Don Van Vliet’s tip for guitarists: “Listen to the birds. That’s where all music comes from.”
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Among the bits of advice that Don Van Vliet, in the guise of his musical alter ego, Captain Beefheart, listed in a 1996 musical primer called “Captain Beefheart’s 10 Commandments of Guitar Playing,” is this, number 1: “Listen to the birds. That’s where all the music comes from. Birds know everything about how it should sound and where that sound should come from. And watch hummingbirds. They fly really fast, but a lot of times they aren’t going anywhere.”
Van Vliet, who died on Friday at 69, followed this advice throughout his career, making guitar-based music as part of Captain Beefheart and the Magic Band from the mid-1960s through the early ‘80s that was primal, transcendental, animalistic and absolutely out-of-time. Intensely bound with the natural world, the singer, composer, horn and woodwind player, bandleader -- and, after his retirement from the music business, painter – lived his life as a provocateur who ventured to the sonic and structural edges of rock to expand the music’s possibilities.
As a result, though, on first listen the best of Van Vliet and band, even 40 years later, sounds wrong – but only in the way that, say, Marcel Duchamp’s cubist painting “Nude Descending a Staircase, No. 2” looks wrong. Many of Van Vliet’s peers both in the L.A. scene and as part of the British Invasion were transfixed with black blues and R&B music, and harnessed that love to invent their version of rock & roll, and then steadfastly stayed within the imposed blues-based template for the rest of their creative lives. But once Van Vliet mastered the style – on the fiery first two singles, Bo Diddley’s “Diddy Wah Diddy” and an original called “Frying Pan” -- he and the band started dismantling it, examining its parts, and reconstructing it to create blues/rock/free jazz as seen through shattered monocle.
This deconstruction occurred over a three-year period between 1966 and 1969 in various apartments and houses in Hollywood, Laurel Canyon and Woodland Hills. Guitarist Ry Cooder, who played guitar and helped translate Van Vliet’s vision on Captain Beefheart’s first full-length album in 1967, “Safe As Milk,” described Beefheart’s music in a BBC documentary like this: “Somehow the concept seemed to be, you take the raw blues elements, like the John Lee Hooker idea, Howlin’ Wolf, down to its purest element, which is just sound -- a grunt maybe -- and something abstract. And then you take your John Coltrane, your crazy time signature, free jazz, Ornette Coleman thing. Sort of hybridize them together, and this is what you come up with.”
The result was confusing, oblong and, at times, sonicly painful. Pulitzer Prize winning music critic Tim Page once wrote that at the pinnacle of Captain Beefheart’s notoriety, “there was no faster way to clear out a party than to put on one of his records and turn it up.” Page compared first encounters with the music as “befriending a porcupine.”
“I’ve always known I’m an animal,” Van Vliet told writer Kristine McKenna in 1980. “Most people struggle to block that knowledge out, but I’ve held onto it with tenacity. And the truth is so obvious. It’s impossible to cut ourselves off from the dirt because gravity keeps us in and of it. You can’t escape gravity.”
Forty years later, the most forward-thinking of the music -- such as “Veteran’s Day Poppy,” “Abba Zaba,” ’Clear Spot,’ and “Click Clack” -- sounds dissonant, while remaining tight and well practiced. Songs like “Kandy Korn,” an zen-like ode to yellow and orange candy, swirl with rhythm patterns and melody lines that are as precise as they are complex.
A notoriously demanding leader, Van Vliet was uncompromising in following his vision for the music: “I’ve written every drum bit I’ve ever done,” he told McKenna, “Every note. I play the drums. I play the guitar. I play the piano. I want it exactly the way I want it. Exactly. Any composer, I would think, would want it that way. And I don’t deviate from it at all. Don’t you think that somebody like Stravinsky, for instance, that it would annoy him if somebody bent a note the wrong way?”
On “Trout Mask Replica,” recorded under what were described by band members as “cult-like” conditions in a Woodland Hills house, his voice yowls and winnies, cackles and mumbles, dredging the bottom of his vocal range until he hits bedrock, then flies straight into the clouds like the winged creatures he mimicked. The music jerks, skids and crashes around him. Within the 1969 double album, produced by Van Vliet’s longtime friend and early collaborator Frank Zappa, free association begets lyrical chaos. Van Vliet barks out non-sequiturs (some would call it “pretentious garbage”) like “Gray age fell down on uh a pair of ears/An eagle shined thru my whole watch pocket.” His voice seems to embody the spirit world.
Though by residing in the fringes he never achieved mainstream success (at least as a musician – he spent his last decades with his wife, Jan, as a successful visual artist), without Van Vliet and his band’s output entire rock subgenres, from prog to new wave and post punk to grunge, indie rock and avant noise, wouldn’t sound the same. He crafted a sonic palette that’s still being used today. And though his output in the 1970s and early ’80s was uneven as he struggled – and failed -- to make a living as a musician, the music inspired artists including Tom Waits, PJ Harvey, John Lydon, and Devo by introducing dissonance and questioning the very nature of the rules -- in the process, changing brain patterns and ways of hearing.
“The people who still listen to my music must understand that I never meant them any harm,” Van Vliet told McKenna, sounding almost apologetic as he acknowledged the inherent challenge inside the oblong rhythms and crooked structures. “I just felt some change was in order. There was nothing mean in what I was doing, although nature can be pretty mean, and nature was what that music was about. But not nature with a loincloth.”
-- Randall Roberts