Captain Beefheart- Goodbye to an American Original
Very sad news about the passing of Don Van Vliet, aka Capt Beefheart on December 18, 2010. DVV was a true American original. As PSF writer Gary Gomes put it, "he leaves a legacy unsurpassed... He is certainly admired and respected in rock and in the early to mid-1980's, some classical musical types ranked him as equal to and even surpassing Stravinsky in some regards."
I never had pleasure of seeing him perform but his music helped me get through the madness of high school. There, every one seemed to be a classic rock fan and for fear of being an outcast, I couldn't bring his name up. That was too bad because he opened up my ears and brain to a wilder, more primitive type of music than I had ever heard before. I had to wait until college to find fellow freaks to bond with over him. When I met my wonderful girlfriend (hi Robin) a number of years ago, one of the first things we bonded over was the good Captain.
And even though I wrote a chapter in Kill Your Idols anthology about how over-rated Trout Mask Replica was (I still think that), I've always loved the phased-out madness of Strictly Personal, the hard-nose rush of Doc at the Radar Station, the formative avant-blues of Safe As Milk and the funny Lick My Decals Off, Baby. When we did several promotional readings for the book, to show how under-rated his other work, I read out several of his lyrics as impassioned as I could but never trying to imitate that wonderfully freaky voice. At the two events, I read "Bat Chain Puller," "Sue Egypt," "Making Love To A Vampire With A Monkey On My Knee" and "Owed T'Alex." I'd forgotten one of my favorites though:
There ain’t no Santa Claus on the evenin’ stage
There ain’t no way t’ pull the curtain
‘N hide from hunger’s rage
There ain’t no town t’ stop in
There ain’t no time t’ stop in
There ain’t no straw for my horse
There ain’t no straw for my bed
There ain’t no comfort in cold boards
There ain’t no rumours or food for my stomach
‘N someday I’m gonna be saved
‘Cause I gotta eat ‘n drink ‘n breathe ‘n sleep
‘N I’m ah slave
Down in hominy’s grotto there’s ah soul die’n ‘n leavin’
Every second on the evenin’ stage
There’s ah soul die’n ‘n rottin’ ‘n pickin’
Some new kinda cotton
With his fingers broken ‘n his heart ‘n back forgotten
There ain’t no Santa Claus on the evenin’ stage
My fave Beefheart story came from Downtown Music Gallery's Bruce Gallanter. He recalled that shortly after TMR came out, two friends of his brought it to a party and put it on the stereo. They then proceeded to play air guitar in front of their friends, wildly trying to imitate what was on the record. They made sure to position themselves right in front of the stereo to guard it and make sure no one tried to take off the record (which several people tried to do). I would have loved to have witnessed that.
Another good CB story came from guitarist/gadfly Gary Lucas. He recently did a lecture tour where he showed some clips of CB, played some CB songs and told some tales. He recounted a time in the early 80's, when he was managing Beefheart. The Good Captain was looking to use some of the out-take material from TMR for the music of his new record so Gary drove him out to see Frank Zappa (who produced the sessions). At the time, Zappa was rehearsing a large band while Gary and CB waited in the wings. Gary was quiet and respectful but CB wouldn't keep quiet, yelling out "that was terrible!" when they finished a song. Afterward, they approached Zappa and asked him about the tapes. FZ was flustered and evasive when he was confronted about this and eventually left without making any kind of commitment to help. Gary apologized on the ride back but Beefheart was grateful- 'I've never seen him squirm like that- that was great!' In the heat of the whole affair, CB went back to the studio and in a flurry, mapped out "Skeleton Makes Good" (which would appear on his last album, Ice Cream For Crow).
During the Q&A session with Lucas after his talk, I wondered why it was that Beefheart happened to attract so many former members of the Mothers of Invention into his own Magic Band. Lucas's theory was that was just he nature of Beefheart- he 'displaced gravity around him' he said.
Lucas also had a wonderful tribute to Beefheart which he wrote for the Wall Street Journal.
There was also a pretty funny story from a recent interview I did with Byron Coley where he talked about meeting CB:
(By the way, Coley's theory about why some Mothers became Magic Band members was that Frank's group was just a warm-up for playing the 'real stuff,' something that Lucas seemed to imply too)
PSF: What was it like interviewing Beefheart?It was good. I had actually interviewed him once before. He's a very funny guy! And he did all these thing though that I never really figured out what they were until later. Like he would always asking 'Do you know what I mean?' And so you'd be going 'Uh... yeah!' But he would have these great aphorisms. So I interviewed him backstage once just for a few minutes for a school paper. But to sit down with him, he would say stuff like (in a deep voice) 'You know, an architect is just someone who wants to crawl up your penis, pull down the shades and type all night... You know what I mean?' And you'd be like... 'Wo...' (laughs) You didn't wanna appear so unhip as to say 'No, I don't know what you mean!' So it was pretty fun. I even interviewed him later too.
As a tribute back in 1999, PSF covered and reviewed all of the records of the Good Captain. This includes a chapter from Mike Barnes's Beefheart biography, specifically about the creation of TMR.
Finally, regarding CB's retirement from music, I also penned a blog post for PopMatters which centered on Syd Barrett but was also relevant to DVV's situation.
Also, see below for the great videos of CB and his work that are floating out there.
And thanks Don- you rattled my world and made it a better place.
Two clips of Beefheart on the beach at Cannes in '68, entertaining the tourists
His bizarre ad for Lick My Decals Off, Baby, which a California TV station wouldn't show 'cause it was too weird. As Lucas noted, surely David Lynch was taking notes.
early 70's, from a TV show, with his three 3 guitar line-up (including two of the original Mothers)
The hilarious video for "Ice Cream For Crow" (which is now part of the Museum of Modern Art's permanent collection)
An extended video of Beefheart's 1983 interview on the Letterman Show