In the month since Don Van Vliet died, I’ve been considering my connection to the music he created under the name Captain Beefheart. His albums “Trout Mask Replica” and especially “Lick My Decals Off, Baby” provided some of the soundtrack to my high school years. I’m glad I was an adolescent when a major label saw fit to record and release Beefheart’s music.
Though Van Vliet’s musical career only spanned sixteen of his 69 years, that decade and a half overlapped with my own awakening curiosities. Among them was an interest in music. With my bass guitar, I formed or joined a series of bands in my hometown of Erie, Pennsylvania, until the early ’70s when I headed off to college and not-college and college.
By 1979, I’d been living in Boston for a while, when I had an urge to play in a band again, something I’d not done since leaving Erie. Checking listings in the weekly arts paper, the first one that leapt out at me, unexpected and impossibly perfect, stated “Seeking bass player to play music of Captain Beefheart.” The band was six musicians including two singers, and augmented by a couple additional musicians on saxophone and marimba, in the few instances they were needed.
On my way to a rehearsal one day, I stopped at a used bookstore and came upon a paperback called “Men & Volts at War: The Story of General Electric in World War Two.” I bought it for my father, an engineer with G.E., but by the time I arrived at the band’s space, I realized I’d found a name for us, Men & Volts. I never did send it to him. (Over subsequent decades, friends and acquaintances have sent me copies of the book, and now I have a large stash of them.)
We treated the Beefheart material as a repertoire worthy of exploration. The one-off show required such a huge amount of work that we ended up doing three shows. However, after playing to robust crowds at the then-hip Underground, we were informed by the club that they wouldn’t be having us back, as they didn’t book cover bands.
We dropped Beefheart’s songs, deciding it was time to move on. A quartet emerged from the ensemble and we began to explore what we sounded like out of Beefheart’s shadow, eventually releasing five albums over the course of the ’80s. We met Van Vliet in 1980, during one of his last tours. He’d been told of our endeavor and was not particularly enthused about it, only saying it must have been difficult to figure out all the parts. That response made sense to me. One of the lessons I found in his work is that an artist makes a personal statement, the subtext being, don’t try to make his statement yours, make your own.
Some 15 years later I was a guest on “Late Night with Conan O’Brien.” It was near the end of 1994; I had a book out and it was the publisher’s wrangling that landed me on television. The other guests that night were “Love Conection” host Chuck Woolery and actor David Paymer. Whilst talking with Conan about the history of my creation, “The Duplex Planet,” I provided the unintentional opportunity for Woolery to sound in with his take on Captain Beefheart. Here follows a transcript of the pertinent part of the program:DG: Ken Eglin. Ken was this guy who had grown up in Boston in the era of Lester Young and Billie Holiday playing at clubs, and he would tap-dance and do all that. He sort of felt like he was staying young by knowing what was going on in music. I would play for him contemporary music, so he could feel like he knew what was going on. I’d take him to clubs, and we started a music review column that ran in a couple music magazines. Whatever he didn’t know about any of these artist’s history – which was usually everything about them – he more than made up for by having a completely honest, gut level response to the music. If it had bluesiness or soulfulness or swing, he would like it. I played him a song by Captain Beefheart. You know who he is?
Conan: Yeah, yeah, Captain Beefheart, he played with Zappa, right?
DG: Well, Zappa produced “Trout Mask Replica.”
DG: But he’s considered sort of our there.
Conan: So this is pretty fringe weird stuff you’re talking about.
DG: Well, I don’t find it so, but a lot of people do.
Conan: Right. (chuckles) Yes.
Chuck Woolery (off-camera, at far end of couch): It is for me.
(audience laughs, camera switches to shot of all three guests)
Conan: (laughs) Thank you, Chuck!
Woolery could well have gone on for the rest of his life without revealing his take on Captain Beefheart on national television. (It is perhaps interesting only to me that Woolery was born six weeks after Van Vliet, both in 1941, and Paymer, the show’s other guest, was born about six weeks after me in 1954.)
The fact that Van Vliet walked away from music further elevates him as an artist. Unable to successfully navigate marketplace vagaries or corporate expectations, he returned to the visual art that had been a mainstay in his life since childhood, where he did find sufficient commercial success to carry him through his remaining decades. What speaks most potently to me was his desire to communicate to an audience – whether listening or looking – the world as he saw it.
At fifteen, I couldn’t know the shape of my life, my own mortality being a vague theoretical concept. Ten years later, grown confident in my own creative ideas, I could better identify with those impulses in other artists. To me, Beefheart didn’t need to make any more music if he was not first doing it for himself.
Story by David Greenberger, artist, sometimes writer, radio commentator, spoken word performer and creator of the marvelous “Duplex Planet”