Singer, songwriter, painter
Famed rock critic Lester Bangs, writing in the Village Voice, called Captain Beefheart “one of the giants of 20th-century music, certainly of the postwar era.” And the eccentric songwriter and musician, possessed of an unearthly sandpaper voice and a completely original approach to rhythm and other musical elements, has indeed emerged as a profound influence on an entire generation of rock mavericks. His most celebrated albums offer a sound that mixes primitive blues, free jazz, noise, and absurdist poetry; his martialing of musicians has been such that, as experimentalist guitarist Fred Frith wrote in a piece reprinted in The Lives and Times of Captain Beefheart, “forces that usually emerge in improvisation are harnessed and made constant, repeatable.” Beef heart’s lyrics, meanwhile, in the words of San Francisco Examiner critic James Kelton, reveal “an imaginative and totally irreverent satirist.”
From his early days as an R&B-style vocalist to the surreal grandeur of his late albums with his Magic Band, Captain Beefheart has proved an artistic wanderer; at least one of his works, the challenging double-disc Trout Mask Replica, is now almost unanimously regarded as a classic. Sadly, his many negative experiences with the music industry appear to have ended his recording career prematurely. Not that his retirement from music has prevented him from pursuing other interests, including painting, writing, and conversing with lizards.
Captain Beefheart was born Don Van Vliet in 1941 in Glendale, California. During his youth, he displayed an uncanny ability as a sculptor and even appeared sculpting natural objects on television with Augustonio Rodriguez, a Portuguese artist of some repute. Van Vliet’s folks, however, were concerned by his gift: “My parents told me all artists were queers,” he recollected in a Rolling Stone interview. “They moved me to the desert, first to Mojave and later to Lancaster.” Though this isolation may have prevented travel to Europe on art scholarships, in his teens Beefheart did encounter a kindred spirit in the arid environment of Lancaster: Frank Zappa, a young musician and songwriter who would one day become a pivotal figure in rock. Van Vliet—self-taught on harmonica and saxophone— played with bands called the Omens and the Blackouts but continued to focus on art, even enrolling at Antelope Valley Junior college in 1959; he abandoned his studies soon thereafter, though, managed a chain of shoe stores, and eventually found his way back to Zappa, who had moved to the Southern California town of Cucamonga.
For the Record…
Born Don Van Vliet, January 15, 1941, in Glendale, CA; son of a truck driver; wife’s name, Janet. Education: Studied art at Antelope Valley Community College, 1959.
Recording and performing artist, 1964-1982; painter. Performed with groups the Omens and the Blackouts; managed a chain of shoe stores; recorded first single, “Diddy Wah Diddy,” A&M Records, 1964; released first album, Safe as Milk, Buddah Records, 1966; signed with Straight Records, 1969, and released Trout Mask Replica; signed with Mercury Records, and released Unconditionally Guaranteed, 1974; signed to Virgin Records, and released Doc at the Radar Station, 1980. Has appeared on various recordings by Frank Zappa and the Mothers of Invention.
Zappa and Van Vliet came up with the latter’s pseudonym in connection with a film they wanted to make called Captain Beefheart Meets the Grunt People. The two also planned to put together a band called the Soots. Neither project came to fruition, and Zappa moved to Los Angeles in 1964 to assemble the first version of his legendary band the Mothers of Invention. Beefheart, in turn, returned to the desert and gathered the Magic Band. Soon the group was playing dances in Lancaster, where they got a lot of attention due to the bandmembers’ long hair and bizarre attire, which were truly radical for the time.
The Magic Band’s early sound was a mix of R&B and Mississippi Delta blues, made more raggedly immediate by Beefheart’s commanding, guttural vocals. Word of their popular live shows made its way to executives at A&M records, which signed the group and in 1964 released their first single, a cover version of Bo Diddley’s “Diddy Wah Diddy.” It was a mild success, but in no time Beefheart would confront the first in a long series of frustrations with the record industry when A&M rejected his original songs because it deemed his lyrics too depressing. This was the end of the first Magic Band and Beefheart’s association with A&M. A year later he recorded Safe as Milk, an album of originals, for the Kama Sutra label, a Buddah Records subsidiary; his new band featured guitarist Ry Cooder, who would go on to great fame, unlike his onetime leader. The album featured the song “Electricity,” which has become the subject of rock legend because Beefheart’s ungodly singing on the track apparently destroyed a $1,200 Telefunken microphone. The record also contains such Beefheart compositions as “Zig Zag Wanderer” and “Abba Zabba.” Rolling Stone later called it “one of the forgotten classics of rock and roll history.”
