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SHJ Issue 5
Spring 2012

Captain Beefheart: a Bebop-monograph

Lars Movin

Translated from Danish by Thomas E. Kennedy


To listen to his music is to realize how formulaic most other music is. To ponder his lyrics is to realize how banal most other song writing is. And to see his paintings is to realize how differently he perceives the world.
—Rudy Vander Lans, 2000


“Well, I was born in the desert, came all up from New Orleans…”

This was how Captain Beefheart in 1967 introduced himself to the world. Riding on an archetypal blues riff à la Son House, the words were flung in the faces of the listeners only a few seconds into the song “Sure ’Nuff ’N Yes I Do,” the first cut on his debut album Safe as Milk. “Captain Beefheart and His Magic Band” it said on the cover but no one could doubt that even if the band was close to magical—anyway their music was competent and forceful—it was all about the front figure: Don Van Vliet, alias Captain Beefheart. A charismatic and mysterious character. An idiosyncratic and transgressive artist. An original musician, painter, poet and philosopher who to a singular degree went his own way. And probably the only true Dadaist ever fostered by rock. Who but Captain Beefheart would ever ask his drummer to imitate the sound of bubbles in carbonated water? And what other rock star will be remembered for statements that even come close to one-liners like:

“Everybody’s colored or you wouldn’t be able to see them.”
“You can get ear flu from pop music.”
“A little paranoia is a good propeller.”
(Most famous,) “There are only forty people in the world, and five of them are hamburgers.”
Not even to mention my personal favorite, “It takes the ocean all day to wave.”

But despite all these characteristics, Captain Beefheart from the beginning was primarily a new white-blues phenomenon with a unique musical comprehension and a big rusty locomotive of a voice. His voice was so powerful that in connection with the recording of his first album, Safe as Milk (1967), during the chorus to the song “Electricity,” he destroyed a Telefunken microphone worth twelve-hundred dollars. In brief, a quite inimitable vocal which, album after album, would become the unifying line through a musical universe which never ends once you are hooked. A summary description could be: Avant garde rock’s answer to Howlin’ Wolf. An exhaustive description is near impossible—unless you decide that the Captain himself has said it all when he describes his music as “like sandpaper on a shrimp.”

1. A Desert Island of the Mind

Of course not all that an artist sings should be taken at face value, but it was scarcely a coincidence that Don Van Vliet chose to kick-start the persona Captain Beefheart with a song line that juxtaposes two so immediately opposing quantities as the barren desert and New Orleans (the latter being the American Mecca of sin, one of the addresses for the birth of the blues, and the Old World’s most well-preserved bastion in the humid heat of the Mississippi delta in the deep South). For not only is it in the meeting between the two—between the Mojave desert’s “cultureless,” Southern California urban sprawl and the heritage of the blues tradition, one of the few original American art forms—that the sparks have flamed the whole mythology which Captain Beefheart from the start built around his personality; also, on a concrete biographical level, elements from both have formed the person Don Van Vliet.

Okay, strictly speaking, he was not born in the desert, but just south of Glendale, a town in Los Angeles County about an hour’s drive from the desert. But from his teenage years on, he spent long periods of his life in the desert community of Lancaster. And strictly speaking neither can he literally claim that he has “come up from new Orleans.” But there can be no question that he was from an early age brought up on the blues. It has been said that Don’s maternal grandfather, Amos Warfield, played blues guitar with a pocket knife and that as a child Don was practically obsessed by the scat-singer Slim Gaillard’s hit “Cement Mixer (Put-ti, Put-ti).” And as Jerry Handley (the first bass player in The Magic Band) tells it, Van Vliet not only got the blues tradition but also the history of the South with his mother’s milk:

“His grandfather had a plantation back in the south, and he was tied to the south, he’s got a lot of southern blood in him. He had a good knack for memorizing the words and he heard, when he was growing up as a kid, a lot of southern blues. He could whistle, that’s all he could do at first. We’d be playing guitars and he’d come by, and he could whistle the blues, and he was damned good at it. It’s a very unique type of whistle. He was a natural guy for a blues man and we thought, ‘Well, let’s give it a shot.’”

Note the expression “a natural guy for a blues man.” That’s how it is with Captain Beefheart. All attempts to describe him and his music seem to include the word “natural.” But rarely alone. Rarely just natural. Most often in combination with something else. As part of a confrontation. A mismatched combination. Like in desert blues.

Captain Beefheart’s musical career was relatively brief. From Safe As Milk to his terse but also strangely diffuse farewell to the musical world, Ice Cream for Crow (1982), was just fifteen years. But between these two points, on the other hand, a very unusual story played out. A story about an unpolished artistic soul who struggled forward to fulfill his ambition to combine characteristics from the classical blues and avant garde musical compositions with the unconstrained freedom of improvisational jazz, with the addition of lyrics that made use of surrealistic juxtapositions, powerful pictures and absurd humor, all characterized by a wild expressionistic sense of form which could be transported from visual art.

