Friday, December 17, 2010

Lester Bangs interviews Captain Beefheart in the Village Voice 1980

Amplify’d from
The Captain Beefheart Radar Station - click to go home

Captain Beefheart's Far Cry

This excellent article / interview was written by Lester Bangs
and was taken from the October 1st - 7th 1980 edition of Voice.

He's alive, but so is paint. Are you?

Don Van Vliet is a 39-year-old man who lives with his wife Jan
in a trailer in the Mojave Desert. They have very little money,
so it must be pretty hard on them sometimes, but I've never heard
them complain. Don Van Vliet is better known as Captain Beefheart,
a legend worldwide whom the better part of a generation of New Wave
rock 'n' roll bands' have cited as one of their most important spiritual
and musical forefathers: John Lydon/Rotten, Joe Strummer of the
Clash, Devo, Pere Ubu, and many others have attested to growing
up on copies of Van Vliet's 1969 album Trout Mask Replica, playing
its four sides of discordant yet juicy swampbrine jambalaya roogalator
over and over again until they knew whole bits - routines out of
his lyrics, which are a wild and totally original form of free-associational

There are some of us who think he is one of the giants of 20th
century music, certainly of the postwar era. He has never been to
music school, and taught himself to play about half a dozen instruments
including soprano sax, bass clarinet, harmonica, guitar, piano,
and most recently mellotron. He sings in seven and a half octaves,
and his style has been compared to Howlin' Wolf and several species
of primordial beasts. His music, which he composes for ensemble
and then literally teaches his bands how to play, is often atonal
but always swings in a way that very little rock ever has. His rhythmic
concept is unique. I hear Delta blues, free jazz, field hollers,
rock 'n' roll and lately something new that I can't put my finger
on but relates somehow to what they call "serious" music. You'll
probably hear several other things.

This is going to be a profile partially occasioned by the release
of his 12th (and best since 1972's Clear Spot) album, Doc at the
Radar Station. This is also going to be, and I hesitate mightily
to say this because I hate those articles where the writer brays
how buddybuddy he is with the rock stars, about someone I have long
considered a friend and am still only beginning to feel I understand
after 11 years. Which is perhaps not so long a time to take to be
able to say that you have learned anything about anyone.

Meanwhile, back in the Mojave Desert, Don Van Vliet is enjoying
a highly urbane, slyly witty (anecdotes and repartee litter the
lunar sands like sequins 'n' confetti on the floor of a Halloween
disco), and endlessly absorbing conversation with a gila monster.
"GRAAUUWWWKKK!" says the big slumbrous reptile, peering out its
laser-green lidless bulging eyes and missing nothing. "Brickbats
fly my fireplace," answers Van Vliet. "Upside down I see them in
the fire. They squeak and roast there. Wings leap across the floor."
"KRAAEEAUUWWWKKK!" advises heat-resistant gila. Van Vliet the Captain
nods and ponders the efficacy of such a course. They've both just
washed down the last of the scalding chilli fulla big eyed beans
from Venus what glare atcha accusingly as ya poppem doomward inya
mouf. The Captain, Van Vliet, call him which you choose, has chosen
to live out here, squatflat wampum on this blazened barren ground
for many a year. Don't see too much o' the hoomin side o' the varmint
family out here, but that's fine with Cap Vliet, "Doc" as he's called
by the crusty prospectors hung on lak chiggers from times before
his emigration to this spot.

Have you ever had somebody you idolized or looked up to as an

"Can't think of anybody, other than the fact that I thought
Van Gogh was excellent."

How about in music?

"Never in music I never have. A hero in music. No, fortunately."

So you didn't listen to like Delta blues and free jazz and
stuff before you started to-

"Not really. . . I met Eric Dolphy. He was a nice guy, but
it was real limited to me, like bliddle-liddle-diddlenopdedit-bop,
"I came a long way from St. Louie," like Ornette, you know. It didn't
move me."

Dolphy didn't MOVE you?

