Beefheart: Shiny Beast of Thought

Don Van Vliet (alias Captain Beefheart) is most (in)famous for his music, music that you either love or hate. I could say something about him being one of the most important composers of the 20th century, but that would just be my opinion. I will say that anyone not acquainted with his playful, inventive work is missing out on something.

Being a huge fan, it’s hard for me to write about Don Van Vliet and keep it down to a short article. He was an artist on so many levels: a sculptor, a painter, a musician, a poet. I will refer to him simply as “Don,” as “Captain Beefheart” does not really represent the whole man (as Don once said, “It makes me itch to think of myself as Captain Beefheart. I don’t even own a boat”).

He was born Donald Vliet (no “Van” then; he later added that) to parents Glen and Sue in Glendale, CA, 1941. From the very start, Don rejected American traditions and culture, preferring to go about things his own way. He called his mother Sue, saying that “mother” was too cold and formal of a word. He developed an interest in nature very early and began sculpting (at his youngest ages, out of soap) every animal he had ever seen or could find a picture of in an encyclopedia or dictionary, and some he imagined. His distrust towards mankind began when he discovered that many of his favourites were already extinct. At age 3, his parents took him to see the La Brea Tar Pits, and, in hopes of seeing a dinosaur on the way down, he attempted to jump in but was caught before making it over the railing.

Don claims he never went to school. Ever (“if you wanna be a different fish, you gotta jump out of the school”). He spent his days holed up in his room sculpting, vacuuming hair from the cat to give his sculptures fur, and having his mother slide meals in through a slot in the door. He appeared on a TV show with his sculptures along with Portuguese sculptor Antonio Rodriguez, who discovered him. At age 13 he was offered a 6-year art scholarship in Portugal, but his parents wouldn’t allow it, saying “All artists are queers,” and then they took him and moved to Lancaster in the Mojave Desert.

It was in the desert at high school age (since Don denies ever attending school) that Don met Frank Zappa. Zappa was walking about in a graveyard (next to the school) and Don offered him a ride home. They became friends, and it was Zappa who got Don involved in music. Together they comprised a band called The Soots and did nothing aside from record some songs. It was from one of these songs and a screenplay written by Zappa that the name “Captain Beefheart” emerged. In a 1982 appearance on the Late Show, Don said it came about because he has a “beef in his heart” with mankind and the way they treat each other & nature.

Zappa pushed Don to get serious with music, and Don got together a group of musicians, forming Captain Beefheart and His Magic Band. They became a local hit with a powerful version of Bo Diddley’s “Diddy Wah Diddy.” They played blues and Rolling Stones covers mainly. Don began playing harmonica a lot, because at first his singing wasn’t very good; however, it rapidly improved.

Eventually came the first album, 1967’s Safe As Milk, featuring a 16-year old Ry Cooder. It was 60’s blues rock, but not unaffected by Don’s unique creative vision. It included a bumper sticker, two of which John Lennon had on display in his apartment. Also, the inner jacket contained the words “MAY THE BABY JESUS SHUT YOUR MOUTH AND OPEN YOUR MIND” and “CAUTION: ELECTRICITY MAY BE HAZARDOUS TO HEALTH.” “Electricity,” the album’s most innovative track, made such use of Don’s allegedly 5-and-a-half octave voice (I’m not disputing, but he later also claimed 7 octaves) that he destroyed a $1200 microphone. On this track, Don insisted on avoiding the usual 4/4 rhythm because he thought it was corny. Also, just before the time came to record it, Don changed the drum line to a set of shifting, syncopated patterns unlike anything that had ever been heard in rock and roll; drummer John French stepped up to the challenge incredibly well. “Electricity” was a harbinger of the coming storm.

Before it was time to work on the next album, the Magic Band lineup changed almost entirely, which would end up happening many more times. However, the music was pretty much unnaffected, because it all originated from Don (well, on Safe As Milk, guitarists Ry Cooder and Alex Snouffer were given quite a bit of freedom, and Cooder is actually credited with some arrangements). Knowing absolutely nothing about music theory, Don had to communicate melodies to his band through whistling, humming, or harmonica, and it proved to be a lot of work, because he demanded that the compositions be played exactly as he wanted them.

The next recording sessions were meant to be for a double album, but ended up being two different records: Strictly Personal (with a jacket designed to look like a brown paper wrapper with stamps attached, addresses handwritten on, and “Strictly Personal” stamped on; a reference to mailed pornography packaging), which was phased by the producer and then released, all without the permission of Don or the band, prompting their quitting from the label; and Mirror Man, which was sold to another company for release. Mirror Man is regarded by fans as Beefheart at his bluesiest; it consists of four long, lumbering songs with lots of improvisation. One song, “Tarotplane,” features Don wailing on a shenai, which is essentially an East Asian musette. Strictly Personal was more “far-out,” more “psychedelic,” but only a hint of what was to come next. Songs continually moved away from the normal 4/4 rhythm, carried along greatly by John French’s mind-boggling skill with a drum set. However, Don stil clung to his blues roots, borrowing musical phrases from actual blues songs in songs such as “Ah Feel Like Ahcid” and “Gimme Dat Harp Boy.” One song, “Beatle Bones ‘n Smokin’ Stones,” which I interpret to be about the apocalypse, actually irked John Lennon with its “strawberry feels [sic] forever” refrain.

By this time, there were producers and managers ready to, as Don said, “throw money at me if I would ‘just sing the blues.'” They wanted Captain Beefheart & His Magic Band to be just a blues rock band, they wanted an American answer to the Rolling Stones. And Don certainly could’ve competed in that arena; but he didn’t go for it. His “baby,” as he often referred to his creative muse, wouldn’t let him.

Don got a house in Woodland Hills and was given a piano as a gift. A new Magic Band lineup accompanied him to live in the Woodland Hills house. This lineup is regarded as THE Magic Band by most fans, and is quite possibly the most important. It consisted of Bill Harkleroad and Jeff Cotton on guitars, Mark Boston on bass, and John French on drums. Don gave them stagenames: Zoot Horn Rollo, Antennae Jimmy Semens, Rockette Morton, and Drumbo, respectively. This lineup is important because they were the band at ground zero when IT happened.

Don began writing songs on piano, which John French transcribed, and the band split up into parts between each other. It was extremely difficult work; the parts were strange, with all preconceived notions of music thrown out the door (Harkleroad remembers thinking “where are all the blues tunes?”). It didn’t help matters that Don didn’t understand how difficult they were to play, and would berate the musicians to no end for playing them wrong. He would tell them to play a part, then say they played it wrong, it goes like this; then he had them play it until they got it right, and to the other musicians each version sounded the same. Sometimes the parts required playing 7 notes at once, which is of course impossible on a 6-stringed guitar; but it took a while to make Don realize this.

The writing was quick. Don claimed that he did the whole thing in 8 hours straight, one session at the piano, which is a total lie. But it was quick. It was the learning on the musicians’ behalf that took a
lot of work. They rehearsed on every available day. They were only allowed to leave for shopping. When it started, the whole thing was okay; but Don’s dark side began to reveal itself. Frustrated, Don became a slave-driver. At one point, Harkleroad attempted to escape. Jeff Cotton became keeper of the lyrics, and would be forced to recite in a high-pitched voice until his throat bled (that could be some hyperbole in the account). There were what Harkleroad called brainwashing sessions, in which Don would pick a member of the band and treat him as the enemy of the day, keep him awake on coffee for hours, accuse him of trying to sabotage the music and ruin everyone’s chances of success, and basically just torture him mentally to the point where he was saying “OK, OK, I’ll do anything you say!” The only thing that kept the band from quitting was a deep admiration for Don’s creativity and art, and knowing that they were doing something that had never been done before; they had to put Don’s paranoia and neurotic bullshit aside. Which is exactly what it was. Don was later diagnosed a paranoid schizophrenic.

