“The Artist Formerly Known as Captain Beefheart” (1997)

June 18, 2019 at 3:35 pm (Captain Beefheart, Frank Zappa, Music)

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Samuel Andreyev – Analysis of “Frownland” (2017)

June 16, 2019 at 12:10 pm (Captain Beefheart, Music)

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Sean Murphy – “O Captain! My Captain!: The Unique Magic of Captain Beefheart” (2010)

January 3, 2011 at 7:21 am (Captain Beefheart, Music, Reviews & Articles)

A tribute to late, great Captain Beefheart by Sean Murphy from the PopMatters website, dated Dec. 20, 2010…

As Ian Anderson said, “We’re getting a bit short on heroes lately”.

And Ian, while he wasn’t speaking of Don Van Vliet, nevertheless would—and has—endorsed the man better known as Captain Beefheart. Indeed, the list of well-loved and iconoclastic artists who have cited CB as an inspiration and hero include the likes of Tom Waits, Nick Cave, P.J. Harvey and Matt Groening. When the people lots of people worship name you as someone they worship, you can safely conclude you have done influential work, even if it didn’t necessarily pay the bills.

To say Don Van Vliet, who passed away on December 17th, was unique is rather like saying the sun radiates heat: it doesn’t quite capture the enormity and impact of the subject. To assert that he was brilliant would be almost insulting, if that is possible. A genius? Let’s just say that Read the rest of this entry »

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“Captain Beefheart Dead at Age 69”

December 17, 2010 at 6:13 pm (Captain Beefheart, Music, Reviews & Articles)

Taken from the Rolling Stone website today, written by Maura Johnston. Sadly, The Captain has passed away….R.I.P. …

Don Van Vliet, who became a rock legend as Captain Beefheart, died today from complications from multiple sclerosis in California. His passing was announced by the New York-based Michael Werner Gallery, which represented his work as a painter.

His Trout Mask Replica was Number 58 on Rolling Stone‘s list of the 500 Greatest Albums of All Time. In a 1969 review, Lester Bangs called Trout “a total success, a brilliant, stunning enlargement and clarification of his art.”

“Don Van Vliet was a complex and influential figure in the visual and performing arts,” the gallery said in a statement. “He is perhaps best known as the incomparable Captain Beefheart who, together with his Magic Band, rose to prominence in the 1960s with a totally unique style of blues-inspired, experimental rock & roll. This would ultimately secure Van Vliet’s place in music history as one of the most original recording artists Read the rest of this entry »

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Captain Beefheart & the Magic Band – “Ice Cream for Crow” (1982)

March 3, 2010 at 7:50 am (Captain Beefheart, David Fricke, Music, Reviews & Articles)

David Fricke’s October 1982 Musician magazine review of the Captain’s final album…


It happens every two or three years. Captain Beefheart, easily rock’s most abused underdog, after fifteen years of beating his head against fame’s door, issues another of his brilliant, confounding vinyl missives — vivid demanding documents of colliding technicolor imagery, exhausting primal rhythms divided into bizarre fractious and alien instrumental eloquence and the critics cry “Breakthrough! Hitsville! This is the one!” The rock comics’ oracle has predicted Beefheart’s commercial triumph so many times it’s no wonder the AOR mind-slaves dismiss it as the empty bluster of a few dozen typewriting malcontents.

But just maybe this time he’s really pulled it off with this album’s breathless opening shot, “Ice Cream for Crow.” “Turn up the speakers / Hop flop sqwack / It’s a keeper,” Beefheart bellows in an awesome tubercular rap over new drummer Cliff Martinez’s whiplash boogie rush, roaring like a demon-possessed caller at some offworld square dance. The song’s double-time crack with the polyrhythmic fragments flying off Jeff Moris Tepper and Gary Lucas’s steely choogling guitars is guaranteed to liven up the platter selection at even the hippest rock disco, at once giant steps ahead of today’s plague of synthetic funk records, yet still deeply rooted in its elemental John Lee Hooker rasp and Beefheart’s glass-shattering Boy-oh-boy blues harp bursts.

And it you think I’m just crying wolf here, note that Epic Records which distributes Virgin is releasing “Ice Cream for Crow” as a single (with a non-LP instrumental B-side). The dance-floor beckons.

As a whole, Ice Cream for Crow — Beefheart’s twelfth album on his eighth label (if you include Epic and count Warner Bros. twice) is a spirited successor in the recent Shiny Beast and Doc at the Radar Station line of Trout Mask Replica-rooted experiments with some bold distinguishing marks. With the exception of “Ink Mathematics” and “The Witch Doctor Life,” in which his voice tumbles over the words in cracked growls, crusty croons and wizened trollish cackles, Beefheart does not so much sing here with his usual octave-defying bravado as rant, rave and rap like a poet in motion over the boiling beat cauldron of the Magic Band. He bitterly swallows the Molotov lyric cocktail of apocalyptic fear and barbed religious imagery in “The Host, the Ghost, the Most Holy-O” (“Why, not even a rustler’d have anything to do / With this branded bum steer world”), read in a stony monotone heavy with dread and scolding over Martinez’s choppy drumming and the guitar’s pleading whine. In a lighter mood is “Cardboard Cutout Sundown,” a typically Beetheartian word landscape of a picture-postcard desert evening intensified by the overlapping contrast of pointed melodic stabbing and altered Western twang in the Tepper-Lucas guitars.

Which is the other thing Ice Cream for Crow is all about — guitars and Beefheart’s inventive harmonies and voicings for the instrument. Consider Gary Lucas’s solo spot “Evening Bell,” an astonishing exercise (in the style of his brief Doc outing “Flavor Bud Living”) in knuckle-cracking inversions and flamenco trills played live on a Fender Strat (the bass sound is actually the low F string tuned down to D). Then consider that Lucas transcribed the piece note-for-note from a piano study by Beefheart. That combination – piano-based note clusters and jagged electric attack — gives the Magic Band’s ensemble guitar frolics a physical rock ‘n’ roll thrust belying the daunting complexity of Beefheart’s song structures. Which is one way of saying that “The Past Sure Is Tense” and the fearsome instrumental traffic jam underneath the free verse of “Hey Garland, I Dig Your Tweed Coat” both cook with smarts.

Ice Cream for Crow does not have the expanded orchestral colour of Doc (with its Stravinskian string synths), and at times Beefheart’s poet-speak takes on the tones of a lecture-in-rhyme. But with the rockum-sockum of the title track on one hand and the harrowing guitar stutter and Beefheart’s overdubbed crying-geese sax duet of “The Thousandth and Tenth Day of the Human Totem Pole” on the other, what you can’t dance to you won’t be able to ignore either. Maybe this won’t sell big. But like Beef heart says, if you’re gonna eat crow it might as well be ice cream. Dig right in.

David Fricke

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Billy Altman – “Captain Beefheart Knows He’s a Man” (1979)

September 30, 2009 at 6:35 pm (Captain Beefheart, Reviews & Articles)

This article on Beefheart comes from the April 1979 issue of Creem magazine…


Don Van Vliet has just spent the last fifteen minutes wandering around the conference room at Warner Brothers’ New York headquarters, investigating the possibilities of undoing the corporate environment. He has painstakingly adjusted and readjusted the dimmer switch until the lighting in the room matches the twilight outside, and he has also managed to pry open one of those standard office building windows, the kind that no one who works in places like this ever even gets near for fear that if they do try and get some fresh air in, some alarm will ring and a team of security guards will haul them away (“Mr. Smith, why would you want to tamper with the scientifically designed heating and cooling system of this structure? I mean, you have a window to look out of, don’t you? Which is better than many other employees here. A window with which to see the building next door, where other people work hard all day for their firm, just as you should for yours. Why do you wish to spoil things, Mr. Smith? Perhaps a talk with the company psychologist . . .”).

