Captain Beefheart: Influential singer who brought the avant garde to rock music before forging a successful career as a painter

Pierre Perrone
Monday 20 December 2010 01:00

"Enigmatic" and "idiosyncratic" are the default adjectives often used to define performers who fail to engage with the mainstream, but they do describe the American singer and composer Captain Beefheart most appositely.

A cult artist who released 12 albums between 1967 and 1982, Beefheart fused a kind of primal rhythm and blues with free jazz and topped it all off with his distinctive four-and-a-half octave vocal range and lyrics as surreal as the expressionist, abstract paintings he later concentrated on. Dictatorial to the point of excess with his group of ever-changing backing musicians – his Magic Band, as they were billed on the first three albums – he cultivated an air and an aura of mystery around him that mostly reflected his unusual outlook on life in general, and music in particular, yet also helped create and build the myth of the impossible to fathom Beefheart, forever walking the tightrope between outsider art and genius.

John Peel was one of the few who knew the singer well and championed him throughout his career. In a BBC TV documentary broadcast in 1997 he said: "If there has ever been such a thing as a genius in the history of popular music, it's Beefheart ... He's a psychedelic shaman who frequently bullied his musicians and sometimes alarmed his fans, yet he remained one of rock's greatest innocents."

Beefheart's maverick approach to interviews and unique vocal style, incorporating grunts, growls and howls as well as a striking, strident falsetto, were later emulated by Tom Waits, one of the many he influenced. Indeed, while Beefheart only made the Top 30 album charts in the UK with the groundbreaking double set Troutmask Replica in 1969 and Lick My Decals Off, Baby in 1970, his unorthodox approach has informed the music of the last four decades and helped shape the discordant sound of many punk, post-punk alternative and art-rock groups including Père Ubu, The Residents, Devo, The Tubes, Talking Heads, The Fall, Magazine, XTC, Gang of Four, John Lydon's Public Image Limited, Sonic Youth, Pixies, Franz Ferdinand and The White Stripes as well as artists like Kate Bush, PJ Harvey and Beck.

The shadow of Beefheart still looms large, not only over the many musicians he inspired, but also over other areas of popular culture. Matt Groening, the creator of The Simpsons, is a self-confessed Beefheart fanatic and clearly shares some of the singer's misgivings about the shortcomings of US society and consumer culture, while directors like Paul Schrader and the Coen Brothers have used Beefheart material to great effect.

Born Donald Glen Vliet in 1941, he was "an only child, irascible, a tyrant", and claimed he could remember coming out of his mother's womb, the first primal scream of many. He started calling his parents by their first names when he was three. "Don't step over that line and we'll be friends," he apparently told them. He was considered gifted, a prodigy even, after he took up painting and sculpture before reaching his teens. In the 1950s the family moved to Lancaster, near the Mojave desert, and he became fascinated by the landscape, the light and the wild- life, and returned to it periodically throughout the rest of his life. "The desert is subtle," he said of the coyotes, rattlesnakes and ravens that seemed to surface in his paintings and echo in albums like 1982's Ice Cream For Crow, his last full studio recording.

He told interviewers he had little formal education, stating that "if you want to be a different fish, you've got to jump out of the school." However, he did attend Antelope Valley High School in Lancaster long enough to meet and become a close friend of Frank Zappa, a guitar-playing teenager who shared his interest in the blues of Son House, Robert Johnson, Howlin' Wolf and Muddy Waters, and the jazz of Ornette Coleman, John Coltrane and Thelonious Monk.

The teenagers parodied the doo-wop pop songs of the day and indulged in flights of fancies, including writing a script for a would-be movie entitled Captain Beefheart vs. the Grunt People. The singer gave conflicting versions about the origin of the Beefheart name and persona, sometimes claiming his exhibionist uncle Alan referred to his penis as "a big, fine beef heart", and later telling TV host David Letterman that the name articulated "a beef in my heart against this society."

Whatever the truth, the name stuck, though he only started using it after stints as a door-to-door vacuum cleaner salesman – during which he famously told the writer Aldous Huxley "Well I assure you sir, this thing sucks" – and a shoe-store manager.

