Don Van Vliet, known to many as Captain Beefheart, is dead at 69, succumbing to complications from multiple sclerosis. Once a darling of the counter-culture, I encountered Beefheart's music at art school in Detroit and at parties in both Ann Arbour and Berkeley California back in the late '60s. Van Vliet abandoned the music scene in the '80s to focus his energy on his painting
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Possibly his best known release was Trout Mask Replica which he cut with his original Magic Band in 1969. Rolling Stone magazine ranked the double album fifty-eighth in their 2003 list of the 500 greatest albums of all time.
Trout Mask Replica was not derivative like his earliest work but ground-breaking. The New York Times called it, "A bolt-from-the-blue collection of precise, careening, surrealist songs with clashing meters, brightly imagistic poetry and raw blues . . . it had particular resonance with the punk and new wave generation to come a decade later, influencing bands like Devo, the Residents, Pere Ubu and the Fall."
Van Vliet’s life is a story of creativity. He even created his name. He was born Don Vliet. He added the Van in 1965. To quote from the NYT again:
"Van Vliet demonstrated artistic talent before the age of 10, especially in sculpture, and at 13 was offered a scholarship to study sculpture in Europe, but his parents forbade him. Concurrently, they moved to the Mojave Desert town of Lancaster, where one of Don’s high school friends was Frank Zappa.
His adopted vocal style came partly from Howlin’ Wolf: a deep, rough-riding moan turned up into swooped falsettos at the end of lines, pinched and bellowing and sounding as if it caused pain.
'When it comes to capturing the feeling of archaic, Delta-style blues,' Robert Palmer of The New York Times wrote in 1982, 'he is the only white performer who really gets it right.' "
In the early 1980s, Van Vliet's Captain Beefheart persona made two albums for Virgin, Doc at the Radar Station and Ice Cream for Crow, backed by again by the Magic Band but this time the band was a crew of musicians who had idolized him while growing up. The albums were enthusiastically received.
For the past two and a half decades, painting and not music has been the focus of his life. In the exhibition catalog to a show at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, the museum director, John Lane, wrote, "His paintings — most frequently indeterminate landscapes populated by forms of abstracted animals — are intended to effect psychological, spiritual and magical force."
Van Vliet would have turned 70 on Jan. 15. Two days before his milestone birthday former Magic Band guitarist Gary Lucas had planned a symposium at the Echoplex in Los Angeles.
Just a little over a week ago The Los Angeles Times wrote in an article announcing the upcoming symposium, that Captain Beefheart was rumoured to have multiple sclerosis but that the media-shy Van Vliet refused to comment.
At this time, it appears Lucas still plans to hold the Jan. event. Unreleased Captain Beefheart tracks will be played, slides of Van Vliet's art and a film of the band will be shown, and Lucas will demonstrate Van Vliet's out of the ordinary techniques. It is doubtful that the media-shy artist was planning to attend.
"I don’t like getting out when I could be painting," he told The Associated Press in 1991. "And when I’m painting, I don’t want anybody else around."
Sadly, Don Van Vliet himself is no longer around. But his body of work — his music, his paintings — all will continue to resonate through the coming years.
Good-by Don, you've left me with some fine '60s memories.
|Trinidad California Lighthouse with flag Photoshopped to half staff.|