The anecdotes about Captain Beefheart’s unorthodox manner of creating music are many. For example, guitarist Gary Lucas (who is interviewed later in this book) experienced how the band leader, towards the end of his career in a London hotel room, turned on his tape recorder then picked up a metal ashtray and heaved it against the wall so it bounced to the floor and rolled around rattling noisily, after which he gave the tape to the drummer and said, “Play that!” And one of the most extreme examples of that sort is perhaps the story circulating about guitarist Jeff Morris Tepper. To get into the right frame of mind to be able to play the composition “A Carrot Is As Close As a Rabbit Gets to a Diamond” (Doc at the Radar Station, 1980), he was told that he should imagine himself a soldier in the American Civil War. “You’re a yankee,” Van Vliet said to him. “Everyone in the regiment has been killed, and now you’ve found a mysterious little cabin deep in the woods where you hide. You lie in a cold bed with a little teddy bear which you hug, and you can hear that the enemy is on its way to the cabin to get you. Play that!”

Most of that type of anecdote is connected with the later years of Captain Beefheart’s career. But as far back as the debut album one could sense that Beefheart was on his way to a frontier which no one, or only a few others, had reached at that point. And over the following eleven official albums, the music grew increasingly twisted and disquieting, culminating with the Frank Zappa-produced milestone double-LP Trout Mask Replica (1969)—an unmanageable monster of a record and a product of an exceptional artistic temperament; to many ears, a nearly unbearable discharge of insane, cacophonous energy in all imaginable polyrhythmic and polyphonic formats; a work that, in the history of popular music, has never been bypassed as a monument to imaginative ugliness and transgressive poetry; a reference point for art rock and an eternal challenge for critics and the public.

“This album was about discovering yourself as an alien,” writes Kevin Courrier in his little book about Trout Mask Replica. “Beefheart’s utopia wasn’t borne out of the real world […]. Beefheart’s utopia is the true definition of the word—nowhere—a desert island of the mind.”

Despite critical success, Beefheart never broke through commercially—perhaps because he always had to fight with his own inner demons and musical-technical limitations at the same time as being up against a music industry which, when he started out, hardly had heard of phenomena like art or indie rock. In 1982—after punk and no wave had aired itself in the rock world—his music was more in sync with the times, but instead of repeating his formula again and again to win new generations of perhaps more tolerant listeners, he chose to withdraw from the music scene to dedicate himself to painting—under the name Don Van Vliet. Somewhere in the middle of the ’90s that stream also began to dry out. And ever since, rumors and speculation began to spread—like dust devils blown up by a dry frontier wind in the dusty, scorched streets in a western scene calling for answers that never come. Was the man mad or a genius? Was he a paranoid and sadistic cult leader or an eccentric and childishly naïve artist who demanded the impossible, both from himself and from his surroundings, to realize the music that incessantly played in his head? Or was he a completely primeval American art pioneer with roots solidly planted outside the mainstream, an unpolished frontier individualist, an archetypal western hero, constantly challenging unknown terrains, eternally struggling against all odds and stubbornly working forward toward his own mythological immortality?

2. Calling the Captain, January 30th, 1991

To telephone Don Van Vliet when the most of one’s adult life has breathed to the rhythm of Captain Beefheart’s music feels about as unreal as eating cherry pie with Laura Palmer at the RR diner in Twin Peaks. It is not just the distance to Humboldt County, California. It is a completely other kind of distance. It is like calling another world. Another condition. But his voice is there on the other end, and it is real enough. Constantly varying between rasping resignation and hoarse laughter balanced on the edge between jovial and slightly disquieting. Like a cross between an intelligent child and an old man who has left behind the world we others are bound to but who has never stopped wondering about it all, from the dancing shapes of smoke rising from the ember of a cigar to the wars transmitted on the TV screen. Slowly, slowly the words rise from the deep.

But there is one place in the conversation where Van Vliet answers without hesitation, and that is to the question about how, ten years after having placed his music on the shelf, he feels about his earlier persona, Captain Beefheart.

“It makes me itch to think of myself as Captain Beefheart,” he says into the phone and laughs a thin frayed laughter—like a person who spends much of his time alone. And then he adds, “I don’t even have a boat!”

Because of the time difference to the Pacific coast of California, the conversation takes place after midnight Danish time, a condition that only contributes to the sense of unreality. After decades in the southern California desert, Van Vliet moved at the start of the ’80s up to Trinidad, a small remote fishing town in the northern part of the state, almost all the way up to the Oregon border, and on the telephone he tells how he regularly sees flocks of whales passing by. The rocky stretch of coast is famous for attracting many whales, and four years ago the Captain saw a group of no fewer than thirty-six of them.

“I think they are cleaning their barnacles against the rocks,” he says. “They are pretty smart.”

Occasionally Van Vliet also sees surfers, defying the danger of being eaten by Great White Sharks.

“Why do they do it? I mean, they wear suits that, on a surfboard from under the water, look just like a seal, which is the natural prey of the white shark.”

—Have you ever seen any surfers being eaten?

“No, I have missed that moment which pleases me. But they just keep going out there.”

—Not the ones that have been eaten, I guess?

“Well…huhuhu…they may be soul-surfing out there somewhere.”

It is quite clear that Van Vliet these days has only very limited contact with what we others consider the world around us; when I ask when he last left his house, he claims it was five years ago, and on that occasion he met a group of deadheads on the look-out for Jerry Garcia, the guitarist from The Grateful Dead.

“Can you imagine that,” he asks, “having somebody to look for you?”

—No, I am not sure I can imagine that…

“I couldn’t. He must be extremely popular. I wonder why. The worse you play the more they like you.”

—You don’t like the music of The Grateful Dead?

“No, not by any means.”

—Do you still listen to music?

“I like Wagner. And I like the composer, Herbert von Karajan, the way he did Wagner.”

