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Cpt Beefheart

Blues rock

Frank Zappa

captain beefheart by dubside on Grooveshark

Don Van Vliet ( born Don Glen Vliet; January 15, 1941 – December 17, 2010) was an American musician, singer-songwriter, artist and poet best known by the stage name Captain Beefheart. His musical work was conducted with a rotating ensemble of musicians called The Magic Band, active between 1965 and 1982, with whom he recorded 13 studio albums. Noted for his powerful singing voice with its wide range, Van Vliet also played the harmonica, saxophone and numerous other wind instruments. His music blended rock, blues and psychedelia with avant-garde and contemporary experimental composition. Beefheart was also known for exercising an almost dictatorial control over his supporting musicians, and for often constructing myths about his life.

During his teen years in Lancaster, California, Van Vliet developed an eclectic musical taste and formed "a mutually useful but volatile" friendship with Frank Zappa, with whom he sporadically competed and collaborated. He began performing with his Captain Beefheart persona in 1964 and joined the original Magic Band line-up, initiated by Alexis Snouffer, in 1965. The group drew attention with their cover of Bo Diddley's "Diddy Wah Diddy", which became a regional hit. It was followed by their acclaimed debut album Safe as Milk, released in 1967 on Buddah Records. After being dropped by two consecutive record labels, they signed to Zappa's Straight Records. As producer, Zappa granted Beefheart unrestrained artistic freedom in making 1969's Trout Mask Replica, which ranked fifty-eighth in Rolling Stone magazine's 2003 list of the 500 greatest albums of all time. In 1974, frustrated by lack of commercial success, he released two albums of more conventional rock music that were critically panned; this move, combined with not having been paid for a European tour, and years of enduring Beefheart's abusive behavior, led the entire band to quit. Beefheart eventually formed a new Magic Band with a group of younger musicians and regained contemporary approval through three final albums: Shiny Beast (Bat Chain Puller) (1978), Doc at the Radar Station (1980) and Ice Cream for Crow (1982).

Van Vliet has been described as "one of modern music's true innovators" with "a singular body of work virtually unrivalled in its daring and fluid creativity". Although he achieved little commercial or mainstream critical success, he sustained a cult following as a "highly significant" and "incalculable" influence on an array of New Wave, punk, post-punk, experimental and alternative rock musicians. Known for his enigmatic personality and relationship with the public, Van Vliet made few public appearances after his retirement from music (and from his Beefheart persona) in 1982. He pursued a career in art, an interest that originated in his childhood talent for sculpture, and a venture which proved to be his most financially secure. His expressionist paintings and drawings command high prices, and have been exhibited in art galleries and museums across the world. Van Vliet died in 2010 after many years of multiple sclerosis.

Early life and musical influences, 1941–1962

Van Vliet was born Don Glen Vliet in Glendale, California, on January 15, 1941, to Glen Alonzo Vliet, a service station owner of Dutch ancestry from Kansas, and Willie Sue Vliet (née Warfield), who was from Arkansas. He claimed to have as an ancestor Peter Van Vliet, a Dutch painter who knew Rembrandt. Van Vliet also claimed that he was related to adventurer and author Richard Halliburton and the cowboy actor Slim Pickens, and said that he remembered being born.

Van Vliet began painting and sculpting at age three. His subjects reflected his "obsession" with animals, particularly dinosaurs, fish, African mammals and lemurs. At the age of nine he won a children's sculpting competition organised for the Los Angeles Zoo in Griffith Park by a local tutor, Agostinho Rodrigues. Local newspaper cuttings of his junior sculpting achievements can be found reproduced in the Splinters book, included in the Riding Some Kind Of Unusual Skull Sleigh boxed CD work, released in 2004. The sprawling park, with its zoo and observatory had a strong influence on young Vliet, as it was a short distance from his home on Waverly Drive. The track "Observatory Crest" on Bluejeans & Moonbeams reflects this continued interest. A portrait photo of the school-age Vliet can be seen on the front of the lyric sheet within the first issue of the US release of Trout Mask Replica.