"Well, he moved me, but he didn't move me as much as a goose,
say. Now that could be a hero, a gander goose could definitely be
a hero, the way they blow their heart out for nothing like that."

Is that because you think that people generally do it for purposes
of ego?

"Um, yeah, which I think is good because it gets your shoes
tied. You know what I mean, it doesn't scare old ladies, you get
dressed. So I think that's nice."

You don't think it's possible to create art that's egoless,
that just flows through you?

"That's possible, I'm tryin' to do that, on this last album

Well, one thing I find is that the more I know the less I know.

"Me too. I don't know anything about music."

As reviews over the years have proved, it's always difficult to
write anything that really says something about Don Van Vliet. Perhaps
(though he may hate this comparison) this is because, like Brian
Eno, he approaches music with the instincts of a painter, in Beefheart's
case those of a sculptor as well. (When I was trying to pin him
down about something on his new album over the phone the other day,
he said: "Have you seen Franz Kline lately? You should go over to
the Guggenheim and see his Number Seven, they have it in such a
good place. He's probably closer to my music than any of the painters,
because it's just totally speed and emotion that comes out of what
he does.") When he's directing the musicians in his Magic Band he
often draws the songs as diagrams and shapes. Before that he plays
the compositions into a tape himself, "usually on a piano or a moog
synthesizer. Then I can shape it to be exactly the way I want it,
after I get it down there. It's almost like sculpture; that's actually
what I'm doing, I think. 'Cause I sure as hell can't afford marble,
as if there was any."

Much of what results, by any "normal" laws of music, cannot be
done. As for lyrics, again like Eno, he often works them up from
a sort of childlike delight at the very nature of the sounds themselves,
of certain words, so if, to pull an example out of the air; "anthrax,"
or "love" for that matter appears in a line, it doesn't necessarily
mean what you'll find in the dictionary if you look it up. Then
again, it might. Contrary to Rolling Stone, "Ashtray Heart" on the
new album has nothing to do with Beefheart's reaction to punk rockers
beyond one repeated aside that might as well be a red herring. ("Lut's
open up another case of the punks" is the line reflecting his rather
dim view of the New Wavers who are proud to admit to being influenced
by him. "I don't ever listen to 'em, you see, which is not very
nice of me but... then again, why should I look through my own vomit?
I think they're overlooking the fact - they're putting it back into
rock and roll: bomp, bomp, bomp, that's what I was tryin' to get
away from, that mama heartbeat stuff. I guess they have to make
a living, though.") He laughs about the misinterpretation, but since
the song is pretty clearly about betrayal, I asked: "What was it
about the person in the song that could make you care enough to
be that hurt?"

He says: "Humanity. The fact that people don't hear it the way
you really mean it. Probably for a similar reason that Van Gogh
gave that girl a piece of his flesh, because she was too stupid
to comprehend what he was doing. I always thought that he gave her
that as a physical thing to hold onto because she didn't accept
the aesthetic value of what he was saying."

'We don't have to suffer, we're the best batch yet.' Would
you care to comment on what that might mean?

"Yeah, what I was doing there was having these cardboard
ball sculptures, fake pearls, real cheap cardboard constructed circles,
you know what I mean, floating through that music. Actually, I was
afraid to sing on that track, I liked the music so much, it was
perfect without me on it. And so I put those words on there, you
know they're just cheap cardboard constructions of balls of simulated
pearls floating through, and it's an overwhelming technique that
makes them look like pearls. "We don't have to suffer, we're the
best batch yet" were these pearls talking to themselves."

As opposed to the other ones. What does mean when you say,
"White flesh waves to black"?

"God, I don't know what that means. It means, it's just a,
uh, it's merely just a painting, you see, that's poetic license."

I thought you were talking about racism.

"Oh, no. I don't know what to do about racial or political
things. It was just a poem to me. A poem for poem's sake."

I was also thinking of when you walk around looking at people
who have turned themselves into commodities.