After about six months of constant rehearsal (by everyone but Don, who almost never rehearsed with the band), Don decided that they were ready to record. They were signed to the Straight label on Warner Brothers. Frank Zappa produced, and started to record the album at the house, but Don objected and demanded it be done in an actual studio. So Zappa allowed the band 8 hours to do about 70 minutes worth of backing tracks, and they did it in 6. When time came to add the vocals, Don couldn’t stand the headphones, and so only had the leakage through the windows of the recording room to go by. Of course, as soon as he opened his mouth he couldn’t hear anything.

The result of all this was the 1969 lumbering 80-minute 2-disc watershed monster Trout Mask Replica. This album marked the outer limits of rock and roll. The twin guitars played gloriously complicated angular counterpoint, rooted in the blues but injected with jazz and expelled into an alternate universe. The bass was nothing more than a guitar with lower strings. The drums were a melody instrument, and yet, every instrument on the record was a rhythm instrument. Each instrument played in a different time signature. Don’s skronk saxophone antics blew across the arrangements like insane gusts of wind; his vocals were improvised, the lyrics not even memorised (he referred to them from a book). The notions of normal beats, melodies, and chord changes were thrown out the window in favour of shapes, aural sculpting. There were no straight lines; this was natural music (look in nature and tell me if you see any straight lines). The lyrics were full of playful exercises in free-association & word images, filled with such delicious lines as “an oriole sang like an orange, his breast full of worms/and his tail clawed the evenin’ like a hammer” and “the white ice horse melted like uh spot uh silver well.” The titles say it all. “Neon Meate Dream of a Octafish.” “Ant Man Bee.” “Hobo Chang Ba.”

Not surprisingly (to everyone but Don), TMR didn’t sell. One reporter remarked that it sounded like a blues band being pushed down a flight of stairs. Others have said that if your favourite part of going to see an orchestra is the part where they’re all tuning up, you’ll love this record. Some said it sounded like it was being played backwards. Many people assumed that they were just playing random notes. So many have listened and turned away from the caucaphony, saying “this is awful!”

But they missed the point. To say that Trout Mask Replica sounds like it is played backwards is to assume that Neil Diamond plays forwards. “There’s no pleasant melodies,” (actually, there’s one, at the end, but everyone neglects that fact) “there’s no rhythm, there’s no form!” listeners may scream. Well, since when has “music” meant something with a pleasant melody, an easily danceable rhythm, and a predictable form? I challenge that music is nothing but organised sound, and the level of organisation may vary. People listen to TMR and say “that’s not music!” If I’m not mistaken, people also said that Marcelle Duchamp’s work wasn’t art. Heck, they said Monet wasn’t art, they said Matisse wasn’t art. It’s a bit more difficult now to find someone who agrees with those statements now. They may not like it, but they’ll concede that it’s art. For some reason, people are willing to accept abstractness in visual art, but not music. Well, that’s exactly what TMR is, abstract music. And if Dadaism is all about the spirit of play, then I will be more specific and say that TMR is Dada rock.

Some of the lyrics on TMR are serious. “Dachau Blues,” “Ant Man Bee,” and “Veteran’s Day Poppy” all contain messages about the evils of war; “Frownland” is like “Are You Experienced?” taken to a deeper level; “Moonlight on Vermont” and “My Human Gets Me Blues” reflect Don’s disgust with organised religion; “Wild Life” and “Steal Softly Thru Snow” have shades of the naturalism and ecology that runs throughout Don’s body of work, going all the way back to “Plastic Factory” from Safe As Milk.

It was after TMR that Don met Jan Jenkins at a party, and had her move in with him. She was a fan of his music and was 12 years younger than him. They were married shortly, and remain married today. In a short documentary made in 1980, when asked what was most important to him, Don answered “My wife. Definitely my wife. Sorry, girls. I’m taken.” Jan brought an organization to Don’s life of which he was incapable, keeping track of his enormous catalogue of work (Don wrote hundreds of pages every day) and providing emotional support. Also after TMR, Don and the band all quit doing drugs (although Don would periodically lapse). For the band, it was a necessity for playing the music. For Don, it was just a decision that he didn’t want to do it anymore. Although I think Jan had something to do with it.

