Born in 1941 Don Van Vliet declared that he only ever spent half a day at school. Despite this he was a talented sculptor as a boy, and friends with Frank Zappa in his teens. Together with the Magic Band he was responsible for probably the most experimental, groundbreaking and insane records ever released including Safe as Milk, Trout Mask Replica, and Shiny Beast (Bat Chain Puller).
‘Trout Mask Replica’ is The Simpsons creator Matt Groening’s favourite record of all time. It is also number #58 in Rolling Stone magazines ‘Greatest Albums Ever’. Surprisingly it never made the charts in America and spent just one week in the UK top 40.
His influence has touched musicians ranging from Tom Waits and Kurt Cobain, to The Kills, and Talking Heads. Music lovers continue to rediscover his records today, and in the late 60’s and early 70’s, he blurred the lines between music and art in a way no-one had done before and few have attempted since.
A word of warning though, Captain Beefheart’s musical journey is not for the faint-hearted. It takes patience and dedication before it’s real magic appears before you. The hard work can be worth it though, and you might even look at things differently ever after.
Flush the Fashion spoke to author and leading authority on Captain Beefheart, Mike Barnes about the musician / artist / psychic / genius / madman that was Don Van Vliet.
What would be a good introduction to Captain Beefheart’s music?
Mike: For a first port of call I would say ‘Clearspot‘, because it’s a lot more accessible. It has a sort of a New Orleans Swamp Rock feel, but still has the all the Beefheart elements and is artistically really strong (check out ‘Big Eyed Beans from Venus).
It’s also a record you can put on and unlike some other Beefheart records, people won’t immediately tell you to switch it off!
What thing surprised you most when researching the Beefheart book?
Mike: It was Dons’ Charisma and how he had such a hold over people, for instance during the Trout Mask Replica era, the Magic Band were virtually locked up in the The Woodland Hills House together for 9 months on end in this almost Charles Mansonesque cult with very little food and money (while Don was sent food parcels from his mum).
He was an only child and had a lot of attention, because of this he was always very demanding of people, at the same time paranoid and insecure too. His need to dominate mixed with his insecurity to create a slightly monstrous tyrant at times. They were kind of scared of him in a way but he was also amazing company, at times he could be wonderfully charming, witty and intelligent.
Was it easy tracking down some of the musicians and characters from Beefheart’s life for your research?
Mike: Not as easy as it is now thanks to email, it was more phone calls and faxes and cold calling people, this was in 1994 and the reception I got wasn’t always the best especially from people still in contact with him. Don used to spend A LOT of time on the phone with his friends. The unusual thing was they couldn’t call him, he had a phone he rang people on he wouldn’t answer. So sometimes people would have to wait for a call.
People were frightened of being struck out of his circle of friends.
Your favourite Beefheart album or song?
Mike: ‘Dr Dark‘ from ‘Lick My Decals Off Baby’, its one of his more radical compositions. I was in my late teens when I bought it and went through a process of trying to figure out what the hell it was all about.
The music is there, but it doesn’t make any sense because of the way it is assembled. At first I couldn’t handle it, but the next day it drew me back and I suddenly realised it was meant to be like that. Structured but in a way that people were playing across each other. I thought ‘Wow, I’ve never heard anything like this stuff before and as I was a drummer at the time, it opened up my sense as to what could be done with rhythm and structure in music.
My friends as they hadn’t been through the process would beg for it to be taken off. Because it (and Trout Mask Replica) is so different from anything that has ever been made and that still stands today.