"Yeah, we're the best batch yet! We're the newest best that
has been put out. Well that has to do with that, too. You know I'm,
uh, ahm, whaddaya call it, it isn't schizophrenic but it is, oh.
what people in the West think of people in the East, you see, meaning
that in some instances they think that people are crazy who think
multifaceted, that there's many ways of interpreting something.
I mean 'em all. I can't say I don't know what my lyrics mean, but
I can say that, oh, yeah I know what they mean, but if you call
it you stop the flow."

Van Morrison has said that he doesn't know what a lot of his own
lyrics, mean and even if Beefheart does, or they mean something
different for each of us, I think as with Morrison, occasionally
you feel that the voice of some Other just might be speaking through
this singer at this particular time, as if he were an instrument
picking up messages from...? Doc at the Radar Station. (About the
various voices he switches between, often in the same song: "I'll
tell you the truth, some of those guys really scare me, that come
out at me when I do some things, like 'Sheriff Of Hong Kong,' I
never met him before. Or she, I dunno. . . it's like different,
uh uh... you see, I don't think I do music, think I do spells.")

Wherever Don Van Vliet gets his rules and messages from, it's
rarely the external, socalled rational, I think psychotic "civilized"
society we've known and lived in. He chooses to live out of it,
mentally and physically, and began trying to escape from it at a
very early age: "I never went to school. I wet my pants and my mother
came and got me as I was running and I told her that I couldn't
go to school because I was sculpting at that time a hell of a lot.
That was kindergarten, I think. Itried to jump into the La Brea
Tar Pits when I was three, whatever that means. They caught me just
in time. I was sc intrigued by those bubbles going bmp bmp. I thought
I would find a dinosaur down there. I told my mother when I was
three years old - she showed it to me not too long ago, in this
baby book in that horrible Palmer Penmanship method of writing that
she used, you know that fantastic curlicues type stuff that had
everything to do with everything other than what it said, on this
old yellow piece of paper it's written out, that if she would stay
on one side of the room and I would stay on the other, that we would
be friends the rest of our life. I used to lock myself in a room
and sculpt when I was like three, five, six."

What sorts of things did you sculpt?

"Oh God, things that I would try to have moved kinetically, try
to move these things around. These were my friends, these little
animals that I would make, like dinosaurs and. . .I wasn't very
much in reality, actually."

Do you feel bad about that?

"No, ! feel good. I was right. The way people treat animals, I
don't like it. One of my horrible memories is the great Auk, the
fact that it was extinct before I was born. What a beautiful bird."

What were your parents like?

"Pretty banal. They moved me to Mojave, that's where they kept
the Japanese-Americans during World War II. They moved me up there
to keep me out of a scholarship to Europe for sculpture. They wanted
to get me away from all the 'queer' artists. Isn't that awful? Periscopes
in the tub, right?"

In this sense, he's still not very much in "reality." His problems
with record companies over the years are legendary. Yet he has,
somehow, kept on making those amazing albums; just when you've almost
given up hope, somebody else comes along and offers him a contract,
and he does another one, and it doesn't sell. Jon Landau told me
in 1970, when he was my record reviews editor at Rolling Stone:
"Grand Funk will be more important to the history of rock and roll
than Captain Beefheart. And you can quote me on that." But there
are other occasions, like the time I met a young woman in a bar
who was not a scenemaker or into avant-rock, and when I asked her
what kind of music she liked she said: "This guy I heard named Captain
Beefheart. There was just something kind of real sensual and musky
about it, I dunno. . .it was different, but I loved it."

