by Phil Nugent
Don Van Vliet, a.k.a. Captain Beefheart, was the kind of artist who didn’t have fans: he had acolytes. Maybe disciples, but that would imply that he sent forth squadrons of imitators and pretenders to carry on his word, and Van Vliet hardly send out any. There’s a band, Fast N Bulbous, who do spirited jazz versions of the Captain’s songs, which were themselves highly individualized takes on gutbucket blues and early rock and roll and old country music. Other coterie musicians with cult reputations, such as the Velvet Underground and Van Vliet’s sometime collaborator Frank Zappa—people who, like him, failed in the mass commercial marketplace only to be picked up as signifiers of cool by discerning, snobby young people such I once was myself–inspired a lot of younger musicians to try to sound sort of, in not just, like them, but nobody really sounded like the Captain. Not because nobody wanted there to be more music like that in the world, either. It’s more as if nobody dared.
There was another important difference between Captain Beefheart and Zappa and the Velvets and for that matter just about any super-hip rock performer you could think of. There didn’t seem to be much anger or hostility in the Captain. There was rage, sometimes, expressed in the music at the things he thought were wrong with the world. And there’s no denying that his sound could be abrasive and jarring, especially on earliest acquaintance. (“Why,” Langdon Winner wrote in the classic essay on Beefheart’s Trout Mask Replica that is included in the 1979 rock crit anthology Stranded, “would anyone sing in the voice usually reserved for telling trespassers to get the hell off their property?”) But the Captain was no exclusionist. The closest he came to erecting a wall of protective hipness around himself came on Trout Mask Replica, parts of which sound as if the band was having way more fun recording them than anyone would ever have listening to them, but also the one where the Captain urges us to “take my kind hand” and enter his world, if only for a while.
“Beefheart,” Winner wrote, “is not concerned to build bridges for his audience or to make it any easier for anyone to come along. Either you’re interested or you’re not.” This is true as far as it goes. But the Captain did want people to be interested; it’s just that the sometimes difficult music he made was the only language he knew as a musical artist. This point was driven home in the early ’70s, when, on a couple of notorious records for Mercury, he did his level best to sell out, to the horror of his fans and the total indifference of the larger world. His real hot streak began in 1978, with the first of three albums—Shiny Beast (Bat Chain Puller), followed by 1980′s Doc at the Radar Station and the 1982 Ice Cream for Crow—that had the old bite and snarl, the wit and intense, mysterious dream imagery, coupled to a new tunefulness, that seemed a better fit in a world informed by punk and its aftereffects than the Captain’s music had in the old context of the hippie dream. (I would also direct you to I’m Going to Do What I Wanna Do: Live at My Father’s Place, a concert from the Shiny Beast days that Rhino made available in 2000.) And that was that; having earned the kind of reviews that usually serve to inform a cult artist that his long-deferred, coasting-while-overrated period can now begin, Van Vliet shut down his music factory and concentrated on his painting and sculpture, while battling multiple sclerosis far from the public eye. Now comes word that he has died, at 69.
It’s funny to feel that Van Vliet died young, because of how old he seemed to me when I first heard of him and his music, when I was in high school, some thirty years ago. With his weather-beaten look and the way his music and persona conjured up old medicine show barkers, carny con men, and fabulists from an earlier America, he had the timeless thing going on when Tom Waits still looked like a kid dressed in his daddy’s clothes, trying to seem “experienced” and colorful. (Waits would later credit much of his own breakthrough as an artist, after a decade’s worth of recording, to his immersion in the Captain’s music.) Beefheart began to make better sense to me after I saw him on TV in 1982, plugging what would turn out to be his farewell album. On that show, and in some of the clips of him gamely trying to present himself to the mass audience, you could see the shyness peeking through as he summoned the courage to command the stage and show the people what he was about. I think that much of the beauty of his music came from this tension between whatever pushed him to reach out and present his world to those who might be interested in it, and the sense, which I don’t think ever left him, that he was a natural weirdo and outsider best suited to hiding out with his paints and clay. Other artists might set out to change the world; I think that Van Vliet knew that his work wasn’t going to touch everyone, but that made him all the more determined, while the fire was inside him, to do everything he could to make sure than he made his pitch to every single person who might be sealed up alone in their bedroom somewhere who would answer the call of the Magic Band. This was how a rough-looking guy of indeterminate age with a cabinet full of weird compositions made millions of strangers feel nothing short of love for him. Okay, maybe more like thousands. But still, y’know?
[Originally posted at The Phil Nugent Experience.]