Happy 70th birthday, Captain Beefheart

Language & ideas · Music · Visual arts

Guitarist Gary Lucas‘s Captain Beefheart symposium was already in the works when he received a text message December 16 that Beefheart, aka Don Van Vliet, was no more. After years of suffering from multiple sclerosis, the enigmatic rock vocalist and musician, who had long forsaken music for painting, died at 69.

Speaking to a theater full of Beefheart fans at the Echoplex, tucked between Echo Park and downtown Los Angeles, Lucas recounted the  first time he heard the growling, guttural rock star’s music. The year was 1968; the place, Lucas’s hometown of Syracuse, New York.

“I purchased a copy  of “Strictly Personal” and was taken by the powerful music. It was a start. Then came “Trout Mask Replica.” I was a big Mothers of Invention fan. I was at Yale; I went to New York City from New Haven to see Beefheart. This changed my life. It convinced me he was the greatest artist on the planet and I was very determined to play with him. By 1975, I felt confident enough to reveal my ambition to him. And by 1980, I was invited to play on “Doc at the Radar Station.”

“He was a seminal figure, a visionary genius, and a maverick of American music,” said Lucas.

Filling the Echoplex’s dark chamber was rhythmic, at times atonal, rock music, played from the gut and peppered with crazy lyrics. The more it played, the better it sounded. One by one, admirers, musicians, collaborators, and even Van Vliet’s first cousin, Terry (my Los Feliz neighbor and a great balletomane), approached the microphone to reminisce. Many read poems or lyric sheets to supplement their anecdotes.

Said Pamela Des Barres, groupie extraordinaire, “He was possessed of extraordinary gifts. He was gallant and charming, very intense, but underneath very sensitive.”

Die-hard Beefheart fan and “Simpsons” cartoonist Matt Groening, recalled: “I discovered Captain Beefheart through “Trout Mask Replica,” which I bought because Zappa produced it. I couldn’t believe how sloppy and horrible it was. There’s no melody, no rhythm. But I was poor, and only had about ten albums. So I had to keep playing it.”

“[Listening again,] I still thought it was horrible, but then I realized that they meant it to sound that way. Next time, wait … no, this is the way it should sound. It was the standard Captain Beefheart ‘steps to acceptance.’ First stage: denial.”

“Then I told my father, for Christmas I want a new record by Captain Beefheart and his Magic Band. He asked what album to get. I told him, ‘Lick my Decals Off, Baby,'” said Groening, with a laugh, adding that despite this odd command, his father got him the album.

“In 1971, there was a concert at the Portland Paramount; every single weirdo in Portland showed up. Only the first five rows of the theater were full. In 1975, I hitchhiked from Olympia, Washington, to see Frank Zappa at Royce Hall [UCLA]. We were hanging out on Sunset and I saw Don go into the record company. So we jumped in.”

Groening recalled, “Don had a picture of Frank Zappa swimming. Don had seen Frank in a pool once, and he had to document it.”

“In 1993 I visited Frank on Friday afternoons. [Zappa died in December of that year.] Once when I came in, Frank was on the phone, he was quiet for a long time. Then he said, ‘Yes Don, yes Don. Don, I gotta go.’ Frank talked with him on the phone. So they were friends at the end.”

Lucas, a late-joining member of the Magic Band, oversaw the production of  the “Ice Cream for Crow” video filmed on a desert landscape familiar to Californians. Said Lucas: “We filmed it in the high desert, the Mojave, near Lancaster. It was very hot. We made it on a grand budget of $5,000 — which Virgin Records and Epic Records split !”

Lucas noted, “Don exerts a fascination and a power. Once I told him about a music methodology I heard about. He said, ‘I’ve got a methodology. It’s called avant-tangent.'”

Van Vliet died one month before his 70th birthday, today, January 15, 2011.


photo: courtesy New York Times, Angel LaCanfora, Dorothy Isabel Nielsen

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