Caught by the River

Caught by the Reaper – Don Van Vliet / Captain Beefheart, 1941-2010

19th December 2010

Pic by Tom Sheehan

by Jon Berry

There wasn’t much to do if you were a young man in Lancaster in the late ‘fifties. There were soda bars, dances, fist-fights with the guys from the air base when the sun went down, but little else. Teenagers drifted as aimlessly as the dust that blew in from Mojave. Some of them went a little crazy, but Don Van Vliet – sometime vacuum cleaner salesman, high-school drop-out, fantasist, self-proclaimed genius, on-off pal of Frank Zappa – well, Don seemed a little crazier than most.
Alongside sculpture and paintings, Vliet loved music. He and the young Zappa would sit in the cab of the family’s bread truck (the one with Don’s homemade werewolf head gearstick) listening to Muddy Waters, Thelonius Monk, John Coltrane and the peerless Johnny ‘Guitar’ Watson. Those evenings in the bread truck lived long in the Captain’s often faulty memory. Blues, with an injection of the avant-garde jazz of the day, would inform much of his later recordings.
Vliet formed his Magic Band in 1964, and became forever Captain Beefheart. The band’s personnel fluctuated with the erratic moods of their leader, but it lasted in one guise or another until the early 1980s. In that time it recorded some of the most influential – not to mention alarmingly impenetrable – popular music of the century. The first album, Safe as Milk (1967), blended blues, doo-wop, surreal poetry and jazz, and it scared the record company shitless – but admirers ranged from the west-coast counter-culture freaks to Lennon and McCartney. Strictly Personal followed soon after, taking the Magic Band in to weirder, heavily-phased territory. The fanbase continued to grow, but it wasn’t prepared for what came next.
Trout Mask Replica (1969) was the first issue on Zappa’s Straight label, and Vliet’s old friend produced. It sounded like nothing that had come before, or would come later. It’s frantic, fractured sound and complex arrangements did little for the casual listener; doubtless, some fans retreated from the madness. But for those willing, in the parlance of the day, to get turned on, it was a masterpiece. And when the obits are written this weekend, it is that singular album that will afford its creator the title of genius.
It was the first Beefheart album I ever heard and I remember the occasion vividly. My brother and I were in Ian Beck’s cream-upholstered Avenger, smoking dope with its owner in the empty car park of a Hampshire leisure centre. It was a summer night in 1986, the pub had closed and we had no girls to go home to. I recall laughing manically to Ella Guru and Ian rewinding the tape repeatedly, saying ‘wait, you gotta hear this bit…you gotta really hear it’. I bought my own copy the next day, and Safe as Milk too. I listened closely and I heard, I really heard.
By the time I found him, through the tape deck of Ian’s old Avenger, the Captain was already a recluse. He had abandoned music in 1982 and disappeared to the Californian coast with his wife to watch the dolphins and paint his crazy, primitive pictures. The art critics loved him and the dope heads wistfully revered him. He was more mythology than man.
His death this week, after two decades of multiple sclerosis, will only add to that. Downloads and record sales will spike. Copies of Mike Barnes’ excellent biography will reappear, briefly, on the shelves of the bookshops. There may even be a hastily-constructed biopic on the Beeb. But soon enough, silence will descend. The dust will continue to blow in from Mojave and the world will keep turning.

But for those who are willing to look, the Captain is still out there. The records tell the story best, of course – the fractious collaborations with Zappa, the early Magic Band releases, the Ry Cooder guitar stuff, the final two albums with a young band more attuned to punk than fucked-up rhythm and blues, the Dali-esque poetry, the harp and sax playing, all of it. It’s some story.
The Don was a difficult man who made equally difficult music, but he has left a formidable legacy. I didn’t know him and so I won’t miss him, but I may just have to take a drive in the next few days and park up somewhere dark and remote. And there, I can wind up the volume like an aimless kid and let the Captain growl in to the night one more time.