For some time during the 1950s Van Vliet worked as an apprentice with Rodrigues, who considered him a child prodigy. Vliet made claim to have been a lecturer at the Barnsdall Art Institute in Los Angeles at the age of eleven, although it is likely he simply gave a form of artistic dissertation. Accounts of Van Vliet's precocious achievement in art often include his statement that he sculpted on a weekly television show. He claimed that his parents discouraged his interest in sculpture, based upon their perception of artists as 'queer'. They declined several scholarship offers,including one from the local Knudsen Creamery to travel to Europe with six years' paid tuition to study marble sculpture. Van Vliet later admitted personal hesitation to take the scholarship based upon the bitterness of his parents' disencouragement.

Van Vliet's artistic enthusiasm became so fervent, he claimed that his parents were forced to feed him through the door in the room where he sculpted. When he was thirteen the family moved from the Los Angeles area to the more remote farming town of Lancaster, near the Mojave Desert, where there was a growing aerospace industry and testing plant that would become Edwards Airforce Base. It was an environment that would greatly influence him creatively from then on. Van Vliet remained interested in art; his paintings, often reminiscent of Franz Kline's, were later featured on several of his own albums. Meanwhile he developed his taste and interest in music, listening "intensively" to the Delta blues of Son House and Robert Johnson, jazz artists such as Ornette Coleman, John Coltrane, Thelonious Monk and Cecil Taylor, and the Chicago blues of Howlin' Wolf and Muddy Waters. During his early teenage years Vliet would sometimes socialize with members of local bands such as The Omens and The Blackouts, although his interests were still focused upon an art career. The Omens' guitarists Alexis Snouffer and Jerry Handley would later become founders of "The Magic Band" and The Blackouts' drummer, Frank Zappa, would later capture Vliet's vocal capabilities on record for the first time. This first known recording, when he was simply 'Don Vliet', is "Lost In A Whirlpool" - one of Zappa's early 'field recordings' made in his college classroom with brother Bobby on guitar. It is featured on Zappa's posthumously released The Lost Episodes (1996).

Van Vliet claimed that he never attended public school, alleging "half a day of kindergarten" to be the extent of his formal education and saying that "if you want to be a different fish, you've got to jump out of the school." His associates said that he only dropped out during his senior year of high school to help support the family after his father's heart attack. His graduation picture appears in the school's yearbook. While attending Antelope Valley High School in Lancaster, Van Vliet became close friends with fellow teenager Frank Zappa, the pair bonding through their interest in Chicago blues and R&B. Van Vliet is portrayed in both The Real Frank Zappa Book and Barry Miles' biography Zappa as fairly spoiled at this stage of his life, the center of attention as an only child. He spent most of his time locked in his room listening to records, often with Zappa, into the early hours in the morning, eating leftover food from his father's Helms bread truck and demanding that his mother bring him a Pepsi. His parents tolerated such behavior under the belief that their child was truly gifted. Vliet's 'Pepsi-moods' were ever a source of amusement to band members, leading Zappa to later write the wry tune "Why Doesn't Someone Give Him A Pepsi?" that featured on the Bongo Fury tour.

After Zappa began regular occupation at Paul Buff's PAL Studio in Cucamonga he and Van Vliet began collaborating, tentatively as "The Soots". By the time Zappa had turned the venue into Studio Z the duo had completed some songs. These were "Cheryl's Canon", "Metal Man Has Won His Wings" and a Howlin' Wolf styled rendition of Little Richard's "Slippin' and Slidin'". Further songs, on Zappa's Mystery Disc (1996), "I Was a Teen-Age Malt Shop" and "The Birth of Captain Beefheart" also provide an insight to Zappa's 'teenage movie' script titled Captain Beefheart vs. the Grunt People, the first appearances of the Beefheart name. It has been suggested this name came from a term used by Vliet's Uncle Alan who had a habit of exposing himself to Don's girlfriend, Laurie Stone. He would urinate with the bathroom door open and, if she was walking by, would mumble about his penis, saying "Ahh, what a beauty! It looks just like a big, fine beef heart." In a 1970 interview with Rolling Stone, Van Vliet requests "don't ask me why or how" he and Zappa came up with the name. He would later claim in an appearance on Late Night with David Letterman that the name referred to "a beef in my heart against this society." In the "Grunt People" draft script Beefheart and his mother play themselves, with his father played by Howlin' Wolf. Grace Slick is penned in as a 'celestial seductress' and there are also roles for future Magic Band members Bill Harkleroad and Mark Boston.