The Captain finally sits down, the two of us engage in the ancient Beefheartian ritual of cigarette exchanging – Don’s eyes light up when he sees that I’ve got a pack of Chesterfields and I am ecstatic when a tin of Balkan Sobranies materializes out of his travel bag – but soon he is up again, moving towards a corner of the room where a cardboard cut-out of Shaun Cassidy is standing. Don’s eyes move up and down as he takes in Shaun’s toothy grin, the long scarf, the open necked shirt, the tight slacks. “Can you imagine?” he exclaims. “That kid has more money than all of us. Well, so what? He deserves it. You know what I mean?” And with that, he assumes a John L. Sullivan stance, bobs and weaves a bit, waits for the opening and lands a lightning quick solid right jab to Cassidy’s jaw. “I like this place,” he laughs. “You know what I mean?”

TO BILLY, LOVE OVER GOLD – DON VAN VLIET reads the inscription on the front cover of my copy of The Spotlight Kid, a memento of my first meeting with Captain Beefheart back in early ’72. I’ve since seen him hand out autographs to admirers and give signed sketches to friends, and that little statement usually accompanies his signature. It is one of many phrases that Beefheart has graced the universe with over the years (“Earth – God’s golf ball, “”I’m not even here; I just stick around for my friends,” and “You can tell by the kindness of a dog how a human should be” are three other favorites), but in lieu of his unique relationship to both the world of music and the music industry itself (I hesitate to use the word “career,” since writing and playing music is just one of many things this man does brilliantly; if pressed, I’d have to say that his career is living and on that account, he’s got roughly ninety-nine percent of the rest of his race beat), it’s most assuredly the one that means the most. It has often been a struggle for him to do what he loves to do, and his refusal to be manipulated by the “accepted” rules and regulations of the music biz (x amount of records recorded during y amount of time; z number of tours per annum; etc.) has probably had a big hand in preventing him from becoming a household word, and has resulted in plenty of strange dealings with a number of record companies. But you wind up coming right back to that little slogan and it explains just about everything you’d need to know about Don Van Vliet.

“Beefheart freaks. I know the kind too well – ‘I just love Captain Beefheart. Wouldn’t want him over at the house, though!'”

The closest that Beefheart came towards trying it their way was towards the middle of the decade. In 1972 he’d given Warner Bros. Clear Spot, an album which, produced by Ted Templeman, was hoped to be the one to bring the Beefheart sound to a bigger than cult-sized audience. It didn’t happen, and after its commercial failure, Beefheart moved over to Mercury. 1974’s Unconditionally Guaranteed sported a cover showing him clutching dollar bills in each hand, with a mock warranty printed underneath the picture. One part stood out for me, though; it said: “Warning: Could be harmful to closed minds.” And so, even though the credits on the back were enough to let me know that something was indeed amiss here, what with producer Andy DiMartino getting not only co-arranging credit with Beefheart for all the songs but also co-credit for the songwriting, I gave the record a chance and was rewarded by an undeniably subdued, but nevertheless often captivating, set of songs. Ballads dominated here for the first time on a Beefheart album and odd time signatures were non-existent. But as I pointed out in my review of the record here in CREEM when it was released, ballads were certainly not without precedent in Beefheart land. Spotlight Kid has had them, as had Clear Spot, and I, for one, found no problem at all holding up songs like “Neon Meat Dream of a Octafish” and “Her Eyes Are a Blue Million Miles” side by side and enjoying the different glow from each of them.

Not much happened with the album, though, and Beefheart’s lone New York appearance that year proved to be one of the most depressing concerts I have ever attended in my life. The Magic Band had broken up shortly before this particular tour had begun and Beefheart, assembling what musicians he could under the circumstances, went through the tour like a man whose feet had been cut out from under him. The band tried hard to accompany Beefheart as best they could, but as he himself will tell you, it takes a lot of “unlearning” to play his music correctly. The audience that night was the kind that, unfortunately, I’d seen too many times at Captain Beefheart shows. Mostly Zappoids, coming doped up to see the ‘bizarre’ Beefheart be weird. They yelled and screamed throughout all the slow songs – and many grew hostile when it became clear that this wasn’t going to be an evening of Dadaist entertainment. I only made it through about half the set and finally I just became so overwhelmed by sadness that I had to leave.

“I own some land in California – as if anyone can own land – up north near the Oregon border; I think it’s a quarter of an acre or a third, I’m not really sure. All I need is a window looking on the ocean.”

A second Mercury album came out in ’75 and to Beefheart it was the final straw. Entitled Bluejeans and Moonbeams, the record was mostly outtakes from the previous record and rough takes with instruments overdubbed. Beefheart didn’t want it released and it went out without his approval. Beefheart had suddenly disappeared and the company was going to make sure that he honored his contract, one way or another. Where he disappeared to was home in Northern California, where he and his lovely wife Jan simply went on with their life together – painting, writing, reading, loving, breathing.

In 1976, a new Magic Band started to get assembled and, as with the original Magic Band, it got pieced together slowly and without any real kind of search. The right players just started appearing. Jeff Tepper had met Beefheart years before and Beefheart had given him a drawing which Tepper had framed and put up on the wall of his house. The two of them met again and Tepper, a sensitive guitarist, began playing with Beefheart. Richard Redus, the other guitarist, was a visitor at Beefheart’s house during the recording of Trout Mask Replica (“We talked about the beautiful eucalyptus trees in Woodland Hills,” Beefheart recalls) and he joined the fold after a stint with Zappa. Drummer Robert Williams and bassist/keyboard player Eric Feldman formed the rhythm section, and the Magic Band was back in business.

Late in ’77, the new band went on tour, performing a set of old and new songs. All skepticism that I may have had was wiped out as soon as I heard new songs, like “Floppy Boot Stomp and “Bat Chain Puller,” (or not only was Beefheart in amazing vocal form, considering his lengthy exile, but the band sounded completely attuned to the textural and rhythmic slants and turns of Beefheart’s decidedly singular muse. The Captain seemed more relaxed onstage than I’d ever seen him, and, when he finally took out his horn for “Veteran’s Day Poppy” and let loose that shrill shrieking cry of humanity, I knew all was well with the world. After a few months of negotiations, Beefheart had a new recording deal worked out with good old Warner Brothers.

“I’m totally happy with this album. I just had a blast, and I mean a blast, doing it. Glen Kolotkin, the engineer, is just brilliant. This is the first time you can hear my voice the way it really is. Glen did Stravinsky’s last record. I’ve always used my voice as an instrument but these people never realized that. What a job he did. When I heard ‘Bat Chain Puller’ it just knocked me down. He got my voice the way it is. You know what I mean?”


Shiny Beast (Bat Chain Puller) is an extraordinary achievement, considering both what Beefheart, has been through the last few years and the fact that the new Magic Band was put together basically from scratch. It’s perhaps the most well rounded Beefheart album ever, letting loose all facets of Beefheart’s extraordinary personality. One doesn’t hear much truly sensual music these days, and it’s a joy to hear “Tropical Hot Dog Night,” with its swirling melodies and counter melodies mustering up sweet jungle fever, and “Candle Mambo,” filled with such simple and beautiful imagery (When I’m dancing with my love/The shadows flicker up above/Up above the shadows do the candle mambo”). The album as a whole just soars and frolics, filled with humor and love. And with the addition of trombonist Bruce Fowler, the Magic Band’s sound takes on a whole new dimension. (“Is he too much?” laughs Beefheart. “Slide trombone and two slide guitars is it! You know what I mean?”).

“You know they’ve found a use for cockroaches and it’s pretty good. What it is is that they predict earthquakes by their behavior. Is that hip? I knew they were worth it. They are beautiful things.

If the new wave has been good for anything, it’s been the opening up again of various ways of expressing oneself musically and a break way from the creeping, emotionally deadening blandness 6f mainstream 70’s music. Don Van Vliet was new wave before there was a new wave, and he was playing fusion music before there was fusion music. Captain Beefheart is a person whose life and art are one and the same. Simply put, he is a man who is free. You know what I mean?  


