Don Van Vliet aka Captain Beefheart
We’ve lost one of the pillars of twentieth century music. Don Van Vliet — Captain Beefheart — died yesterday.
Most people never heard of him. Out of the people who heard his music, most of them probably gave a quick listen and then went “WTF?!?!?!?” The simplest description I can think of is: a cross between Delta Blues, jug band music and avante-garde jazz, with Howlin’ Wolf on vocals, and the zaniest most out-there lyrics of all time.
Again, that description is much too oversimplified. As little-known as he was, he’s had a profound effect on today’s music. (I’m not talking about the pop drivel you hear on the radio.) Almost every progressive/experimental/”New Wave” (remember that term from the late ‘70s?) musician — and that includes Frank Zappa — has been influenced by Captain Beefheart.
I never knew much about him; he kept a very low profile. Most of his fame — what there was of it — probably came from collaborating with Frank Zappa. I have two of his Zappa/Beefheart albums — Bongo Fury and Hot Rats. The only Captain Beefheart album I have is Trout Mask Replica.
Yesterday Tom Waits said:
“[Captain Beefheart] was like the scout on a wagon train. He was the one who goes ahead and shows the way.... He drew in the air with a burnt stick. He described the indescribable. He's an underground stream and a big yellow blimp.”
Don Van Vliet has spent the last few decades concentrating on abstract painting instead of music. He was supposed to be such a slave-driver and a perfectionist, it was hard to find musicians willing to work with him. He himself once said:
“Part of why I stopped doing music was because it was too hard to control the other people I needed to play the stuff, and I'd had enough animal training. When it comes to art, I have a real streak of fascism. I want it to be exactly the way I conceive it, and if one line is changed it's like, 'Hey, the hell with it, I don't need it.'“
He died at age 69 — complications from multiple sclerosis.
Here are some more links to Captain Beefheart.
Here are some YouTube links. And HERE are most of the tracks from Trout Mask Replica.