Van Vliet enrolled at Antelope Valley Junior College as an art major, but decided to leave the following year. He once worked as a door-to-door vacuum cleaner salesman, during which time he sold a vacuum cleaner to the writer Aldous Huxley at his home in Llano, pointing to it and declaring, "Well I assure you sir, this thing sucks." After managing a Kinney's shoe store, Van Vliet relocated to Rancho Cucamonga, California, to reconnect with Zappa, who inspired his entry into musical performance. Van Vliet was quite shy but was eventually able to imitate the deep voice of Howlin' Wolf with his wide vocal range. He eventually grew comfortable with public performance and, after learning to play the harmonica, began playing at dances and small clubs in Southern California.

Initial recordings, 1962–1969

In early 1965 Alex Snouffer, a Lancaster rhythm and blues guitarist, invited Vliet to sing with a group that he was assembling. Vliet joined the first Magic Band and changed his name to Don Van Vliet, while Snouffer became Alex St. Clair (sometimes spelled Claire). Captain Beefheart and his Magic Band signed to A&M and released two singles in 1966. The first was a version of Bo Diddley's "Diddy Wah Diddy" that became a regional hit in Los Angeles. The followup, "Moonchild" (written by David Gates) was less well received. The band played music venues that catered to underground artists, such as the Avalon Ballroom in San Francisco.
Safe as Milk

After fulfilling their deal for two singles the band presented demos to A&M during 1966 for what would become the Safe as Milk album. A&M's Jerry Moss reportedly described this new direction as "too negative" and dropped the band from the label, although still under contract. Much of the demo recording was accomplished at Art Laboe's Original Sound Studio, then with Gary Marker on the controls at Sunset Sound on 8-track. By the end of 1966 they were signed to Buddah Records and much of the demo work was transferred to 4-track, at the behest of Krasnow and Perry, in the RCA Studio in Hollywood, where the recording was finalized. Tracks that were originally laid down in the demo by Doug Moon are therefore taken up by Cooder's work in the release, as Moon had departed over 'musical differences' at this juncture.

Drummer John French had now joined the group and it would later (notably on Trout Mask Replica) be his patience that was required to transcribe Van Vliet's creative ideas (often expressed by whistling or banging on the piano) into musical form for the other group members. On French's departure this role was taken over by Bill Harkleroad for Lick My Decals Off, Baby.

Many of the lyrics on the Safe as Milk album were written by Van Vliet in collaboration with the writer Herb Bermann, who befriended Van Vliet after seeing him perform at a bar-gig in Lancaster in 1966. The song "Electricity" was a poem written by Bermann, who gave Van Vliet permission to adapt it to music.

"Electricity"
While Safe as Milk mostly conveyed a blues–rock sound, songs such as "Electricity" illustrated the band's unconventional instrumentation and Van Vliet's unusual vocals, that guitarist Doug Moon described as "hinting of things to come".


Much of the Safe as Milk material was honed and arranged by the arrival of 20-year–old guitar prodigy Ry Cooder, who had been brought into the group after much pressure from Vliet. The band began recording in spring 1967, with Richard Perry cutting his teeth in his first job as producer. The album was released in September 1967. Richie Unterberger of Allmusic called the album "blues–rock gone slightly askew, with jagged, fractured rhythms, soulful, twisting vocals from Van Vliet, and more doo wop, soul, straight blues, and folk–rock influences than he would employ on his more avant garde outings".

Recognition

Among those who took notice were The Beatles. Both John Lennon and Paul McCartney were known as great admirers of Beefheart. Lennon displayed two of the album's promotional 'baby bumper stickers' in the sunroom at his home.[41] Later, the Beatles planned to sign Beefheart to their experimental Zapple label (plans that were scrapped after Allen Klein took over the group's management). Van Vliet was often critical of the Beatles, however. He considered the lyric "I'd love to turn you on", from their song "A Day in the Life", to be ridiculous and conceited. Tiring of their "lullabies", he lampooned them with the Strictly Personal song "Beatle Bones 'n' Smokin' Stones", that featured the sardonic refrain of "strawberry fields, strawberry fields forever". It should also be noted that 'strawberry fields' could also be an oblique reference to a form of LSD circulating at the time. The album's five 'acid stamps' and first track "Ah Feel like Ahcid" may underline this, whilst 'Smokin' Stones' is probably a 'pro comment' on the contrasting rhythm and blues style of the Rolling Stones. Vliet spoke badly of Lennon after getting no response when he sent a telegram of support to him and wife Yoko Ono during their 1969 "Bed–In for peace". Van Vliet did meet McCartney in Cannes during the Magic Band's 1968 tour of Europe, though McCartney later claimed to have no recollection of this meeting.