Billy Altman 

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Steve Weitzman – “Zappa and the Captain Cook” (1975)

July 31, 2009 at 12:40 pm (Captain Beefheart, Frank Zappa, Reviews & Articles)

Taken from Rolling Stone, July 3, 1975 – this was the period where Zappa and Beefheart kissed and made up and went on tour together. You can still sense a bit of patronising and condescension though between the two, if you read between the lines…  

Captain Beefheart, rock’s sometime genius, had just finished a show with Frank Zappa, with whom he’s touring after the end of their longtime feud. Slumped backstage at the Capitol Theatre, he scratched his shaggy head and slowly related the latest bizarre turn in his odd life.

“I said some silly things,” Beefheart noted, “because I’m a spoiled brat and I don’t understand business to the degree that Frank does. I probably felt neglected. I’ll admit it… and I told him so. I said, ‘I’m sorry Frank and I don’t mean that for an excuse.’ We shook hands and that was that.”

Zappa and Beefheart’s relationship goes back 20 years, to when they attended junior high school together in Lancaster, California. “I was there when he picked up his first guitar,” Beefheart recalled. “It was a funny little brown thing with hardly any strings, but it sure sounded good to me.” The two tried unsuccessfully in 1964 to form a group called the Soots, and then went their separate ways – Zappa to form the Mothers, Beefheart to search for his Magic Band.

The problems began in 1969 when Beefheart did Trout Mask Replica for Zappa’s Straight Records. “I did Lick My Decals Off, Baby right after Trout Mask. The group wanted to be commercial and since they were so nice about doing those two I thought I owed them a moral obligation and I stayed. But I should have gotten rid of them then.”

Beefheart added that his last two albums, Unconditionally Guaranteed and Bluejeans and Moonbeants were “horrible and vulgar,” and that he’d “headed for the redwoods to paint and write” as soon as he’d fulfilled his obligation to Mercury.

But other stories have Beefheart accusing Zappa of poor production on Trout Mask and interfering with its creativity. In 1972, Beefheart told the New Musical Express: “Zappa is an oaf. All he wanted to do was make me into a horrible freak . . . Zappa made me look out of the question, and the kids out there on the streets started to take dope because they thought that was the only way they could possibly get into my music. It was disgusting and totally degrading that Zappa should do this to me.”

Evidently, Beefheart had second thoughts in the woods, and he called Zappa to praise Apostrophe and “just to say hello.”

“He apologised for all the garbagio and asked for a job,” Zappa said. “The Captain repented. He had been real confused.”

Beefheart auditioned just before Halloween, Zappa continued. “He flunked. See, he had a problem with rhythm, and we were very rhythm oriented. Things have to happen on the beat. I had him come up on the bandstand at our rehearsal hall and try to sing ‘Willie the Pimp’ and he couldn’t get through it. I figured if he couldn’t get through that, I didn’t stand much of a chance in teaching him the other stuff.”

Zappa and Beefheart tried again this spring. “Although he still has trouble remembering words and making things happen on the beat,” Zappa said, “he’s better. Just before the tour, I tried him again and he squeaked by.”

Beefheart’s major contribution to the present Zappa show involves growling the lead vocals on “Poofter’s Froth, Wyoming” (which Zappa wrote for him), “Orange Claw Hammer” (from Trout Mask) and “Willie the Pimp,” the show stopper. Remembering the lyrics had apparently been a problem for Beefheart – he keeps them written down on a stand located at his feet onstage. Zappa is interested in getting Beefheart “to relax to the point where he can improvise words. He can do really funny stuff when he’s sitting around in a room. But he hasn’t really gotten comfortable enough yet.”

At this point, Zappa plans to remix and reissue Trout Mask, which Beefheart still describes as “my favourite.” Beefheart said he’s “had an extreme amount of fun on this tour. They move awfully fast. I’ve never travelled this fast. With the Magic Band – turtles all the way down. “Frank is probably the most creative person on this planet. He writes things for instruments that haven’t even been invented.” Beefheart paused for a moment and then resumed. “He’s another Harry Partch,” he said, referring to the avant-garde composer, “only he hasn’t dried up yet. Get it?”



Steve Weitzman

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Kurt Loder – “Captain Beefheart’s Ship Comes In” (1980)

July 1, 2009 at 4:03 am (Captain Beefheart, Kurt Loder, Reviews & Articles)

Kurt Loder piece from Rolling Stone, Nov. 27, 1980… 

After 16 years and a dozen albums, the world has finally caught up with Don van Vliet.

It’s a dogshit day on West Forty-second Street, the neon-choked main drag of Manhattan’s cheap-thrills district. As the daily midmorning traffic jam congeals into an unmoving mass, Don Van Vliet peers out a drizzle-streaked car window at the shuffling tribe of hookers, hustlers and head cases that clogs the sidewalks, then squints up at the lewd movie marquees looming above: SLAVES OF THE CANNIBAL GOD. SUGAR BRITCHES. THAT’S PORNO! Reeling out into the street, a sputtering madwoman, dizzed-out and in full rant, does battle with her demons, flinging curses at the soggy September sky Van Vliet perks up, chuckling in appreciation. “Tell you what, I like her style,” he says, flipping to a fresh page in the squiggle-filled sketch pad on his lap. “I don’t pay attention to peripheria. Only noises pull me in.”

Forty-eight hours ago, Van Vliet and his wife, Jan, were puttering about anonymously in their tiny trailer out in the sun-baked wastes of the High Mojave Desert. But now, in his capacity as Captain Beefheart – “The shingle that’s given me shingles,” he grumps – Don has ventured back down into the commercial lowlands to make yet another attempt at hustling art in the East Coast rock & roll casbah. Doc at the Radar Station, the eleventh Captain Beefheart album (twelfth, if you count Bongo Fury, his 1975 collaboration with erstwhile pal Frank Zappa; fourteenth, if you include two live bootlegs, Easy Teeth and What’s All This BoogaWooga Music?), had critics baying in adulation even before its official release. Not surprising: Beefheart has always been a critical icon and a commercial impossibility, one of the sadder facts of contemporary American music. But this time, after two years in eclipse, there’s a feeling of triumph in his return. Beefheart’s spiritual children – bands like Pere Ubu, XTC, Devo, the Contortions – have helped create a more amenable context for the master’s inimitable music. Now, his anarchic guitar wrangles, lurching rhythms, quirky animist poetry and seven-octave vocal swoops don’t seem nearly as weird as they once did. In fact, although Doc at the Radar Station must surely confirm Van Vliet’s position as a major American composer, it could also lay claim to being the ultimate dance album – depending, of course, on how many dances your body is capable of doing at one time. In 1980, Captain Beefheart and his Magic Band sound utterly contemporary, even though Van Vliet hasn’t altered his musical approach one iota in order to achieve that effect. “I’m not Chuck Berry or Pinky Lee or something,” he says. “I’m right now, man. If I wanna do something, I do it right. Look how long I’ve been at this, my tenacity. It’s horrible. It’s like golf – that bad. But it’s what I do.”


Van Vliet had his own slant on things right from the start. Born thirty-nine years’ ago in Glendale, California, he taught himself to read at the age of three. At four, he dropped out of kindergarten (“They were playing with these gigantic blocks, and I never liked squares that much”) and took up sculpture. At five, while visiting Griffith Park Zoo in Los Angeles, he met a noted Portuguese sculptor named Agostinho Rodriquez, and soon young Van Vliet was displaying his artistic talents on Rodriquez’ weekly television show.

