Captain Beefheart (Don van Vliet) 1941-2010

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Captain Beefheart (Don van Vliet) 1941-2010

On Friday I returned home to the sad news that Captain Beefheart (Don Van Vliet) had died, reportedly from complications from multiple schlerosis. He would have been 70 next month.
For me Captain Beefheart is one of the big guys, one of the major players. His influence is widespread and many of my favourite bands would not exist without him. I go through periods where I listen to his music over and over, sometimes I go a few weeks without hearing him at all, but he is never far from the top of my listening choices.
The Captain hadn't recorded any significant new music since 1982, so it is easy for anyone under 40 to miss him altogether. I was always distantly aware of the name, but as a teenage boy I found the dodgy humour of his school friend and collaborator Frank Zappa of interest to me.
However, whilst I was immersed in new and experimental music at university, I discovered his work by accident on a night out. I was in a taxi with a friend and the driver was playing his own music, not just the local radio. A song came on which was so beautiful yet it had something jarring, something that made you want to hear it again and again to work out what was going on. The song was 'Her Eyes Are A Blue Million Miles' from Beefheart's 1972 album Clear Spot and within a few days I had found a vinyl copy in Belfast's Good Vibrations record shop. It was the first Beefheart album I got and it's still my favourite. Some Trout Mask Replica devotees often sneer at my choice of fave Beefheart album as too mainstream (it's produced by Ted Templeman who went on work with Van Halen and Aerosmith amongst others), but it's actually the perfect way in to his world.
There are some conventional pop/rock songs (Too Much Time), some jerky time signatures (Sun Zoom Spark), some dadaist poetry (Golden Birdies) and some freeform guitar noise (Big Eyed Beans From Venus). After Clear Spot the floodgates opened and I explored his other work, embracing it all, always intrigued and rarely disappointed. Even the maligned Blue Jeans and Moonbeams starts with a beaut in Observatory Crest.

It is of course Trout Mask Replica that people hold up as the career highlight, the album to judge him by. What I'm trying to say is that there are other ways in to his work, and I would encourage anyone who is put off by TMR to dig deeper. I love Trout Mask Replica but every time I hear it I am reminded of Brian Eno's comment about it - "they sound like they never heard music before." So perceptive.
Not only did it stretch the boundaries of 'rock' music, but it played a major part in creating today's post-punk post-rock music world. Lester Bangs said that Beefheart was the most important artist to emerge from the '60s, more important than the Beatles, and he has a point. I know who I listen to more.
Captain Beefheart, (or Don Van Vliet) was a unique musician and artist. He had a prodigious talent for sculpture and won a scholarship to Europe when he was just 13, although he didn't take it up as his family relocated to the mojave desert. He also made more money from painting than he ever did from his music, though it is for the latter he will be remembered. With the Magic Band he was able to pull apart and reassemble the very structure of rock music and to follow his own vision. We can only hope to find someone with such a singular vision again.

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