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Posted at 6:00 PM ET, 12/17/2010

Avant-garde icon Captain Beefheart passes away

By Click Track

captain beefheartDon Van Vliet, a.k.a. Captain Beefheart, passed away on Friday. (Courtesy of Warner Bros. Records)

Don Van Vliet, a.k.a. Captain Beefheart, one of the most fiercely avant-garde musicians of the 20th century, passed away Friday at the age of 69 due to complications from multiple sclerosis. Beefheart made a career out of being impossible to categorize, making music that sounded like nothing else around.

Below is an article written by Tom Zito that appeared in The Washington Post in January, 1971, previewing an area concert by Beefheart and his Magic Band.


Captain Beefheart and his Magic Band are coming to town next Saturday and heaven only knows what’s going to happen.

Consider, for example, the biography his record company provides in a promotional brochure:

A whirling dervish, honey of two white pigs bore snoots ‘n touched tusks on either husk of the sun ‘n moon
An apple dropped thru membrane arches broke embryonic picked out seed cores.

Or consider his biography as culled from more factual sources:

Born Don Van Vliet in Glendale, Calif.,; scholarship to study art in Europe at age 13; parental refusal and retreat to desert near Lancaster, Calif.; attends high school with Frank Zappa.

The two form a band, the Blackouts, but Beefheart is fired because his music “is a little too far out.”

“I don’t believe in time -- you know, 4/4 and all that stuff,” Beefheart says. “Frank believes in time and we could never get it together. He writes all his music and gets sentimental about good old rock ‘n’ roll -- but that’s appeasement music.”

And what then is non-appeasement music?

“A band of non-musicians who are painting artists” -- the Captain himself plus Zoot Horn Rollo, Rockette Morton, Winged Eel Fingerling, Drumbo and Ed Marimba playing such instruments as glass finger guitar, steel appendage guitar, simran horn and musette.

Beefheart’s music has been described by one commentator as “dada rock” (the cover of his “Trout Mask Replica” album has a trout head imposed over his face), a somewhat indefinite description of definitely indefinite music. Although at first it seems to be built around blues scales, it utilizes constantly building tensions with no resolution, a format totally foreign to blues.

The band has a rhythm section of drums and bass which often provides totally arhythmic patterns to work within (without?). The remaining members of the band play rhythmic patters on horns, harmonicas and guitars, at times actually hitting the same melody line. The result is, as Beefheart himself describes it, a kind of musical painting that sets a surrealistic musical mood for his equally surrealistic lyrics:

Mantra Ray a black and white hand groped in blue light under the moon scratched a fingernail
Tipped off full ran to one side of heavens black top hat
God smiled, his black and white wings wet with tears of peace perfumed with life’s perfection.

What makes all this so interesting to me as a listener -- and perhaps this is why Beefheart calls it his “magic” band -- is that somehow, in spite of all rules and formulas, his music works. Admittedly it’s hard to take at first, but then didn’t the audience throw rotten tomatoes at Stravinsky when he premiered “The Rites of Spring?”

In a totally (and literally) off-beat way, Beefheart takes a novel approach to making music that forces the listener to re-examine the way he’s been listening traditionally (analogous, perhaps, to crawling inside a movie screen and watching people watch the screen; initially, everything will seem backwards.)

By Click Track  | December 17, 2010; 6:00 PM ET
Categories:  News  | Tags:  Captain Beefheart  
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Don Van Vliet, Captain Beefheart, will be missed by many of us.

His creative impulse found its outlet in painting, sculpture, and not least of all music. He brought a different sensibility incorporating Delta and Chicago blues, Jazz, and experimental music using varied rhythms and structures. To me he seemed a little something like Beck, able and unafraid to synthesize diverse musical influences in the creation of a work which became strikingly original and seemed a little more interesting each time one listened to it.

In some songs you hear psychedelia backed up against Howlin' Wolf, or a growl against experimentalism. Maybe you can hear the sonic landscape Tom Waits also explored. But I always listened to Captain Beefheart and the Magic Band because they were different.

I am sad that original voice has been silenced forever today. Thanks Don for everything you left us.

Posted by: twodogmas1 | December 17, 2010 11:01 PM | Report abuse

woman like long neck bottles...and a big head on her beer

I don't like to talk about my women...but this time I'm gonna do it anyway...then I'm gonna get right outta town

so long, cap''s hoping there's a clear spot waiting for you somewhere in the great beyond

Posted by: xavieronnasis | December 17, 2010 11:18 PM | Report abuse

"The mother ship, the mother ship's the one ... It blows the air, the snoot isn't fair
look up in the sky there's a dirigible there"

Posted by: Jumper1 | December 18, 2010 9:31 AM | Report abuse

"Festin bulbous, the mascara snake...bulbous, also tapered...that's right!"

Posted by: bertbkatz | December 18, 2010 11:24 AM | Report abuse

F rank and Don and their only hit together... Willie the Pimp

Posted by: WmLaney | December 18, 2010 12:31 PM | Report abuse

'Big eyed beans From Venus, oh my, oh my.'
He's off to explore another universe, one that has no bounds.
So glad he visited ours.

Posted by: mtpeaks | December 18, 2010 3:11 PM | Report abuse


Posted by: uzs106 | December 18, 2010 6:35 PM | Report abuse

'Once you find out the circumstance, then you, then you, then you, can go out!
Whoaa, whoaa!'
Gone out he has, but we're so lucky he came.

Posted by: mtpeaks | December 18, 2010 8:22 PM | Report abuse

We were fortunate to have him among us for a time. Some of us learned from his presence.

Posted by: fluxgirl | December 20, 2010 9:17 AM | Report abuse

We were fortunate to have him among us for a time. Some of us learned from his presence.

Posted by: fluxgirl | December 20, 2010 9:19 AM | Report abuse

I saw him a couple times, at the Childe Harold in maybe the late 70's and at the Bayou in maybe the early 80's, I'm not sure. At the latter show, a young lady came up to the stage and handed him a bouquet of flowers. He made some comment like "How would you like it if someone tore off your sexual parts?". He then smelled the flowers, smiled, and said something like "No, really, they're quite lovely. Thanks you."

I was wondering recently why he didn't jump on the reunion bandwagon and tour - I would have loved to see him again, and a lot of people could have been educated about a great musical master. I/we now know he's been sick for a long time and unable to tour. I realize that music lost his extraordinary voice a long time ago, but this still hurts. He was a real one-of-a-kind character.

"The dust blows forward and the dust blows back..."

Posted by: MyPostID27 | December 20, 2010 9:39 AM | Report abuse

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