Don and Jan van Vliet by James Hamilton

Beefheart himself thinks women tend to understand his music better
than men, so especially since he can be so elliptically, obscurantistly
difficult to pin down in interview and describing his music in prose
is kind of like trying to catch the prism of a dragonfly wing and
hold it intact in the palm of your hand, I'll talk about his wife.
Jan is a young woman of such radiance and wholehearted sincerity
that it can be a little stunning at first meeting. Phrases like
"earth mother" are too quaint, dreary, way off the mark. She is
as active an artist as he and the complexities of her mind are fully
up to his moodswings, which can give you jetlag. Which doesn't mean
she's the archetypal Great Artist's Nursemaid either - she won't
take his shit, and he can be a tyrannical baby at times. Like a
lot of us.

Jan helps mightily at broaching some kind of rapprochement communications-wise
between this man and the world at large. In other words, she translates.
In both directions. You'd see the same thing at the U.N. And if
Don is not exactly intoning "Klaatu baraada niktu," he does at times
seem almost like a visitor from another planet, or more precisely
someone still stunned by his first sight of this one, as I suspect
he always will be. Perhaps he just doesn't have those filtering
mechanisms which enable most of us to cope with "reality" by blocking
out at least 80 percent of it.

According to his set of filters, in-animate objects are alive,
and plants and animals share with them the capacity to think as
well as feel. Don sees perspicacity in a mesquite, an old broom-handle
even. If his lyrics are about anything absolutely, they are about

You're a painter. In "Run Paint Run Run" are you saying that
the paint itself is a conscious entity with a will of its own?

"Yeah! Definitely! Hey, you got it. Yes, it does have a will
of its own."

So it's alive.

"I think so. I definitely feel that it is."

Do you generally feel that about the things around you, inanimate

"Um hm. Yeah, I really do. I think they're all alive. Don't

I don't know.

"Come on, you do too."

So how do you and the paint get along?

"Pretty damn good, I'll tell ya. I'm just looking forward
to getting enough money to be able to really paint big. I don't
wanna paint any littler than five by five. But I'd like to paint
twenty by twenty."

Do you and the paint ever have fights?

"Yeah, definitely."

Do you feel the same way about the electric guitar, that when
you plug it into the call it's this battle of wills sort of?

"I think so. It'll spit out atcha anything that's out there."

Was that what you were talking about in 'Electricity"?

"Yeah, that had a hell of a lot to do with it. It always seems
to come out the way it wants to, y'know."

I think that partially Don anthropomorphises animals and objects
as a defence against a human crew who empirical observation has
told him are by and large incomprehensible to themselves as well
as him, that's when they're not also out to getcha. He's like an
Androcles that would chat a spell with Leo but see fangs and claws
on a delivery boy. Lacking aforesaid filters, he has devised an
elaborate system of checkpoint charlies to keep most of humankind's
snoots at bay. This can sometimes be frustrating. His favourite
device in the past was to always say some bigtime gonzo Dada non-sequitur
("All roads lead to Coca-Cola" was the first one I ever heard),
then look you straight in the eye and insistently enquire: "Do you
know what I mean?"

"Yeah, sure, Don, sure!" everybody (except Jan) would always huffnpuff.
He is a very charismatic person; a guru, of sorts. He knows how
to charm, and has a way of flattering you by asking you all. kinds
of questions suggesting real concern. He really means it too, his
basic philosophy has always been summed up in the open invitation
to share his suddenly brighter sunshine in Trout Mask Replica's
"Frownland". But see, that's just it: it was always his sunshine,
on another level all these things were and are distancing devices
(though he's not nearly as egocentrically defensive as he used to
be) and it can be extremely frustrating because no matter how intimate
you get with somebody if all they ever say practically is stuff
that sounds like it came out of their lingo-tango lyrics (another
technique is to ask you to elaborate when you ask a question and
then just agree with you) you go home with a tape recorder full
of words that mean nothing in particular and the sad hunch that
there was something a bit impersonal about this whole affair. I've
been told that with Don the best countertactic is to try and pin
him down: "Just exactly what do you mean?" But somehow I've never
been able to draw that hard a line. The man is too magical. Literally.
Once in Detroit I walked into a theatre through the back door while
he was onstage performing. At the precise moment I stepped to the
edge of the curtains on stage right where I could see him out there
haranguing the audience, he said, very clearly, "Lester!" His back
was to me at the time. Later he asked me if I had noticed it. I
was a little shaken.

