Captain Beefheart: The Legendary 1980 Profile by Lester Bangs

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Fri, Dec 17, 2010 at 9:56 PM

click to enlarge Captain Beefheart artwork for Doc at the Radar Station album ad (1980)
  • Captain Beefheart artwork for Doc at the Radar Station album ad (1980)
[As we reported this afternoon, Captain Beefheart, Don Van Vliet, died today at 69. We already posted a list of the "Top 14 Reasons Why Captain Beefheart Was a True American Genius" by Beefheartologist Rob Chalfen. You can think of that list as The Cliff's Notes version (or the cocktail-party-conversation-ready summary) about the genius and accomplishment of this great artist.

But we're sure you wanna read more about Captain Beefheart and so we've dug up, from the archives of Village Voice Media, the legendary 1980 profile by Lester Bangs--the best rock journalist of the golden age of rock journalism-- of his friend Don Van Vliet.

Warning: this is not a quick read. It comes to us from an era when people took their reading and writing about culture a little more leisurely. So make yourself a cup of coffee, power up the iPad or whatever gadget you're using, and enjoy Lester Bang's thoughtful, romantic, inimitably engaged prose paying homage to the game-changer musician who left the world today.]

[See also "The Day Captain Beefheart Outsold the Beatles, the Stones and Pink Floyd",]

He's Alive, But So Is Paint. Are You?

by Lester Bangs

Village Voice, October 1980

Don Van Vliet is a 39-year-old man who lives with his wife Jan in a trailer in the Mojave Desert. They have very little money, so it must be pretty hard on them sometimes, but I've never heard them complain. Don Van Vliet is better known as Captain Beefheart, a legend worldwide whom the better part of a generation of New Wave rock 'n' roll bands' have cited as one of their most important spiritual and musical forefathers: John Lydon/Rotten, Joe Strummer of the Clash, Devo, Pere Ubu, and many others have attested to growing up on copies of Van Vliet's 1969 album Trout Mask Replica, playing its four sides of discordant yet juicy swampbrine jambalaya roogalator over and over again until they knew whole bits - routines out of his lyrics, which are a wild and totally original form of free-associational poetry.

There are some of us who think he is one of the giants of 20th century music, certainly of the postwar era.

He has never been to music school, and taught himself to play about half a dozen instruments including soprano sax, bass clarinet, harmonica, guitar, piano, and most recently mellotron. He sings in seven and a half octaves, and his style has been compared to Howlin' Wolf and several species of primordial beasts. His music, which he composes for ensemble and then literally teaches his bands how to play, is often atonal but always swings in a way that very little rock ever has. His rhythmic concept is unique.

I hear Delta blues, free jazz, field hollers, rock 'n' roll and lately something new that I can't put my finger on but relates somehow to what they call "serious" music. You'll probably hear several other things.

This is going to be a profile partially occasioned by the release of his 12th (and best since 1972's Clear Spot) album, Doc at the Radar Station. This is also going to be, and I hesitate mightily to say this because I hate those articles where the writer brays how buddybuddy he is with the rock stars, about someone I have long considered a friend and am still only beginning to feel I understand after 11 years. Which is perhaps not so long a time to take to be able to say that you have learned anything about anyone.

Meanwhile, back in the Mojave Desert, Don Van Vliet is enjoying a highly urbane, slyly witty (anecdotes and repartee litter the lunar sands like sequins 'n' confetti on the floor of a Halloween disco), and endlessly absorbing conversation with a gila monster.

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