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Captain Beefheart (R.I.P. Don Van Vliet, 1941-2010)

The dust blows forward and the dust blows back.

"He was like the scout on a wagon train." - Tom Waits

The cacophonic caterwauling blared from my friend's 90 watt bookshelf Kenwoods as we sat in his basement after another highly successful jaunt to the underground record store at Syracuse University. We beamed stoned, smug smiles as the disjointed raucousness surrounded us. This was a discovery. A challenge even. An antidote to the ball-less AOR nonsense we had been fed by older siblings and the local radio stations. It was Howlin' Wolf on acid matched with a beat poet suffering a severe head wound. What we were hearing would change the way we listened to and looked at music forever. This was different stuff. The rare ether. Almost to the point of being barely listenable to our untrained ears. We complimented my friend on his bold purchasing choice, hit the bong a few more times and began screaming along to the difficult sounds of Captain Beefheart and His Magic Band.

That was 1980 and the album was Doc at the Radar Station; a blending of jumped-up, twisted blues, craggy jazz, painfully strained vocal stylings and pure poetry from an Avant-garde master who had been, without our knowledge at the time, at it for over sixteen years. For me, a sixteen-year-old estranged cynic even then, it was like discovering I was born of a different father. A raving, maniacal one no less, but certainly of a more compatible temperament than my actual sire.

But Don Van Vliet (a.k.a The Good Captain) was more to me than a musician and arbiter of progressive art forms. He was an abstract implement I used to argumentatively bludgeon those whose tastes I found inferior. He was a litmus test for girlfriends (all of whom, save one, inevitably failed), an aesthetic gauge in the endless music conversations I had over the years with male counterparts, a jukebox menace in public saloons, and perhaps, most significantly, an instant room clearer when played on the stereo for parties or gatherings that I wished to immediately end.

Beefheart was one of those special artists that you reserve (out of necessity really) purely for yourself. The appreciation of him was always a lonely pursuit. His work never mixed well with company - particularly the dim, the close-minded, or those unwilling to engage in worldly examination or introspection. Mainstream success always eluded him of course, as it does with most forward thinking performers and those whose art does not fit comfortably into preformed categorization. He gave up on the music industry in the early '80s after Ice Cream for Crow to focus on his painting and it may be that absence that allows me to mourn his loss less severely than I might have. But his legacy lingers on nonetheless, in the work of musicians and artists, and simple cantankerous douchebags like myself, who continue to look in the dank, unvisited corners of this world for inspiration and a sense of belonging.

It is improbable we will see the likes of him ever again.

As Frank Zappa introduced him on stage after a live rendition of Muffin Man off of Bongo Fury, "Captain Beefheart on vocals and soprano sax and madness".

Madness as an instrument. I like that.

Reader Comments (1)


Listen on my friend. Nice piece on NPR.

December 18, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterSafe as Milk

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