The years of what career-oriented folks would file as "failure"
have ripened and mellowed Don; like most of us, he's grown up some,
albeit perhaps against his will. Once I listened to him rant drunk
and bitter all night; now I ask him: "Do you think the music business
will ever find you 'commercial,' and do you care?"

"I don't think they ever will," he laughs, "and I don't care.
I'm just thankful that an audience is listening to me."

He just lets it turn with the earth, though he was particularly
angry in the past when a band he literally taught to play cut some
sides on Mercury under his name without even telling him. There
are also many of us who think Frank Zappa, with whom he grew up,
wouldn't be hock in a spittoon, much less a "composer" (anybody
says that certifies themselves a moron), if there had never been
a Don Van Vliet on this earth. When Zappa established his Straight
Records in 1968, he invited Don to join a carny sideshow which also
included the GTO's, Alice Cooper and Wild Man Fischer, producing,
or so he was credited, Trout Mask Replica. Hell, it's such a sleeper
you can still order it from Warner Comm. That record was four sides,
28 songs cut in two days of the most unparalleled ruckus in the
annals of recorded sound. In it, after relatively unfocused albums
for Buddah (with whom he even scored a minor hit in '66, "Diddy
Wah Diddy") and Blue Thumb, Beefheart and his unearthly looking
cabal of spazmo henchmen seemed effortlessly to cook up the sofar
still definitive statement on the possibilities for some common
ground ("fusion," I believe they called some bath-water quickbuckaroos
bearing scant relation a few years later) on which raunch rock,
slide-slinging Delta blues and post Coltrane/Shepp/Ayler free jazz
might consecrate a shakedown together.

Like almost all of Beefheart's recorded work, it was not even "ahead"
of its time in 1969. Then and now, it stands outside time, trends,
fads, hypes, the rise and fall of whole genres eclectic as walking
Christmas trees, constituting a genre unto itself: truly, a musical
Monolith if ever there was one. On it, Beefheart, behind a truly
scarifying gallery of separate voices, becomes at various times
a sagebrush prospector, Jews screaming in the ovens at Auschwitz,
greased-back East L.A. pachuco, a breakable pig, automobile, "Ant
Man Bee" (title of one song), a little girl and her brinechawed
seafarin' aged father (in the same song), a Pa Kettle-mischievous
"Old Fart at Play," and several species of floral piscatorial and
amphibious life. The band under his tutelage, thereon reinvent from
the ground up rhythm, melody, harmonies, perhaps what our common
narrow parameters have defined as "music" itself.

Since then he has released seven albums of varying quality. The
immediate followup, Lick My Decals Off Baby, was brilliant though
a little abrasive even for my ears at the time it was released.
1971's The Spotlight Kid was more commercial though hardly compromised,
and many people regard 1972's Clear Spot, a minor masterpiece of
sorts, as a dance album in disguise. Two later records on Mercury
Unconditionally Guaranteed and BlueJeans and Moon Beams were baldface
attempts at sellout. Shiny Beast, a charming but relatively minor
work, was re leased by Warner Brothers in 1978. None of these albums
has sold more than 50 or 60 thousand, and that's over a long period
of time; only Trout Mask and Shiny Beast, in fact, remain in the

