Books: Wednesday, November 28, 2002
Oh, Captain, My Captain

The real life and times of psych-rocker Don Van Vliet.


The music of Don Van Vliet, a.k.a. Captain Beefheart, remains an acquired taste. Frequently included on lists of “best” rock albums, his 1969 masterpiece, Trout Mask Replica, can still clear a room. The first time I heard it, as a 17-year-old college freshman, it seemed like pure chaos, the sound of two guitars and bass all playing different songs in different keys while a set of drums was being dropped down a flight of stairs and the singer was bellowing strange lyrics in a voice that sounded like part-Howlin’ Wolf, part-caveman. Why was I listening to this cacophony? Then, around the third or fourth listen, something clicked and I started liking it. Several years later, I saw the Captain in the flesh with a group of musicians different from the one that recorded the album, playing songs from Trout Mask and his other records note for note. Revelation: Not only was this stuff supposed to sound the way it did, it was supposed to be pliant enough to be transferred and repeated.

Van Vliet’s life has long been the stuff of legend, partly because he’s such a prevaricator, partly because journalists have long been willing to accept his stories at face value — most notably Langdon Winner, whose long pieces in Rolling Stone from ’70 and ’71 form the basis of much of the conventional wisdom regarding Beefheart. Child prodigy sculptor, teenage accomplice and later-day adversary of Frank Zappa, owner of a seven-and-a-half-octave vocal range, rigorous rock avant-gardist who claimed to have composed the 28 songs on Trout Mask in eight and a half hours at the piano, clairvoyant who predicted the 1980 murder of John Lennon to an interviewer the night the former Beatle was shot. Van Vliet told interviewers these stories, which may or may not be true, and then, in 1982, he completed the mystique by walking away — from music and from any willingness to talk about his musical career or what went before it. Since then, he has devoted himself to painting.

Several recent re-examinations of Van Vliet’s music and his life have drawn very different images than that of the almost-cuddly surrealist he once made himself out to be. There’s been Lunar Notes (1998), by former Magic Band guitarist Bill Harkleroad, who rendered Van Vliet as a paranoid tyrant who exerted Mansonian control over the musicians while depending on them to help realize his musical vision. And there was the booklet written by former drummer John French that accompanied Revenant Records’ 1999 collection of previously unreleased Beefheart rarities, Grow Fins — Van Vliet does not come off as warm and cuddly there, either.

Now comes Mike Barnes, a drummer and writer for the British magazine The Wire, who first published Captain Beefheart: The Biography in the U.K. last year. Barnes provides a balanced, sympathetic (but not uncritical) account of Van Vliet’s evolution from talented tyro to tyrannical bandleader to reclusive painter. While Van Vliet declined to participate in the preparation of the book, Barnes was able to interview most of his subject’s key musical associates, as well as friends from Van Vliet’s teenage years in Lancaster, Calif., and the woman who owned the Los Angeles house where the Magic Band lived during the rehearsals for Trout Mask. He also makes good use of material from published sources, both print and internet, and the 1997 BBC documentary The Artist Formerly Known As Captain Beefheart.

Barnes’ approach seems to assume that those who pick up his book already know about Van Vliet. Without providing any information about the man or his music, the story begins with his birth and proceeds chronologically. Barnes’ writing is concise and readable, providing an abundance of detail without drowning the reader in minutiae. The chapters on the early days of the Magic Band and the circumstances surrounding the recording of Trout Mask and the “lost” ’70s album, Bat Chain Puller, are particularly fascinating. Barnes’ track-by-track analyses of the records are evocative. He spends a small amount of time discussing Van Vliet’s visual art, but that’s no loss for fans of the music. (Those who want more on that topic are directed to Bill Bamberger’s Riding Some Kind of Unusual Skull Sleigh: On the Arts of Don Van Vliet.)

This book will satisfy readers who are already fans of Beefheart’s music and will also provide a good introduction for the neophyte. I was disturbed at my inability to find a copy of the book in any of the local retail outlets a mere four months after the book’s publication, but I was glad to know that it’s easily obtainable via special order or various internet sources.

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