Sunday, December 19, 2010

Captain Beefheart, Jan. 15, 1941 – Dec. 17, 2010

Despite this blog being about Frank Zappa’s catalog, and despite I haven’t devoted any previous posts to other musicians who have played with Zappa or were founding members of the Mothers of Invention, I thought it appropriate to write something about Don Vliet, a.k.a Captain Beefheart. In keeping with the subject matter of this blog, however, I will stick with information about Vliet connected with Zappa.

Their relationship was an amazing collaborative effort that goes back to their high school days; it was also an at times awkward and strained relationship that, based on some key comments made individually by each, hit patches of mutual alienation.

“I spent more time with Don (Captain Beefheart) Van Vliet when I was in high school than after he got into ‘show business,’” Zappa writes in his autobiography. “Life on the road with Captain Beefheart was definitely not easy … The last time I saw Don was 1980 or ’81. He stopped by one of our rehearsals. He looked pretty beat … I suppose he is still living in Northern California, but not recording anymore. He bought some property up there – someplace where he could see whales swim by.”

Vliet was more terse. Speaking to Musician Magazine for an article published in February 1994 about Zappa’s passing, Vliet said, “I knew him for 35 years, and in the end the relationship was private.”

Beefheart was also connected with one of the biggest myths about Zappa, the shit-eating event that allegedly occurred during a fabricated gross-out contest between Zappa and Beefheart on stage.

According to Neil Slaven, author of the Zappa biography Electric Don Quixote: The Definitive Story of Frank Zappa, Vliet’s unique way of interacting with the rest of the world began very early. He told interviewers that his parents were his “gas station,” as well as that his musical interests began quite early at age 3 when he first learned the harmonica. A truant most of his school life, Vliet’s artistic talents developed early as well, an avocation that occupied him in his later years until his death.

Probably the most significant collaboration between Zappa and Vliet was the production of the album “Trout Mask Replica,” which became the quintessential recording of Captain Beefheart and his Magic Band. Vliet was adamant about not being marketed as a “freak” (or being marketed at all for that matter), which seemed a bit ironic at the least, if not downright “disingenuous” as Slaven writes in Electric Don Quixote.

“I was told by Frank that I would have, if you want to call it, special treatment, that I would not be advertised or promoted with any of the other groups on the label,” Vliet told Slaven. “But somehow, I guess he (Zappa) got hard-pressed for cash, and decided that he’d round me up and sell me as one of the animal crackers. I didn’t like the idea of being labeled and put aside as just another freak.”

Labeled as a freak? As Slaven notes, given the rather curious attire Beefheart and his band wore and “marketed” themselves as, Vliet’s fear of being labeled a freak comes off as a stretch.

If there were any true animosity between the two musicians, the bulk of the evidence suggests that Zappa was the cause. Still, there continued to be collaborative efforts, everything from Vliet’s vocals on “Willie the Pimp” on “Hot Rats,” the live recording “Bongo Fury,” and even more arcane and hidden contributions such as Vliet’s harmonica in “San Ber’Dino” from “One Size Fits All,” where he is identified in the credits as Bloodshot Rollin’ Red. Zappa also went with Beefheart to help manage the Magic Band for a performance in Amougies, Belgium at a festival where Zappa played with Pink Floyd, among other groups (Zappa denied having ever played with Pink Floyd at Amougies despite recorded evidence).

Having said that, Vliet had his own issues as well, particularly when it came to signing contracts, something that Zappa noted that Vliet did without even remotely considering what he had been obligating himself to via his signature.

I’m not familiar with what happened to Vliet following the Bong Fury tour. He dropped out of the music scene for the most part to take up his painting. I had no idea that he had developed multiple sclerosis until much later. When I learned that he had died, my first thought was of “Ella Guru.”

If you’re interested in some live recordings of Beefheart and the Magic Band, you might want to visit here. The album art displayed with this post comes from this live recording.

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