Awesome Men Throughout History: Captain Beefheart
I mentioned Captain Beefheart in last week’s Awesome Men Throughout History column, and just now realized that the comparison I made to Sly Stone wouldn’t make a whole lot of sense without some context. To that end, this week’s column will be about Captain Beefheart, who blended psychedelic and blues-based rock music with avant-garde composition to great effect, and who was also somewhat unhinged, mythologizing himself as much as possible while running his band like a cult. As such, he’s kind of a hard guy to profile, but I shall do my best.
Beefheart was born Don van Vliet in Glendale, California, and was something of an artistic prodigy, although he claimed that his parents discouraged his artistic interests (namely sculpting) because they thought artists were “queer.” Vliet’s fancies turned to music, specifically the blues, after his family moved to Lancaster, California, and he met fellow weirdo/future collaborator Frank Zappa through the local music scene. Zappa got the shy and socially awkward Vliet comfortable with performing and recording, and Vliet formed the Magic Band in the early 1960s, adopting the stage name Captain Beefheart around that same time.
Beefheart’s reputation for weirdness on all fronts really took off during the 1960s. His lyrics were blasts of surreal poetry delivered in a rambling growl (although Beefheart had a surprising vocal range), the music backing them was an increasingly noisy, barbaric din of blues rock and experimental instrumentation (think polyrhythms and lots of counterpoint), and his musicians had crazy names and wore special costumes and masks. This was decades before Slipknot, keep in mind.
At their weirdest, the Magic Band sounded like three really good, but very different, bands that had all been pushed down a flight of stairs at the same time – they were too weird for everyone, including the counterculture, with Beefheart at the helm.
And that’s just the music. During the creation of his 1969 album Trout Mask Replica, Beefheart forced his band to live communally in a two-bedroom house and practice for up to 14 hours a day. He didn’t allow them to leave the house, encouraged them to beat the crap out of each other, berated them for days on end, and kept them all so poor that they got arrested for shoplifting food, forcing Frank Zappa to bail them out. People visiting the band’s house described the environment as “positively Mansonesque.”
Was Beefheart a totalitarian asshole who’d spent too much time researching brainwashing techniques at the public library, or had he just blown his brains so far out of his head with LSD that he’d lost touch with reality? Or was he, as he told a few members of his band, a paranoid schizophrenic who couldn’t be controlled by anyone? To be honest, I can’t really say. Considering what he was trying to achieve with his music, those almost seem like irrelevant questions. And Beefheart can’t answer them now anyway; he retired from music in the 1980s, took up painting again, and made almost no public appearances until his death from multiple sclerosis in 2010.
Two things can be said about Captain Beefheart, when all’s said and done. The first is that he had a truly unique vision of what music was, and also what it could be. The second is that truly unique visions aren’t always pretty, although they are fun to talk about.
I’ll leave you with a sample of Beefheart’s music, so you can decide for yourself whether he was a genius or not.
About Dave Kiefaber Dave Kiefaber is a Baltimore-based writer who regularly contributes to Adfreak and the Gettysburg Times. His personal website is at www.beeohdee.blogspot.com.