The good reviews earned by Safe as Milk made possible an international tour; Beefheart and company were also scheduled to appear at the landmark Monterey Pop Festival in 1967 but had to cancel when Cooder abruptly quit the group. It was a critical missed opportunity, one of many in Beefheart’s career. The band went into the studio in 1968 to record Strictly Personal, which unveiled the songs “Gimme Dat Harp Boy” and “Safe as Milk”; producer Bob Krasnow’s mix of the album for his Blue Thumb Records utilized an intrusive audio effect called phasing that displeased Beefheart, though Rolling Stone praised the effort’s “excellent engineering” more than the performance itself. The magazine generally found Strictly Personal a pale attempt at “the ultimate white blues album” it hoped Beefheart might one day make.
Beefheart and the Magic Band also recorded the album Mirror Man in 1968, but Buddah didn’t release it for two years. Once again exasperated by music-business politics, the Captain was on the verge of leaving the scene altogether when his old friend Frank Zappa asked him to make an album for Zappa’s Straight Records. He was promised complete artistic control of the project, and Zappa offered to produce it. Beefheart sat down and wrote 28 songs in eight and a half hours; he then took eight months to teach them to the Magic Band.
The result was Trout Mask Replica, an album of gargantuan strangeness that touched down on planet Earth in 1969. Esteemed rock critic Kurt Loder hailed the record’s “stupefying new sound that still seems exhilaratingly avant-garde” years later in his book Bat Chain Puller, named for a parenthetical Beefheart album title. “For those won over by Trout Mask Replica,” he insisted, “run-of-the-mill rock & roll would never again seem quite sufficient.” Beefheart’s song titles reveal that he had, with this album, come fully into his own: “Neon Meate Dream of a Octafish,” “Orange Claw Hammer,” “Ant Man Bee.” “Moonlight in Vermont” would become a classic and a live standard for the Captain. The peculiarity of “Moonlighf’s lyrics is fully matched by the Magic Band’s take on the music. And Beefheart’s spoken phrase “A squid eating dough in a polyethylene bag is fast ’n’ bulbous, got me?” would henceforth become a secret password for the musically hip.
Beef heart sang and blew harp on Zappa’s 1969 album Hot Rats and embarked on a tour with the Magic Band. The group issued its follow-up to Trout Mask, titled Lick My Decals Off, Baby, in 1970. This was succeeded by the similarly acclaimed The Spotlight Kid and Clear Spot. Lester Bangs called the latter “a minor masterpiece of sorts.” The music Beefheart and his talented ensemble produced during this period—a slightly more accessible, more rocking variation on the extraterrestrial epiphanies of Trout Mask—\s largely considered its most consistently engaging. Capitalizing on their momentum, the group toured extensively and broadened their appeal.
Also during this time, Beefheart railed against Zappa’s production—“he was asleep at the switches, man,” he told a Lives and Times interviewer—and accused his associate of stealing his ideas. He also criticized Straight Records distribution and promotion. Yet another complaint about Zappa involved what the Captain perceived as his erstwhile friend’s attempt to portray him and the Magic Band as “freaks” for the LSD culture that flowered in the 1960s and 70s. Beefheart himself disdained all drug use, calling LSD “awfully overrated aspirin” in an interview for Lives and Times and insisting that humans could experience anything they wanted to without external help. Nonetheless, Beefheart’s absurdism and musical daring held an intrinsic appeal for the drug culture he so abhorred.
It wasn’t long before Beefheart’s career hit another snag; this time he stumbled by buying conventional industry wisdom—notably producer Andy DiMartino’s— and attempting to make more “commercial” records. The results were his two least memorable recordings, Unconditionally Guaranteed and 1974’s lamentable Blue Jeans and Moonbeams. Beefheart later called them “horrible and vulgar” in a Lives and Times interview. When these supposedly safe albums flopped, Beefheart recalled, he fled music to paint and write in solitude. But his frustration was again mollified by a renewed association with Zappa. “Frank is probably the most creative person on this planet,” he said at the time, the hatchet apparently buried. Beefheart sang and played on Zappa’s 1975 album One Size Fits All and went on tour with the Mothers. The outing produced a live album, Bongo Fury, which was released in 1976 and featured a couple of Beefheart originals.
