Don Van Vliet died today.
He had been retired from music about a decade when I first heard of this strange and idiosyncratic artist. Even though Captain Beefheart hadn’t released any new music since the early 80s, his music is still surprising and rare. It’s like listening to a unicorn taking a dump on a rainbow. And I mean that as a good thing. In 2010, his music remains, simultaneously rooted and singular, authentic and unreal, beautiful and demented. It’s really a hell of a trick to still pull off in these God awful commodified, compromised, and dangerous times.
Of course, as is the case with most worthwhile works of art, it’s not for everyone. The music does take work, but the payoff is illuminating. It's like when you realize that Thelonious Monk’s “Ruby, My Dear” really does swing--you realize that the downbeat, the one, is actually there, whispering and floating in the spaces between the notes. It's like that with Captain Beefheart. The singularity of his vision is impressive even if you don’t really know what the hell is going on.
He grew up in the Mojave Desert, north of L.A., near the town of Lancaster. I have an image of him sometimes, when I am listening to his music, dancing a weird dervish in the desert--clapping his hands and stomping his feet in the dust. Tarotplane and my human gets me blues.
Captain Beefheart was friends with equally idiosyncratic Frank Zappa. As teenagers they devised a whole new language for American music out there in the desert.
Desert Boy Blues.
They were really two sides of the same coin with Zappa as the conceptual technician and Beefheart as the primitive artiste... gimme dat harp boy.
Modern music is all there in his best albums: Howlin’ Wolf and Edgard Varese, Son House and John Coltrane, hokum and Beat poetry. Disparate styles and forms deconstructed and reformed with the help of Beefheart's Magic Band.
He released a handful of searing and brilliant albums (Safe as Milk, Trout Mask Replica, Mirror Man, Lick My Decals Off Baby, Doc at the Radar Station) before quitting music in the early 80s to paint. He hasn’t been active musically for almost 30 years (although I really hoped he’d release a new album for the past 15 years), so what we’ve really lost is the idea of a true artist who forged his own path, who followed his own vision, who never sold out. How many artists today can we say that about, in this ugly and naked era of over commercialization and self promotion?
It’s a stupid and false sentiment, but I feel like the culture lost something good and pure today, something we won’t get back. Captain Beefheart was an artist who actually cared about his art as a creation--not as a commodity. In times like these, his existence was an archaic and rebellious stance.
Famous artists die all the time, and we all say, “oh, that’s a shame,” or “that guy sucked,” or “who?”, and then we move on to the next thing moving toward us on our increasingly connected and shallow paths. In the grand scope of things, Captain Beefheart wasn’t really all that famous, but I think that those of us who care about authenticity and integrity should pause to remember this original artist, Don Van Vliet/Captain Beefheart. His art wasn’t easy, it was often twisted and surreal, but it was honest and pure and inspiring. Strange songs along the road less traveled.
Captain Beefheart died today.