van Vliet had “taken the structure of the jazz and blues and rebuilt it like no one else had.” We asked him to record his thoughts about his mentor and friend.

Don Van Vliet was an American maverick visionary genius who single-handedly changed the face of music we know it over a dozen uncompromising albums. He should be a lot better known in the world today than he is, and I have of late been conducting Captain Beefheart symposiums specifically as consciousness-raising exercises to remind folks at just how world-shaking an artist and musician he is. Johnny Rotten and Joe Strummer both cited him as a significant influence on their development, and folks as diverse as David Lynch, Anton Corbijn, Matt Groening, David Byrne, Bob Dylan and Bono have all gone on record attesting to his singular genius. I am astonished that he has not yet been inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, because if anyone deserved to sit at that table it is he.

I never met anyone remotely like him in my 30 years in “this business of music.” He made up his own rules, was sui generis and sounded like no one else. Steeped in gutbucket blues and free jazz, Van Vliet operated on the highest of artistic and poetic levels that left most people bewildered and scratching their heads. But if you were willing to put in the work to really LISTEN – his music was not a background experience – you would be rewarded with a searingly honest beauty and a breathtaking complexity that made most other efforts in the pop arena seem cheap and disposable.

Besides music, he transformed and made art of everything he touched including poetry and painting and sculpture. I was honored to have worked with him for five years as both his guitarist and manager. A total rebel artist and contrarian, he had the guts to go on David Letterman and announce “I don’t want my MTV!” after they rejected our video for “Ice Cream for Crow” as being “too weird.” He could be a terror and a tyrant to his musicians, but most of them were fiercely devoted to him and put up with his extreme mood swings for the privilege of being part of the experience of working with him. We all knew we were involved in a world historical project.

His music was notoriously and fiendishly difficult to play – and the first piece he gave me to record, a guitar solo piece entitled “Flavor Bud Living,” which is featured on the “Doc at the Radar Station” album, absolutely put me on the map musically, the reviewer for Esquire Magazine writing that I must have grown extra fingers to negotiate my way through the piece. Even the great Lester Bangs who had famously good ears (and was an early critical Don Van Vliet partisan, praising Beefheart’s most advanced albums “Trout Mask Replica” and “Lick My Decals Off, Baby” in Rolling Stone) was fooled by my performance of “Flavor Bud”, which involved months of rehearsal and shooting pains in my arm from the physical exertion learning to master the piece correctly, inquiring “Which part are you playing there Gary, the top or the bottom?” when he first heard the playback of “Flavor Bud Living” at a listening party. “Lester, that’s all me, performing live in real time” was my reply. That was really maybe the highest compliment I have ever been paid re. my guitar playing.
In 1984, Van Vliet told me he didn’t want to record or tour anymore as he felt he had said everything he wanted to say and preferred to concentrate on his painting. I was happy to help make introductions for him into the art world that resulted in an active painting career for him. I am really sad to hear of his death and feel the world is a much poorer place now that he is no longer with us. But I will continue to spread the word, if only to remind people that once a true giant walked the earth.

For more on Gary Lucas, visit http://garylucas.com/

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