Yesterday late afternoon it was announced that Don Van Vliet, AKA Captain Beefheart, had shuffled off this mortal coil at the age of 69. He would in fact have been 70 years old next month. It hit me hard; not that I had actually thought about him in quite some time, but he was the absolute favorite artist of my ex-boyfriend in the 70's and I got to know and love his work as one does when one is in love - by assimilating everything the lover is into. In this case it meant Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers movies, Ornette Coleman, Sun Ra, and the Captain. To me his passing feels like yet another nail driven into the coffin of my childhood. I'm frankly astounded to see the word Beefheart trending on Twitter today; what's next is highly trafficked entertainment media will be canvassing quotes from celebs on what he meant to them, places that wouldn't have ever covered his work while he was alive. But I digress; that's not what is important right now. If in fact it ever would be.
I was especially fond of Golden Birdies from the album Clear Spot (in fact I loved that entire record, arguably his most commercial ever - most would point to Trout Mask Replica as the piece de resistance. (I confess I still don't understand TMR - time to revisit). Here's a brilliant comic strip by Mary Fleener with the lyrics of Golden Birdies and you can hear it here. Ah, webcore webcore. Not to mention Sssh Sookie Singabus. Beefheart was like jazz - I didn't understand it but I felt it deep down in a place that was rarely gotten to.
Thanks to the wisdom of one Miriam Linna, who helms the redoubtable Norton Records along with Billy Miller, I found this incredible clip from - of all things - American Bandstand in 1966, where one of the teens calls Captain Beefheart on the Hot Line and attempts to interview him before they play a recording of a bluesy, fierce Diddy Wah Diddy for the kids on the dance floor. It's so very special. Please to enjoy.
For a real taste of CB and his Magic Band, take a look at Ice Cream for Crow, a 1982 music video filmed in the Mojave Desert (cinematography by Texas Chainsaw Massacre DP Daniel Pearl) which Beefheart directed and which was rejected by MTV as too weird. It's now in the permanent Film and Video Collection at the Museum of Modern Art.
The late Lester Bangs wrote: Now if (Captain Beefheart's work) isn't pure true American folklore then you can throw everything from Washington Irving to Carl Sandburg and beyond in the garbage. I'm saying Don Van Vliet ... is on that level. (Note: Thanks to RWG)
Rob Harvilla wrote yesterday in the Village Voice: There was no one on earth remotely like him. We were lucky to have even the one.
In the mid-90's Beefheart gave band member Moris Tepper a list called The Ten Commandments of Guitar Playing which was replicated in John McCormick's book Rolling Stone's Alt-Rock-A Rama. More than anything else I've read since his passing, it gives a clear picture of the man and his crazy glorious brilliance.
THE TEN COMMANDMENTS OF GUITAR PLAYING as given to moris tepper by captain beefheart. they are not arranged hierarchically - each commandment has equal import. also, to help clarify their intent, each commandment is followed by an exegesis.
LISTEN TO THE BIRDS
that's where all the music comes from. birds know everything about how it should sound and where that sound should come from. and watch humming-birds. they fly really fast, but a lot of times they aren't going anywhere.
YOUR GUITAR IS NOT REALLY A GUITAR
your guitar is a divining rod. use it to find spirits in the other world and bring them over. a guitar is also a fishing rod. if you're good, you'll land a big one.
PRACTICE IN FRONT OF A BUSH
wait until the moon is out, then go outside, eat a multi-grained bread and play your guitar to a bush. if the bush doesn't shake, eat another piece of bread.
WALK WITH THE DEVIL
old delta blues players referred to amplifiers as 'the devil box'. and they were right. you have to be an equal opportunity employer in terms of who you're bringing over from the other side. electricity attracts devils and demons. [so now you know what you are, dear visitor of this page!] other instruments attract other spirits. an acoustic guitar attracts caspar, the ghost. a mandolin attracts wendy. but an electric guitar attracts beelzebub.
IF YOU'RE GUILTY OF THINKING, YOU'RE OUT
if your brain is part of the process, you're missing it. you should play like a drowning man, struggling to reach shore. if you can trap that feeling, then you have something that is fur bearing.
NEVER POINT YOUR GUITAR AT ANYONE
your instrument has more clout than lightning. just hit a big chord, then run outside to hear it. but make sure you are not standing in an open field.
ALWAYS CARRY A CHURCH KEY
that's your key-man clause. like one string sam. he's one! he was a detroit street musician who played in the fifties on a homemade instrument. his song "i need a hundred dollars" is warm pie. another key to the church is hubert sumlin, howlin' wolf's guitar player. he just stands there like the statue of liberty - making you want to look up her dress the whole time to see how he's doing it.
DON'T WIPE THE SWEAT OFF YOUR INSTRUMENT
you need that stink on there. then you have to get that stink onto your music.
KEEP YOUR GUITAR IN A DARK PLACE
when you're not playing your guitar, cover it and keep it in a dark place. if you don't play your guitar for more than a day, be sure you put a saucer of water in with it.
YOU GOTTA HAVE A HOOD FOR YOUR ENGINE
keep that hat on. a hat is a pressure cooker. if you have a roof on your house, the hot air can't escape. even a lima bean has to have a piece of wet paper around it to make it grow.