—What were you doing when I called you?

“I was painting.”

—You are painting a lot nowadays?

“Always, always, always.”

—Why is it you prefer to live in isolated places? In the past it was the desert, now it is Northern California. Don’t you like to be around other people?

“Well, I find isolation better because of the fact that I can paint. New York, for instance…have you been there?”


“It’s so loud. The last time I went there it took me two months to get my hearing back.”

—But you used to make some pretty loud music yourself, didn’t you?

“I guess so, but when I composed it I created a space that was pretty silent. It was rather selfish. I did music exactly the way I wanted it to be.”

—Are you surprised that you seem to have even bigger success today as a painter than you had as a musician?

“Not really, because I had planned it that way. I had been doing some paintings for the album covers, and I always thought that it would end up that way.”

—You don’t miss doing music?

“I think I did about what I wanted to do.”

—It must be rather strange to be able to say that. Is it a good feeling?

“Yeah. I really didn’t do music for money so I certainly couldn’t be disappointed about not making any. I never got that much money, but there isn’t that much money out there for what you like. What about you, what kind of music do you like?”

—I like your music…

“Thank you, I’m flattered. How old are you?”


“Oh God, you’ve got it made! When you turn thirty-three you can say you are long playing.”

—I never thought about it that way. Does it mean you get faster when you turn forty-five?

“Yeah…huhuhu…I turned fifty a couple of weeks ago, on January 15th, but I just took the five and bent it straight and put it through the zero. It’s like Jack Benny, you know, he said he was thirty-nine all along.”

—Are you still writing lyrics?

“Oh yeah, all the time. It’s fun to write poems.”

—But what are you doing with them when you are not putting them to music?

“I am just putting them in a pile. It’s getting bigger and bigger. I also like to read poetry. Do you know Philip Larkin? He’s good. And Gottfried Benn, the German, he’s good too.”

—Tell me about your way into the art world?

“I was so fortunate to get in contact with Michael Werner. He’s great. He has Georg Baselitz and Jörg Immendorff and Markus Lüpertz and that fellow from over where you are…”

—Per Kirkeby?

“Yeah, he’s good too. I also like another painter from over there…you know, the one with ‘The Scream’…”

—Edvard Munch?

“Yeah, that’s him. Some time ago Michael Werner came over here with A. R. Penck. He is a wonderful man and a great painter. He brought a lot of Urquell Pilzner. That’s good beer.”

—Penck wrote texts for some of your catalogues…

“Yeah, he can also write. And two years ago he came here and spent New Year’s eve and danced all night, and he is a very good dancer.”

—He’s just good at everything!

“He seems to be. He even plays the drums.”

—Maybe you could play some music together?

“No, not really. I want to paint. I made music for so long—now it’s time for me to paint.”

—I remember some time ago, maybe seven or eight years ago, right after you released Ice Cream for Crow, it must have been in 1982, I read an interview where you talked about having written a lot of new songs, and about being very optimistic about making more music. But then it turned out to be your last album. What happened?

“Well, I decided to paint.”

—You know what? It is actually rather strange talking to you like this. For a lot of people you are some sort of a living legend…

“Yes…huhuhu…I have heard that, but it’s just silly.”

—What do you mean?

“I mean, I can’t accept it. If I did, I wouldn’t be able to paint. I would be too conscious of myself.”

—If you are not a living legend, how would you then describe yourself?

“Well…eh…pretty serious.”

The nocturnal conversation continues for almost an hour and a half. When it ends, it’s not because there is a manager with a stop watch or because the artist thinks the journalist has been given enough. In fact, I am the one who at some point decides to come in for a landing because the apparently unlimited access to speak with a person who for many years has stood forth for me as a mystic genius and an almost supernatural object of desire in some strange way begins to seem overwhelming. It is one of those kinds of interviews where one in advance has had no particular hopes to get to learn anything special and knows afterward precisely what one should have asked about. Underway a part of the mythological aura has melted away, and instead a sense has begun to emerge of a person who is really trying to answer every question one asks with complete honesty. But also a person who found it necessary to withdraw from the world to protect himself. A vulnerable person. A hypersensitive person. And perhaps a person with a disease?


3. White, blue and weird—Beefheart and Zappa

Don Glen Vliet was born on January 15th, 1941, the only child of Willie Sue Vliet and Glen Alonzo Vliet. The first year of the son’s life, the family lived on Waverly Drive, a peaceful residential street on the bank of the Los Angeles River, a green oasis tucked into northwest Los Angeles between Glendale on the north and Hollywood on the south. The attractive two-storey house is still standing, and its well-trimmed lawns and lush gardens evoke neither the desert nor the Delta blues, but rather a well-off American middle class. Which does not really fit with the fact that Don’s father (in any event later but perhaps also then) worked as a chauffeur for Helms Bread. A qualified guess could be that the house actually belonged to Don’s mother’s parents and that the two families lived under the same roof.

Beefheart house in Woodland Hills, photograph by Lars Movin
Van Vliet house in Woodland Hills where
Trout Mask Replica was conceived.
Photograph by Lars Movin
(Click pic to enlarge.)