The flipside of success

Doug Moon left the band because of his dislike of the band's increasing experimentation outside his preferred blues genre. Ry Cooder told of Moon becoming so angered by Van Vliet's unrelenting criticism that he walked into the room pointing a loaded crossbow at him, only to be told "Get that fucking thing out of here, get out of here and get back in your room", which he obeyed. (Other band members have disputed this account, although Moon is likely to have 'passed through' the studio with a weapon.) Moon was present during the early demo sessions at Original Sound studio, above the Kama Sutra/Buddah offices. The works Moon laid down did not see the light of day, as he was replaced by Cooder when they continued on material at Sunset Sound with Marker. Marker then fell by the wayside when recording was moved by Krasnow and Perry to RCA Studio. This would have a profound effect on the quality of the Safe as Milk work, as the former studio was 8-track and the subsequent studio a 4-track.

To support the album's release the group had been scheduled to play at the 1967 Monterey Pop Festival. During this period Vliet suffered severe anxiety attacks that made him convinced that he was having a heart attack, probably exacerbated by his heavy LSD use and the fact that his father died of heart failure a few years earlier. At a vital 'warm-up' performance at the Mt. Tamalpais Festival (June 10/11) shortly before the scheduled Monterey Festival (June 16/18), the band began to play "Electricity" and Van Vliet froze, straightened his tie, then walked off the ten–foot stage and landed on manager Bob Krasnow. He later claimed he had seen a girl in the audience turn into a fish, with bubbles coming from her mouth. This aborted any opportunity of breakthrough success at Monterey, as Cooder immediately decided he could no longer work with Van Vliet, effectively quitting both the event and the band on the spot. With such complex guitar parts there was no means for the band to find a competent replacement in time for Monterey. Cooder's spot was eventually filled for a short spell by Gerry McGee, who had played with The Monkees. According to French the band did two gigs with McGee, one of which was at The Peppermint Twist near Long Beach. The other was at Santa Monica Civic Auditorium, 7 August 1967, as opening act to The Yardbirds. McGee was in the group long enough to have an outfit made by a Santa Monica boutique that also created the gear worn by the band on the Strictly Personal cover stamps.

Mirror Man

In 1971 some of the recordings done for Buddah were released as Mirror Man, bearing a liner note claiming that the material had been recorded "one night in Los Angeles in 1965". This was a ruse to circumvent possible copyright issues; the material was actually recorded in November and December 1967. Essentially a "jam" album, described as pushing "the boundaries of conventional blues–rock, with a Beefheart vocal tossed in here and there. Some may miss Beefheart's surreal poetry, gruff vocals, and/or free jazz influence, while others may find it fascinating to hear the Magic Band simply letting go and cutting loose". The album's 'miss-credit errors' also state band members as "Alex St. Clare Snouffer" (Alex St. Clare/Alexis Snouffer), "Antennae Jimmy Simmons" (Semens/Jeff Cotton) and "Jerry Handsley" (Handley). First vinyl was issued in both a die-cut gatefold (revealing a 'cracked' mirror) and a single sleeve with same image. The UK Buddah issue was part of the Polydor-manufactured 'Select' series.

During his first trip to England in January 1968, Captain Beefheart was briefly represented in the UK by mod icon Peter Meaden, an early manager of The Who. The Captain and his band members were initially denied entry to the United Kingdom, because Meaden had illegally booked them for gigs without applying for appropriate work permits. After returning to Germany for a few days, the group was permitted to re-enter the UK, when they recorded material for John Peel's radio show and appeared at the Middle Earth venue, introduced by Peel on Saturday 20 January. By this time, they had terminated their association with Meaden. On January 27, 1968, Beefheart achieved one of his most memorable live performances, when the band performed in the MIDEM Music Festival on the beach at Cannes, France.

Alex St. Claire left the band in June 1968 after their return from a second European tour and was replaced by teenager Bill Harkleroad; bassist Jerry Handley left a few weeks later.

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