The passing of Don Van Vliet a/k/a Captain Beefheart this morning is news most people will react to with an unknowing shrug of the shoulders or a chuckle at his odd stage name. For the rest of us, this cuts deep.
Beefheart (along with his high school chum Frank Zappa) virtually invented avant-garde or underground rock music. At its heart, his music was based on the blues (the influence of Howlin’ Wolf on the Captain’s vocals is undeniable), but the blues was never a staid museum piece to Van Vliet – it was a living, breathing thing that he could mold, bend, even mangle to his liking. His early albums Safe as Milk and the double lp Trout Mask Replica (produced by Zappa) didn’t sell much, but found a home with adventurous and discerning listeners, including the famous or soon-to-be-famous, like John Lennon, Joe Strummer, Mark Mothersbaugh and Tom Waits. Waits once said of Beefheart: “Once you’ve heard Beefheart, it’s hard to wash him out of your clothes. It stains, like coffee or blood.” Beefheart continued through the 70s and early 80s with great albums, among them Lick My Decals Off, Baby, The Spotlight Kid, Bongo Fury (live, with Zappa & the Mothers), Shiny Beast (Bat Chain Puller) and what may be his best and most accessible album, Clear Spot.
Personally, I first heard Trout Mask Replica when I was 18 or 19, and I was never the same. It was so weird and off-kilter to my ears, and yet oddly welcoming: as if he was opening a door to somewhere exotic, but slightly forbidding, seeing if you were game for the journey. I’ve never regretted accepting the invitation. Matt Groening, creator of The Simpsons spoke of hearing Trout Mask at 15 and thinking:
“…that it was the worst thing I’d ever heard. I said to myself, they’re not even trying! It was just a sloppy cacophony. Then I listened to it a couple more times, because I couldn’t believe Frank Zappa could do this to me – and because a double album cost a lot of money. About the third time, I realised they were doing it on purpose; they meant it to sound exactly this way. About the sixth or seventh time, it clicked in, and I thought it was the greatest album I’d ever heard.”
Even though the Captain hadn’t made an album since 1982 (he’d retired to his other creative outlet, painting), the mark he left on modern music is as indelible as his album titles were indecipherable. Thanks, Don…the dust blows forward and the dust blows back.