Monday, 28 October 2013

"Safe as Milk" - The music of Captain Beefheart and the art of Don Van Vliet

He was born Don Glen Vliet and not Don Van Vliet. The latter was an affectation that soon got forgotten as his Captain Beefheart persona took center stage. Van Vliet remembered, or so he said, being born. This fact, or not, describes him best – he was a one-off in every sense of the word. However, this article is not just about the good Captain but rather his creative  life,  Again, for those who say my articles are too brief then please remember that these are not biographies but observational appreciations.

He was born in Glendale, California on 15th January 1941 the son of Glen Alonzo and Sue Vliet. By the age of three, he was already painting. By the age of nine, he was winning awards for his sculpture. Oddly his parents did not encourage his precocious talent, in fact, they positively discouraged it. The only men the Vliet’s knew who painted were homosexual or deviant. They were right, perhaps, on one count.

Vliet did not like school so he did not attend. Or so he tells us.

“If you want to be a different fish, you've got to jump out of the school.” 

Trying to locate his sculptures is hard. If anyone has them then they must be locked away somewhere. His poetry, though, dadaist and surreal are still there flapping its exotic wings. The following is entitled "A Tin Peened Reindeer." 

A tin peened reindeer

Metalically hoofed on glass

Scorched cotton snowmen edged the corners

Flesh coloured powder mountains

Yellow lights melts cobwebbed articles

Vague wire tunnels resembling

Peeled flesh caterpillers

Housing very tiny red Christmas tree lights

The Nativity scene

Re-enacted in Ivory soap

A bone shade from age complete

With tiny straw manger

The Christ child its face replaced by an elephant’s head

Intricate lace cups each ear and bands the trunk"

His music defies all conventions. It has been described as being a cross breed blues come freeform jazz come acid rock. It was composed in the oddest fashion with Vliet playing segments of music, be it melody or rhythm, on piano, by taping the sound and playing that part to the band and then, wanting to add counterpoint, by singing it to them, picking up his saxophone and making odd noises or by thumping out a disjointed beat on the table. 
From this sketchy audio series of sketches the players had to learn their parts and then when the group was assembled in the studio, Vliet would bawl down their earphones at them to START then STOP then START then  TOP then PLAY IT HARD then STOP and from this bizarre reality the music was made.  The end result was possibly the only time modern rock music (if this is what it was) delivered real art and not something pretending to be. The ultimate example of this was 'Trout Mask Replica.' My personal favourite remains 'Doc At the Radar Station' but in truth, all his albums, even those deliberately commercialised were better than 80% of other so-called artists work.

His music is a force of nature. Ragged. Splintered. Fractured. Free. Snarling. It drives along like a swarm of hornets. It is as sudden and unexpected .as a storm blew across the desert. A Mojave monster. Not angry, not raging, just wild. It is as raw as an open wound and as challenging as Everest.

His voice ranged the octaves from grizzly growl to a banshee wail. It was a primeval noise. It matched the music perfectly. A so called friend of mine once suggested Beefheart sounded like Howling Wolf, the blues man Vliet admired. If there are similarities, and there may be, Beefheart took his instrument, for his vocals were more that than plain singing, to unbelievable places, places Chester Arthur Burnett never dreamed of . It has been said he could break a glass at one end of his vocal range and had destroyed many a microphone just by shouting into it. 

One of the musicians who worked with Beefheart described him as being an idiot savant. Both brilliant and irritating to work with. He could sack people as look at them if they didn't do as he wanted. He was demanding and irascible, a pain in the arse. 

His contemporary Frank Zappa had this to say...
"Life on the road with Captain Beefheart was definitely not easy. He carried the bulk of his worldly possessions around in a shopping bag. It held his art and poetry books and a soprano sax. He used to forget it in different places -- just walk away and leave it, driving the road manager crazy. Onstage, no matter how loud the monitor system was, he complained that he couldn't hear his voice. (I think that was because he sings so hard he tenses up the muscles in his neck, causing his ears to implode.)"

It strikes me as strange as how many of the true greats are never recognised in their lifetimes as the conservatives among us quiver and shake when anything remotely innovative or unusual is heard. Don Van Vliet will one day be hailed as among the great composers and almost certainly a great American one. The fact he isn't now is just a question of time. He was far ahead and well before his. People need to catch up.

When he retired from music in 1982 he returned to painting. It was the best move he ever made even if thousands of Beefheart fans thought otherwise. He never made much money with his wayward musical genius but his painting was another thing altogether. Crude perhaps, primitive and childlike the paintings looked, and still do, as though an alien intelligence had arrived on planet earth, seen the variety of life that was to be found here then captured not only the look but, more importantly, the very spirit of what they observed - primal, feral, elemental, beautiful and cruel. They then daubed these images onto cave walls only for mankind to discover them later. Fortunately for Don Van Vliet they didn’t have to. For once his art had appeal and it sold at good prices; good for Van Vliet that is.

“There are only forty people in the world and five of them are hamburgers” 

Broadly speaking Van Vliet’s art was abstract expressionism but not in the same way as of Willem De Kooning or Barnett Newman’s, nor is it in any way remotely like Jackson Pollack. Reminiscent perhaps of Franz Kline but still individual enough, if not unique, to be obviously by Van Vliet. Unsophisticated, slightly naive. something from a tribal culture of one and so indebted to his close proximity to the Mojave Desert where he lived for so long.

Dr. John Lane, director of the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art had this to say of Don Van Vliet's work “(it) "has that same kind of edge the music has." Lane also went on to say, to underscore my point, that he (Van Vliet) contrasted with the bohemian New York urbanised abstract artists as he used a rural environment for inspiration one which added a distinctly naturalistic viewpoint. This ‘angle, if that is best to describe it, was the fundamental difference between him and those that came before. His contribution to contemporary art and I am speaking or his paintings here matched that of his music. He took the blues and mutated it to another, new and exciting form; he did the same thing with his paintings giving us, even more, Yo Yo Stuff.


Captain Beefheart died the day Don Van Vliet gave up making music in 1982. Don Van Vliet died aged 69 in 2010. Like William Blake, his genius takes the time to percolate through to the mass market. Like William Blake, he never confined himself to limiting classifications. He was simply Don Van Vliet. Quite possibly the only real genius to come from the sixties epoch.
Russell Cuts the Corn From The Brewers Whiskers then makes it Safe As Milk

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A Utility Fish Shed Blog