When he was thirteen, Don was offered a major scholarship to study sculpture in Europe. His parents, Glen and Sue Van Vliet, fearing that their only child might fall in with an evil – or possibly effeminate – crowd, decided instead to move him out to the desert, to the nice, safe town of Lancaster. There, Don met Frank Zappa, who was not a wholesome influence. The two spent much of their time auditing obscure R&B records. Sometimes they would sneak into the bakery truck that Don’s father drove for a living and fill up on the fresh-baked goodies inside. (Although they were fast friends then, over the years Van Vliet has come to resent what he sees as Zappa’s wholesale appropriation of his musical vocabulary; “He got a lot of goodies offa me,” Don says glumly “He never quit.”)

The early Sixties found Zappa and Van Vliet in Cucamonga working on a concept for a band, the Soots, and a movie, Captain Beefheart Meets the Grunt People. Neither project panned out, and Zappa soon departed for L.A. to form the Mothers of Invention. Van Vliet returned to Lancaster with his new moniker (“I had a beef in my heart against the world”) and started gathering musicians. By 1964, he was gigging locally and before long, Captain Beefheart and the Magic Band were signed to A&M Records, which released a single – a version of Bo Diddley’s “Diddy Wah Diddy” – that became a local hit in 1966. A&M, of course, wanted to follow up with an album, thinking it had a hot white blues-rock group on its hands. This was the first in a series of executive misperceptions that have plagued Van Vliet throughout his career.

A&M found Van Vliet’s original material profoundly perplexing, and passed on putting out an LP. Buddah Records was willing to give Don a shot, though, and in 1967 released Safe as Milk, which contained such Beefheart classics as ‘Abba Zaba” and “Electricity” The next year’s Strictly Personal, however, was grotesquely distorted by phasing – an obnoxious studio effect of the period – which was grafted onto the album without Van Vliet’s approval. Fortunately, at that point, Frank Zappa reappeared and signed his old buddy to his new Straight label. Assured of complete artistic freedom, Van Vliet sat down at a piano and in eight and a half hours composed twenty-eight astounding songs, combining field hollers, fatback boogie and free-jazz blowing into a stupefying new sound that still seems exhilaratingly avant-garde thirteen years later. For those won over by Trout Mask Replica, run-of-the-mill rock & roll would never again seem quite sufficient.

Van Vliet’s genius continued to flower on Lick My Decals Off Baby (1970), The Spotlight Kid and Clear Spot (both 1972). Unfortunately, not many people bought those records. His career hit what is generally regarded as its nadir in 1974, when he signed with Mercury and released, in quick succession, Unconditionally Guaranteed and Bluejeans and Moonbeams, two unabashed bids for straight commercial success. (The former is an album of simple but engaging pleasures; the latter, a true turkey). After the holding action of Bongo Fury in 1975, Van Vliet found himself labelless. Zappa helped him organise the sessions for what was to have been his next album, Bat Chain Puller, and eventually, most of this material appeared on 1978’s Shiny Beast (Bat Chain Puller), which also introduced the nucleus of his current Magic Band. However, a legal dispute between Van Vliet’s American and European record companies prevented the album from being released abroad until late last year, effectively scuttling any major impact it might have had.


Given this chronicle of woe, it is remarkable that Doc at the Radar Station is one of the strongest and most uncompromising albums Van Vliet has ever made. “The people at Virgin Records told me that their favourite things were Lick My Decals Off Baby and Trout Mask,” he says. “They said that it wouldn’t bother them at all if I just went all out and did some things like that, and I said, ‘No problem.'”

The album’s twelve tracks were essentially cut live in the studio, with roaring performances by the Magic Band: Jeff Moris Tepper on guitars, Eric Drew Feldman on keyboards and bass, Robert Arthur Williams on drums, Bruce Lambourne Fowler on trombone and John “Drumbo” French – the original Magic Band drummer – on guitars, marimba, bass and drums. (Gary Lucas contributes French horn and fingerpicks a solo Stratocaster on the tricky neomadrigal, “Flavor Bud Living.”) Produced by Van Vliet (who plays soprano sax, bass clarinet, Chinese gongs and harmonica), the album is a dizzying blast of pure, unadulterated Beefheart, from such (relatively) straightforward stomp-alongs as “Hot Head” and “Run Paint Run Run” and the delicate, glimmering ‘A Carrot Is as Close as a Rabbit Gets to a Diamond” to the monumental flailings of “Sue Egypt” and especially “Sheriff of Hong Kong.” Listening to the latter track, it’s hard to comprehend how Van Vliet, an unschooled musician, is able to compose each instrument’s part – from crashing guitar chords to the tiniest sizzle of a cymbal – and then teach each musician how to play it. In effect, he’s responsible for every sound on the record, and he says it just comes to him naturally.

“‘Sheriff of Hong Kong’ was done on a grand piano,” Don explains. “I played that damn thing exactly the way it is. I think guitar on one hand, bass on the thumb and the other guitar on the other hand. Pianos are great to compose on, man.” He also wrote some songs on his latest acquisition, a Mellotron, the original, now-antiquated string synthesizer. “I heard them played so many horrible ways that I got interested in getting hold of one of them. The Mellotron’s the only thing that can get that Merthiolate colour, you know what I mean?’ Really abused throat”

Although Van Vliet is only marginally aware of the many admirers he has among New Wave musicians (“I’ve heard a few things they’ve done that kind of annoyed me”), some of his new songs suggest that he resents the way certain of his techniques – usually the jangly slide guitars and discombobulated rhythms – have been adapted for fun and profit by some young bands, while he remains generally unheralded and basically poverty-stricken. In “Sue Egypt,” he mentions “all those people that ride on my bones,” and in ‘Ashtray Heart” he sings:


You picked me out, brushed me off
Crushed me while I was burning out
Hid behind the curtain
Waited for me to go out
You used me like an ashtray heart


Don insists that ‘Ashtray Heart” is “purely just a poem,” which may well be. He couldn’t be blamed for holding at least a slight grudge, though.

Bolstered by the clamorous reception accorded Doc at the Radar Station, Van Vliet is now itching to get out on the road. “Our sets will probably be an hour and thirty minutes, I think. That’s too long, but after the Grateful Dead and Zappa, what can you do? I mean, if you don’t have it, man, you have to play longer. It makes me feel funny. It’s an insult to people to stay up there that long.”

Long sets also mean more lyrics to be recommitted to memory – not an appealing prospect with a repertoire as complex and lengthy as Van Vliet’s. “I have to learn all of that vomit, you know? It’s like reaching back in a toilet, bringing it back up. God, that stuff is so far back to me at this point I mean, Jesus Christ, I can’t even remember where my keys are in my pocket.”

Van Vliet and the Magic Band (with new guitarist Richard Snyder replacing the recently departed Drumbo) will kick off a major US tour on the East Coast in late November, then head west after a brief holiday break. First, though, the group will embark on a two-week tour of Europe. Don likes visiting Europe.

“My favourite wine I ever had was in Brussels,” he recalls, obviously relishing the memory “This stuff was old – seventeenth century There was a petrified spider in the cork. I thought it was about time we had some good wine, so I bought everybody in the band a bottle and charged it to the room. I did – charged it to Warner Bros. It was good. And it was snowing in Brussels, and the snowflakes were like white roses falling in slow motion. Ooh, it was wonderful – especially on that wine.”

His enthusiasm is understandable – such conviviality is hard to come by back in the High Mojave. “I split a bottle of wine in the desert with this black hobo,” Don says. “Very hip fellow. He’d hitchhiked down from Oakland. He didn’t take a train anymore. He said, ‘I don’t ride the rails because the young people, they kill tramps now, you know.’ I said, ‘That’s disgusting.’ He said, ‘It isn’t like it used to be, Don…'”


Breaking free from the Forty-second Street traffic impasse, we head north toward Central Park, where a photo session has been set up at the Children’s Zoo. The photographer has decided to shoot Van Vliet with some dwarf goats, which sounds like a good idea. “I used to drink a lot of goat’s milk when I was a child,” Don explains. “Now they say you can get TB from it, but that’s a bunch of hooey. Man already has TB, especially the government – Tired Butt.”