Following TMR, the band (including Victor “The Mascara Snake” Haydn, Don’s cousin, who has some spoken parts and plays bass clarinet on one track) played one show, and then started working on another album. At one point, Don became angry with John French for some reason (one of his paranoid neurotic moments) and threw him down a half flight of stairs, telling him to “take a walk.” So he did, and Don replaced him with a hippy-in-the-park-with-bongos drummer who couldn’t handle the parts, who Don christened “Drumbo,” as though he could conceal the fact that French was gone. The “Fake Drumbo” also got in a fight with Jeff Cotton, breaking several of Cotton’s ribs, so Cotton quit. Eventually, former Mothers of Invention drummer Art Tripp III (named Ed Marimba by Don) filled in, and French came back, so they had two drummers (when Tripp wasn’t playing marimba) with very different styles, creating an unparalleled explosive sound. The next record was written on piano like TMR, but conditions for the band were slightly better. It was entitled Lick My Decals Off, Baby, and was just as weird as TMR, but shorter. It contains Harkleroad’s finest hour, the complex guitar solo piece “One Red Rose That I Mean,” and a beautiful guitar and bass duet entitled “Peon,” which was an exact replication of a once-through piano piece played by Don. Also on the album is the ecological warning “Petrified Forest,” my favourite lyrically. Don wrote a surreal TV commercial for the album, but it was banned by the local stations, who said the title was “obscene.” This album is considered by many to be Captain Beefheart and the Magic Band’s finest, but is sadly the only one out of print. The Decals tour (which also featured TMR material) was arguably Beefheart’s best and was full of bizarre theatrics. They picked up Elliot Ingber to replace Jeff Cotton, and Don named him Winged Eel Fingerling. It was also during this time that Don’s career as a painter began. His first exhibit was in England, and showcased a set of black and white paintings he had done while on the tour.

After Decals, John French again quit, which resulted
in a necessity for making the music simpler; despite his immense talent, Art Tripp found it too difficult to play drums in French’s style. Plus, the far-out records weren’t selling and Harkleroad & Mark Boston almost starved to death. So Don put away his piano, again relying on his harmonica and his voice, used his sax sparingly, and allowed the band more freedom (but it was still a pain in the ass working with Don). Songs were composed loosely and then hammered out in lengthy jams. The next two albums were slower (Harkleroad hates the first one, says it made him feel like a zombie playing it), more basic blues-rock albums, but were still Beefheart; meaning that they were still “weird.” These were Spotlight Kid and Clear Spot, and contained such fun classics as “Big Eyed Beans from Venus” and “I’m Gonna Booglarize Ya, Baby,” the short, surreal accompanied poem “Golden Birdies,” and the instrumental “Alice in Blunderland” in which Ingber was given complete freedom on the guitar.

Both albums had limited success, and Don finally decided to “go commercial” (actually, the working plan for the past three albums was to try to be more commercial, to not scare listeners away so much; although Decals came nowhere near that idea). The next album was Unconditionally Guaranteed, on which Don allowed producers to sugarcoat the music with overdubs. As soon as the record was finished, the entire Magic Band quit, and Don was forced to play the tour with a pickup band from Vegas who were used to accompanying lounge acts; they weren’t capable of playing real Magic Band music. This became known by fans as the Tragic Band. Don recorded one album with them, Bluejeans and Moonbeams, his darkest hour. Don put his imagination on a tight leash, trying to make a commercially acceptable record. And he acted it up in interviews; he praised this new band as “the best batch yet,” and pushed the tepid new album, acting very enthusiastic about the whole thing. The magic was gone. It’s depressing, it’s an artist practically selling his soul, and it’s all made worse by the fact that it didn’t work. These albums didn’t sell either.

