Monday, January 3, 2011

RIP Captain Beefheart (Don Van Vliet)

Captain Beefheart
Okay Ok I know I'm a little late on this one but the last few weeks have been a little hectic. I promise to make up for it.

So Saturday night as Phish ended their show about 1 a.m. some familiar music started to play around MSG and it reminded me of the man who sadly lost his life a few weeks back at the age of 69. The song "Tropical Hot Dog Night" the artist.... Captain Beefheart. 

His story goes like this. 

He was born Don Vlient and died Captain Beefheart, one of modern music's true innovators. He was a man with a four-and a half octave vocal range, he had crazy rythms in his compositions, absurd lyrics, a mix of jazz, blues, classical music and rock and roll rolled up into one artist. Not to mention he mastered every instrument on that stage. Truly magical. He recorded 12 studio albums between 1965-1982 (many on Frank Zappa's record label) with his group of musicians he called the "The Magic Band".  While he never really came remotely close to mainstream success, his impact on the music business is unmeasured. 

Known for his enigmatic personality and relationship with the public, Van Vliet made few public appearances after his retirement from music (and from his Beefheart persona) in 1982 to pursue a career in art, an interest that originated in his childhood talent for sculpture. His expressionist paintings and drawings command high prices, and have been exhibited in art galleries and museums across the world.

Yet it was one quote that I read about this man last week that really summed up the word artist for me. This may be wordy...but the words are worth it.

Bob Lezsetz on the recent death of the Captain: 

"Trout Mask Replica" was not made for Top 40 radio. Hell, it wasn't made for any radio. It was an album made to be played from start to finish in your bedroom, as you tried to decipher its dense lyrics and music. And the hype was just as good. In "Rolling Stone" Beefheart said it only took 8 hours to record the record. When asked why it took so long, the Captain replied that he had to teach the band their instruments. 

Not that we believed that. But how great to have someone who could reply tongue-in-cheek, who wasn't giving the bland answers tv seems to require in its endless quest to appeal to everybody, ultimately appealing to nobody. Eventually the Captain became more comprehensible. There was that album "Clear Spot" that came in a plastic bag, which contained the positively mainstream "My Head Is My Only House Unless It Rains". Which the Tubes ultimately covered. But they've been forgotten too. The real Tubes, the "White Punks On Dope" Tubes not the MTV 80s Tubes singing about beauties and...

And then the Captain faded away. He didn't play the oldies circuit, he went back to being Don Van Vliet and resumed painting, his first love. Until his death last week....

And if you really care about history, if you're the type who's up for a challenge, who takes the road not traveled and doesn't turn back, check out Beefheart's work. Start with "Shiny Beast (Bat Chain Puller)", its the most accessible. But there won't be TV tributes and there won't be a funeral at the Staples Center and you still won't hear his music on the radio.  

But those who remember will never forget. An era when being a musician was the highest calling and financial reward was not the Holy Grail. He and his merry band of musicians/pranksters didn't compromise a whit. They just kept on doing what they believed in. Sometimes the audience caught on, sometimes they didn't."

RIP Captain Beefheart. 

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