In Memoriam, Don Vliet
Captain Beefheart's voice, long silent, is now permanently gone. His profound influence on alternative music - from rock to rap to modern concert music - is simply incalculable. I once heard David Byrne begin a concert with Don's solo "Well" from Trout Mask Replica, a staggering masterpiece with some of the most extraordinary music-making of the late 60's. But for all of Byrne's expressiveness and intelligence, nothing, simply nothing, compared to the sound of Don's Blues-on-Mars voice - and the sound of that amazing band - live.
In early 1971, Captain Beefheart played a skeevy little NYC club called Ungano's for two nights, two shows a night. I was at every show and I can still remember where I was as I watched them; Looking up at the impossibly tall and think Bill Harkleroad, as he performed the solo "One Red Rose," each time more beautiful than the last, each time simply incredible, impossible electric guitar virtuosity. Ornette was there - God knows what he thought of Don's faux soprano sax solos - but I can't imagine even Ornette not being impressed by that tight, tight, perfect band.
At the time, I was working as a dj for WFMU, a pioneering free-form radio show. I had a show called The Alfonzo Hour (long story) and somehow managed to wrangle an opportunity to be part of a long interview with Don in his room at a Howard Johnson's motel on 8th Ave. Rockette Morton showed up, as did Artie Tripp. About 6 or 7 years ago, I found the recording, contacted the Beefheart web community, and sent copies to the first five Beefheart fanatics that wrote me with strict instructions to distribute it far and wide. I'm sure if you search the web, you can find it. It provides a portrait of Don at the height of his creativity and fame, and is filled with numerous Beefheartian quotes, and much laughter.
Also at the New York shows was a young, already amazing guitarist named Gary Lucas. Gary and I would meet years later, when we were both working for the same record company and became friends. He became Beefheart's manager and performed on the splendid Ice Cream For Crow - his solo is amazing -and, in addition to his own legendary career, Gary organizes concerts of Beefheart's music with other original Magic Band members along with screenings of rare film footage. I've been to several and they're wonderful.
Don was many things - a great musician/composer, a poet, a band leader, a fascinating visual artist, and - by all accounts - deeply in love with his beautiful wife, Jan. But he was an artist - not an exemplar of middle-class values. He consumed vast quantities of mind-altering substances which have been cited, perhaps mistakenly, as a major factor in the development of his multiple sclerosis. He could be unbelievably tyrannical and abusive to his bandmembers - drummer John French's monumental memoir of life in the Magic Band and beyond is both horrifying and heartbreaking - but if you do track down the interview I did with him (please don't write me for a copy- at some point I'll post it to iTunes if it turns out to be hard to locate), you'll find a charming Don Vliet, generously giving considerable credit to the band for their dedication and intelligence.
For many of you who are new to Beefheart and think he might be worth checking out, I think you may be shocked by how "unpleasant" and "weird" it sounds at first. Chances are you've never heard anything like it, and you may snap judge and decide to hate it, or think it's pretentious. Please listen again, then again, and then a third time. And a fourth. It will creep up on you. It is indeed harsh, but who ever said that beautiful art has to be soothing? IMO, the most beautiful, the most sublime music, is deeply, irreducibly strange, whether it's an unexpected modulation in a Mozart concerto, the rambling impossible length of Parsifal, or the Beefheart band doing "Hair Pie" on Trout Mask. Don's music and his performances were ecstatically revolutionary - nobody drums like Drumbo, nobody's guitar sounds like Harkelroad's, and Don, for all his debt to Howlin' Wolf, transcended every category of music-making in the 20th century. My own music sounds nothing like Don's, and never will. But I listen to his work constantly, I have a large collection of rarities and unreleased material that was passed to me from friends who have friends and it is among the most listened music in my library.
I've often wondered if it was simple nostalgia for all the crazy times I had back then that makes Don's music so appealing. But then I put on "Electricity" from Safe As Milk, which begins with a sea chanty and seques into madness without missing a beat - that John French really was an amazing drummer, a force of nature - and I know this is music I will be listening to when I'm 90, that this music will endure even as the dust blows forward and the dust blows back across my grave.
The world is a far more boring place today than it was yesterday.