From DJ and KCRW Music Librarian Eric J Lawrence:
We learned today of the passing of rock icon and acclaimed painter Don Van Vliet, aka Captain Beefheart at the age of 69, due to complications from multiple sclerosis. I don’t use the term “rock icon” lightly, despite the fact that he may be the least heard rock icon in the pantheon, but that’s due to the uncompromising nature of his work, the non-“radio-friendly” sound of his surreal, mind-bending records.
You’re not likely to ever hear his songs on oldies radio stations, despite a regional hit in Southern California in the mid-60s and 12 album-strong discography that includes one selected by Rolling Stone magazine as one of the 500 greatest albums of all time (1969’s Trout Mask Replica, ranked at #58). And despite the fact that he had retired from the music industry after the release of his final album in 1982, his influence remains as strong as ever, with echoes in the music of artists such as Beck, XTC, Sonic Youth, Franz Ferdinand and many others.
Growing up in Southern California during the middle of the 20th century, Beefheart was drawn to art at an early age, both in terms of painting (where he was considered a child prodigy) and music, specifically Delta-blues and avant-jazz. His early association with fellow musical iconoclast Frank Zappa seemed to show a path within pop music to practice his particular brand of expression. By the time of Trout Mask Replica’s release, he had collected a talented group of musicians, dubbed “the Magic Band,” who were drilled in the complex arrangements their taskmaster of a bandleader insisted upon.
After a fallow period in the mid-70s, Beefheart came back strong with a final trio of albums, concluding with 1982’s Ice Cream for Crow. He then switched his focus to his painting and drawing, where he also made a name for himself as an artist loosely described as working in an abstract expressionist style. But like everything else he did, it was undeniably unique and the product of a forward-thinking mind.
Trout Mask Replica, while generally regarded as Beefheart’s masterpiece, still remains a difficult listen. I will admit I haven’t yet found the occasion to listen to it all the way through in a single sitting (hey, it’s a double album!), but its density and intensity may be best appreciated in smaller doses anyways. That said, its follow-up, 1970’s Lick My Decals Off, Baby, is a personal favorite – I find it puts the manic energy of its predecessor in a more familiar pop song setting. Sadly out of print, it fetches big bucks on the used market.
For neophytes looking for a place to start a discovery of this musical pioneer’s catalog, I recommend his penultimate album, 1980’s Doc at the Radar Station, which possibly best matches Beefheart’s hypnotically surreal poetry with sympathetic, dynamic playing from the later version of his Magic Band. Rhino Records’ 1999 double-disc retrospective, The Dust Blows Forward, is another great place to start. But his rich and ground-breaking music is a discovery well worth taking, and despite the fact that he had been out of the musical spotlight for nearly 30 years, his presence will be greatly missed.
ERIC J. LAWRENCE