[in memoriam] Don Van Vliet a/k/a Captain Beefheart, 1941-2010

Most of the younger music-listening public in 2010 would be forgiven for replying “Who?” upon hearing the news of the passing on Friday of Donald Glen Vliet a/k/a Don Van Vliet a/k/a Captain Beefheart. After all, he purposely ended his musical career in 1982, trading in his raspy vocal wail for a paintbrush and three decades of exploring impressionist art whilst fastidiuously keeping out of the public eye. By all accounts, he had been suffering for decades with the debilitating effects of mulitple sclerosis, finally succumbing this week at the age of 69. The Captain will be most remembered for his late 60s/early 70s cantankerousness, when he and his Magic Band managed to briefly assault the budding psychedelic consciousness with some of the strangest music ever created by man. Vliet’s approach to art and music can best be described as being from an outsider perspective: obtuse, arcane and cranky while his contemporary peers were attempting to be unifying and seductive to the burgeoning hippie movement. And though he lived to be an old man, Vliet never sounded young, even at his outset when his craggly growl was the closest that white teeny boppers were likely to get to the croaking majesty of the bluesmen like Howlin’ Wolf and John Lee Hooker that Vliet admired (and imitated/ripped off). Here, for instance, in this American Bandstand clip from 1966, watch the kids attempt to get down to the blues apocalypse of early single “Diddy Wah Diddy”:

In large part, Beefheart’s influence and legend is due to the fortuitous interface he was allowed with popular culture in the late 60s. His ongoing relationship with Frank Zappa was equally fortuitous, allowing him to eventually fly his freak flag on Zappa’s label and move on from the relatively restrained blues of the band’s aptly titled 1967 debut Safe As Milk. If Vliet did nothing in his career beyond the staggering obtuseness of 1969’s Trout Mask Replica, for example, his status as one of pop/rock’s most esteemed oddballs would be probably just as airtight as ever.

Luckily for us, Vliet didn’t stop with that record’s 28 tracks of knotted confusion and free associative genius. Instead, Replica proved to be a launching pad for the uninhibited free fall of Vliet’s prodigious musical imagination. A notoriously difficult-to-work-with perfectionist/eccentric (for example, check out his awesomely hard-to-obey “10 Commandments of Guitar Playing”), Vliet’s erratic behavior and tyrannical mania ensured that The Magic Band’s personnel would be fluid and dynamic, resulting in a decade-and-change ouevre that is sprawling, thorny, intimidating, and misleading. But, as any music dork will attest, putting in the hours to “get” Beefheart’s music has always been its own reward, as every record is blessed with moments of exuberance and unbridled elation that just couldn’t have been achieved by following the conventions of acceptable rock music. Every fan has their favorite Beefheart moments; for me, it’s the staggering 8-plus minutes of Mirror Man centerpiece “Kandy Korn”, where what starts as a stilted children’s rhyme explodes into an epic meditation on “being reborn” that captures in sound the feeling of a pure burning waking dream.

In the end, Vliet’s escape from music turned him into a Syd Barrett-esque figure, an LSD-damaged weirdo who had difficulty interfacing with modern society. One of his final public moments, oddly, was this 1982 appearance on the David Letterman show. 80s Letterman, it needs to be remembered, was a priceless public space for some of pop culture’s weirdest outsiders to practice their theater of the absurd on late-night television (whether it’s an early appearance by Pee Wee Herman or the rightfully notorious appearances by a karate-kicking Crispin Glover), and Beefheart’s appearance, ostensibly to plug his final album, the reliably puzzlingly-titled Ice Cream For Crow, was no exception. Watch this clip and bask in the good Captain’s mesmeric decrepitude:

There is definitely something to be said for someone who has the strength of their artistic vision to walk away when the time is right; and ignoring the naysayers who attempt to poo-poo his terrif mid-70s pair of long-players that, sonically, flirted with mainstream rock sounds while still being awesomely trippy slabs of gloopy magical flotsam, the man has left behind an airtight discography that one can spend one’s whole life sifting through without ever being bored. More importantly, if you have ever been touched by a song by a modern musician who intentionally zigged while everyone else around them zagged (whether it’s Lou Reed, Sonic Youth, The Fall, Pavement, PJ Harvey, The Clash, Sex Pistols, or about a zillion others), it’s safe as milk to say that you wouldn’t be feeling that feeling if it weren’t for a cranky man in a big old man’s hat and the musical mission he set out on in the early 60s.

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