Don Van Vliet was a master of the surreal, with an uncompromising musical approach, says Mick Brown
Don Van Vliet, aka Captain Beefheart, who died on December 17, could be a difficult man. His idiosyncratic recordings -- a bizarre goulash of delta blues, free jazz, Jabberwocky-style surrealism and Dada-esque humour -- were an acquired taste, never likely to find a popular audience.
He was notoriously dictatorial, with a manipulative, domineering personality once described as "Manson-esque".
He claimed to have studied brainwashing techniques before recording his epochal 1969 album, Trout Mask Replica, the better to discipline his group, the Magic Band, to his baffling time signatures and enigmatic directives; the drummer John 'Drumbo' French, described the atmosphere preparing for the album as "cult-like" and told of Beefheart attacking him with a sharpened broomstick, and then throwing him down some stairs after he had failed to rise sufficiently to the command to "play a strawberry" on the drums. He claimed credit for everything, and was a notoriously stingy paymaster.
But he could be surprisingly genial. I met him once, in 1980, in a budget hotel in Bayswater, where he and the Magic Band were staying. Seated in a breakfast room populated by businessmen and tourists, he cut an incongruous figure, a heavy-set man with a luxuriant walrus moustache, carrying a green plastic bag, with a clothes-peg clipped to his shirt. He had recently cut off his hair "to show my ears", he explained, but feared that he now looked "like a taxi cab going down the street with both doors open".
It was one of the most surreal conversations I have ever had, ambling in a haphazard fashion through his views on Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher (not favourable), his affection for poultry, his disdain for rock music in general ("disgusting. Plants just absolutely do all they can to get out of their pots when they hear rock music") and for Bob Dylan in particular.
"The Times They Are A Changing . . . a quick change artist, if you ask me. Although he did get the last breath of Woody Guthrie on a mirror."
He expressed bewilderment that anybody should listen to his music. "I don't know how people can stand it. Who would want to be beat, slapped, have their wig pulled off, if they have one for sure. I can't stand falsies.
"When I was three or four I found one of my grandmother's falsies, and it had NO NIPPLE. It was a hip shape, and that old foam -- like a soya-bean steering wheel".
His voice rose in a deafening bellow -- "Blow your top! BLOW YOUR TOP!", causing everybody in the room to cast anxious looks in our direction.
His father, he said, had been "a helmsman". On a boat? "Similar. He sold goods door to door for Helms Bakery." He claimed never to have been to school -- "not even kindergarten"-- a child prodigy driven by a passion for art so all-consuming that his parents were obliged to force food on him while he painted and sculpted.
As befits a man who wore a raw carp on his head for the cover of his most celebrated album, and whose oeuvre included such songs as Pachuco Cadaver, Bat Chain Puller and Making Love to a Vampire with a Monkey on my Knee, Beefheart was an artist who stayed heroically true to his own peculiar vision. The only time he allowed himself to be persuaded to bend his music to popular taste, with the album Unconditionally Guaranteed, he suggested repentantly that purchasers should "take copies back for a refund".
Having decided to abandon performing in the mid-1980s, he went on to make more money from his paintings -- brash, expressionist daubs as singular and challenging as his albums -- than he ever had from his music.
"An artist is one who kids himself the most gracefully," he told me. "And I may get hardening of the arteries, but I'll never get hardening of the eyes or the heart. I refuse to have my heart attack me. We're friends."