The goats are nowhere to be seen, having retired inside their wooden shelter at the first sight of humans bearing photographic equipment – an entirely reasonable reaction. As soon as Don swings one leg into their pen, however, they come trotting out. One of them nuzzles his knee. Another chews lightly on his trouser cuff. Not only that, but a pair of squirrels come scampering up the walk to observe the scene, and as Don chats away, a totally unexpected banty rooster steps out from behind a nearby bush. It’s really something to see: Doc and his radar.

Being around Don Van Vliet for any length of time, it’s hard to repress the feeling that he’s in direct contact with some benign but alien force. Or maybe he’s just open to it. In “Dirty Blue Gene,” a song on the new album, he mentions “‘The Shiny Beast of Thought / Standing there bubbling like an open cola in the sun.” Where does it all come from – the poems, the paintings, the strange and wonderful music?

“Probably from a tortured only child,” he says. “It just all comes right out of my… sometimes cesspool, sometimes not. It’s always there. I just hope it doesn’t stop. And I hope my water doesn’t stop – wow, can you imagine that? I’m more afraid the water’ll stop. God have mercy: all of a sudden you can’t go to the bathroom. After all these years – what, thirty-nine years of going to the toilet. Wow it certainly is comforting.

Kurt Loder

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Steve Peacock – “Captain Finds His Water” (1973)

June 20, 2009 at 12:01 pm (Captain Beefheart, Reviews & Articles)

This article/interview comes from Sounds magazine, April 14, 1973…

I must confess I didn’t expect Captain Beefheart’s reply to “Hello, how are you?” to be that he felt fine but was very angry about the Muhammad Ali fight: “Look what they have done to him man, I mean he won that, and they took it away from him.”

Don Van Vliet and his wife Jan joined us for a lunch a couple of days after he flew in to London for his biggest and potentially most successful tour here. With him is the Magic Band almost unchanged since last year, but with Alex St. Clair (now Alex Pyjama St. Clair) from the Safe as Milk days on guitar as well.

The Captain is a big man physically tall and powerful looking, and imposing in his presence. He’s a man, playing man’s music for women although he says, “of course, other men can enjoy it too.”

He’s an uncompromising artist, a man who has seen or rather just knows what he can and must do in music, writing and painting, and in the way he lives.

In that way he’s strong, but he’s also gentle and in a way he’s an innocent in that he would be horrified or outraged if someone suggested he went against what he felt naturally was right just to make money or something. All this is tempered by a delight in puns and a sense of humour that makes his music and his company among the most rewarding ways I know of spending time.


People think he’s weird, that he’s either consciously or unconsciously a crazy man or a freak but listen to ham and think about it. Maybe he’s just a natural man traveling in a world where most people have formed themselves into tight clubs to fight against their natural feelings: he’s not a schooled idealist, just a man who’s never believed in anything else.

He once quoted a Beatle’s lyric to me “I’d like to turn you on” and almost spat the words out in disgust. “I was on from the moment I hit air”

Oh c’mon, people say when I try to explain how I feel about the Captain, surely you don’t believe all that stuff? Well, sure ‘nuff and yes I do.

But boxing? “Well, my favourite percussionist is Muhammad Ali.” He said, shuffling ant tapping his feet under his chair. “you know? I think that boxing behind the scenes, as it is with a lot of record companies, is really terrible, but I think the sport is really nice. In Muhammad Ali’s case I think the object is just to get points, not to murder anybody or anything. That’s really nice. He’s done a lot for his people . For people, period.


“You know what they just did to him I mean he won that fight. Of course, he went against the draft and they’ve never forgiven him for that I mean he never wanted to shoot anybody, that he didn’t know. And now they’ve finally got their wish. They have a marine boxer, a war boxer. Disgusting.

He won it. I know he did. I saw it, and a lot of people know that. But the army always wins not really because they defeat their purpose in the first place if they start a war but now they’re trying to get into that section of the media. I mean why isn’t John Lee Hooker number one on muzak? Why isn’t Roland Kirk number one on muzak? Or Lightnin’ Slim?”

At concerts in America, the Captain has been handing out leaflets and talking to people about killing whales. He’s working with an organization that’s trying to get all whaling stopped for ten years. “If they stop it for ten years than I don’t think they’ll continue – they might see how silly it is. How ridiculous man those things have a 14½ pound brain compared to our two or three pounds, I mean we could use all that knowledge.

“All we got to do is stop hunting them and be nice to them for 10 years and I think they might tell us a few things, things they haven’t been able to. I mean even here you eat a lot of whale meat don’t you?”

I said, yeah, they put it in dogfood. “Well, that’s ridiculous man, dogs don’t want to eat whalemeat, dogs can’t go on the ocean.”

He said that there’d only been two attacks by killer whales on man, one of them after some guy in British Colombia rolled a log down on to a female killer whale and paralysed her. Then the guy and a friend went out in a canoe, and the female’s mate attacked.

“He didn’t hurt the guy that didn’t do it, he grabbed the guy’s arm who did do it out of the water, pulled him under and just drowned him. He didn’t disturb the other guy or rock the boat. I think that’s fair, because the guy did it viciously – what a jerk, what an imbecile. I think that was justice”.

I remember at the end of his last tour here, he stood around after the gig slightly puzzled but very pleased. “You know something, ” he said, “I think we’re getting famous.” It’s true, Beefheart and the Magic Band are now known to a lot more people here and in the States than they were a year ago, and that can only be good.

Running parallel with this increasing fame, the records have been getting a lot more direct, much more immediately accessible, and I asked if he’d done that deliberately, made Clear Spot as direct as he could.

“Yeah, as direct as possible – that’s what I was wanting to do all along, with every album, but usually I got waylaid by by the angelfruit cake people, I guess.”

How did he feel now about things like Trout Mask Replica and Lick My Decals Off Baby? I like them a lot, but I’m more comfortable with this one. What can I say? Listen, a lot of people are worried about me going commercial, Y”KNOW, WHAT IS COMMERCIAL? I mean what is commercial” If somebody could tell me what commercial is I could make a lot of money and stop all wars- put money into that, save the animals.

“But the group now is together, and they’re able to control whatever it is they want to control. I mean now they go up and play, they don’t just go up and throw themselves out into ego and things. It’s freer now, they found their water. It was all going toward this kind of music anyway, and now it’s there.” Obviously, he said, that applied to playing on stage, more than to records, because it was almost impossible to capture the music in a studio.


I’d only heard the Clear Spot songs on record, but from that I felt that stuff sounded more formal than – say Trout Mask. He looked surprised. “Yeah? I thought the other way around. I thought the other stuff was more formal. Now there’s more interplay, as opposed to people just playing out to someone who can never accept it. A lot of people could never relate back to that sort of music, they were trembling in a lot of cases. ‘Course, muzak has done that to them, it’s made them all on one level.”

“But it’s the same like this time I’m saying “Big eyed beans from Venus, don’t let anything get in between us”. I’ve said the same thing all along really in a lot of different ways.


“It’s just a shame that the disc jockeys won’t allow things to get out things they don’t understand. It’s usually the disc jockeys that don’t understand things, and if they don’t they sure as hell won’t play it.”

Over lunch he’d been talking about John Lee Hooker and Lightnin’ Slim, and some of his music, especially early stuff, seems to me to be heavily rooted in the spirit, if not the form of the blues. Had he ever thought of himself as a blues singer?

“I’ve been forced to sing the blues, because everything’s so .. I mean all of these houses and all this cement, the world’s mouth has been covered over by cement. But then the world sometimes has an upset stomach, belches and does these earthquakes, or just small cracks, does its original brown earthsmile.

“People get really upset about that, but whadda they expect? We belch but it doesn’t knock things over, the earth belches the same I mean, it has to, it’s a living thing.”

