The death of Don Van Vliet, better known as Captain Beefheart, leaves the ghost ship of 1960s rock with barely more than a dozen spectral deckhands and trembling techies. Not that the Captain was much of a man for a sea breeze. I went to hear him at Leeds University in the 1970s. During the interval, a few minutes after the audience had bolted for the bar or the lavatories, the Captain entered the gents and clattered down the long tiled floor, striding past the urinals, shoving open the cubicle doors to his right, one after another, until he arrived at the far end. Then, in the manner of a distinguished judge who’s sifted all the evidence: ‘Man if this place doesn’t stink of seafood.’
Leeds is a way inland and so was the oddball genius from the Mojave Desert, who performed like a dust storm over the Dales, breaking off from the repertoire to string a couple of quirky notions into something intelligent and funny, and then regrouping the musicians for another song from the latest album, Unconditionally Guaranteed. He took against the recording (and later advised his listeners to ‘ask for your money back’), but by now his patrons in the music industry were telling him there was a script, and he’d do well to stick to it.
Painter and musician coexisted for a while. Don Van Vliet had shown early promise as a sculptor; he went on to sketch and paint during his career as Captain Beefheart: see his paintings of band members for The Spotlight Kid (1972). But Beefheart the recording artist died in 1982 after a series of disappointing attempts to sing for his supper and Don Van Vliet the painter walked into the frame. Earlier this month at the ABMB fair an oil entitled Black Doily was priced at $40,000.
Album aficionados love Trout Mask Replica (1969), and sticklers refer us back to Safe as Milk (1967), the first studio album, where the Captain was joined by an unknown 20-year-old slide-guitar player from LA, Ryland Cooder. Yes. But it’s a shame to pass over Strictly Personal (1968), the controversial release that Beefheart felt was ruined by his producer, Bob Krasnow. It sounds wild and exemplary now. How was it possible to create the impression that a transistor radio playing Howlin’ Wolf at full volume had been placed in a wok and set on a gas burner? That strange clanking sound – of which Tom Waits’s Rain Dogs is a distant echo – is part of the Captain’s ironclad legacy, even if he left the helm.