The captain convened a new Magic Band for his next album, Shiny Beast (Bat Chain Puller), which Warner Bros, released in 1978 after some delay. The record is arguably the first strong “late Beefheart” effort, a fusion of his elliptical poetry and innovative compositional ideas with a somewhat tighter, though more whimsical, sound. Bangs referred to it as “a charming but relatively minor work”; in retrospect, Beefheart’s critical champions regarded Shiny Beast as a kind of prelude to 1980’s Doc at the Radar Station, released by Virgin Records. Ken Tucker of Rolling Stone unabashedly praised Doc, calling it “Captain Beefheart’s most meditative, heroic album.” Loder deemed it “one of the strongest and most uncompromising albums Van Vliet has ever made” and one that “must surely confirms Van Vliet’s position as a major American composer.” The record features the blazing “Hot Head” and “Ashtray Heart,” as well as the surrealistic love poem “Sue Egypt.”
Beefheart released one more album on Virgin—1982’s well-received Ice Cream for Crow— before again retiring from music. Meanwhile, the influence of his recordings on punk, new wave, and various “alternative” strains of rock had begun its ascent and has remained unremitting. In fact, rock authority Greil Marcus declared in his 1993 book, Ranters and Crowd Pleasers, as quoted by Rolling Stone, that without Trout Mast Replica, “punk might never have come into being and certainly would never have sustained itself past 1977.”
In 1991 the intrepid Spin magazine tracked the Captain down. Living with his wife of many years, Jan, and expending his creative energies on painting, he expressed surprise that “anyone still remembers me.” He said that at age 50 he felt like “a baby” and enjoyed making art and then throwing it away. After all, he reflected, “What’s greatness? It’s a hole in the floor you stuff things into.” Despite this attitude, Beefheart continues to be a great presence in the stuffed floor of pop music, as evidenced by the British anthology Fast ’n’ Bulbous, which features a bevy of post-punk artists like Sonic Youth and XTC covering Beefheart tunes. With most of his recorded output available on CD—including some outtakes reissued by Sequel in 1992 as the collection/May Be Hungry but I Sure Ain’t Weird—the Captain’s continued authority is unconditionally guaranteed.
“Diddy Wah Diddy’T’Who Do You Think You’re Fooling,” A&M, 1964.
“Moonchild“/”Frying Pan,” A&M, 1964.
Safe as Milk (includes “Electricity,” “Zig Zag Wanderer,” and “Abba Zabba”), Buddah, 1966.
Strictly Personal (includes “Gimme Dat Harp Boy” and “Safe as Milk”), Blue Thumb, 1968.
Trout Mask Replica (includes “Neon Meate Dream of a Octafish,” “Orange Claw Hammer,” “Ant Man Bee,” and “Moonlight in Vermont”), Straight, 1969.
Lick My Decals Off, Baby, Straight, 1970.
Mirror Man (recorded in 1968), Buddah, 1970.
The Spotlight Kid, Warner/Reprise, 1972.
Clear Spot, Warner/Reprise, 1972.
Unconditionally Guaranteed, Mercury/Virgin, 1974.
Blue Jeans and Moonbeams, Mercury/Virgin, 1974.
Shiny Beast (Bat Chain Puller), Warner Bros., 1978.
Doc at the Radar Station (includes “Hot Head,” “Ashtray Heart,” and “Sue Egypt”), Virgin, 1980.
Ice Cream for Crow, Virgin, 1982.
(Various artists) Fast ’n’ Bulbous, Imaginary Records, 1988.
I May Be Hungry but I Sure Ain’t Weird, Sequel, 1992.
With Frank Zappa and the Mothers of Invention
“Willie the Pimp,” Hot Rats, Bizarre/Reprise, 1969.
“San Ber’dino,” One Size Fits All, Discreet/Warner Bros., 1975. Bongo Fury, Discreet/Warner Bros., 1975.
The Encyclopedia of Pop, Rock and Soul, edited by Irwin Stambler, St. Martin’s, 1989.
The Lives and Times of Captain Beefheart, Babylon Books (Manchester, England), 1981.
Loder, Kurt, Bat Chain Puller: Rock & Roll in the Age of Celebrity, St. Martin’s, 1990.
The Rolling Stone Encyclopedia of Rock & Roll, edited by Jon Pareles and Patricia Romanowski, Rolling Stone Press/Summit Books, 1983.
Melody Maker, December 3, 1977; May 13, 1978.
Rolling Stone, December 7, 1968; May 14, 1970; April 1, 1971;June 6, 1974; November 27, 1980; September 17, 1992; June 10, 1993.
San Francisco Examiner, December 4, 1976. Spin, February 1991. Village Voice, October 1, 1980.
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