by Brian Awehali
“Listen to the birds. That’s where all the music comes from. Birds know everything about how it should sound and where that sound should come from. And watch hummingbirds. They fly really fast, but a lot of times they aren’t going anywhere.”
– Captain Beefheart, “10 Commandments of Guitar Playing“
Music can do a lot of different things. There’s music to comfort you, music to make you dance, music to make the time pass easier.
And then there’s music that whacks you upside the head, assaults you, is radically unconcerned with your comfort, and comes to get inside and change you, forever.
Such was the music of Captain Beefheart, AKA Don Van Vliet (1941 – 2010), which was a heavy influence on everyone from PJ Harvey and Tom Waits to Radiohead and Merrill Garbus of Tune-yards. Beefheart’s name, he claimed, was a pun on him having “a beef in my heart with the world.” (He made other claims as to its other meanings, too, and always enjoyed toying with his interviewers.) He once told an interviewer that rock and roll was obsessed with this “4/4 momma heartbeat,” and that he was more interested in “anti-hypnotics.” During the same interview, he also said that he was interested in “breaking up the catatonic state…. and I think there is one…” Van Vliet was a trickster in the true sense; alternately and sometimes simultaneously profound and nonsensical, as deadly serious as a fart in the wind.
The music he made with others was unique: he himself knew almost no music theory, yet he consistently attracted world-class musicians (like Ry Cooder) who were willing to put up with his cult-like–and sometimes abusive–creative process. For a year prior to recording the landmark 1969 Trout Mask Replica, which consistently makes critics’ “top 100 of all-time” lists on the basis of its wide cultural influence, Van Vliet locked his fellow musicians up in a house and demanded they be in performance mode 24 hours a day. Only one person was allowed to leave the “studio,” once a week, to buy meager supplies. Pictures of the musicians at this time show gaunt, hollowed-out cheeks and a feral lysergic electricity behind the eyes.
Then they walked into a studio that was reserved for three weeks’ time, and, in about three hours’ time, recorded the avant garde “rock” album to end all such albums: a sprawling surrealist prose poem trundling along on ether and the primordial grunts of ur-bluesmen, an ecstatic and complex ode to nature and the Marvelous, all chaos and wonder. Utterly unique. [Here are three of the more accessible tracks from the album: “Moonlight On Vermont,” “Veteran’s Day Poppy,” “Pachuco Cadaver“]
One long-time music reviewer described “Trout Mask Replica” as
about to break apart at the seams, bursting with seemingly diametric differences. The music is utterly new, yet steeped in tradition. The lyrics are non-sensical yet intellectual. The musicianship sounds spasmodic, yet is precisely disciplined. The emotions are playful yet also have a gentle sadness. Everything seems to be directed towards disorientation. The beautiful alliteration and repetition is hallucinatory. The odd time signatures and frenzied changes lend a feeling of vertigo. The tracks do not flow. The entire sound is lopsided with much more happening in one channel than the other if you played with the balance…While to some [Beefheart] doesn’t even seem human, he has a remarkably compassionate feeling for humanity. And his empathy for the mother earth and its critters continued through the rest of his recording career, and on to his painting career…
Here’s the Captain and his Magic Band in 1968, playing “Electricity” and “Sure ‘Nuff ‘n Yes I Do” on Cannes Beach. [Full lyrics to “Electricity” at the end of this post.]
Van Vliet turned his back on music suddenly, many years ago, after releasing one of his stronger albums, Ice Cream for Crow. He had always sculpted and regarded himself as a painter, but he decided to devote himself fully to these and made an unlikely mid-life crossover, winning a significant level of critical recognition in an entirely different field.
Just last week I was talking to my friend Eric about Captain Beefheart and his music. We were in a studio filled with a homemade banjo, a drum, painted studies of the human form, some trapeze rings dangled from the ceiling, and a big theme unifying much of the art on the walls was Third Nature — nature taking back what industry and civilization had commandeered. We’d been talking about eros, about The World, and about staying fascinated with our various pursuits when Beefheart came up. It all seemed somehow perfect. How to stay fully awake and fully alive in a sleepwalking world was the feel of it.
I have been moved and affected by Don Van Vliet’s art and play, and his light in the world. His lyrics were deep and weird and full of many layers of meaning. If you don’t really know his work, I think you might be moved by him, too. It’s not easy listening, and it does not generally comfort, but you will be rewarded if you persevere. In some cases, you’ll hear things that sound familiar because of how widely studied and copied he’s been, but keep in mind that he was making most of this music several decades ago.
For those who are curious, John Peel and the BBC also did a great short documentary titled “The Artist Formerly Known as Captain Beefheart” that is available in segments on You Tube. (Part 1 of 6.)
The L.A. Weekly did a great post, “Top 14 Reasons Why Captain Beefheart Was a True American Genius” that’s worth checking out in its entirety, but which features this gem as Reason #10:
“in the late 60s fused delta blues, beat poetics, Dada/Surrealist techniques, avant jazz, R&B & the kitchen sink into a metaphysics of the imagination that tore a giant hole in the ozone of pop-artistic possibility. Like an American Van Gogh he seemed to open up new landscapes of consciousness as much as of music.”