, lesser known as Don Van Vliet, died yesterday
at age 69.
It's okay if you haven't heard of him before. As a pure artist, he did everything from inspiration and intuition without letting concerns of business, money, or social expectations change his course. Insofar as he's known, he's best known for his unique music as Captain Beefheart & The Magic Band
. Beefheart's vocals cut through the complex instrumentation, sometimes deep and soulful, sometimes pointed and direct. His saxophone and other blown instruments rival the greats of abstract jazz. The musical family ranges from psychedelic blues, as in his 1967 debut Safe as Milk
, to poetry and rants to his brilliant but challenging avant-garde Trout Mask Replica
, ranked 58th in Rolling Stone's greatest albums list (2003).
I knew I'd get along with my new college roommate one year when I played the used Trout Mask Replica CD I'd found and he said "That's pretty interesting" and didn't once ask me to turn it off. I've never heard anything else like it; it perhaps provides the best connection between a listener and raw creative impulse of any album. It's not always easy to listen to, so if you listen and it turns you off, try some of his more accessible tunes and come back to the fast and bulbous Trout Mask Replica.Rolling Stone's 1970 article about the Captain
is one of the best pieces of entertainment journalism I've seen in a long time. It gives a good sense of both Beefheart as an unconstrained artistic genius and as a difficult person for folks to work with. The description reminds me of Nikola Tesla, another inspired genius that didn't bother with playing by society's rules, to the detriment of his own fame and bank account.
Don Van Vliet wasn't just a musician. The Rolling Stone article above describes some of his prodigious output of paintings and poetry. In the early '80s, Vliet stopped performing music and focused on painting from his home in the deserts of southern California. I plan to peruse some of his visual works
in the coming days. Two weeks ago, while wandering through Manhattan I stopped at a record store in Greenwich Village. The Captain Beefheart section was my first stop and to my surprise they had half a dozen albums and collections, most of which I was unfamiliar with. I snagged a collection of live tracks and "Poet Rock Musicians of the Desert: Rare phrases and poems from Captain Beefheart and His Magic Band & Jim Morrison (of The Doors) – two of the desert's greatest poet musicians," which I also intend to study soon. As I started poking through the late Bs and early Cs, a man asked if I could move over a bit, and then he looked through the Beefheart offerings
. Maybe he's more popular than I thought.
Like many under-understood geniuses, Captain Beefheart was a big influence on people who became better known (and some that didn't, like me), and the Captain was all over Twitter yesterday
. I've heard him mentioned along with Sonic Youth and The Velvet Underground as the foundation for the music of Generation X and he's probably got a place in the heart of more college DJs than not.
If you, dear reader, are a fan of music, a lover of art, and a friend of genius I encourage you to explore the links above, listen to his music (The Dust Blows Forward
is a great and mostly-accessible anthology), track down some videos on YouTube, and learn more about this amazing and unique individual. I know I will.
Captain Beefheart, a man who didn't need drugs because he was out there already, will be sorely missed.