Illustration by Ashley Holt
Two great pieces about the late Don Van Vliet AKA Captain Beefheart. First up the classic and epic Lester Bangs profile from the Village Voice circa 1980 (you might want to print this one out):
As reviews over the years have proved, it’s always difficult to write anything that really says something about Don Van Vliet.
Perhaps (though he may hate this comparison) this is because, like Brian Eno, he approaches music with the instincts of a painter, in Beefheart’s case those of a sculptor as well. (When I was trying to pin him down about something on his new album over the phone the other day, he said: “Have you seen Franz Kline lately? You should go over to the Guggenheim and see his Number Seven, they have it in such a good place. He’s probably closer to my music than any of the painters, because it’s just totally speed and emotion that comes out of what he does.”)
When he’s directing the musicians in his Magic Band he often draws the songs as diagrams and shapes. Before that he plays the compositions into a tape himself, “usually on a piano or a moog synthesizer. Then I can shape it to be exactly the way I want it, after I get it down there. It’s almost like sculpture; that’s actually what I’m doing, I think. ‘Cause I sure as hell can’t afford marble, as if there was any.”
Much of what results, by any “normal” laws of music, cannot be done. As for lyrics, again like Eno, he often works them up from a sort of childlike delight at the very nature of the sounds themselves, of certain words, so if, to pull an example out of the air; “anthrax,” or “love” for that matter appears in a line, it doesn’t necessarily mean what you’ll find in the dictionary if you look it up. Then again, it might.
Contrary to Rolling Stone, “Ashtray Heart” on the new album has nothing to do with Beefheart’s reaction to punk rockers beyond one repeated aside that might as well be a red herring. (“Lut’s open up another case of the punks” is the line reflecting his rather dim view of the New Wavers who are proud to admit to being influenced by him. “I don’t ever listen to ‘em, you see, which is not very nice of me but… then again, why should I look through my own vomit? I think they’re overlooking the fact - they’re putting it back into rock and roll: bomp, bomp, bomp, that’s what I was tryin’ to get away from, that mama heartbeat stuff. I guess they have to make a living, though.”)
And then there is the heartfelt appreciation of Beefheart that appeared in Sunday’s Wall Street Journal, from onetime Magic Band member, guitar genius Gary Lucas:
I never met anyone remotely like him in my 30 years in “this business of music.” He made up his own rules, was sui generis and sounded like no one else. Steeped in gutbucket blues and free jazz, Van Vliet operated on the highest of artistic and poetic levels that left most people bewildered and scratching their heads. But if you were willing to put in the work to really LISTEN – his music was not a background experience – you would be rewarded with a searingly honest beauty and a breathtaking complexity that made most other efforts in the pop arena seem cheap and disposable.
Besides music, he transformed and made art of everything he touched including poetry and painting and sculpture. I was honored to have worked with him for five years as both his guitarist and manager. A total rebel artist and contrarian, he had the guts to go on David Letterman and announce “I don’t want my MTV!” after they rejected our video for “Ice Cream for Crow” as being “too weird.” He could be a terror and a tyrant to his musicians, but most of them were fiercely devoted to him and put up with his extreme mood swings for the privilege of being part of the experience of working with him. We all knew we were involved in a world historical project.
His music was notoriously and fiendishly difficult to play – and the first piece he gave me to record, a guitar solo piece entitled “Flavor Bud Living,” which is featured on the “Doc at the Radar Station” album, absolutely put me on the map musically, the reviewer for Esquire Magazine writing that I must have grown extra fingers to negotiate my way through the piece. Even the great Lester Bangs who had famously good ears (and was an early critical Don Van Vliet partisan, praising Beefheart’s most advanced albums “Trout Mask Replica” and “Lick My Decals Off, Baby” in Rolling Stone) was fooled by my performance of “Flavor Bud”, which involved months of rehearsal and shooting pains in my arm from the physical exertion learning to master the piece correctly, inquiring “Which part are you playing there Gary, the top or the bottom?” when he first heard the playback of “Flavor Bud Living” at a listening party. “Lester, that’s all me, performing live in real time” was my reply. That was really maybe the highest compliment I have ever been paid re. my guitar playing.
Via Michael Simmons/Steve Silberman