There are rumors about Don being an extremely gifted child, and regardless of whether that is true or not, many circumstances indicate that from early on he did not fit into his surroundings. “I could whistle when I was two years old, but refused to speak until I was three and a half,” he has said—with his well developed sense of ornamenting his own past. He evidenced a talent at drawing almost from the moment he could hold a pencil, and before he started at school he had begun to carve or model imaginative animal figures. In fact—again according to himself—he was obsessed with an idea of recreating all the animals and fish in the universe, such a demanding task that much of the time he locked himself in his room and had his meals shoved under the door on a tray. At the age of ten he won a competition for modeling animals in Griffith Park Zoo (now known as Los Angeles Zoo), located in the expanse of Griffith Park (close to Waverly Drive), and afterwards was invited by the judge, the Portuguese sculptor Agostinho Rodrigues, to participate in a weekly TV show where he drew and shaped figures for the viewers. When he was thirteen, the rumors on his talents had spread so widely that the California dairy giant Knudsen’s Creamery (founded in 1919 by a Danish immigrant, Thorkild “Tom” Knudsen) offered him a grant for several years at a European art school. However, he never got started with it because his parents considered all artists to be “queers” and forbade it.

In connection with this is one of the many puzzling occurrences in Don Van Vliet’s biography. Supposedly to keep their son out of the decadent art world, his parents took the drastic step of leaving Waverly Drive’s well-trimmed suburbs and moved about sixty miles north to Mojave, a tiny village—little more than a road intersection in the desert—just north of Edwards Air Force Base. And although the desert would become a prominent theme and motif in Don Van Vliet’s imaginative and artistic universe, he would also puzzle over that decision. According to the drummer John French, when The Magic Band was recording the album Doc at the Radar Station (1980), on their way to Sound Castle Recording Studios in Glendale, they were driving past Van Vliet’s birthplace on Waverly Drive, and Don exclaimed, “Imagine my parents moving me from here to Mojave…”

How long the Vliet family lived in Mojave is not known, but sometime in the mid-fifties they must have found the desert isolation too much and decided to move about twenty-five miles south to one of Antelope Valley’s somewhat larger satellite towns, Lancaster, on the border between the Los Angeles area and the Mojave desert. There Don Vliet started at Antelope Valley Joint Union High School, and one day in 1958, while he was driving his brand new light blue Corvette Stingray (see the photo in the front of this book), he saw someone he knew from school standing on the roadside, hitchhiking. It was Frank Zappa, also seventeen years old and obsessed with music; from that meeting a friendship developed which—for better and worse—was decisive for Don Vliet’s future.

Frank Zappa (1940-93) had actually been born in Baltimore, Maryland, on the east coast, but as his father worked for the American armed forces—often with seemingly top-secret matters involving chemical warfare—the family had regularly to move from one military base to the other. Up through the 1940s, they’d lived various places in Maryland and Florida, and in December 1961, they were moved across the continent to Monterey, California, where Frank took up drums. From there followed three further places of residence, first in Claremont, on the eastern edge of Los Angeles, then to El Cajon and San Diego, both near the border with Mexico. And in 1956, they landed in a one-level house on Third Street East in Lancaster (apparently about the same time as the Vliet family’s arrival in town). From about the middle of the ’50s, Frank became a fanatic collector of Rhythm & Blues records (a term that then broadly applied to most of the genres on the Top 40 list), at the same time as he discovered the great musical influence in his life, a French-born composer living in the U.S., Edgard Varèse. And shortly after his arrival in Lancaster, the now 16-year-old Zappa—to his father’s regret—formed his first band. They called themselves The Black-Outs, and not only were they said to be the only R&B group in the Mojave desert at that point, they also departed on a more sociological plane from contemporary norms by mixing white, black and Mexican musicians. After a while, Zappa withdrew as the band leader which led to the group’s demise; following that, some of the other members continued in The Omens, a band that included among others the guitarist and trumpet player Alex St. Clair Snouffer (later a member of The Magic Band). In that group Zappa appeared now and then as a guest—among other times when they played warm-up for Louis Armstrong at a NAACP arrangement in the famous Shrine Auditorium in Los Angeles, a concert hall with place for an audience of more than six thousand.

In his autobiography, The Real Frank Zappa Book (1989), Zappa tells about how he and his new friend at the end of the ’50s passed hours together sitting home at “Donny’s,” listening to singles with blues artists like Howlin’ Wolf, Muddy Waters, Sonny Boy Williamson, and Johnny “Guitar” Watson (Zappas’s favorite)—varying with more shallow R&B figures à la Slim Harpo (“I’m a King Bee”). A musical diet accompanied by masses of cake and doughnuts (the remains of Don’s father’s Helms Bread route) and washed down with quarts of Pepsi. If they weren’t cruising around here and there in the desert in Don’s Corvette or hanging around the local Denny’s cafeteria, the only place in Lancaster open after 6:00 p.m. There they could reportedly sit over a few cups of coffee until the wee hours while they talked about all sorts of things from their mutual fascination for people with big ears to their respective dreams for the future.

As W. C. Bamberger points out in his highly recommendable Beefheart study, Riding Some Kind of Unusual Skull Sleigh (1999), Zappa and Vliet were typical high school friends—in many respects, they were one another’s opposites. But they also shared some traits: “Both were zealots of black rhythm and blues, neither was interested in working toward a conventional middle class life, and both had a taste for shocking those they felt were less hip than they. But what is most significant in the short list of what they shared is that both went on to create music which deliberately broke from the tradition of the well-made song, both favoring segmented music with unexpected shifts in tempo and key. Zappa and Van Vliet both found cult followings, but Zappa was able to capitalize on this base, and work his way into wider commercial success. When Van Vliet tried to do the same, he failed so completely he had to ask Zappa for work.”

