Mr. Van Vliet, whose music as Captain Beefheart has thrilled dozens of musicologists and assorted weirdoes since the mid-Sixties, has crossed the river, he has returned to the Cosmic Mother, to wit, he has died. I am one of the weirdoes, I love the guy. A sweet man, and a transcendental artist in two media, may he rest in peace. He has earned it, not like most people.
Don leaves a vast catalog of fabulous music in a long string of albums and lots of live bootlegs. I use the term “fabulous” advisedly. Much of it was considered “difficult.” But a bit of it was quite accessible, considered by some critics to be attempts at being commercial. Somehow I can’t imagine Don trying to make a commercial success. His influences were so broad that it just came out that way sometimes. This morning I described one of the “commercial” cuts as “cosmic wind blowing through the Temple of Reverb.” (“Zig Zag Heart.”) How commercial does that sound to you?
He did not walk the earth like you and me, he did not look out onto the vistas that present themselves to us. Whatever he did, he was channeling the eternal truth, which was where he lived. I met him one time while I was working for the long defunct record store chain “Licorice Pizza” in Los Angeles in the late Seventies. He was totally charming, and very polite, but distinctly other-worldly. He appeared not as a conventional human being, but rather like some kind of homunculus that had been inserted into our society by powers that we don’t understand. I asked him to sign the back of my white, short sleeved dress shirt, as big as possible, with a magic marker that I provided. He was very gracious, and happily acted like my request had really made his day. He flattered me that it was a pretty original idea and he told me to be careful not to wash it off, I told him not to worry. I still have the shirt. On that occasion he appeared comfortable in our world, but not quite of it. Some of the other guys had him sign albums, they’re probably on e-bay as we speak.
There are artists whose work we can appreciate without fully understanding it. My usual example is the Sixteenth Century Netherlandish artist, Hieronymus Bosch. Bosch is known for a great number of large religious paintings, used as alter pieces at the time. The compositions take the form of biblical allegories, they are encyclopedic depictions of things like “The Last Judgment,” or “Paradise.” They are disquieting, they are populated by strange beings and demons, and they can be very odd and sometimes horrific. They were commissioned at great cost by the church and painted at a time when the memory of the Black Plague was still relatively fresh in people’s minds, and death and the after-life were great concerns to people of that time. Within a hundred years or so they were consigned to museums because the churches, and their adherents, began to feel that the paintings were a bit too much. The great Art Historian, Bernard Berenson, in his still taught work, “Early Netherlandish Painting,” left Bosch out altogether, noting that “this, too high for my wit, I prefer to omit.” Artists like Captain Beefheart, and the Japanese musician Cornelius, have a similar effect on people.
What can the earthbound music writers really say about Beef? Most of them stick to safe endorsements of “Trout Mask Replica,” an obscure but obviously successful intellectual exercise, while they refer to “fallow periods” with releases of those more “commercial” efforts. I don’t think they get it at all, and they are not as secure in their critical faculties as Mr. Berenson was. At least he acknowledged his failure to understand.
For my money, “Clear Spot” is the high-water mark. Sure you can dance to it, but it’s an intellectual challenge as well. Not that I’m any expert, and I do feel a little sheepish about criticizing the critics, I just know what I like, and I like Captain Beefheart. I’m sorry that he died, and I hope that he didn’t suffer too much. The worlds of music and painting will miss him, if they take any notice at all. It’s a shame too, the man was a saint, and his music certainly puts the lie to the crap that sells.