Steve Peacock

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Langdon Winner – “I’m Not Even Here: The Odyssey of Captain Beefheart” (1970)

February 5, 2009 at 3:26 pm (Captain Beefheart, Reviews & Articles)

This famous article from the May 14, 1970 issue of Rolling Stone is the main source of the Captain’s infamous “legend” to this day – his beefs with Frank Zappa, his strange behavior, his sometimes cruel treatment of bandmembers – but also of the genius that is Captain Beefheart… 


“Uh oh, the phone,” Captain Beefheart mumbled as he placed his tarnished soprano saxophone in its case. “I have to answer the telephone.” It was a very peculiar thing to say. The phone had not rung.
Beefheart walked quickly from his place by the upright piano across the dimly lit living room to where the telephone lay. He waited. After ten seconds of stony silence it finally rang. None of the half dozen or so persons in the room seemed at all surprised by what had just happened. In the world of Captain Beefheart, the extraordinary is the rule.
At age 29, Captain Beefheart, also known as Don Van Vliet, lives in seclusion and near poverty in a small house in the San Fernando Valley of Los Angeles. Although it appeared on several occasions in the past that he would rise to brilliant stardom as a singer and bandleader, circumstances have always intervened to force him into oblivion. In his six years in the music business he has appeared in public no more than 25 times.
Since virtually no one has ever seen him play, stories about his life and art have taken on the character of legend, that is, of endless tall tales. People who saw him at the Avalon Ballrooom in San Francisco three years ago will now tell you, “I heard that he’s living in Death Valley somewhere.” or “Didn’t he just finally give up?” But there is considerably more to the man than the legend indicates.

The fact is that Don Van Vliet is alive, healthy, and happy, and putting together a new Magic Band to go on tour soon. As his recent album Trout Mask Replica testifies he is one of the most original and gifted creators of music in America today. If all goes well, the next six months should see the re-emergence of Captain Beefheart’s erratic genius into the world and the acceptance of his work by the larger it has always deserved.

The crucial problem in Beefheart’s career has been that few people have ever been able to accept him for what he is. His manager. musicians, fans, and critics listen to his incredible voice, his amazing lyrics, his chaotic harp and soprano saxz, and uniformly decide that Beefheart could be great if he would only (1) sing more clearly and softly (2) go commercial, (3) play blues songs that people could understand and dance to. “Don, you’re potentially the greatest white blues singer of all time.” his managers tell him, thinking that they are paying him a compliment. Record companies eagerly seek the Beefheart voice with its unprecedented four and one half octave range. They realize that the man can produce just about any sound he sets his mind to and that he interprets lyrics as well as any singer in the business. Urging him to abandon the Magic Band and to sing the blues with slick studio musicians, record producers have always been certain that Don Van Vliet was just a hype away from the big money.

But Beefheart stubbornly continues what he’s doing and waits patiently for everyone else to come around. He has steadfastly redused to leave the Magic Band or to abandon the integrity of his art. “I realize,” he says, “that somebody playing free music isn’t as commercial as a hamburger stand. But is it because you can eat a hamburger and hold it in your hand and you can’t do that with music? Is it too free to control?”


Beefheart’s life as a musician began in the town of Lancaster nestled in the desert of Southern California. He had gone to high school there and become the friend of another notorious Lancasterian, Frank Zappa. In his late teens Don Van Vliet listened intensively to two kinds of music – Mississippi Delta blues and the avant-garde jazz of John Coltrane, Ornette Coleman and Cecil Taylor. Although he was attracted to music and played briefly with a rhythm and blues group called the Omens, he did not yet consider music his vocation. He enrolled at Antelope Valley Junior College in 1959 as an art major, and soon grew suspicious of books and dropped out. For a brief while he was employed as a commercial artist and as a manager of a chain of shoe stores. “I built that chain into a thriving, growing concern,” he recalls, “Then as a kind of art statement I quit right in the middle of Christmas rush leaving the whole thing in chaos.” In the early Sixties Don Van Vliet moved to Cucamonga to be with Frank Zappa who was composing music and producing motion pictures. It was at about this time that Van Vliet and Zappa hatched up the name Captain Beefheart, “But don’t ask me why or how,” Beefheart comments today. The two made plans to form a rock and roll band called the Soots and to make a movie to be named Captain Beefheart Meets the Grunt People, but nothing ever came of either project. In time Zappa left for Los Angeles and formed the Mothers. Beefheart returned to Lancaster and gathered together a group of “desert musicians.” In 1964 the Magic Band was ready to begin playing teen age dances in its home town.

The one stage appearance of the first Beefheart ensemble was bizarre to the point of frightening. All members of the magic Band were dressed in black leather coats and pants with black high heel boots. The lead guitar player had a patch over one eye and long dangling arms that reached from his shoulders to half way below his knees. At a time that long hair was still a rarity, the Captain sported long dark locks down to his waist. It was simply outrageous.

The band was an immediate sensation in Lancaster and very soon its fame began to spread throughout southern California. Beefheart’s brand of abrasive blues-rock was truly a novelty to young listeners in 1964. Record companies interested in the new sound began to take notice. In mid 1964 Beefheart entered into the first of a long series of disastrous agreements with record producers.

His first release on A&M was a new version of “Diddy Wah Diddy” made popular by Bo Diddley. It featured his own style of frantic harp playing and an incredibly “low down” voice hitting notes at least half an octave lower than the lowest notes ever sung by any other rock performer. The record was a hit in Los Angeles and for a while it appeared that Beefheart was going to be a brilliant success in the music business.

But it was not to be. Beefheart recorded an album of new music and took it to Jerry Moss of A&M (Alpert and Moss). Moss listened to the songs – “Electricity,” “Zig Zag Wanderer,” “Autumn’s Child,” etc. – and declared that they were all “too negative.” He refused to release the album. Beefheart was crushed by this insensitivity and abruptly quit playing. A&M released the remaining single it had in the can. The words to “Frying pan” now seemed strangely prophetic: “Go down town/ You walk around/ A man comes up, says he’s gonna put you down/ You try to succeed to fulfill your need/ Then a car hits you and people watch you bleed/ Out of the frying pan into the fire/ Anything you say they’re gonna call you a liar.”

The record went nowhere and neither did Beefheart. For almost one year he lived in retirement back in Lancaster.

The second break in Beefheart’s career arrived in 1965 when producer Bob Krasnow of Kama Sutra agreed to release the same material that A&M had rejected. Beefheart reassembled the Magic Band and returned to record the twelve cuts of Safe As Milk (Buddah BDS 5001), an album which is still one of the forgotten classics of rock and roll history. Even though the album had been delayed for a year, it was still far ahead of its time. It featured the unmistakable Beefheart style of blues and bottleneck guitar, the first use in popular music of an electronic device called the theremin, [sic] and the first effective synthesis in America of rock and roll and Delta blues.

For the first time also, Beefheart was able to demonstrate the power and range of his voice. On one song, for example, Beefheart’s vocal literally destroyed a $1200 Telefunken microphone. Hank Cicalo, engineer for the sessions, reports that on the song “Electricity” Beefheart’s voice simply wouldn’t track at certain points. Although a number of microphones were employed, none of them could stand the Captain’s wailing “EEEE-Lec-Triccc-ittt-EEEEEEEE” on the last chorus. This, incidentally, can be heard on the record.

With an excellent album under his belt Beefheart felt confident enough to go on the road. In early 1966 he went on a tour of England and Europe where Safe As Milk had attracted considerable attention. When he returned to the States he played gigs at the Whiskey A-Go-Go in Los Angeles and the Family Dog in San Francisco. Well received in the burgeoning psychedelic rock scene, it seemed once again that Beefheart was on the verge of success. The Magic Band was scheduled to play a gig at the Fillmore and to appear at the Monterey Pop Festival, both of which could have been springboards to the top.