(Well, okay, Moonbeams isn’t all that bad. It’s actually some good music, but in comparison to the rest of the Beefheart catologue, it’s bad.)

After the failure of Bluejeans and Moonbeams, Don took a hiatus from music, until Frank Zappa approached him with an offer. The friendship between the two had been all but broken after the failure of TMR, which Don blamed on Zappa’s shoddy production (I happen to like the production, but oh well). Zappa asked Don to sing and play on the Bongo Fury tour, and Don obliged. Don got another record deal put together a new Magic Band and wrote (with the piano again) and recorded the album Bat Chain Puller, which was never (legitimately; somehow, someone’s selling it under the title Dust Sucker) released. The Bat Chain lineup did, however, play a few live shows.

After a few changes in band lineup, Don wrote 6 new songs and took 6 from Bat Chain Puller, and released Shiny Beast (Bat Chain Puller) on Virgin, marking his “comeback” and the return of the magic. Half the songs are fairly “normal,” as if Don was saying “Listen, I AM capable of normal music,” but for the most part, Beefheart was back, and the music was “weird” again. This album showcased such wonders as the carnival(ium) party song “Tropical Hot Dog Night” and a Beefheart twist on the old farmer-defeats-the-devil theme “The Floppy Boot Stomp.” Also included is “Bat Chain Puller,” a rhythmic track that paints vibrant images of a rainstorm and an unearthly, surreal train (which I interpret to be an evil entity equivalent to Moloch in “Howl”). The drum part on that track provides the rainstorm all by itself; it’s drummer Robert Williams playing a reproduction of a recording made by Don of the windshield wipers on his Volvo. “When I See Mommy I Feel Like a Mummy” is a strange track. If you read the lyrics, they sound kind of lame, especially by Beefheart standards; and then when you hear them in the context of the music the first time, it’s disturbing, sounds Oedipal; but repeated listening reveals it to be a chilling rumination of mortality. And then there’s “Apes-Ma,” a bone-chilling warning to mankind. It’s so short, I’ll just quote the whole thing:

Apes-Ma, Apes-Ma
Remember when you were young Apes-Ma?
And you used to break out of your cage?
Well you know that you’re not
Strong enough to do that anymore now
And Apes-Ma… The little girl that
Named you years ago died now
And you’re older Apes-Ma
Remember when she named you
And it was in the paper Apes-Ma?
Apes-Ma, Apes-Ma
You’re eating too much
And going to the bathroom too much Apes-Ma
And Apes-Ma, your cage isn’t getting any bigger Apes-Ma

By this time (late ’70s, early ’80s), Beefheart influence had spread all over music, and especially the punk/new wave movement. Groups like the B-52’s, Devo, Pere Ubu, Public Image Ltd., and Talking Heads all cited Beefheart influence and praised the man’s music. Don was uninterested. “Why should I look through my own vomit?” he said. He also didn’t like that the punk movement that drew so much from TMR was clinging to that same old 4/4 rhythm, that “mama’s heartbeat” as Don put it.

Don’s music in this period was also more structured and accessible, but not in any cliched way. What I mean is that it was more controlled, less rambly and bulbous. But this doesn’t mean it lost any edge. In fact, the next album, 1980’s Doc at the Radar Station, proves it. The music may be simpler, but the sound and lyrics are so much harsher that many people have difficulty listening to it even if they’ve been listening to TMR. Titles like “Ashtray Heart” and “Making Love to a Vampire With a Monkey on My Knee” tell the story. However, there are “quieter” moments, such as the sterling guitar solo “Flavour Bud Living.” The Doc band was basically the Shiny Beast band, but without the AMAZING Bruce Fowler on trombone (who achieves things I didn’t even know were Possible on the trombone; listen to Shiny Beast. There’s only one horn sound that’s not his trombone, and that’s Don’s unmistakeable sax skronks on “Suction Prints”). This band played on Saturday Night Live twice one night, playing “Hot Head” and “Ashtray Heart” from Doc. It was a horrible episode (I saw a re-run), but the performance by the band was excellent, and superior to the album versions of the songs (in my opinion).