Encouraged by Zappa, who would go on to great success as a composer and the leader of the Mothers of Invention, he overcame his shyness and the stage fright that would blight much of his career and lead to drug-taking, and began playing harmonica and singing with the first incarnation of the Magic Band in 1965. The following year, the group signed to A&M Records and issued a demented version of Bo Diddley's "Diddy Wah Diddy", but Jerry Moss, the co-founder of the label, thought the staggering "Electricity"and "Dropout Boogie" too outré and passed on the demos for their debut Safe As Milk.

The reworked album, produced by Richard Perry and Bob Krasnow, and benefiting from the input of rising guitarist Ry Cooder on guitar – most notably on "Sure 'Nuff 'N Yes I Do" and "Grown So Ugly" – eventually came out on Buddah in September 1967. However, by that time, the group had blown the opportunity to appear at the Monterey Pop Festival in June and Cooder had left, declaring that the frontman was "a Nazi. It makes you feel like Ann Frank to be around him."

In January 1968, Captain Beefheart and His Magic Band made their first visit to Europe, which included a most unlikely performance on the beach at Cannes during the Midem music industry convention, though plans to sign to the Beatles' Apple label came to nothing. Following the mishandled release of Strictly Personal on Krasnow's Blue Thumb imprint, Beefheart was rescued by Zappa, who gave his friend carte blanche to make Trout Mask Replica for Straight, his newly-formed company.

The vocalist reorganised the Magic Band, coming up with fantastical names including Zoot Horn Rollo – guitarist Bill Harkleroad – Rockette Morton (bassist Mark Boston) and Drumbo (drummer John French), though he bullied the musicians while they lived communally in a suburban house in Los Angeles and rehearsed for 14 hours a day. They survived for eight months on bread and beans and recorded Replica in a few hours, with Beefheart taking all the credit for having drilled every note and staccato rhythm into them, as well as posing for Cal Schenkel's disturbing cover – the frontman wears the raw head of a carp as a mask.

Replica proved a challenging listen for most, prompting Groening, who was 15 when he first heard it, to comment that he first thought "that is the worst thing I'd ever heard. I said to myself, they're not even trying! It was just a sloppy cacophony. Then I listened to it a couple more times ... About the sixth or seventh time, it clicked in, and I thought it was the greatest album I'd ever heard."

In June 1969, Replica baffled most people, yet it has proved the most enduring of Beefheart's releases and is now routinely included amongst the greatest and most influential albums listed by music critics. European audiences seemed to understand the singer better, and after Decals, The Spotlight Kid and Clear Spot (both 1972), Beefheart signed to Richard Branson's Virgin label, with expectations of crossover success. However, the put-upon Magic Band scuppered that by leaving en masse just as the Unconditionally Guaranteed album hit the stores in April 1974. The vocalist assembled a new group but the more mainstream sound of 1975's Bluejeans & Moonbeams alienated his fanbase, who dubbed the musicians "the Tragic Band".

At a low ebb, Beefheart again benefited from Zappa's help. Beefheart having previously contributed his trademark growling vocals to "Willie The Pimp", one of the salient tracks on the guitarist's 1969 album Hot Rats, the old friends collaborated on the as-live Bongo Fury album, though their relationship remained fraught.

Beefheart recovered the edge of his earlier material with the critically-acclaimed Shiny Beast (Bat Chain Puller) (1978), Doc At The Radar Station (1980) and Ice Cream For Crow (1982), whose appearance coincided with the post-punk movement's embrace of his pioneering work.

His primitive, non-conformist paintings, occasionally used on his albums covers as in the case of Doc At The Radar Station, had already attracted interest from fans and collectors and he subsequently concentrated on what he considered more lucrative work. He joked that he would soon be able to buy a yacht. Yet, he remained serious about his art, and continued painting after the onset of multiple sclerosis. "I'm trying to turn myself inside out on the canvas," he said. "I paint for the simple reason that I have to. I feel a sense of relief after I do."

Donald Glen Vliet (Don Van Vliet, Captain Beefheart), singer, composer, musician, painter: born Glendale, California 15 January 1941; married Janet; died California 17 December 2010.

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