Then disaster struck. Beefheart’s lead guitar player suddenly quit the band leaving a gap which could not be filled. The unusual nature of Beefheart’s songs make it necessary for him to spend months teaching each new musician his music. The departure of the lead guitar destroyed Beefheart’s chances in the San Francisco scene. The Monterey Pop Festival went on without him. Those who attended it never knew what they had missed.


From this point in the story, events become even more chaotic and difficult to unravel. Beefheart returned to Los Angeles and tried to put together a new band and a new set of songs. His producer, Bob Krasnow, was to arrange the second Beefheart album on Buddah. According to sources in the Los Angeles record industry, Krasnow deliberately allowed the option on Beefheart’s contract to expire. When this happened he signed Beefheart to a personal contract and then sold the rights to Beefheart’s next album to both Buddah Records and MGM. Tapes of the album were then made at two different studios, apparently at the expense of both companies. When the sessions were finished in the summer of 1968 Beefheart left for a second tour of Europe.

In Beefheart’s absence Bob Krasnow released the album Strictly Personal under his own label, Blue Thumb, without Beefheart’s approval. As lawsuits filled the air, Beefheart himself was left in bewilderment. The record had been electronically altered through a process called phasing which totally obliterated the sound which he had been striving to put down. “That’s the reason that album is as bad as it is,” he sighs when asked about the incident. “I don’t think it was the group’s fault. They really played their ass off — as much as they had to play off.”

But despite the electronic and legalistic hanky panky surrounding its production, Strictly Personal is an excellent album. The guitars of the Magic Band mercilessly bend and stretch notes in a way that suggests that the world of music has wobbled clear off its axis. Beefheart’s singing is again at full power. In songs like “Trust Us” and “Son of Mirror Man — Mere Man” it sounds as if all the joy and pain in the universe have found a single voice. Throughout the album the lyrics demonstrate Beefheart’s ability to juxtapose delightful humor with frightening insights — “Well they rolled around the corner / Turned up seven come eleven / That’s my lucky number, Lord / I feel like I’m in heaven.”

The unfortunate fact about the second album was that few people were able to get into it. Apparently, the combination of Beefheart’s musical progress and Krasnow’s electronic idiocy made the album too much for most listeners to take. Strictly Personal sold poorly and did nothing to advance the band’s popularity.

To this day there exists a strange love/hate relationship between Beefheart and Krasnow over the record. Krasnow claims that Beefheart still owes him $113,000 and that as a result of Beefheart’s disorganized way of handling money, he has been thrown in jail twice. Beefheart, on the other hand, usually cites Krasnow as a charlatan and pirate – the man most responsible for destroying his career. At other times, both men speak of each other with genuine respect, sympathy and affection. “I’d really like to have him back with me,” Krasnow said recently. “He’s actually a good man,” Beefheart will tell you.

Most of the Captain’s relationships with those close to him are of this sort. Everybody’s a despicable villain one day, a marvelous hero the next.


The current focus of Beefheart’s love/hate dialectic accounts for much of his current activity and inactivity. This time the prime protagonist is Frank Zappa.

Zappa has always had a great admiration for his old friend from Lancaster – an admiration often bordering on worship. Like so many of those around Beefheart, Zappa considers the man to be one of the few great geniuses of our time. When the smoke had cleared from the Blue Thumb snafu, Zappa came to Beefheart and told him that he would put out an album on his label, Straight Records. Whatever Beefheart wanted to do was O.K. and there would be no messing around with layers of electronic bullshit. The result was Trout Mask Replica, an album which this writer considers to be the most astounding and most important work of art ever to appear on a phonograph record.

When Beefheart learned of the opportunity to make an album totally without restrictions, he sat down at the piano and in eight and a half hours wrote all twenty-eight songs included on Trout Mask. When I asked him jokingly why it took that long, he replied, “Well, I’d never played the piano before and I had to figure out the fingering.” With a stack of cassettes going full time, Don banged out “Frownland,” “Dachau Blues,” “Veterans’ Day Poppy,” and all of the others complete with words. When he is creating, this is exactly how Don works — fast and furious.

“I don’t spend a lot of time thinking. It just comes through me. I don’t know how else to explain it.” In his box of cassettes there are probably dozens of albums of Trout Mask Replica quality or better. The trouble is that once the compositions are down it takes him a long time to teach them to his musicians. In this case it took almost a year of rehearsal.

Trout Mask Replica is truly beyond comparison in the realm of contemporary music. While it has roots in avant-garde jazz and Delta blues, Beefheart has taken his music far beyond these influences. The distinctive glass finger guitar of Zoot Horn Rollo and steel appendage guitar of Antennae Jimmy Semens continues the style of guitar playing which he has been developing from the start. It is a strange cacophonous sound — fragmented, often irritating, but always natural, penetrating and true. Beefheart himself does not play the guitar, but he does teach each and every note to his players. The same holds true for the drums. Don does not play the drums but has always loved unusual rhythms and writes some of the most delightful drum breaks in all of music.

On Trout Mask Replica Beefheart sings 20 or so of his different voices and blows a wild array of post-Ornette licks through his “breather apparatus” — soprano saxophone, tenor saxophone and musette. When Beefheart inhales before taking a horn solo, all of the oxygen in the room seems to vanish into his lungs. Then he closes his eyes, blows out and lets his fingers dance and leap over the keys. The sound that bursts forth is a perfect compliment to his singing — free, unrefined and full of humor.

Trout Mask is the perfect blend of the lyrics, spirit and conception that had been growing in Don Van Vliet’s mind for a decade. Although it is a masterpiece, it will probably be many years before American audiences catch up to the things that happen on this totally amazing record.

For the first time in his career, Beefheart was entirely satisfied with his album. Zappa had made good his promise to give him the freedom he required and in fact issue the record in a pure and unaltered form. Nevertheless, the Beefheart/Zappa relationship is presently anything but an amicable one. Beefheart claims that Zappa is promoting Trout Mask Replica in a tasteless manner. He does not appreciate being placed on the Bizarre-Straight roster of freaks next to Alice Cooper and the GTO’s. He constantly complains that Straight Records’ promotion campaign is doing him more harm than good.

Straight Records on the other hand claims that Beefheart’s problems are all of his own making. He refuses to go on tour and procrastinates about making a follow-up album. “What can we do?” a Straight P.R. man asked me. “Beefheart is a genius, but a very difficult man to work with. All we can do is try to be as reasonable as possible.” Straight’s brass recall that during the recording of the parts of Trout Mask which were done in Beefheart’s home, Don Van Vliet asked for a tree surgeon to be in residence. The trees around the house, he believed, might become frightened of the noise and fall over. Straight refused to hire the tree surgeon, but later received a bill for $250 for such services. After the sessions were over Beefheart has hired his own tree doctor to give the oaks and cedars in his yard a thorough medical check up — his way of thanking them for not falling down.

In another classic story of this sort, Herb Cohen of Straight recalls that one day he noticed that Beefheart had ordered 20 sets of sleigh bells for a recording session. Cohen pointed out that even if Frank Zappa and the engineer were added to the bell ringing this would account for only 14 sleigh bells — one in each hand of the performers. “What are you going to do with the other six?” he asked. “We’ll overdub them,” Beefheart replied.

The fact of the matter seems to be that precisely the same qualities of mind which make Beefheart such an astounding poet and composer are those which make it difficult for him to relate to Frank Zappa or anyone else in the orthodox music business. Like many notable creative spirits, Beefheart’s personality is not geared to the efficient use of time or resources. For this reason and for the reason that he has often been burned by the industry, Beefheart is very suspicious of those who try to influence the direction his career takes. To see why he has such continual trouble adjusting to the practicalities of his vocation, it will do well for us to look briefly at the incredible story of Beefheart’s life before he became a musician.


