Ebet Roberts/Redferns Cult rocker Captain Beefheart didn't exactly inspire…
- Posted on Dec 17th 2010 6:42PM by James Sullivan
Michael Ochs Archives, Getty Images
Don Van Vliet, better known as Captain Beefheart, was once asked why he stopped writing and recording music. "That is a hell of a thing to ask somebody to do, to give blood like that," he told Rolling Stone's David Fricke.
Beefheart, who died today at age 69 of complications from multiple sclerosis, was as inscrutable in his music as he was in person. With various incarnations of his Magic Band, he created the rock 'n' roll equivalent of free jazz -- an improvisational collision of spiky rhythms, off-kilter drumming and stream-of-consciousness poetry, delivered in the bandleader's hoarse, wolfish rasp. Captain Beefheart's infectiously weird 1969 double album 'Trout Mask Replica' is often cited as one of the most innovative rock albums of all time.
Raised in the Mojave Desert town of Lancaster, California, Van Vliet was an artistic prodigy whose working-class parents denied him an opportunity to study marble sculpture in Europe on a full scholarship. In high school he befriended another budding eccentric named Frank Zappa, with whom he shared an interest in doo-wop, blues and other outdated music. Despite no real musical training, Van Vliet joined the original Magic Band, which quickly became a featured act on the psychedelic circuit. With studio help from a young Ry Cooder, and Beefheart taking top billing, the band's debut, 'Safe As Milk,' came out in 1967.
After several band members left the group, Van Vliet rebuilt the Magic Band using musicians who were totally unfamiliar with his music. Beefheart's last three albums, with yet other backing band lineups -- 'Shiny Beast (Bat Chain Puller),' 'Doc at the Radar Station' and 'Ice Cream for Crow,' the latter featuring future Jeff Buckley collaborator Gary Lucas -- drew a new respect for the performer from punk and post-punk fans and musicians. Yet despite appearances on 'Saturday Night Live' and 'Late Night with David Letterman,' this would prove to be Beefheart's last commitment to the music industry.
In his later years Van Vliet dropped out of the public eye to concentrate on his painting, which would earn him considerable acclaim. Musically speaking, he was done giving blood. Though his music was too bizarre, too absurd to achieve anything like widespread success, Beefheart's influence has grown exponentially. The Pixies, Nirvana, Beck and the White Stripes are just a few of the bands who have acknowledged their debt to Van Vliet's music. Tom Waits once credited Beefheart with inspiring his own mid-career shift toward the avant garde. "Once you've heard Beefheart," he said, "it's hard to wash him out of your clothes."
If the outlandish, deliberately wrong-sounding recorded work of Captain Beefheart defies description, he himself didn't seem to think so. "Fast and bulbous," as he repeated so many times on 'Trout Mask Replica.' "Fast and bulbous."