Two nights ago I logged on to Twitter, seeking the usual entertainment, whereupon I was immediately hit by a tweet claiming that Don ‘Captain Beefheart’ Van Vliet had just died. My enquiry as to the truth of this statement was quickly answered by musically savvy Twitter friends, and links to news websites left no doubt as to the sad reality that a musical hero was no longer with us. After suffering for many years from multiple sclerosis, he had finally succumbed to the illness at the too early age of 69.
For the best part of thirty years Captain Beefheart’s music has been one of the pillars of my aesthetic universe’s sonic architecture. He has been emblematic of what can be achieved outside the cultural mainstream by sheer dint of personal vision and determination to be a creative force whatever the consequences in terms of commercial success and critical acceptability. His talent and his philosophy of life, his complete rejection of orthodoxy, the beautiful, crazy, searching wildness of his imagination, enabled him to explore a unique music forged out of the raw materials of the blues and warped with the freedom of the ‘New Thing’ in jazz and the spirit of Psychedelia (though Beefheart eschewed personal drug use) and Surrealism into something beautiful and unprecedented. His greatest music, like all great music, sang out the Truth.
My first awareness of the name Captain Beefheart goes back to early 1978, when my secondary school English teacher, Mr. Chard, was talking about a record called Bat Chain Puller. I think the subject of music may have been brought up by a kid called Martin James, who was the class Punk. It was easy to get Mr. Chard off the poetry of Dylan Thomas by mentioning football, but this day it was music. I must have been intrigued by the strange name, and the word ‘eccentric’ probably came into the teacher’s disquisition on things Beefheartian (the existence of the adjective is an indication of his importance), since I remember it 32 years later. I was a fifteen-year-old music lover, a regular listener to Alan Freeman’s Saturday Show for about three years by then, and had begun listening to John Peel late at night when I should have been getting off to sleep, so I had an ear out for esoteric music, the stuff you didn’t hear on Radio One in the week or on Top of the Pops on a Thursday evening. But I didn’t hear the music until 1983, when I played guitar in Leisure Services Department. We were Post-Rock before the concept existed, I now realise in looking back, a dishevelled and motley gang of noise merchants playing improvised instrumentals and emitting a rather unlikely racket. Certainly something of the Beefheart spirit presided over our musical efforts, to the extent that we came up with a slide guitar rocker called Beef Boogie, Non? Robin Watts, fellow guitarist and creative leader of the band, lent me Clear Spot, a semi-commercial but high quality rock/R&B record. I checked it out and liked it a lot but, apart from Big Eyed Beans from Venus and Golden Birdies, I could hardly have been prepared for his greatest work. Those two tracks were clues, of course, but I didn’t pick up on them at the time.
That encounter with Beefheart’s finest and strangest music, the really out-there goods, came next year. Being a Ry Cooder fan, I tuned in to a Radio One documentary about the great Americana pioneer which I had been looking forward to all week. The tinny speakers of my cheap Amstrad hi-fi blurted out an amazingly dramatic, colourful piece of psychedelic rock called Electricity, a track from a record bearing the evocatively daft title Safe As Milk, all fired up with Cooder’s excitable, fuzzed-out bottleneck Strat frenzy. That was it, the revelation – I was a Beefheart devotee from that epiphanic moment. The next week I located the album at Replay’s, a funky little second-hand record shop in Southampton’s St. Denys parish. The greying hippy who owned the place looked up the LP I’d found in the bins. It was Drop Out Boogie, a retitled UK release of the LP I sought. So I handed over the cash and played the disc as soon as I got home. Magical music indeed from the Magic Band: hard blues-rock, acid-tinged experimentalism, sweet soul, psychedelicised images and wayward wordplay, and even a reference tone to begin the proceedings. I soon snapped up more recordings and became thoroughly infatuated with this progressive blues experiment.
