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Farewell, Captain

Chicopee John

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Captain Beefheart, dead at 69: Music as an action painting

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When Don Van Vliet – better known as Captain Beefheart -- died Friday at age 69, he left behind a lifetime of ground-breaking albums that enchanted, puzzled and disturbed even as they assured his reputation as one of rock’s avant-garde visionaries.


The confusion was at least partially by design. Whether dealing with his band members, record companies or his fans, Beefheart made himself a moving target, impossible to define or fully understand. Yet his self-contained musical logic and outsider spirit influenced countless artists, including Johnny Lydon, Devo, PJ Harvey, Joe Strummer, the Residents, Tom Waits, Pere Ubu and the Fall. These artists, of course, did not sound much like Captain Beefheart. No one could. But his intent – that of being the sole inhabitant of a small, strange, entirely self-constructed world – was hugely inspiring, an artist who refused compromise.


Don Glen Vliet was born in January 1941 in Glendale, Calif. He demonstrated an early affinity for art (sculpture in particular), but began focusing on music after meeting a similarly precocious and gifted young musician named Frank Zappa in high school.


After early forays into more conventional blues-based rock (a cover of the Bo Diddley-Willie Dixon song “Diddy Wah Diddy” was released as a single in 1966), Beefheart was being touted as the next “great white blues singer” by his record company, a notion he would quickly subvert.


Beefheart was self-taught on a half-dozen instruments including harp, saxophone and piano, with a multi-octave vocal range. His Magic Band brimmed with virtuosos, including Ry Cooder, John French, Eric Drew Feldman and Gary Lucas, who were challenged by the most daring and complex music they would ever play. Zappa was an early champion and produced Beefheart’s 1969 masterpiece, the double album “Trout Mask Replica” (for a guide to Beefheart's essential recordings, click HERE).


By comparison, Zappa’s music was harmonically and melodically accessible. Beefheart’s often wasn’t. Though there would be inevitable tension between the two musical giants over the decades, Zappa always appreciated just how far Beefheart was willing to take things. “There’s no way this is ever happening anywhere else on any planet –- anywhere,” he once marveled of Beefheart’s music.


Beefheart could not write or read music, but he composed parts that were transcribed by French for “Trout Mask Replica” and then performed by the Magic Band. The music had a furious, churning energy topped by Beafheart’s wild, da-da wordplay. His growling, howling vocals – an instrument that he used to imitate a saxophone or a wild animal -- flowed through unstable musical structures. Instruments played in different time signatures and musical keys simultaneously. There were echoes of blues drone, avant-garde classical music, free jazz, early rock ‘n’ roll, field recordings and the rantings of street-corner oracles.


Beefheart would describe his music in terms of sculpture or abstract painting, once referencing the “speed and emotion” of abstract expressionist painter Franz Kline as a direct parallel.


His bands would be rigorously rehearsed and Beefheart developed a reputation as a stern, obsessive taskmaster; despite his massive contributions to “Trout Mask,” French was not listed as a contributor because he left the band just before the album’s release.


Beefheart was upset when Zappa marketed “Trout Mask” as just another pop album alongside releases by Alice Cooper and the GTO’s. His reluctance to play along with the industry, sometimes to the detriment of his own career, was legendary. He turned down gigs at the Monterey Pop Festival in 1967 and at Woodstock in 1969. By his own admission, he related better to animals than human beings, and his songs were littered with references to snakes, sharks, pigs and their primitive perfection, their unself-conscious expressiveness.


Once, referring to a famed jazz saxophonist, Beefheart told critic Lester Bangs, “Well, he moved me, but he didn't move me as much as a goose, say. Now that could be a hero, a gander goose could definitely be a hero, the way they blow their heart out for nothing."


In the ‘70s, Beefheart veered toward a more straightforward sound, but met with more commercial indifference and the Magic Band imploded. As the punk era rolled around, he regrouped with younger musicians and released two stellar albums: “Shiny Beast (Bat Chain Puller)” (1978) and “Doc at the Radar Station” (1980). Soon after he retired from music completely and spent his remaining years focusing on his artwork. He proved to be a brilliant artist, far more successful than he was as a musician. By all accounts, he cut himself off from music almost entirely.


“It’s silent other than what’s going on in my mind,” he said in one rare interview during the ‘90s. The music world is unlikely to encounter another mind like his anytime soon.


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