Captain Beefheart & His Magic Band

Captain Beefheart And His Magic BandFrom: Los Angeles, CA

Captain Beefheart was born Donald Glen Vliet (he later styled himself Don Van Vliet) on January 15 1941 to impoverished parents at Glendale, California. He had little time for formal education, claiming later: “If you want to be a different fish, you got to jump out of the school.” But from an early age he displayed artistic ability and, according to his own account, was offered a full scholarship at a European art school at the age of 13 by a local dairy, an offer his parents refused on the ground that all artists were ”queer”.

The family later moved to the inhospitable Mojave Desert, where Don found himself at Antelope Valley High School with another of rock’s great outsiders, Frank Zappa. They formed a lasting, if fractious, friendship and owed much to each other musically, though who owed what to whom was the source of several public spats between them. Their first schoolboy ventures together were a doo-wop opera called I Was A Teenage Maltshop and a film called Captain Beefheart and the Grunt People, which was to give Van Vliet his nom de guerre.

Don Van Vliet did not become professionally active in music until he was in his mid-20s. In the meantime he held down various jobs, including selling vacuum cleaners door-to-door. He would later claim that he tried to sell one to Aldous Huxley, who lived in the area; when Huxley answered his door, Van Vliet proffered the cleaner with the words: “This machine sucks.”

Although he had no formal musical training, he had a passion for the blues, a desperate desire to perform and a distinctive voice. After searching out what he called some “desert musicians”, he put together the first Magic Band and cut a version of Bo Diddley’s Diddy Wah Diddy for A&M Records. It became a minor local hit. On guitar the band featured the 19-year-old Ry Cooder, and throughout his career Beefheart demonstrated an ability to attract band members of the highest quality. A subsequent album of material, however, was rejected by Jerry Moss of A&M Records as being “too negative”. “It wouldn’t be good for my daughter,” he added.

It was later released on Buddah Records as Safe As Milk, and today enjoys a reputation close to that of Trout Mask Replica. Far more conventionally rooted in the blues than later Magic Band material, Beefheart’s vocal performance on the record is often compared to Howlin’ Wolf.

During the recording of the song Electricity, Beefheart’s singing allegedly destroyed a $1,200 studio microphone. Although its admirers included John Lennon and much of the music press, particularly in Britain, Safe As Milk made no commercial impact.

The follow-up, Strictly Personal, featured an excess of fashionable psychedelic post-production effects which tended to obscure the increasingly radical direction of the band. Never short on inventive self-publicity, Beefheart claimed to have gone without sleep for the entire year preceding the album’s recording, then to have composed and recorded it after a 24-hour nap. It too, however, was a commercial disaster, and amid bitter recriminations Beefheart and the Magic Band were dropped by their record label.

They were saved from the wilderness by Beefheart’s old friend Zappa, who offered him a deal at Straight Records, part of the Warner Bros stable. The result was Trout Mask Replica. The story of its evolution was again the subject of Beefheart’s fondness for wild self-mythologising.

According to one version, he composed the entire album in a single eight-and-a-half-hour session. More credible accounts from other members of the group have it that Beefheart and his Magic Band sidemen, Jeff Cotton, Victor Haydon, Mark Boston, John French and Bill Harkleroad, sequestered themselves in a rented house at Woodland Hills, above Los Angeles, for eight months while they wrote, arranged and rehearsed for up to 16 hours a day.

Unable to read or write music, Beefheart developed a method for imparting his constant output of musical ideas to other band members. They were taught to be on hand with a tape recorder day and night in case inspiration struck. Beefheart would then pick out parts with a single finger on a piano, or whistle them (his party trick was whistling bebop solos whilst blowing smoke rings).

Sometimes he would merely describe what he wanted; one guitar part was required to sound like “Fred Astaire dangling through a tea cup”. John French, who had to interpret and transcribe the songs, claimed that the process “nearly drove me nuts”.

Relationships within the band were fraught, and Beefheart’s enormous force of personality bordered on the tyrannical. Band members subsequently claimed that they were more or less imprisoned by him and deprived of food and sleep. Cigarettes had to be smoked “the Beefheart way” — that is, held vertically at all times to display the smoker’s intelligence.