Perhaps it is the ''success" ("triumph?") of New Wave that has
emboldened Warner Brothers. In any case Doc at the Radar Station
is one of the most brilliant achievements by any artist in any year.
And in 1980 it seems like a miracle. It certainly is not compromised,
and I doubt that it will get any radio play in this country at least,
but then I said the Clash didn't have a prayer. While some of his
self-acknowledged acolytes have gone on to stardom, megabucks, popout
lunch boxes, etc., the progenitor remains in his Mojave trailer,
where he barely has room for an indoor easel. (So if any neo-Florentine
patron is reading this, I will make a plea that Don would never
make or ask anyone else to for him: support a real artist.) I'm
not sawing violins in half - Don certainly doesn't feel sorry for
himself, and in late 1977 when he reappeared at the Bottom Line
with a new band and Shiny Beast in the wings, he had the distinct
air of a, well, I don't even feel "survivor" is the word. A patriarch,
perhaps, a high priest, born again from Ancient Egypt smiling like
the spuming headwaters of the Nile, long weathered body holding
just that many mysteries, arcane secrets from half-apocryphal texts
of hoodoo mojo Coptic canebreak healings of the kind Ishmael Reed
likes to dream up.

Next to him, Dr. John looked like Gary Glitter (apologies to Dr
John, I’m sure he doesn’t mean it - Graham): all soot, no zoot.
He could go 15 rounds brainwave-to-brainwave with Screamin’ Jay
Hawkins and judges who know nothin' anyway call it a draw. Might
be the white Leadbelly. Too much in love with living to be Robert
Johnson. In the late '60s, some hotshit young hitpicker got famous
by proclaiming that Don Van Vliet, if he wanted to, could be the
greatest white blues singer in the world." That would have been
dumb as settling for a moosehead over the fireplace when you’ve
lassoed the Loch Ness Monster and taken it to dinner, highballs
and dancing. Like Van Gogh doing pasteup for Bloomingdale's. Make
no mistake, Captain Beefheart is an absolutely authentic hunk of
taproot Americana on a Mark Twain level with Paul Bunyan stature.

But today an artist is expected to market him or herself as a commodity
to be generally recognised. So in that sense it's no wonder Don
retreated to the Mojave outback. On the other hand, the old irret
routine doesn't exactly work anymore either. And Don has pretty
much been through his phase of living out the artist as Genius/Idiot
Savant cliche. On the phone the other day I mentioned Andy Warhol,
and Don said, "He soups things up. But isn't it nice, being able
to say that we're not like him?" At the time I thought his was a
shopworn verbal popper combined with an absolutely childlike attitude:
"Isn't it nice, being able to say that we're not like him?" Well,
yes, it is, and Mr. Rogers will be here at 3:30. This plus the fact
that artists know how much they can get away with, how much we in
fact expect of them, can lead to truly sick situations, disastrous
for all concerned: "Isn't it nice, being somebody's pet?" I feel
like even the word "genius" should be put in quotation marks because
the very concept has a way of getting out of hand, like an unruly
child. Artists often end up conspiring with their adoring audiences
to ensure their own isolation. Once, a very long time ago, I saw
Don go sweeping imperiously in and out of hotels until he found
one that met his aesthetic specifications, entourage (including
me) trailing embarrassedly behind while he wore a cape and doodled
on a pad the whole time.

Still, there is something ingenuously natural about him. I don't
think, for instance, that he necessarily "tries" to "create" these
things, they just sort of happen to (through?) him. In the course
of this process, he has managed to practically reinvent both music
and the English language. And if you think that's a thorny thicket
of defenses to try and hack through so as to get at the actual person
back there, you're right. He embarrasses you with his effusiveness;
he feels misunderstood and craves desperately to talk with anyone
who, he's satisfied, understands what he's trying to do. I don't
know why he thinks I understand it. I only understand a little part
of it. A lot of it is Sanskrit to me too. But you'll never miss
the feeling however obtuse the structure, because this man is almost
100 per cent feeling, can be feverish with it, leads with every
open nerveend till sometimes you wonder if he has a mind at all,
or just threw the one he had away one day because every pore in
the body is a knowing little eye fiercely darting at experience.

