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Top 14 Reasons Why Captain Beefheart Was a True American Genius

Captain Beefheart, with the most legendary lineup of his Magic Band

Captain Beefheart, with the most legendary lineup of his Magic Band

[See also, "Captain Beefheart: The Legendary 1980 Profile by Lester Bangs" and "The Day Captain Beefheart Outsold the Beatles, the Stones and Pink Floyd"]

A Don Van Vliet Atomizer Air-bulb Invention

By Rob Chalfen

"We're matter - the stars are matter - but it doesn't matter"

14. a fine artist before he was a musician, after his musical career ended he resumed painting and achieved an international reputation.

13. at 11 had his own show sculpting animals on LA TV. Won a scholarship to study art in Europe, but his folks wouldn't let him go, as all artists were 'fags'. Folks moved to Lancaster to get him away from the decadent element. There he met Frank Zappa

12. saw Gregory Corso read in LA at 13.

11. with Zappa reconfigured R&B along lines of monster movie fanzines & MAD.

10. in the late 60s fused delta blues, beat poetics, Dada/Surrealist techniques, avant jazz, R&B & the kitchen sink into a metaphysics of the imagination that tore a giant hole in the ozone of pop-artistic possibility. Like an American Van Gogh he seemed to open up new landscapes of consciousness as much as of music.

9. claimed shamanistic & supernatural abilities; on one occasion the drummer in my band, following around Don & Dr John, witnessed the glass panes of a hotel lobby mysteriously turn opaque as they passed. He was a life-long defender of the rights of animals & wildlife.

8. ran his band as a sort of hothouse commune/cult of domineering personality, one veteran later describing the experience as "my Vietnam". He communicated musical ideas via cassettes of his piano playing, singing and late night whistlings over the phone. The musicians were then expected to transcribe these fragments verbatim, and assemble them perfectly into intricate 4-dimensional musical constructions.

7. he composed implausibly complex solo guitar pieces like modern acid madrigals

6. Zappa produced the Magic Band's masterpiece, Trout Mask Replica, in 1969, initially as a sort of Folkways-type anthropological field recording at the band's commune. Later Don insisted that it all be re-recorded in the studio, convinced that Zappa had been trying to do it on the cheap. (some of the home tapes made it onto the record anyway) . In the studio, he refused to wear phones, syncing his vocals with the band only via the faint leakage through the thick plate glass.

5. opening acts, in Boston at any rate, included Mississippi Fred McDowell, the NY Dolls, Larry Coryell, Bonnie Raitt/Dave Maxwell, Dr. John & a trained monkey vaudeville act. "Did you like the Dolls? Oh, balls!"

4. in the mid 70s he wandered in an aesthetic wilderness - his label dropped him, he fell in with some sharp operators connected with the band Bread (!) and tried to record 'safe' pop. His Magic band left him, and he toured with a pick up group. One older cat Ellis Horn had played clarinet with Lu Waters Jazz Band in the 40s and had a feature playing 'Sweet Georgia Brown" on an old albert-style clarinet, upturned at the bell. "He sucked up a cosmic particle into his horn," opined Don.

3. Zappa helped jumpstart his career, incorporating him into his touring ensemble, though complained Beefheart couldn't cut the arrangements. Several of Zappa's sidemen later defected to the Magic Band.

2. In 1976 I interviewed Stiv Bators of the Dead Boys, who very enthusiastically claimed Don as a key influence. "A case of the punks!"

1. his 1970 & 1982 music videos, both rejected by tv as too far out, are both in the collections of the Museum of Modern Art.