After the Doc tour, Don went to work in 1982 on the next album, with mostly the same musicians. By this time, Don was doing cocaine, and his voice was beginning to suffer from it. John French chalks the cocaine use up to fear, he believes that Don already knew by that time that he had the disease that would later prevent him from ever coming out of retirement. He was also getting tired of the music business, especially after asking Zappa for the rights to One (just ONE) song from the original Bat Chain Puller and being denied. Don proceeded to go home, take a hit of marijuana, turn on the tape recorder, sit at the piano, and crank out “Skeleton Makes Good,” one of my favourites lyrically, in time for the album deadline. The album was titled Ice Cream for Crow, and a music video was shot for the title track. The video was rejected by MTV for being “too weird,” so Don went on the Late Show and had the video shown.

There was no tour following ICFC. Don decided he was sick of the music business and went full time into painting. This makes ICFC his final album, and I can’t think of anything better to end with. The album has a sort of sad bleakness to it, full of farewell. And the photograph on the cover breaks my heart every time. It’s beautiful.

His paintings are wonderfully imaginative, wild little things, that look like his music sounds. He had several exhibits, but nothing recently. He now lives reclusively in a trailer in the Mojave Desert. He will never perform again; h
e is taken with an illness that prevents him from it. Everyone is very quiet about the exact nature of his illness, but it is apparently multiple sclerosis.

The secret of Don’s creativity has always been childishness. Long ago, he decided not to grow up. So he didn’t, and he remained creatively free. This also left him without a normal concept of reality or any way of dealing functionally with society, which is probably responsible for the neurotic way he treated his musicians (but it must be said that he never forced them to stay; they could have quit at any time), but the wonderful body of work it resulted in is well worth it. It also resulted in him being a beautiful and deeply interesting human being, which is more than can be said about some other people with a “normal concept of reality.”

I kinda get the feeling that I didn’t describe the music well enough, but, how do you describe it in words? All I can say is, “go buy it and listen.” I dream of a world where everyone owns a copy of TMR and plays it enough so that it grows on them (which it does) if they didn’t like it at first. I will leave you with some quotes from Don Van Vliet’s mouth, and then some links you can check out if you want to read more.

“You should know by the kindness of uh dog the way uh human should be.”

“Why would I want to do something like anyone else? Then I’d just be contributing to the sameness of things. I say, Lick my decals off, baby!”

“Modern man keeps wanting to graduate, but they graduate in the areas that seem to be so solitary instead of the kind areas, like dolphins graduating across the horizon into the sun. Man graduates with no sand and sun and water. I think more children should play with mudpies, but that’s out now.”

“The largest living land mammal is the absent mind.”

“I don’t like music; I like sounds. Because Music is just black ants running across white paper.”

“People use funny toilet paper because it means they’re rich if it’s perfumed. I think perfumed toilet paper causes rectal cancer. You can almost judge how screwed up somebody is by the kind of toilet paper they use.”

“I became a vegetarian because I couldn’t imagine biting an animal and spitting out the fur and eating the meat. I said, why should I bite an animal? But then why should I bite a vegetable, it’s the same thing. I eventually resigned myself to the fact that I had to eat something to survive.”

“Be kind, man — don’t be mankind.”


The Captain Beefheart Radar Station: excellent site, loaded with interviews (text And streaming audio) & lyrics & record info & pictures of the paintings. You can also watch the “Ice Cream for Crow” video, the Lick My Decals Off, Baby commercial, the SNL performance, both of Don’s Late Show appearances, and a segment about Don from a 1980 biography show, which includes an interview with Don. And a bizarre clip of Captain Beefheart & the Magic Band’s feet.

The Captain Beefheart Timeline: last I checked, this was down. But it was great. Chronicled everything Captain Beefheart and the Magic Band did from beginning to end. Most of the info in this article came from this site; everything else came from the Radar Station.

Trout Mask Replica Replica: this is a little tribute I did.

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