This past week Captain Beefheart and His Magic Band’s first record ‘Safe As Milk’ was re-released. Who was this man? Captain Beefheart and what was his story because few of us might never have heard about the man influenced greats like Tom Waits, PJ Harvey, The Clash, Nick Cave and on long distances Rock & Roll icon Bruce Springsteen. We ask ourselves, when we think of the 60’s and 70’s, why do we never hear of Captain Beefheart. Why is he not one of greats. Because he choose not to be and that’s what signified his music to change the face of the music industry for eternity and so forth.
Captain Beefheart also known as Don Van Vliet was born in 1941 and was raised in Glendale, California. He was an artist of his time and rumors claim that he started sculpting at the age of 6. At the age of 13, Don Vliet was offered a full art scholarship to an Art School in Europe but declined and had his parents move with him to the Mojave desert in order to find a better environment for inspiration.
Frank Zappa was one of Vliet’s older friends and at this time Vliet formed a band called The Magic Band. In a tribute to his greatest idols, Screamin’ Jay Hawkins and Howlin’ Wolf he named himself Captain Beefheart. Vliet’s Beefheart went from pursuing art into shaping that element in music through inspiration the old past masters of blues.
Beefheart had tremendous blues voice and his band soon became local heroes and as former guitarist of the band Doug Moon states: ‘Don could capture the sound of Howlin’ Wolf and Muddy Waters and recreate, not copy it. But recreate it to his own’. At this time the American Labels looked for a way to respond to the 'British Invasion' and they all saw potential in Captain Beefheart and His Magic Band, but no one could recreate Mick Jagger in Don Vliet. Instead the band headed into a darker form of Desert Blues/Rock that later became the influences of what the impact of Homme’s, 'The Dessert Sessions' and Stoner Rock genre came to be.
The Band moved to Los Angeles and recorded their first full length album. The Legendary ‘Safe As Milk’ and on this production famous blues guitarist Ry Cooder had replaced Doug Moon. At this time the band headed even darker into influences and Cooder describes Vliet’s vision:
‘His vision was to take the raw blues elements of John Lee Hooker and Howlin Wolf’ and tear it down so raw that you just would have a sound. Just a grunt maybe and you would add something abstract. You would add the John Coltrane, crazy time signature free Jazz on a Coleman thing and then Hybridize it together, which was a great idea’.
At this time the record company had a large idea around Captain Beefheart and as a proof of their capability, the band was about to get introduced on the Monterey Pop Festival. A Festival that had helped Jimi Hendrix, Otis Redding and Janis Joplin among others. Vliet, suffered from hard anxiety problems at this time and the concert ended in chaos and the commercial idea around Beefheart and his band was lost for a very long time.
It was at this time that Don Vliet and the Magic Band started to work on a new album. The audience was somewhat people rejected by hippies. The one’s who were to strange and they suited well into the Beefheart phenomenon. Don Vliet and his band was locked into a house for 8 moths rehearsing an album that came to be ‘Trout Mask Replica’ and the members of the band weren’t even able to go to the store to by food. It was a dictatorship in which the dictator or mastermind was Don Vliet’s Captain Beefheart composing an album that was recorded as a live session.
The ‘Trout Mask Replica’ was not just touching the brilliance it was among many musicians and fans in particular the best album ever made at this time. It had the best parts of all the genres Vliet tried to reach within; Blues, Rock and Jazz and the experiment did not stop with ‘Trout Mask Replica’ it continued with the controversial album called ‘Lick My Decals Off Baby’ which contained a tv-spot in an extreme artistic way that was refused by audiences. It was even asked to be taken off the air.
After ‘Lick My Decals Off Baby’, Captain Beefheart left the dessert and moved to Santa Cruz in California and this was the period where Don Vliet realized he did not make well profits from being a musician. People and the record labels never really counted on The Captain Beefheart albums to sell well, but they all loved it’s concept. In this transformation to an easier form of blues.
It was also at this time that Vliet started to market himself as a serious artist and establish himself as a painter through several exhibitions. He also declared a love for the Black/White Television medium and his art could be seen through his Cover Art. Captain Beefheart had reached it’s highest commercial break in the history of the band but many fans was dissapointed in Vliet’s later compositions.
After a long term of legal argues Captain Beefheart returned to the studio with a new version of younger musicians in his Magic Band and recorded the three albums that brought the brilliance back to Vliet’s vision. The three albums ‘The Shiny Beast (Bat Chain Puller)’, ‘Doc At The Radar Station’ and ‘Ice Cream for Crow’ was the last pieces we got see with Captain Beefheart and His Magic Band. It was after this commercial and critic success that Beefheart decided to transform himself into focusing more onto his art in order to be recognized as an artistic painter rather than a musician that paints.
Vliet is today a well recognized painter who has pursued great art and is well known in the art societies. It is also clear that Vliet suffers from some form of illness that has made him wheel cheer bound. Still Vliet’s music in form of Captain Beefheart and His Magic Band lives on and has clearly been one of the greatest inspirations in experimental Jazz, Rock and most of all blues that has shaped many artists such as the alternative genres of Rock & Roll as it took it’s shape into become a mix of The Rhythm and Blues in the Rolling Stones as to the Stone Rock Universe of Josh Homme and later influenced Grunge/Rock artist Dave Grohl. As the BBC DJ, John Peel stated: "If there has ever been such a thing as a genius in the history of popular music, it's Beefheart…I heard echoes of his music in some of the records I listened to last week and I'll hear more echoes in records that I listen to this week."
Don Van Vliet or Captain Beefheart was driven by his musical vision. On a borderline between genius and imbalanced he composed together a new genre of Blues/Rock/Jazz that came to be the underground of Psychedelic Rock in 1960’s. He’s music is a source for the experimental greatness we all witness today and that’s why he’s worth his genius and the recognition above all.
Sources for this article comes from: ‘The Artist Formely Known As Captain Beefheart’ BBC Television Documentary from 1994, England, ‘Captain Beefheart Biography: Rolling Stone Encyclopedia Of Rock & Roll’ (Simon & Schuster, 2001) and Allmusic.com: Captain Beefheart: Biography.