When I was a kid, Captain Beefheart seemed about as underground as you could get. You wouldn’t hear him on pop 40 radio. You had to tune in late at night to a free-form college station. Or have a misfit friend, as I did, who could recite lyrics from Trout Mask Replica as if he were channeling Tristan Tzara.
So it was fitting this morning at 2 a.m. that I awoke to the sound of a very proper BBC news reader announcing that the “avant-garde rock musician Captain Beefheart has died at age 69.” I heard it every half hour until 6 a.m. I felt chagrined. I didn’t know Captain Beefheart was still around. I hadn’t heard his music in 40 years.
I learned later from an NPR story about him that Don Van Vliet had stopped performing as Captain Beefheart and the Magic Band in 1982, when he was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. He withdrew from public life but continued to pursue a passion for painting. His experience with MS seemed to soften the outrageous rocker’s harder edges, judging from the a sound bite from a 1993 documentary: “The way I keep in touch with the world is very gingerly because the world touches too hard.”
According to the NYT obit,
Captain Beefheart’s music career stretched from 1966 to 1982, and from straight rhythm and blues by way of the early Rolling Stones to music that sounded like a strange uncle of post-punk. He is probably best known for “Trout Mask Replica,” a double album from 1969 with his Magic Band.
A bolt-from-the-blue collection of precise, careening, surrealist songs with clashing meters, brightly imagistic poetry and raw blues shouting, “Trout Mask Replica” had particular resonance with the punk and new wave generation to come a decade later, influencing bands like Devo, the Residents, Pere Ubu and the Fall.
Mr. Van Vliet’s life story is caked with half-believable tales, some of which he himself spread in Dadaist, elliptical interviews. He claimed he had never read a book and had never been to school, and answered questions with riddles. “We see the moon, don’t we?” he asked in a 1969 interview. “So it’s our eye. Animals see us, don’t they? So we’re their animals.”
Encore: The 1993 documentary was called “Don Van Vliet: Some Yoyo Stuff.” See it on Ubuweb.