Zappa, who actually had ambitions to write formal musical compositions, had played drums in the first incarnation of The Black-Outs, but around the time that he met Don Vliet, he had also begun to practice guitar. And because there was a marked deficit of capable singers in the area, he suggested that his friend give it a try. The awkward Don Vliet wasn’t much for the idea, and several years would pass before he publicly stepped forth as a singer. But in private he would allow himself on certain occasions to be talked into it, and the earliest known recording of his vocal dates back to the fall of 1958 (or spring 1959) where he—together with Frank and his brother Bobby Zappa on, respectively, lead and rhythm guitar—improvised his way through a blues pastiche with the title “Lost in a Whirlpool.” The song is recorded on a Webcor reel tape recorder in a classroom at Antelope Valley Junior College where Zappa was enrolled for a short period after he had finished high school in the summer of 1958. And the text is a refinement of a puerile-scatological Zappa fantasy about swimming around in a sewer filled with eyeless brown fish—in Vliet’s version, rewritten as an unhappy love story about a fellow who is flushed down the toilet by his girlfriend (”Since my baby flushed me…”). But the most curious thing about the recording is the powerful, almost Skip James-like falsetto with which Vliet delivers a large part of the song. A voice that only in glimpses recalls the characteristically deep and brutal rasping voice later associated with Captain Beefheart.

At the end of the ’50s and beginning of the ’60s, Don Vliet had to take a variety of McJobs to contribute to the family economy after his father suffered a heart attack. Among other things, he took over his father’s route for Helms Bread, and he also tried his hand at selling Hoover vacuum cleaners. It is said that he would go from house to house in Lancaster, and when the housewives opened the door he would begin his sales pitch with the words, “Madam, this thing sucks!” A particularly far-out version of that anecdote even claims that in that way he sold a vacuum cleaner to the famous British author Aldous Huxley who, from 1940 until his death in 1963, owned a ranch in Llano, near Pearblossom just south of the Lancaster/Palmdale region.


Pal Recording Studio was run by Paul Buff, a skilled sound technician who at one point, when stereophonic sound had just been introduced, had developed his own five-track tape recorder and experimented with something so advanced as multi-track recording and overdubbing. Zappa had had his own compositions, including (in 1961) a jazzy prototype version of “Take Your Clothes Off When You Dance” (which in a very different arrangement a few years later would become a cornerstone in the early Mothers of Invention repertoire). After being divorced from his first wife, Zappa at the end of 1963 broke away from Ontario (just south of Cucamonga) and literally moved in on a mattress on the floor in Buff’s studio. And with a part of his honorarium for his soundtrack to the B-western Run Home, Slow, he took the place over in 1964, rechristened it Studio Z and painted in big letters on the front: “Record your band — $13.50 per hour.”

Before taking over the studio, Zappa and Vliet—under the group name The Soots—had entertained themselves with recording more or less dubious attempts at rock or R&B numbers. Two of the more sketchy attempts from the period were “Tiger Roach” and “Metal Man Has Won His Wings,” both of which came into existence with Zappa providing a musical foundation while Vliet improvised a text whose elements he hastily fetched from comic-book clippings or graffiti on the walls out in the entryway where the microphone was placed. The pair also attempted copies of known numbers, including the Little Richard hit “Slippin’ and a Slidin’” and Howlin’ Wolf’s “Evil”—performances which it is said both contain foreshadows of Vliet’s later Wolf-inspired song style. (None of these recordings, however, have yet been released from the archives, and the same is true of Vliet compositions like “The Grund” and “Vicious Intentions.”) Zappa assembled their hopeful drafts on one tape and traveled down to Hollywood where he tried to sell the recordings to Dot Records, but the company’s A&R man, Milt Rogers, declined it on the grounds that the guitar was distorted.

Among the more curious sides of Zappa and Vliet’s cooperation was a project that Zappa called I Was A Teenage Malt Shop, a kind of rock opera (long before the term existed). The work was about a teenager, “Ned the Mumbler” and was inspired by an extremely popular horror film from 1957, I Was A Teenage Werewolf (produced by the cult-film producer Herman Cohen and later remembered as the actor Michael Landon’s breakthrough). The story was never developed beyond a rudimentary level, but one thing was decided—that Vliet would play a character called “Captain Beefheart.” And from the recordings that still exist from that time, one can hear—after an instrumental version of the title melody—Vliet’s parodic and energetic introduction: “Hahaha…Hello there, kids, it’s your old friend Captain Beefheart, you know, me, the Magic Man, invisible and all that jazz…fly through time and space, dimension warp, all that rhythm. Well, anyway, I’m here tonight to tell you that we have a heck of a little teenage opera for you. You’re really gonna dig it…hmmm…yeah…it’s really groovy.”

Where did the name Captain Beefheart originate? There are many explanations, and Van Vliet himself has been the first to come with varying proposals. Toward the end of his musical career, in 1982, he commented during a guest appearance on David Letterman: “I have a beef in my heart against society.” According to Zappa, however, it was he who originally got the idea after observing a certain Uncle Alan, who lived with the Vliet family in one of their two houses on Carolside Avenue in Lancaster. Uncle Alan had an eye for Don’s girlfriend, Laurie, and Zappa says, “He used to piss with the door open when Don’s girlfriend walked by and make comments about how his whizzer looked just like a beef heart.”

