Gary Lucas discusses Don Van Vliet’s legacy in advance of Thursday’s Captain Beefheart Symposium
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Longtime Captain Beefheart guitarist-manager Gary Lucas will present a symposium on the life and legacy of the artist otherwise known as Don Van Vliet, who died Dec. 17, at the Echoplex at 8 p.m. Jan. 13. Special guests Kristine McKenna, Bill Mosely, Weba Garretson, Matt Groening, Stan Ridgway and others discuss and perform selections from Beefheart’s body of work.
Lucas shares with Pop & Hiss insight about the life and art of the one and only Captain Beefheart.
Pop & Hiss: You’ve called Don Van Vliet an American maverick visionary genius who single-handedly changed the face of music. How did he do this?
The music that he originated that came up especially on his classic albums such as ‘Trout Mask Replica,’ and ‘Lick My Decals Off, Baby’ had a really big influence on early experimental rock, particularly in the area of rhythm and the deconstruction of traditional melodies and harmonies within the songs. Van Vliet brought in polytonality and atonality within the song structure, and he did it in such a way that once you heard it, it was really hard to shake. The influence of the blues is something that roots Beefheart’s sound, but he also had this overlay of free jazz sensibility; at one point he cited people like Ornette Coleman and John Coltrane as influences on his own music.
The music that emanated with all of these different influences was so original that, in the first explosion of what they were calling punk and new wave music, I heard traces of it pretty obviously in quite a few bands, such as XTC, Devo and Talking Heads. Most of the people in those bands did cite Don as an influence and acknowledged him, and certainly Johnny Rotten and Joe Strummer both went on record saying he was a tremendous influence on their music and a hero to them.
His music was so strong and striking that its reverberations are still being felt to this day. And when anybody tries to mess with the format of traditional rhythm and harmonies within a pop-song structure, you can trace most of the pioneering work to Don Van Vliet.
A lot of people might not have known about his influence on a lot of their favorite music.
Don pioneered all this stuff, and the trace elements were sprinkled through another artist’s muse. Maybe people will just think, ‘Wow, this guy’s a genius, where did he come from?’ Well, this happens with real pioneers, originators who may not get their due in the world at all or will maybe after their deaths.
I think Don was lucky at least from a critical standpoint; he had most of the music journalists in the world paying attention, people who knew music and loved music and studied it and viewed music as a foreground experience and not a background activity. They knew how important it was, how great it was.
But when I was working with him, my mission was to try and transmit the story, his genius, to many people. I felt, here was a guy who really couldn’t get the credit he deserved. And I saw so many younger bands taking influence and popularizing bits of it.
But at the end of the day, Don’s work is so singular that the reverberations will be felt for years. I think we’re just going to start seeing more and more people waking up to it now.
What was Van Vliet like? Pretty quirky?
He was the most charismatic, charming, magical person to have a conversation with I’ve ever encountered. He exuded warmth and care when you were in a one-on-one with him; you always felt like you were the only person in the world having this dialogue with this savant. And the conversations were so full of allusions — he loved wordplay and punning, so if you could follow the quicksilver currents of his mind, you’d be rewarded with, say, a conversation that would jump from subject to subject, that may seemingly be disparate subjects, but he would make connections that were really astonishing. In the space of a few minutes you could go from talking about how mosquitoes managed to dodge raindrops in a rainstorm to the state of politics and beyond.
He was just full of great imagery. And it just flowed out of him. It was like one of his paintings come to life.
Was there a personality shift in Van Vliet when it came to putting the music together and playing it right?
It’s well known that many people who came through the band complained about how tyrannical he could be. But in his defense, you kind of knew that that went with the territory, that he was prone to these mood swings, and he was one of these artists who it had to be exactly the way he wanted it when you were working with him. You had to more or less be the vessel through which you were transmitting his intentions.
He had antecedents in people like Picasso, Wagner. He really was someone who could be driven — when he was in the throes of creation, it just poured out of him, and if it got messy, that could be unfortunate, but it was still an experience I wouldn’t have traded for the world. And I learned so much under his tutelage.
You just called Beefheart a savant, but he was no idiot.
By savant I meant a genius. He was really sophisticated, and his judgments about a lot of things — aethetic judgments and political judgments — were borne out over the years. He was pretty sharp for someone who didn’t have much in the way of formal schooling. He could hold his own with all sorts of people on different levels.
One can see Van Vliet in line with other mavericks such as Harry Partch, John Cage, Sun Ra and Ornette Coleman; artists who made new sounds either because it was the only way they knew how or they simply saw no good reason to follow the rules.
Yeah, he could be included in that group with honor, for sure. And to me, because of the added extra value of the poetry and the art, he surpasses these people as an artistic figure because he was able to do all these things. He was a guy who really was exploding with ideas and images and new ways to see the world, so it sort of went beyond the mere experience of the composer or musician. I guess the only figure I can think of that operated on the same level as Don in music but also had this genius in other media is Dylan.
In 1984, Van Vliet said he didn’t want to record or tour anymore as he felt he had said everything he wanted to say and preferred to concentrate on his painting. Looking at his art, do you see common principles at work, i.e., did he paint like he composed music?
Everything that he did is an extension of the same principles, and the source of its manifestation in different media is just his artistic integrity. He told me when he decided to quit music that he thought he had a lot more to say in painting than he did in music. And I was like, ‘Man, you’ve done so much in music and made such an impact, it’s amazing you would say that. And he said, “Painting goes way farther than music.” Let’s not forget that he began as a child prodigy sculptor, so he’d already been recognized as a gifted visual artist.
Can you see the day when Captain Beefheart will be inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame?
It probably doesn’t matter, but in my mind, there’ve been artists inducted who had a lot less talent than Don Van Vliet. Here’s a guy who clearly had a major impact on pop music, on experimental rock, on punk and new wave music. He was one of the originators of the sounds, the granddaddy of a lot of it; he should be at the table, he should be sitting there. But would he have thought so? Probably not, because, you know, he was so contrary and disdainful of what you and I might think would be a cool accolade or something.
I think it matters in terms of trying to transmit a legacy to people who are not hipsters, who do not really follow the avant garde, underground art scene, to know that there was such a guy. Because they might actually like the music, which would be a good thing, get more people aware of the music and actually listen to it carefully. [Laughs] What a wonderful world it would be. But it would be a more interesting world, because it demanded such foreground attention.
Don used to say, “I make music for bored people.” And in order to really get into his music, you had to really listen to it, be very alert and attentive to get all the nuances. Most people prefer music as something to do the dishes to, have it in the background as an adjunct to another type of activity. But for people who are bored and are looking for something different, this is the grail.
— John Payne
The Captain Beefheart Symposium, 8 p.m., Thursday, Jan. 13, at the Echoplex. $14-$17.