The saying ‘a picture speaks louder than words’ is certainly one of the most overused sayings out there, but in the case of Captain Beefheart, to his parents known as Don Van Vliet it can ring very true. The case in point is the cover of Ice Cream For Crow, his last official studio album recorded while he was still among us. Set on the background, which Beefheart painted himself, is a photograph of Beefheart somewhere in a secluded part of a desert taken by Anton Corbijn, the renowned photographer, and filmmaker, as well as his close friend — one of the rare people that had access to the man throughout his life.
That photograph can truly serve as a portrait of what a cult figure and a tortured genius looks like. Revered for his wildly experimental music by an ever increasing cult following, he never achieved massive success either as a musician or as a poet. But later in his life, when he quit music, he did achieve material success for his wildly imaginative and experimental drawings and paintings.
All of that includes a four-octave voice range, avant-garde saxophone and harmonica outbursts; imaginative and often daring lyrics, strange personal outbursts, autocratic handling of his band’s members, his love/hate relationship with Frank Zappa, great stage presence but almost non-existent press contacts, albums being recorded and re-recorded, abandoned or refused, paintings being sold for hundreds of thousands, and that just scratches the surface of his story.
I found your print on a dollar bill /I found your print on an Indian mound /I found your print on the statue at the sound /I found your print on the elephant ground /I found your print in the beautiful mountains /the grass no longer grew around /I found your print in my mind /the past sure is tense /the past sure is tense
“The Past Sure Is Tense” (Ice Cream For Crow, 1982)
Cult figures are built on facts and fiction
Separating fact from fiction in the case of Captain Beefheart is not an easy task. It even starts with his name. While he is known as Don Van Vliet, it seems that he himself added that Van in his surname, making it sound more Dutch or Flemish, but then again ‘seems’ is the operative word, as is the case with many things connected with Beefheart.
No wonder then if you open the 10 Amazon search result pages devoted to books written about the man you can sort out 20 different titles, some of them fetching solid prices, while a copy of the “Rolling Stone” magazine from 1970 that contains his legendary interview fetches almost 80 dollars. Oh, and that doesn’t include any albums, those you can search for on over 30 other pages of official and not so official issues.
The most knowledgeable person on all the idiosyncrasies connected with Beefheart is John ‘Drumbo’ French (Beefheart was known for giving his band members aliases), who was with him from the early days on. The list of stories (and tales) he had to tell also amounted to a book. It included everything from having to transcribe Beefheart’s lyrics from various scraps of paper, napkins or whatever, to Don’s inventions of how long it took him to compose his double album masterpiece Trout Mask Replica (Beefheart said 9 hours, French – 60), to Beefheart making the band practice the album for months in a secluded desert house before they could even record it. Looking at it that way, it seems they did record it in 9 hours after all.
…Don’s inventions of how long it took him to compose his double album masterpiece Trout Mask Replica (Beefheart said 9 hours, French — 60), to Beefheart making the band practice the album for months in a secluded desert house before they could record it. Looking at it that way, it seems they did record it in 9 hours after all.
A particularly fitting story is included in French’s liner notes for the posthumous release of Bat Chain Puller, about the way the title song was conceived. According to French, late for one of the recording sessions, Van Vliet called French to his old car parked in front of a studio on a very rainy day. When Beefheart rushed French into the car all wet, he told him: “Listen to the sound the windshield wipers are making – that is the beat I want!” And he got it.
Beefheart’s personal idiosyncrasies followed him throughout his musical career, and even after it ended. After recording his first album, Safe As Milk, Beefheart and the band were supposed to appear at one of the most important music festivals in rock history — Monterey Pop. A week before the appearance, Beefheart canceled it. The reason? One of the key players in the band, a certain Mr. Ry Cooder quit, which really emotionally shook Van Vliet. Everybody who appeared at the festival, from Janis Joplin to Jimi Hendrix made it big in every sense of the word while Beefheart remained a cult figure who many considered a genius.
…Beefheart and the band were supposed to appear at one of the most important music festivals in rock history — Monterey Pop. A week before the appearance, Beefheart canceled it…Everybody who appeared at the festival, from Janis Joplin to Jimi Hendrix made it big in every sense of the word while Beefheart remained a cult figure who many considered a genius.
After he quit playing music, Van Vliet simply stopped communicating with anybody he knew in the music world except Corbijn and French. But back in 2003 when French called Beefheart and told him that the Magic Band decided to get back together to play his music, Van Vliet simply slammed the phone on him. Next day his phone line was disconnected.
Success and recognition can have strange paths
Facts or fiction, most of the official Beefheart albums are critically regarded as some of the best in rock and roll history. Particularly Clear Spot —his quirky, soul-inflected album, and Trout Mask Replica — one of the most avant-garde rock albums ever made. They find their place on almost any serious ‘best of all time’ lists (former Sex Pistols and PIL frontman John Lydon considersTrout Mask Replica the greatest album of all time), but so did quite a few of his other albums.
While none of his albums had any respectable sales until Don Van Vliet’s untimely death in 2010 due to complications from multiple sclerosis (which seems to have forced him to quit music in the mid-80s). Along with the ever-increasing number of fans and music critics, Beefheart garnered quite a few renowned fans among cultural figures like Tom Waits and The Simpsons’ creator Matt Groening, both of whom wrote fitting tributes after Beefheart’s demise.
Now Don is like the bones in a watermelon /Or the seeds in a fish and you can see him /Through the blue smoke of a tramps fire /Is he still in #1129 at the Davenport Hotel /In Silo, Missouri? /No… you see my friend you /Will not find him there. He came from the clay and he has gone back…
Tom Waits, note for Captain Beefheart: Sun Zoom Spark – 1970-1972 box set
But while his musical and poetic talents never gained the larger success they deserved, his drawing and painting skills did. Since 1972 to 2017, Beefheart, under his ‘real’ name Don Van Vliet, participated or was given over 60 solo or group exhibitions, all duly recorded by a number of his still operating fan sites. Currently, his visual works curator, New York’s “Michael Werner Gallery,” lists his still valuable paintings starting at $12,500 and his drawings from $2,500.
All those ups and downs, spells of genius, and idiosyncrasies reflect perfectly in that Anton Corbijn photograph. While Captain Beefheart or Don Van Vliet is not here to tell us more, not that he would anyway, what he left behind as music, words, and images definitely speak louder than words ever could.