Captain Beefheart (January 15, 1941 – December 17, 2010), née Don Vliet (later adding the “van,” hence Don van Vliet), died last Friday, apparently from complications with the M.S. that saddled him since the 1990s. He was 69 years old.
Captain Beefheart was an accomplished bluesman, surrealist painter, and all-around original thinker. Apparently, according an interview on Late Night with David Letterman in 1982, he was also the first person to make a music video, back in 1972, for “Lick My Decals Off, Baby.” Apart from the awkwardness of this interview, there’s a nice clip from the video for the title track of Beefheart’s then-newly released album with His Magic Band, Ice Cream for Crow.
I initially got to know Beefheart through his aggressive, screaming rhythm and blues. The song “Moonchild” (from The Legendary A & M Sessions, 1965) stands out in my memory as one of the earliest of his tunes I heard, sometime in high school, I guess.
The impact of Captain Beefheart’s unique approach to music didn’t hit me, however, and hit me it did like a ton of bricks, until I was a freshman in college while visiting friends at Notre Dame. The day after an awfully rowdy and seemingly endless Saturday of pre-football, during-football, and post-football partying, my pals and I laid low on the sabbath, dining on juice and sweet cheese most of the day, listening — over and over — to Trout Mask Replica, Beefheart’s magnum opus (to my mind) from 1969. It’s a truly confounding album for me, still to this very day. And yet, more than any other album I can think of, I appreciate the way it sonically and lyrically complicates the mundane narratives of everyday life that we are continually fed day after day. After two decades of listening to Trout Mask Replica, it’s still challenging and every bit as fresh as the first time I heard it (it doesn’t get any better than “Ella Guru,” yeah!). A few years later I discovered Captain Beefheart’s work with Frank Zappa, his childhood friend and, as an adult, intellectual “Newman.” His lyrics were still the stuff of Dada and lyrically graceful (if screeching), but Zappa’s guitar and orchestration helped Beefheart’s ideas explode from the amps as viscerally piercing word art (think “Debra Kedabra” on Bongo Fury).
Any uncertainty that his music and ideas might have evoked in my mind when I first heard Beefheart, somehow seems to have lessened now that I discovered his visual artwork. It’s challenging too, like his music, but his paintings open up an avenue of understanding into the man’s worldview that his music alone doesn’t. I like his art a lot. I’d love to see it in a gallery someday, sans the sensory mediation of a computer or a book. Who knows when that opportunity will come, however. So for now, I’ll have to settle for the intriguing video portraits of Don van Vliet available online — like this interesting meditation on art and life, Some Yo Yo Stuff.
And if you have the time and interest, check out John Peel’s tasteful documentary (in four parts on You Tube) about van Vliet, Captain Beefheart: Documentary.
Captain Beefheart, RIP.