Sadness Alert: Captain Beefheart Dies
Andrew Dansby at 4:10 pm on December 17, 2010
The only time I played Captain Beefheart in the presence of my wife, she was asleep on a long drive and was jarred from slumber by the sounds of Safe As Milk. "This is upsetting, please turn it off," she said. Many had similar reactions. I, however, loved his stuff.
Beefheart, born Don Van Vliet, died today at 69.
To call Beefheart a quintessential critics' act (which was a common tag) unfairly diminishes his music. (And for what it's worth, thumbing through a Rolling Stone Album Guide, Beefheart doesn't have an entry (Capone and Norieta, however, do). He was more quintessentially a cult favorite and iconoclast (like his old running buddy Frank Zappa), whose cracked-up sort of bluesy garage Americana was prickly and never coddling. Like Roky Erickson, he possessed a monster voice, which he applied in unsettling ways. A common avant garde jazzism is that one needs to learn the music before destroying or deconstructing it. Beefheart knew a great deal about a great many musics.
His most lionized record is 1969's Trout Mask Replica, which deserves its reverence. For those new to Beefheart, I'd recommend 1967's Safe As Milk (which if memory serves features some great guitar by Ry Cooder), sampled below.
The Glendale, Calif., native was a recluse and an eccentric, in both music and visual arts. Eric Drew Feldman, a keyboardist and producer who worked with the Pixies and the Polyphonic Spree and who used to play with Beefheart says Beefheart would drive 90 miles into Los Angeles for sessions. "I think he'd have had his own little world wherever he was," Feldman says.
"He would seem like he was stimulated by the city, but at the same time the commotion freaked him out."
Feldman's introduction to Beefheart was his 1968 album Strictly Personal, which he bought at a local market because he and Van Vliet lived in the same town.
"I went home and listened to it, but I couldn't make hide nor hair of it," he says. "But in those days I kept with it because I'd just spent $2.98 on an album and that was a lot of money to me at the time. I was on some holiday a month later and people were playing music on this wind-up turntable. I kept missing that record. That's when I knew I liked it."
Beefheart's music rarely offered a welcome mat, but it was stimulating company with time and attention.
Colman Andrews Fri, 12/17/2010 - 5:19pm
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I've written zillions of words about food and wine and been widely quoted and anthologized in that context, but one of the things I'm proudest of in my professional life is that the Wikipedia entry for "The Spotlight Kid" quotes my 1972 review of the album from Phonograph Record Magazine in which I maintained that it showed Don Van Vliet to be "the greatest white blues singer in America today".