After abandoning the idea of selling I Was a Teenage Malt Shop to the radio, Zappa got a new idea that was no less ambitious (or less bizarre). At an auction of the effects of the bankrupt Hollywood company F. K. Rockett Studio, he had very cheaply purchased a whole cartload of film props which he unloaded in Studio Z with the idea of filming a micro-budget science-fiction movie with the title Captain Beefheart vs. the Grunt People. The story would be set on Mars while the content again was based on observations of the Vliet family’s apparently slightly unusual home life. But that project was never realized either, although the name Captain Beefheart was now so fixed that when Don Vliet at the beginning of 1965 was invited by Alex St. Clair Snouffer to become a member of a yet unnamed group, he persuaded the musicians to call themselves Captain Beefheart and His Magic Band. A persona—and a rock legend—was born.

In the following years Vliet and Zappa crossed paths on a number of occasions and participated now and again in one another’s projects. But even if they to some extent were moving in the same musical (and geographical) landscapes, with time an element of competition or jealousy insinuated itself in-between them in addition to the fact that they also had some concrete conflicts; after the mid-sixties when each had taken hand on his own career, they never resuscitated the mutual confidence of their first years together. Perhaps it was a question of great egos, perhaps it was about the fact that their temperaments and artistic views were in actuality widely different. Where Beefheart gave an impression of being an unschooled natural talent, an overgrown child who invested himself one hundred percent in his art, barged into it and exploded and reshaped it from within, Zappa seemed more the calculating control freak who always held the music out at arm’s length and manipulated it and his audience without ever revealing himself. In Beefheart terms, he was one of those types who inhaled without exhaling—even though, of course, it would be incorrect to claim that he didn’t enrich his surroundings. But regardless, the author of this book tends to agree with the recently deceased drummer Jimmy Clark Black (who played with both Beefheart and Zappa) in his evaluation: “Frank’s good, but Beefheart’s the real thing.”

The most famous cooperation between Vliet and Zappa was Beefheart’s central achievement, the double album Trout Mask Replica (1969) which Zappa not only produced but also made possible by offering his old friend a contract from his record company Straight Records, a contract that secured Beefheart one-hundred-percent artistic freedom. Later the same year Beefheart delivered a powerful vocal performance on the composition “Willie the Pimp” on Zappa’s solo album Hot Rats (1969). And in the middle of the ’70s it was Zappa who saved Beefheart from a financial and contractual crisis by inviting him to join a tour with The Mothers, documented on the album Bongo Fury (1975). In tribute to their joint past, they allowed themselves to be photographed on the album cover sitting on each end of a table in a branch of Fosters Freeze (a fast food chain that no long exists) with, respectively, an ice cream and a soft drink. The Fosters Freeze in question was next door to the Lancaster Denny’s cafeteria (today the Village Grill) where the two high school friends, as previously mentioned, used to pass the time sitting and drinking coffee, but what the picture shows (Zappa staring angrily into the camera while Van Vliet hides his eyes under the broad shadow of a hat) is the mood between them at that moment, so tense that the tour was a pleasure for neither of them. And afterwards, when legal problems arose concerning a Beefheart album, Bat Chain Puller, recorded in spring 1975 with Zappa as executive producer—problems that showed themselves to be so serious that Zappa wound up refusing to allow the tape to be released—it seemed the last strains of friendly feelings had evaporated.

On the telephone to California when I ask Don Van Vliet how important Zappa had been for Trout Mask Replica, it is rather predictable, therefore, that he would reply, “Not very.” More unpredictable is that Van Vliet then, unasked, volunteers the information that he shortly before had phoned Zappa because he heard that he had been diagnosed with cancer:

“He was very surprised,” Van Vliet says. “After eight years!”

—I just read in Zappa’s autobiography that…

“Really? Did Frank write an autobiography? At his age…huhuhu…”

—Yes, it’s called The Real Frank Zappa Book. I think he felt that too much bullshit was being written about him and that he better set the record straight…

“It isn’t worth stepping in the bull’s shit to find out what the bull ate!” Van Vliet shoots back with a typical example of his word play, after which he wants to know if the book is good.

—Well, he writes quite a bit about your early years together, how you met at high school and all that…

“I never went to high school. I went to half a day of kindergarten and then I called my mother and said, ‘Get me out of this place!’ I’m an only child so I was the ruler of that road.”

—You once said something about the importance of not going to school and staying a child?

“Yeah, the school has so many Freudian concepts—that guy was a creep! I suppose if one could be allowed to do what one wanted to it could be alright to go to school, but I have never seen a school like that. I think the school is very bad for the mind. I once met this bright girl and when I told her I had been to kindergarten for half a day she said, ‘That long! You were there too long!’”

—Zappa also writes about how you made music together at the studio in Cucamonga and all that…

“He is a funny guy. Someone told me that the President of Czechoslovakia…eh …”

—Václav Havel?

“Yes—nice guy—that he met with Frank and told him that he preferred Captain Beefheart.”

—Oh, that was good. But how did Frank take that?

“Well, he just told me that he had been at a dinner with the President of Czechoslovakia. I said, ‘And how was your dinner?’”

—What did he say?