Of course, Beefheart’s musical apotheosis was the creation of the extraordinary Trout Mask Replica. There was nothing in rock music before it that foreshadowed it, and nothing since has matched it. Leaving aside the question of whether TMR could be classified as rock (it has as much in common with Bartok as it does with Howlin’ Wolf), there has been no music based on the electric guitar that comes near it in terms of twisted complexity fused with raw energy. It melds free jazz, random snippets of speech, blues, chromaticism, polymetric rhythmic structures, extremes of timbre, vivid poetry, impressionistic word-pictures, a mad surrealistic joy at life, compassion, warmth, freewheeling tropes of nature imagery and gingham and too small hands and cherry phosphates. The band were holed up in a remote house, practising intensely every single day for up to sixteen hours at a time, Beefheart single-mindedly guiding and goading his musicians, pushing them to their technical and emotional limits. Tales of these sessions are many, the stuff of folklore (Bill ‘Zoot Horn Rollo’ Harkleroad described it as being ‘a few yards short of a David Koresh situation’), and there is no doubt that it was an incredibly intense, frustrating and draining time for the guys in the band. Yet the challenge of the music kept them in that house. They must have understood that they were building something entirely sui generis, something that would live on for generations. It was worth enduring the madness to be a part of that.
Whatever the truth of Beefheart’s claims about how he taught Harkleroad and Jeff Simmons (Antennae Jimmy Semens) to play the guitar, there is no doubt that he composed the music. A brilliant natural musician, self-taught blues harpist, soprano saxophonist and one-finger pianist, he bypassed technique and theory instinctively to hammer out the tiny details of his impossibly complicated compositions. He would whistle tunes, thump out riffs on the keyboard, hum phrases, all to be transcribed by drummer John ‘Drumbo’ French and transferred to guitars, bass and drum-kit. He had a tape machine with him 24/7 and the band was kept on constant alert to be available at any time, day or night, to get the music down. Even the sound of washing-up being done in the sink was taped and transmogrified into rhythmic motifs. No wonder the resulting LP is utterly unlike anything else, even in Beefheart’s exalted oeuvre.
Don Van Vliet is a composer who should be spoken of in the same breath as those other giants of 20th century music Stravinsky, Ellington and Muddy Waters. The scope of his influence is not so wide as those great men’s, yet it is considerable. Like them he took the music of his forebears and remade it to reflect his own aesthetic, to express how he felt about the world and the human condition. Like them he created something unheralded, something that could not have been objectively extrapolated from what had gone before. Like them he was unconcerned about breaking the rules, unwilling to bend to the pressure of critics unable to imagine new futures. The complexity of his music appealed to the progressives and the avant garde, the blues and jazz roots linked him with the American folk and urban traditions, and the energy and outsider vibe of the Beefheart sound world endeared him to the Punks. Public Image Ltd. in its Metal Box phase is suffused with the Magic Band guitar sound. The metallic, angular stylings of Gang of Four guitarist Andy Gill are pure Rollo/Simmons, and XTC were a studiously post-Beefheart outfit led by an eccentrically creative Andy Partridge. And surely the ornery wordsmith and musical maverick Mark E. Smith is nothing less than the Mancunian Beefheart: a demagogue visionary pushing The Fall, his own Magic Band, to play it right and play it real. Tom Waits became the gravel throated hipster master of ceremonies in a bohemian jazz circus thanks to Beefheart’s influence, another maker of an entirely personal sound world.
It’s sad to know that Don Van Vliet, the sainted Captain Beefheart, is no longer in our world. To me he was a great musician and a great example of how to live positively, to be focussed on creativity and kindness, to be a benign breaker of the rules. Although I always knew I would never hear any new music from him, for he’d announced his withdrawal from the music scene after his magnificent swansong Ice Cream for Crow, and I know I am unlikely ever to be able to afford one of his much sought-after paintings (a child art prodigy, he became an in-demand abstract painter), I feel the loss somehow. I never knew him, but he was a kind of psychedelic father figure in my aesthetic-philosophical world, a gentle mystic in a Mohave desert caravan, the archetype of the Wise Old Man who could show us all how to live. It is strange to say it, but I shall miss him.
Don Van Vliet 14/1/1947-17/12/2010