Don Van Vliet’s death this past Friday spelled the final departure of one of the 20th-cenutry’s greatest “uncategorizable” musicians. Sure, he’d been out of the music business since 1982, and it had been made public years ago that he was suffering from multiple sclerosis. Still, I think some of us wondered if some new material might not be released — certainly not new music, but perhaps new poetry, since that had been the final forum for his uniquely surreal verbal excursions.
The man better known to music fans as Captain Beefheart left us, though, with eleven amazing albums (that discounts the two he truly hated, and adds in Bongo Fury, his collaboration with Zappa) and many paintings, since fine art was his true love all along. In reading items about his life to prepare to write this, I noticed that all of the obits rightly hailed him as an unbridled, (again) uncategorizable genius, but that the longer pieces on his life went into the “cult-like” way in which his most unique album Trout Mask Replica was made.
It’s hard to tally those accounts of a dictatorial madman who verbally and physically abused his bandmates with the exceedingly nervous and mellow gent we see in the three on-camera interviews he gave later in his life (two of them sadly with David Letterman, who you can see didn’t a crap about who the guy he was talking to was). Watching Van Vliet in the superb short “Some Yo-Yo Stuff” (see below), one can’t imagine that that humble, weird old genius (who’s only about 51 in the film) is the same guy who supposedly terrorized the Magic Band for the eight months they lived together and made that amazing record.
Well, such schizo rifts are the very stuff of artistic genius. As my favorite line on the subject from John Waters goes (a propos of Fassbinder in Waters’ case), I hear he was a monster, but I don’t care, I never had to live with him. What Van Vliet left behind is a singular musical legacy that is diminished by the label “outsider music,” which puts him, a sophisticated musical innovator, with the likes of “primitives” like Hasil Adkins and the Shags (both acts I enjoy the hell of, by the way — “no more hot dogs!”). Creating that kind of umbrella label for acts so radically different, and on such different sides of the creativity spectrum, is merely a handy way to create a bailiwick for certain musical archivists.
Van Vliet/Beefheart existed in some sense “outside” the music industry, since his work remains uncategorizable to this day, but all his albums were on major labels, he did have a rather sizeable cult following during his lifetime (especially in, natch, Europe), and he was, most importantly, aware of his musical eccentricities. If his albums sound out of key to the average ear that’s because he was exploring new musical territory, not because he didn’t know how the melody would’ve conventionally been played, as is the case with with the “primitive” outsiders.
But, enough about labels, since Beefheart’s music escaped them all. It was rock, it had a blues foundation, it was unpredictable as the finest jazz, and had lyrics that certainly rate as pure surreal/Beat poetry. He was one of a kind, and while some music critics have done a good job of explaining verbally what he was doing, nothing beats listenting to the music. Thus, I will abandon all attempts at a conventional obit for Van Vliet and will instead just make one media-minded remark: in going through the tapes that exist of Beefheart through the years, I think it’s pretty safe to say he made less than 10 appearances on American television over the close to 20 years he was in the music business (again, on major labels). I can only count seven myself, but if anyone can think of any others, send ’em on.
The seven I come up with are: his appearance on Dick Clark's crappy evening show Where the Action Is (lip-synching “Diddy Wah Diddy” on a beach — god, were Clark’s shows cheap-ass productions!); his “call-in” to American Bandstand (see below); a 1971 live appearance with the Magic Band on the Detroit show Tubeworks; the 1980 Saturday Night Live appearance that introduced a lot of us to what he was like live; the “Eye on L.A.’ interview (see below); and the two Letterman segments. I don’t think I need to add that all of the other TV appearances you can find are from Europe and England. It is a pure and simple fact that the best American culture does attract major followings in Europe while it is ignored by the mainstream over here. Beefheart was yet another shining example of that.
On to the clips! His best TV appearance in my opinion is his spirited performance of “Upon the My Oh My” on The Old Gray Whistle Test. Not his best song, but boy, is he commandeering the camera:
And the perfect melding of his true love, painting, and his music, was the music-video he put together for his song “Ice Cream for Crow”:
The single best extended intro to his life is this British TV docu, "The Artist Formerly Known as Captain Beefheart," narrated by legendary DJ John Peel:
The first great performance on film is this rather odd gig on the beach at Cannes in January 1968. Here Beefheart and the Magic Band perform “Electricity”:
Thanks to his high school friend Frank Zappa, Beefheart made his full-blown masterwork Trout Mask Replica, which can’t ever date because it isn’t rooted to the time it was made. It is a radical album that is joyous, catchy, disturbing, and sometimes even a bit scary. Here is the song “Ella Guru”:
And an instrumental from the album that supplies a perfect example of the disjunctive and brilliant sound Beefheart kept pursuing until the final album, Ice Cream for Crow.:
Beefheart’s TV ad for the album Lick My Decals Off, Baby, which never aired because it’s so fucking surreal. Best element is, no question, the conventional radio-voiced announcer:
A raw TV performance, the Magic Band doing “I’m Gonna Booglarize You, Baby” on German TV in 1972:
A cover never performed on LP, “Sweet Georgia Brown”:
A rare live version of “Willie the Pimp” from Zappa’s Hot Rats album with Beefheart on vocals:
A very odd bootleg LP that mixes live Beefheart and Zappa tracks with them hosting a radio show where they played their own rare records:
The single longest document we have of Beefheart and the later Magic Band in concert is the French TV show Chorus from 1980. Several songs from the band were included in the show. Here is the unforgettable “Bat Chain Puller”:
And the only other TV interview he ever did beside the two Letterman appearances. Here he’s nervous as hell on camera, but says some very quotable things, including the fact that his music is “non-hypnotic”:
Anton Corbijn’s 1992 short “Some Yo-Yo Stuff” is Van Vliet’s last testament to his public. It is brilliant and touching, with “interview” questions by a wisely abstract David Lynch:
The very final time the Captain sang for an audience, a phone recording of him warbling “Happy Earthday” released on a charity album:
And the single rarest item on YT, the time he called into American Bandstand, one of the most important pop-music shows in American TV history and also one of the most cheaply produced *EVER*: