"A New York Treasure" --Village Voice

There Ain't No Santa Claus on the Evening Stage

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.


1 jonm   ~  Dec 17, 2010 7:59 pm

A very nice post about a true American original, the kind of performer whose death should get much more attention than it will.

2 vockins   ~  Dec 17, 2010 8:13 pm



3 Jay Jaffe   ~  Dec 17, 2010 8:38 pm

A true original. As with the above, I heard Trout Mask Replica as a 20-year-old and was blown away by how wonderfully weird it was. "Fast and bulbous! That's right, the Mascara Snake, fast and bulbous..."

I tend to gravitate towards his late-period renaissance, Bat Chain Puller and Doc at the Radar Station, two albums which really get a head of steam going with their grooves. The song titles alone are gold. Floppy Boot Stomp, Tropical Hot Dog Night, When I See Mommy I Feel Like A Mummy, Suction Prints, Run Paint Run Run, Making Love To a Vampire With A Monkey On My Knee... and those are just the best of those two albums. The man loved language as much as he loved music and art.

I've spent literally hundreds of hours twitching in my chair to Beefheart as I faced project deadlines, so it's somehow fitting I find myself doing exactly that on the night I learned of his passing. I'm midway through TMR right now with at least 4 more hours of music lined up...

RIP, Captain.

4 Matt Blankman   ~  Dec 17, 2010 8:48 pm

[3] Yeah, that late 70s-Early 80s stuff is really strong. Fun seeing him on SNL and Letterman from that era, too.

"A squid eating dough in a polyethylene bag is fast and bulbous, got me?"

5 joe   ~  Dec 17, 2010 10:02 pm

I have been a Captain Beefheart fan since I discovered him a few years ago in college. It's hard to find other Captain fans, though I do try to play him for people to see if they hear anything they like.

This winter and fall I went into a Beefheart resurgence and have been listening to a few songs from Trout Mask Replica every night before I fall asleep. Lately it doesn't even feel right to hit the sack without my nightly dose of jagged rhythm and free-form clarinet. I got to thinking about his M.S. and figured he didn't have long to live, and just a few days later he passes away :(

I show this song to people who aren't familiar with his music:

He was a true artist and will be missed

6 Matt Blankman   ~  Dec 17, 2010 10:21 pm

One of my favorite Beefheart vocals, guesting on Zappa's brilliant Hot Rats album:


Oh yeah, Frank's guitar solo isn't bad either.

7 Chyll Will   ~  Dec 17, 2010 11:32 pm

Rest in Peace, Mr. Muffin Man...

Anon Wyo Galoot!

8 flycaster   ~  Dec 18, 2010 10:19 am

"Mister Zoot Horn Rollo! Hit that long LEANIN' note.....
And let it float!"

Great music, wonderful memories. RIP

9 Cliff Corcoran   ~  Dec 18, 2010 2:01 pm

The first time I put on Trout Mask Replica it hit me like a shovel in the face and I actually hit stop in a panic after about ten seconds of cacophony. It was a visceral reaction, the only time I've had a reaction like that to a record, and I'm sure a creaction Van Vliet would have loved. I later concluded that that record sounded like a three-wheeled pickup dragging a spasmatic, half-dead dear across a row of seats in a sports stadium. When I found out it was all meticulously orchestrated by Van Vliet I was dumbfounded. It wasn't until I realized he was signing pretty straight blues over top of that noise that I found an entry to the record. I then went back and got Safe As Milk to get a less complicated version of Beefheart's mid-60s garage blues (there's also a Van Vliet track on Nuggets, if I recall correctly). I haven't ventured further, however.

10 Yankee Mama   ~  Dec 19, 2010 10:38 am

I was at Zappa Plays Zappa when Dweezil announced the Captain's passing. Seemed fitting to have heard about it that way. Talk about talent, Van Vliet, Zappa. Oy!

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