Everybody underrates the late, great Don Van Vliet & His Magic Band.
Don Van Vliet, owner of an impressive multi-octave vocal range, was also a brilliant lyrical artist & accomplished painter. Comparisons to Frank Zappa seem inevitable, but really they miss the mark when it comes to their art. CB&HMB made music that sounds like nobody else, and yet has influenced countless artists.
In Captain Beefheart & his Magic Band, the words & music are deeply intense in meaning & intent. It is often jarring how they penetrate the listener in such odd & angular ways.
CB is demanding music; not for the feint of heart. Don Van Vliet was a non-musician, creating his own version of musical art. He was contentious with all musicians he worked with, due to his limited training & understanding of musical theory. Vliet dictated his experimentalist vision and collaborated with a group of extremely talented musicians (many of them artists in their own right) to fuse elements blues, free jazz, poetry, and even punk rock–years before the term existed. Some of these gifted musicians (with Beefheart names in parenthesis) include:
Drummer John French (Drumbo), who provided much of the stability and framework that allowed CB’s avant garde experiments to work. Alex St. Claire, Doug Moon, Bill Harkleroad (Zoot Horn Rollo), Jeff Cotton (Antennae Jimmy Semens), Denny Walley, and Jeff Morris Tepper on guitars. Eric Drew Feldman on synths and bass. Art Tripp (Ed Marimba) on percussion and vibes. Mark Boston (Rockette Morton) and Victor Hayden (the Mascara Snake) on bass. CB&HMB were versatile, from loose jams to tight set pieces, in the studio and live.
The most authentic biographical account of CB&HMB is drummer John French’s Beefheart: Through the Eyes of Magic. In it, the entire Beefheart period, from the very beginnings in 1965 to the end in 1982, with Ice Cream for Crow, is chronicled by the remaining living participants. Don Van Vliet, who was always notoriously unreliable in his accounts, was afflicted with multiple sclerosis in the 1990’s, until his death in December of 2010.
John (Drumbo) French was Don Van Vliet’s primary musical director from 1966-1980. He describes Don Van Vliet’s songwriting in this way:
If Van Vliet built a house like he wrote music, the methodology would go something like this. He would get an idea for a house… sketched on the back of a Denny’s placemat in such an odd fashion that when he presents it to the contractor without plans or research, the contractor says, “This structure is going to be hard to build, it’s going to be tough to make it safe and stable because it is so unique in design.”
Van Vliet then yells at the contractor and intimidates him into doing the job anyway. The contractor builds the home, figuring out all the intricacies in structural integrity himself, because whenever he approaches Van Vliet he finds him completely unable to comprehend technical problems. He simply yells, “Quit asking me this stuff and build the damned house.” If he shows up on site almost nothing gets done except everyone talks a lot about things that have nothing to do with finishing the house.
When the house is finished no one gets paid and Van Vliet has a housewarming party. He invites none of the builders and tells his guests that be built the whole thing himself. [p815-16]
John French’s account raises serious questions about how far people are willing to go (in terms of tolerance of abuse), in the name of art. His book desperately needs an editor, but the insider accounts of Captain Beefheart & his Magic Band must be taken as authentic, at this point.
Don Van Vliet’s best defence is the fact that their music was systematically marginalized by mainstream radio and early MTV. The indignation and lack of respect he must have felt from his record companies (who always found a reason to not promote him) was passed on through Vliet to his musical companions, whom he often used and discarded as needed.
More than anything, CB&HMB were victims of being too far ahead of their time. Even today, much of this music would be considered “weird”, or at least beyond the mainstream palette of taste. There is a child-like quality to this art while maintaining its fierce intelligence and uncompromising nature. With CB&HMB, the intensity can often be felt as well as heard.
Ant Man Bee: The bee takes the honey and sets the flower free/ but in God’s garden man and ant won’t set each other bee Trout Mask Replica (1969)
Ashtray Heart: Stood behind the curtain, while they crushed me out/You used me, for an ashtray heart Doc at the Radar Station (1980)
Dirty Blue Gene: She’s not bad/ she’s just ge-ne-tic-ally mean Doc at the Radar Station (1980)
Long Neck Bottles: [one of the all-time great drinking songs that you have never heard Clear Spot (1972)]
Click Clack An all-time classic train song, where Beefheart pours his love & derision out; all at the same time The Spotlight Kid (1972)
Everyone one of his records from 1965-1982 (even the sub-par Unconditionally Guaranteed and Bluejeans & Moonbeams), needs to be experienced. They are all truly magical.