Don Van Vliet, a.k.a. Captain Beefheart, one of the most fiercely avant-garde musicians of the 20th century, passed away Friday at the age of 69 due to complications from multiple sclerosis. Beefheart made a career out of being impossible to categorize, making music that sounded like nothing else around.
Below is an article written by Tom Zito that appeared in The Washington Post in January, 1971, previewing an area concert by Beefheart and his Magic Band.
Captain Beefheart and his Magic Band are coming to town next Saturday and heaven only knows what's going to happen.
Consider, for example, the biography his record company provides in a promotional brochure:
A whirling dervish, honey of two white pigs bore snoots ‘n touched tusks on either husk of the sun ‘n moon
An apple dropped thru membrane arches broke embryonic picked out seed cores.
Or consider his biography as culled from more factual sources:
Born Don Van Vliet in Glendale, Calif.,; scholarship to study art in Europe at age 13; parental refusal and retreat to desert near Lancaster, Calif.; attends high school with Frank Zappa.
The two form a band, the Blackouts, but Beefheart is fired because his music "is a little too far out."
"I don't believe in time -- you know, 4/4 and all that stuff," Beefheart says. "Frank believes in time and we could never get it together. He writes all his music and gets sentimental about good old rock ‘n' roll -- but that's appeasement music."
And what then is non-appeasement music?
"A band of non-musicians who are painting artists" -- the Captain himself plus Zoot Horn Rollo, Rockette Morton, Winged Eel Fingerling, Drumbo and Ed Marimba playing such instruments as glass finger guitar, steel appendage guitar, simran horn and musette.
Beefheart's music has been described by one commentator as "dada rock" (the cover of his "Trout Mask Replica" album has a trout head imposed over his face), a somewhat indefinite description of definitely indefinite music. Although at first it seems to be built around blues scales, it utilizes constantly building tensions with no resolution, a format totally foreign to blues.
The band has a rhythm section of drums and bass which often provides totally arhythmic patterns to work within (without?). The remaining members of the band play rhythmic patters on horns, harmonicas and guitars, at times actually hitting the same melody line. The result is, as Beefheart himself describes it, a kind of musical painting that sets a surrealistic musical mood for his equally surrealistic lyrics:
Mantra Ray a black and white hand groped in blue light under the moon scratched a fingernail
Tipped off full ran to one side of heavens black top hat
God smiled, his black and white wings wet with tears of peace perfumed with life's perfection.
What makes all this so interesting to me as a listener -- and perhaps this is why Beefheart calls it his "magic" band -- is that somehow, in spite of all rules and formulas, his music works. Admittedly it's hard to take at first, but then didn't the audience throw rotten tomatoes at Stravinsky when he premiered "The Rites of Spring?"
In a totally (and literally) off-beat way, Beefheart takes a novel approach to making music that forces the listener to re-examine the way he's been listening traditionally (analogous, perhaps, to crawling inside a movie screen and watching people watch the screen; initially, everything will seem backwards.)