Who Hijacked Our Country

Saturday, December 18, 2010

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.


Labels: , , , , , ,


Blogger BadTux said...

I heard of him (crap, just look at the obscure music I post on my blog, I know about a *lot* of bands that nobody ever heard of), just never "got" it. Maybe I just have to take the right drugs, in which case I'm not interested anyhow...

- Badtux the Baffled Music Penguin

December 18, 2010 at 2:42 PM  
Blogger Dave Dubya said...

I think we can best describe the Captain's music in visual art terms. His music was like a mix of European Expressionism and Jackson Pollack.

No quaint still lifes or lush landscapes of pop swill. Just a force of expressive energy and unorthodox perceptions. That said, he could still write pleasant tunes as well.

An acquired taste, to say the least.

December 18, 2010 at 2:46 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Ah yes, back in the days when San Francisco(?) had (seemingly) the only FM broacasts in the country..

December 18, 2010 at 4:03 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I came from that era too. I remember the endless concerts he would do and the legion of fans he got. But the only thing I remember on the radio was a cover of "Hot Rod Lincoln"


December 18, 2010 at 5:50 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I just realized as I walked away from posting this message that I;m confusing Captain Beefheart with Commander Cody (military names confuse me). Yes I do remember Beefheart, though now I can't think of anything he did.


December 18, 2010 at 6:06 PM  
Anonymous Carlos said...

I never knew much about him either, except for Bongo Fury and Hot Rats. Lots of fun memories of hanging out with friends listening to those albums.

Oh...and that he was pretty handy on the blues harmonica - an instrument/style I've been playing for 36yrs.

Now I'm gonna go read about him...and hum "The Illinois Enema Bandit" or "Poofter's Froth Wymoning" while I do. :-)

December 19, 2010 at 2:55 AM  
Blogger Beekeepers Apprentice said...

I've heard of him, but have to admit, I've never "heard" him. I'm betting Mr. Bee has, he's a big Zappa fan.

December 19, 2010 at 10:13 AM  
Blogger Snave said...

Yes, Bongo Fury and Hot Rats were great records. Beefheart and Zappa together was magic! I can still recite "Sam With The Showing Scalp Flat Top" from start to finish... and "Trout Mask Replica" is an amazing record... nothing like it anywhere. RIP, Captain!

December 19, 2010 at 1:41 PM  
Blogger Tom Harper said...

BadTux: That's true, we both like a lot of obscure music. It's better than the ear candy you get on the radio.

Dave: Good description -- a musical version of Jackson Pollack and Expressionism.

Anonymous: The only time I ever heard anything by Captain Beefheart on the radio, it was a station that was so underground, it was cable only.

Erik: Yup, those military lifers -- Captain Beefheart and Commander Cody. I think Hot Rod Lincoln is the only song I ever heard by Commander Cody. Not to be confused with Ministry's "Jesus Built My Hot Rod," but I digress...

Carlos: Ah yes, who could forget "Poofter's Froth Wyoming."

Bee: If anything, Captain Beefheart was even more "out there" than Frank Zappa. But there was a lot of overlapping; they were great together.

Snave: "Sam With The Showing Scalp Flat Top" is my favorite Zappa-Beefheart song -- turns the mind inside out and upside down (like so much of their work).

December 19, 2010 at 7:41 PM  
Anonymous S.W. Anderson said...

I think I heard the name and thought it was a put on, or something. From what you say about him, I'm sorry he kept such a low profile and is gone.

December 19, 2010 at 11:27 PM  
Blogger Tom Harper said...

SW: Yup, he was one of a kind.

December 20, 2010 at 4:49 PM  

Post a Comment

<< Home