Don Van Vliet was born in 1941 in Glendale, California, to normal middle-class parents. He grew up without problems as any child would in Glendale — until the age of five. It was then that he decided that civilized American life was a gigantic fraud. Don noticed that this society had established a destructive tyranny over nature; over all the animals and plants of Earth. He also became aware of the fact that America extended this tyranny over each man and that it was apparently out to include him in “the great take over.” They wanted to teach him proper language, social rules, arithmetic and all of the other noxious techniques required to live in this country. Young Don suddenly rebelled and refused to go along.

Looking back on it now Beefheart recalls one day of enlightenment. “My mother, who I called ‘Sue’ rather than ‘mother’ because that was her real name, was walking me along a path to school — the first day of kindergarten. We came to an intersection and she walked right out into the way of a speeding car. I reached up with both hands and pulled her out of the way. She could have killed us both. It was then that I thought to myself, ‘And she’s taking me to school.'” So Don did not attend school, at least not regularly. Instead he took up sculpting all the birds of the air, fish in the sea and animals on the land. Because he refused to come out for dinner, his parents were obliged to slide his meals under the bedroom door to him. It was Don’s belief that he could re-establish ties to everything natural through the art of sculpture.

Soon he was good enough at what he was doing to attract the attention of professional Los Angeles artists. One day during a visit to the Griffith Park Zoo he met and befriended Augustino Rodriquez, the famous Portuguese sculptor. Together they did a weekly television show in which Don would sculpt the images of nature’s art while Mr. Rodriquez looked on.

Understandably, Don’s parents were concerned about the unusual inclinations of their son. When at age thirteen he won a scholarship to study art in Europe, they took strong steps to discourage him. “My parents told me all artists were queers,” Beefheart recalls. “They moved me to the desert, first to Mojave and later to Lancaster.”

But even though Don’s life as a sculptor had ended, he never gave up the vision of art and nature that he had discovered in life. Neither did he forsake the wonderfully unstructured consciousness with which he had been born. “I think that everybody’s perfect when they’re a baby and I just never grew up. I’m not saying that I’m perfect, because I did grow up. But I’m still a baby.”


Beefheart still believes that in nature all creatures are equals. Man in his perversity forgets this and builds ridiculous hierarchies and artificial systems to set himself apart from his roots. “People are just too far out. Do you know what I mean? Too far out—far away from nature.” He still sets out sugar for the ants, creatures that he considers most similar to man in their mode of life. “If you give them sugar,” Beefheart contends “they won’t have to eat the poison.”

In songs like “Wild Life,” “My Human Gets Me Blues,” and “Ant Man Bee” Beefheart presents with great subtlety the truths which students of ecology are just now beginning to recognize. “Now the bee takes his honey/ Then he sets the flower free/ But in God’s garden only man ‘n the ants/ They won’t let each other be.” It is entirely possible that it is in this area that Beefheart will eventually attract a wide audience. If those who are delving into ecology would listen carefully to Trout Mask Replica, the Another definite carryover from Beefheart’s unusual childhood can be seen in the marvelous quality of his lyrics and poems. Since young Don Van Vliet decided that civilization was a trap, he refused to use civilized English in a linear, logical way and learned the entire language as a vast and amusing game. As a result, virtually everything that he says or writes turns out to be poetry. In a conversation with Beefheart the entire structure of verbal communication explodes. A barrage of puns, rhymes, illogicalities, absurd definitions, and unending word play fills the dialogue with a wonderful confusion.

“You can’t make generalizations,” he said to me during one such conversation.

“Why not?” I replied, taking the bait.

“I wonder if anyone’s ever made General I. Zation?” he continued, this time apparently talking about the sex life of some unknown military hero. “If all the generals came in right now, I bet they’d bring those IZATIONS with them.” Could he be talking about some secret weapon? There was no time to think about it, for in a flash Beefheart had gone on to a discussion of people who were “trying to put Band-Aids on The Flaw.” The Flaw?

I have seen several occasions in which visitors to Beefheart’s home have totally freaked because of this manner of talking. Not many people, after all, feel comfortable listening to the English language collapse before their very ears.

All of this wonderment, of course, comes through very clearly in Beefheart’s lyrics. In “My Human Gets Me Blues,” for example, the Captain sings, “I saw yuh dancin’ in your x-ray gingham dress/ I knew you were under duress/ I knew you under your dress.” One way of getting into songs like this is to understand that Beefheart is primarily fascinated with the sounds of words and their many ambiguities rather than the explicit meaning of terms. He believes that all truth comes from playing rather than from the secret is, however, that they can be communicated only after the listener surrenders his neurotic reliance on words and established forms. “I’m trying to create my own language,” Beefheart observes, “a language without any periods.”

In his discouragement with the music business Beefheart has now turned much of his energy to writing as an outlet for his creative demon. The closets of his house are strewn with thousands upon thousands of poems and at least five unpublished novels. The song “Old Fart at Play” from Trout Mask Replica is a tiny excerpt from a long novel of the same name which Beefheart hopes to publish soon.

The formlessness and intensity of Beefheart’s music have often led people to conclude that he is merely another product of the drug culture. Sadly, much of the promotion material on him in past years has implied that he is the king of the drug heads and hip freaks. Nothing could be further from the truth. Don Van Vliet does not use drugs and does not allow members of the Magic Band to do so either. Like his friend Frank Zappa, Beefheart admonishes everyone to stay away from LSD, speed and marijuana. In my conversation with the man, Beefheart would often smile broadly and tilt his head far back on his neck and say, “You know, I’m not even here. I just stick around for my friends.” Moving his hand up and out from his temple and wiggling his fingers (the Beefheart “Far Out” sign) he would then say, “You not even here either. You know that. Don’t kid yourself. You just stick around for your friends too.”


Like Socrates, Beefheart believes that everyone knows everything he needs to know already. What he tries to do is to make them realize this. Most people, he reports, fight it every inch of the way. They refuse to be free even when they see what it’s like. “They just have too much at stake.”

The absolutely boundless character of Beefheart’s mind has taken him into investigations of extra-sensory perception, clairvoyance and even reincarnation. In addition to his ability to answer the phone before it rings, Beefheart is apparently able to foretell parts of the future. On all of my visits to his house in the San Fernando Valley, Beefheart told me he knew in advance that I was coming. On one occasion he was able to prove it to me by showing that he’d put on “The Florsheim Shoe” and bright red In order to pursue the possibilities of this previous existence, the Captain has recently begun painting again. Like everything else he does, his paintings are simply astounding. During one of our conversations he went to a two foot tall stack of poster paper and pulled out one of his recent works. Holding it under his chin and peering over it at me, Beefheart asked, “Well, what do you see?” I stared into the spots and blobs of yellow, green and red and had to confess that the painting said nothing to me.


At present the Captain stands at a crucial turning point. On the face of it everything seems to be in his favor. His new Magic Band is probably the best he’s ever had and may be one of the best in the country. He has recently added drummer Art Tripp, formerly of the Mothers of Invention, who provides exactly the right blend of rhythmic novelty and imagination to the groups’ sound. Zoot Horn Rollo and Rockette Morton, musicians that Beefheart taught from scratch, have reached musical maturity and are beyond this, Beefheart now has around him a group of associates that he should be able to trust. His new manager, Grant Gibbs, is both honest and thoroughly sensitive to the special needs and foibles of his artist. Previously and unbiased observer of Beefheart’s career, Mr. Gibbs is now trying to untangle the web of contractual knots which the Magic Band had stumbled into over the years. Although Beefheart thinks otherwise, Straight Records is probably giving him as good and forthright a deal as he’d find.

But who knows? Perhaps 1970 will be the year that we finally catch a glimpse of the man behind the Trout Mask. Maybe this will be the year that all of us can experience the amazing wisdom and humor that Captain Beefheart has in his grasp. Clearly though, it’s strictly up to him.  

Langdon Winner

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