4. Magic in Lancaster—John French (I)


This would be an appropriate point to look more closely at Lancaster—that stimulating mixture of mythological mirage and sun-blanched desert town. So in October 2009, I get behind the wheel of a rented car and drive the hour and a half from Venice Beach up through Antelope Valley, west of the San Gabriel mountains and farther up, first to Palmdale and then to Lancaster. On the way I pass Sun Valley, which Zappa sings about in “Village of the Sun” (Roxy & Elsewhere, 1974): “Out in back of Palmdale/Where the turkey farmers run.” And on the whole, the mood and place names witness that we are moving through a primeval Beefheart/Zappa landscape.

Lancaster itself at first glance resembles a typical American town that could very well have been created by a giant child with a bag of standard building blocks (fast food restaurants, gas stations, motels, trailer parks, a main street with western facades and a couple of handfuls of small wooden dwellings). Everything seems to be more or less randomly placed on a previously plotted grid. The flat city is spread out over a large area, as though in the course of the years, one merely sliced a new land register out of the desert when it was needed. In brief, it all seems somewhat anarchistic—for example, entire blocks exist within the city boundaries which still remain as desert with spread palms and large cactuses which arrange themselves like a painting, silhouetted in the dusty sunset. In other words, there is something unmistakably frontier-like over the place, a feeling of civilization’s farthest outpost which presumably has not changed much since Don Vliet in 1958 picked up a hitchhiking Frank Zappa in his streamlined Corvette. And the impression is only confirmed when I find out on the edge of the town that the road where the drummer John French has lived with his family for eighteen years is still unpaved.

John French first became a member of The Magic Band in October 1966 and was the group’s fourth drummer. In the years that followed, he was in and out of the band numerous times—he was one of the prime forces in connection with the recording of Trout Mask Replica in 1969—and he left the sinking ship for the last time after the recording of Captain Beefheart’s next to last album, Doc at the Radar Station, in 1980. When, at the agreed upon time, I roll up in front of his house, French is standing to greet me in the driveway which is flanked by cactuses twice his height, and one of the first things he tells me is that the house his family lives in is a so-called “Unfinished House,” a typical California phenomenon. When they bought the house, it was nothing but an empty shell and a foundation. Everything else—walls, floors, accessories—they had to put in themselves. At first, they had no electricity—the refrigerator was an old-fashioned ice box, a bit of a challenge in a desert town. Today the house shows signs of family life, with a playhouse in the garden, a couple of German Shepherd dogs running around inside a fence at the back of the house, as well as a garage which is set up as a home studio. There French sits now and mixes the third album of the re-established Magic Band, in which he is the prime mover (the album was recorded live with a planned release in 2010).

John French, photograph by Lars Movin John French
Photograph by Lars Movin

French was born in 1949 in San Bernardino, a neighboring town to Cucamonga in the northeast corner of Los Angeles, and when he was five, his family moved up to Lancaster. As a teenager in the early ’60s, he could not avoid noticing the marked development occurring in the local music scene. And inspired by all that he heard, he became a member of his first band, The Maltesemen, at the beginning of his high school years.

“So many things were happening in Lancaster in the period 1963-64,” French says. “The first R&B band in the area was absolutely The Black-Outs with Frank Zappa. That was around 1960. At that point, by far most of the bands in southern California were playing surf music and walked around in the relevant uniform: White Levi’s, a white T-shirt and a loose Pendleton shirt not tucked in. That also went for the musicians here in Lancaster, even if few of them actually surfed. They just acted like they did. My first band also played surf music, and our name, The Maltesemen, was inspired by the fact that some surfers had boards that were formed like a Maltese cross.”

Back then, there wasn’t much youth culture yet so if you weren’t a surfer type, you were probably a pachuco, the latest incarnation of a Mexican-American subculture with roots back to the 1930s, a little bit like the ’40s swing followers, called Zoots. The best known pachuco in the Beefheart-Zappa mythology was the bass player Roy Estrada, and Beefheart comments directly on the phenomenon in the song “Pachuco Cadaver” on Trout Mask Replica.

Pachucos were guys with tight jeans and greasy Elvis hair who practiced the low-rider culture with specially designed cars that had lowered frames and loud exhausts, hot rods and that kind of thing. We also called them greasers because of all the grease in their hair. But then the Beatles came along and suddenly the music sounded very different. One of the first local names that reflected that development was Merrell and The Exiles, started by Merrell Fankhauser, who later established the group Mu. The first guitarist in Merrell and The Exiles was Jeff Cotton who later joined The Magic Band. Which is only one of many examples how all the groups in the Lancaster area hung together this way and that.”

—How did you first hear about Captain Beefheart?

“It must have been around the start of 1965. If you saw the movie The Right Stuff [1983], then you’ve heard about Edwards Air Force Base, the big air force base in the desert just north of Lancaster. Because of that base, there are a lot of airplane factories in the area, and my father worked on one of them, and one of his friends was a guy named Doug Moon who was a guitarist in the first Magic Band. Doug knew that I played drums, and once in a while he came by and asked if I wanted to come along to a jam session. I didn’t want to because I was embarrassed about my drum kit which didn’t have a snare drum or cymbals. I was used to playing on the tom-toms and keeping time on the hi-hat, which could work with the musicians I played with, but I thought it was embarrassing to play with people I didn’t know. At one point, Doug came by and asked if I’d heard about his new band. I hadn’t. ‘What are they called,’ I asked, and he said, ‘Captain Beefheart and His Magic Band.’ I thought that was the stupidest thing I’d ever heard, and I thought with a name like that they’ll never make it. But a few weeks later they were playing all the local dances, and the whole town was talking about them. They were big.”