When one band member drew a gun on him, Beefheart ordered him to his room in disgrace. At Beefheart’s insistence, the band members were renamed on the Trout Mask Replica album cover as Antennae Jimmy Semens, The Mascara Snake, Rockete Morton, Drumbo and Zoot Horn Rollo.

Unsurprisingly, members came and went frequently. In the mid-1970s Jeff Morris Tepper, who played guitar on later Beefheart albums, was accused of listening to so many Beatles records that he was “humming ‘C’ in the middle of his head”. Beefheart’s solution was to confine him to a cupboard for three hours while ceaselessly playing Red Cross Store by Mississippi John Hurt through the door until he “really heard it”.

A Magic Band drummer given a tape of drum parts to learn found himself listening to the sound of Beefheart and his wife washing up, which “percussive activity” he was expected to render musically.

Beefheart’s output remained high throughout the 1970s, during which he toured widely in America and Europe. But the quality of his recordings was increasingly uneven. Lick My Decals Off, Baby milked the same vein as Trout Mask Replica, but Beefheart made some concessions to popular tastes with subsequent offerings such as The Spotlight Kid and Clear Spot.

Unconditionally Guaranteed, which featured the Captain proffering a fistful of dollars on the cover, was a particularly shameless bid for the commercial success which was always to elude his music. ”For my whole life they’ve repeated to me that I’m a genius,” he once complained. “But in the meantime they’ve also taught the public that my music is too difficult to listen to.”

His Magic Band left en masse in the wake of Unconditionally Guaranteed, and Beefheart recorded a still worse offering — Blue Jeans and Moonbeams — with session musicians. He then exhorted his fans to return the record to the shop and demand their money back.

In 1978, however, with a new Magic Band and the help of Frank Zappa, Beefheart returned to form with the album Shiny Beast (Bat Chain Puller), which included much reworking of his earlier material. His 12th and last album, the excellent Ice Cream for Crow, was released in 1982.

Thereafter Beefheart abandoned music entirely and retired with his wife to a reclusive existence in the Mojave Desert, where he devoted himself to painting. He abandoned his assumed identity, saying: “It makes me itch to think of myself as Captain Beefheart. I don’t even have a boat.”

His untaught, abstract style of painting proved far more commercially successful than his music had ever been, and his work has been exhibited around the world, commanding high prices on the international market. He remained addicted to the gnomic utterance, as in: “Talking about different art forms is like counting raindrops. There are rivers and streams and oceans, but it’s all the same substance.”

For all his pretensions, Van Vliet retained the admiration of Bill Harkleroad (aka Zoot Horn Rollo), the guitarist on his most innovative records, who wrote in 1998: “He took credit for everything and he was full of s*** on that count. But was he super-creative? Absolutely. Did he teach me how to play guitar? No. Did he influence how I played guitar? More than anybody.”

Amongst those who have cited Captain Beefheart as an influence are Tom Waits and PJ Harvey, while devotees include Woody Allen, Matt Groening (creator of The Simpsons) and the film director David Lynch.

Van Vliet had been suffering for many years from multiple sclerosis. He spent his last years in a house with attached studio on the Pacific Ocean at Trinidad, California, which he shared with his wife, Jan, whom he married in 1970.  He died in 2010.

~  Excerpt from an article in The Telegraph 12/19/2010

Tracks played on Psychedelicized…

From the 1965 single “Diddy Wah Diddy”
Diddy Wah Diddy

  • Diddy Wah Diddy

From the 1967 album Safe As Milk
Captain Beefheart And His Magic Band - Safe As Milk

  • Abba Zaba
  • Autumn’s Child
  • Call On Me
  • Dropout Boogie
  • Electricity
  • Grown So Ugly
  • I’m Glad
  • Plastic Factory
  • Sure ‘Nuff  ‘N Yes I Do
  • Where There’s Woman
  • Yellow Brick Road
  • Zig Zag Wanderer

From the 1968 album Strictly Personal
Strictly Personal

  • Ah Feel Like Ahcid
  • Safe as Milk [Take 5]
  • Son of Mirror Man – Mere Man

From the 1969 album Trout Mask Replica

  • Ella Guru
  • Hair Pie Bake 2
  • Veteran’s Day Poppy