Dust Storm over the Dales

Jeremy Harding remembers Captain Beefheart

Sleeve art from Strictly Personal

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.


  • 28 December 2010 at 8:01pm
    Alexander Scrimgeour says:
    You mention the "patrons in the music industry" saying he'd do well to stick to the script, but one wonders, more generally, what would have happened if he hadn't after all tried to adapt himself to the infrastructure, or felt it necessary to heed what people told him about the way things were done. It's an impossible thought experiment, but the Guardian obit implies he might well have carried on making music after 1982. Caroline Boucher laconically writes:

    "In 1982, on the advice of the New York art dealer Michael Werner that he would never be taken seriously as a painter unless he gave up music, Beefheart turned to art and gained a reasonable reputation."

  • 29 December 2010 at 7:54pm
    Ally says:
    Maybe it is only when wider cultural movements throw the music industry infrastructure off balance that temporary space appears for mavericks like Captain Beefheart. Psychedelia and then punk provided the opportunities for his music to be heard and understood.
    Mayo Thompson is another example, with his Red Krayola surfacing in the time of Texan psychedelia and then reappearing in UK post-punk. Between these times, Thompson worked in the visual arts in New York until affected by a market downturn there. Even mavericks get buffeted by economic waves.

  • 29 December 2010 at 8:19pm
    sprachnroll says:
    I would instead choose, and heartily recommend to any newcomers to Beefheart, Lick My Decals Off Baby. It distills what made this music (considering the musicianship, it's hard to refer to it as Beefheart's) unique but each song is relatively short and relatively accessible. (Flash Gordon's Ape, at 4:15, is the longest track.) Safe as Milk and Strictly Personal are still too indepted to the blues tradition, and yes, Trout Mask is great, and was his breakthrough, but it's a bit too sprawling. Decals stands squarely between the twin poles pf blues indebtedness and originality. And speaking of the blues, is there a better blues in all of the Beefheart canon than Woe-is-uh-me-bop?

  • 30 December 2010 at 5:25pm
    Nick Richardson says:
    Lick My Decals Off is my favourite too; but it's hard to get hold of for a reasonable price. A legal wrangle between van Vliet and the record company has meant it's never been reissued, which is why, if you want to buy a new copy from Amazon, it will set you back ten grand:

  • 7 January 2011 at 6:00pm
    Mat Snow says:
    To recommend Lick My Decals Off Baby to Beefheart newcomers is a bit sink-or-swim, n'est-ce-pas? For those about to dip their toes, Clear Spot is surely the shallow end of the pool — without being in the least bit shallow. It could only be Beefheart, yet is approachable through the doors marked soul, rock and blues, with not a duff song on the platter.

    • 8 January 2011 at 10:48am
      Phil Edwards says: @ Mat Snow
      My sister played me "Big-Eyed Beans from Venus" when I was young and impressionable - it is the kind of track you want someone else to hear. Some time later I got the album myself & was greatly disappointed with the rest of it - only a couple of the other tracks even approach that level. But I guess that does make it more approachable. The same sister had previously played me "Just us" from Strictly Personal, which (both track and album) she found hilarious - to me they looked & sounded like dispatches from another world, & scared the life out of me.

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