Now, there is no reason on earth why such a creature should be
articulate. Except that he is. But on his terms, most of the time.
And this is what has always bothered me. What good is being an artist,
creating all these beautiful things, if you can't just throw down
your defenses sometimes and share things on the common level of
other people? Without that, it's barren and ultimately pathetic.
Ultimately, without some measure of that, it can never matter as
art. 'Cause art's of the heart. And I'm talking about the heart
that flies between two or more humans, not to the ghost of the great
Auk, or a glob of paint, or any of his other little friends. All
this week, one song off Trout Mask Replica kept playing in my head:
"Orange Claw Hammer," an unaccompanied field holler-like poem about
a man who's been away at sea for years and catches first sight of
his daughter since she was in swaddling. He grasps her hand and
offers to "Take you down to the foamin' brine ‘n water, and show
you the wooden tits on the goddess with the pole out full-sail that
tempted away your pegleg father. I was shanghaied by a highhat beaver-moustache
man and his pirate friend. I woke up in vomit and beer in a banana
bin, and a soft lass with brown skin bore me seven babies with snappin'
black eyes and beautiful ebony skin, and here it is I'm with you
my daughter. Thirty years away can make a seaman’s eyes, a round-house
man's eyes flow out with water, salt water."

Now if that isn't pure true American folklore then you can throw
everything from Washington Irving to Carl Sandburg and beyond in
the garbage. I'm saying Don Van Vliet, "Captain Beefheart," is on
that level. But what I realised this morning, the reason why it
was this song stuck out from 26 others: because it's not about the
"Neon Meate Dream of a Octafish," but something that happened between

Why do you almost always talk elliptically?

"Due to the fact that probably it's very difficult for me
to explain myself except in music or paint."

But don't you think talking that way all the time is kind of
impersonal, a distancing effect?

"It probably comes out very personal in the music. That's
where I'm truthful and honest. I don't know how it happens exactly,
but my mind becomes the piano or guitar."

What about when you're alone with Jan?

"We don't talk too much. Because we trust each other, and
we don't have that much faith in the spoken word. I guess it's true
that I do talk selfishly, as a conversationalist."

Well, don't you think you're missing something you might get
from other people by being that way?

"Sure, but they usually won't accept me anyway. I'm comfortable
talking to you. Not many people seem to have things in common with
me. I guess what intrigues me the most is something like seeing
somebody wash my windows - that's like a symphony."

But if you and I are friends, and you trust me, we should be
able to have a reciprocal conversation.

"We're talking without talking. I mean that in a good sense.
We're saying things that can't be put into the tongue. It's like
good music.

In the end I'm not sure which of us is right. I am probably unfair
in wanting everything so explicitly defined from everybody, demanding
the rest of the human race (perhaps especially ironic in the case
of artists and musicians) be as verbal or verbose as I am. I can't
say that he's wrong in choosing to live out of society, because
this society itself doesn't seem to have much of a future, and doesn't
seem to care either. A goat and a corporation exec, or most rising
young affluent career people around this town for that matter, come
up about even conversation-wise, and the goat smells better and
is fun to pet so there you are. As for art that deals with human
situations, almost none of the art being produced from within the
society these days does that, so why pick on Beefheart because he'd
rather commune with paints and bats in the fireplace? Certainly
he illuminates more about the human heart, and the human groin for
that matter, than all these dry dead literati and "minimalist" artists
and juiceless composers. As for Don Van Vliet the man, each passing
year seems to bring him farther out of defensive obscurantism, measurably
more open and trusting, which is really wild in itself because the
world around is careening in exactly the opposite direction.

Besides which on another level it's none of my business anyway,
except insofar as he chose to make it so. If he is somewhat in retreat,
it can be justified on all the levels above and several more I'm
sure, besides which who isn't in retreat these days? His kind takes
a lot more courage than most, and as. an artist he is so far removed
from any kind of burnout that he can't even be called, like I said
earlier and like all the Neil Youngs and Lou Reeds who made it from
the late '60s to this point relatively intact, a survivor. More
like a natural resource. The difference, finally, is that, to use
an example by one of his favourite writers, he'll never give us
his version of Macbeth. He would rather be the Grand Canyon.

-Lester Bangs, Photo by James Hamilton
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