“Because they played blues. That was something we hadn’t heard before in Lancaster, and it really knocked us out. Wow, blues! What was that all about? So one of the members of The Maltesemen went to the library and borrowed some books and started studying the blues, and soon he could tell us about Blind Lemon Jefferson and Robert Johnson and Sonny Boy Williamson and all sorts of things. So little by little, we also got interested. And at one point, I joined a group called Blues in a Bottle, inspired by a song that the Lovin’ Spoonful did. It was with Mark Boston, Jeff Cotton, Don Dieson and Jeff Parker. There was also another group, A Patch of Blue, with Bill Harkleroad on guitar, you know, the later Zoot Horn Rollo. So suddenly all bands in the area had to be called something with blue because otherwise you couldn’t get any jobs. And that was all because of Beefheart.”

“Of course it wasn’t that we hadn’t heard black music before the Magic Band was around. Even before that we were very into soul and R&B, and I’d had an idea about taking the black music and playing it more like rock, like The Yardbirds. For me The Yardbirds always seemed like a kind of forerunner of heavy metal, mostly because of Jeff Beck’s guitar that had exactly that fuzz-tone sound which got parents to shout, ‘Turn it down!’ So it was something like taking Otis Redding and Wilson Pickett and James Brown and even The Supremes and injecting a little of the sound from The Yardbirds. You know, like Vanilla Fudge, who took ‘You Keep Me Hanging On’ and set it so far down in tempo that it almost came to sound like a heavy rock number instead of a happy dance tune. So we knew about all that stuff. But the idea of going back to the Delta blues, that was Don’s thing. And when I was in my last year of high school, there were maybe four or five bands in the city who tried to copy Captain Beefheart and His Magic Band. One of them was even called The Obeah Band after one of Don’s songs, ‘Obeah Man.’”

The culmination of all that came when Blues in a Bottle at one point was hired to warm up for Beefheart’s group at the annual market in The Fair Center Hall, the biggest music scene in Lancaster.

“The Magic Band had not yet put out a record, but all these tapes were circulating among the town’s musicians, and there was a running competition to keep up with what Beefheart was doing. So we went up on the stage and played two hours of The Yardbirds and the Rolling Stones and Eric Burden and The Animals and a lot of Motown stuff, all a kind of blues with a hard rock edge, almost on the border of early heavy metal with intense distorted guitars. We played two sets, and the audience went wild. They were wild about us. Then Beefheart came up on the stage and played two sets exclusively of original material that no one had heard before. They didn’t play any of their old songs, and it was almost like the audience got insulted about not hearing anything they knew. You couldn’t really dance to the music either, so the audience just stood there and stared. And typical for Don, he hadn’t taken the trouble to learn the new lyrics by heart, he just stood reading them from some manuscript pages. But what I really want to get to is that later I was told by the drummer Randy Wimer that Don got there early and stood out in the wings and followed our set and that he got this light in his eyes, more and more, as though he’d got an idea. And what could that idea be? Yeah, three of the musicians who were members of Blues in a Bottle ended up playing in The Magic Band: Jeff Cotton, Mark Boston, and me. Add Bill Harkleroad to that, and you in fact have the line-up from Trout Mask Replica.

—When did you first hear Don Van Vliet perform, and what did you think at that time about him as a singer and public persona?

“I’m pretty sure that the first time I heard Don was at one of these battle-of-the-bands events which were very popular then. It was something like they put four or five bands together at a concert, and then you fought to be the most popular. As far as I remember, I was playing then in a group called The Illusions—that was in between the Maltesemen and Blues in a Bottle—and we were one of the first bands that went on while The Magic Band was the last. We really thought that we had done pretty well, but when The Magic Band came onto the stage, they started out with such a fanfare thing where they banged out an enormous chord and let it roll while Don played all these harmonica riffs over it. Then they went on to another chord, and then a third, and at one point, they went direct into the first number. It was very impressive. We just looked at each other and had to admit that we’d lost.”

—From Captain Beefheart: a Bebop-monograph, Tiderne Skifter, København (2010), translated by Thomas E. Kennedy

[Editor’s Note: For more about Don Van Vliet’s music, lyrics, poetry, and painting, visit The Captain Beefheart Radar Station, where you can access “Rare Downloads” and links to YouTube videos of performances and interviews, as well as “The Peel Sessions,” featuring MP3s of material which is not available commercially.]


End Bug Issue 5

Lars Movin

Photo of Lars Movin, by Asger Schnack
Photograph by
Asger Schnack
(Click pic to enlarge)

Danish writer and film maker (whose last name is pronounced “mo-veen”). Born in 1959, he lives and works in Copenhagen, specializing in avant-garde art, underground film, Fluxus, Beat Generation literature, and associated topics.

His most recent books include Beat: on the trail of the American Beat Generation (2008), Captain Beefheart: a Bebop-monograph (2010), Downtown: a New York chronicle (2010), and Gerard Malanga: a Bebop-monograph (2011).

Selected films include The Misfits: 30 Years of Fluxus (1993), Lowell Celebrates Kerouac (1996), Something Wonderful May Happen: New York School of Poets (2001), and Words of Advice: William S. Burroughs on the Road (2007).

“...we have been born here to witness and celebrate. We wonder at our purpose for living. Our purpose
is to perceive the fantastic. Why have a universe if there is no audience?” — Ray Bradbury