Like Breath On A Mirror
I was in seventh grade the first time I saw his name. He was included in that infamous list on the inside cover of Freak Out as one of the people who had 'contributed materially' to the Mothers of Invention's music.
The list also included a bunch of other names I was seeing for the first time. Names like Willie Dixon and Muddy Waters and Little Walter and Howlin' Wolf. As it turns out, Frank Zappa had spent most of his high school years listening to Blues and R&B records up in Don Van Vliet's room on the edge of the Mojave Desert, an experience which would leave its indelible mark on both of them.
As Captain Beefheart, Van Vliet took that R&B as far as he could, before breaking it open and reconstructing it the way he heard it in his head. He would spend eight months locked in a house on the outskirts of Los Angeles painstakingly schooling his Magic Band in the sprawling vision he had for the future of music. When the Zappa produced Trout Mask Replica was released in 1969, it changed everything, and its influence is still being felt to this day. I had an 8 Track of the album in my Volkswagen bus that I played to death. It was just such a period in my life. I was a huge fan...
Great albums like Lick My Decals Off, Baby and Clear Spot would keep me interested but, after a couple of uneven releases in the mid-seventies, the Captain was left without a record deal. He would begin working with a new version of the Magic Band in 1976, and produced an album called Bat Chain Puller, that the record companies wouldn't touch. After two years, Warner Brothers re-signed him and convinced him to re-record the album, releasing it as Shiny Beast (Bat Chain Puller) in 1978. Quite simply a work of genius, it signaled a new era for Van Vliet, with appearances on Saturday Night Live, David Letterman and the whole deal. This incredible track we have here today just gets under the ol' skin, you know? Unreal.
Signed by Virgin in 1980, the epic Doc At The Radar Station actually got airplay on those 'alternative' radio stations that used to exist, with songs like Ashtray Heart just blowing everything else out of the water. Van Vliet's 'neo-primitive' artwork, that had adorned the covers of these last two LPs, also began to get attention, and would be exhibited to excellent reviews on both sides of the Atlantic. By the time he released what would be his last album, Ice Cream For Crow, in 1982, Van Vliet had made the decision to concentrate on his painting, and leave music behind...
"Captain Beefheart is the most important musician to rise in the Sixties, far more significant and far-reaching than the Beatles; as important for all music as Ornette Coleman was for jazz, as Leadbelly was for the blues."
- Lester Bangs
"He was like the scout on a wagon train. He was the one who goes ahead and shows the way. He was a demanding bandleader, a transcendental composer... up there with Ornette [Coleman], Sun Ra and Miles [Davis]. He drew in the air with a burnt stick. He described the indescribable. He’s an underground stream... He’s the alpha and the omega. The high water mark. He’s gone and he won’t be back."
- Tom Waits
"I will continue to spread the word, if only to remind people that once a true giant walked the earth."
- Magic Band guitarist Gary Lucas
The world is a different place without him in it.