I’ve been a fan of Don Van Vliet, alias Captain Beefheart, for a very long time. Though you may not be familiar with him, he is one of the more influential figures in late 20th-century American music, and without question one of the oddest.

As a boy growing up in southern California, the young Van Vliet showed prodigious talent for painting and sculpture, but after leaving high school (where he had become a close friend of the teenage Frank Zappa), he began a highly idiosyncratic musical career: first as something resembling a blues artist, but soon drifting into wholly uncharted territory.

Beefheart has an extraordinary voice, with a range approaching five octaves; he also plays the harmonica rather well, and the saxophone rather less well. He assembled a biddable coterie of gifted musicians that he called the Magic Band, and with them made several albums of comparatively accessible music before unleashing upon the world the album that is widely regarded as his masterpiece: the otherworldly and incomparably challenging 1969 release Trout Mask Replica. Simply put, if you haven’t heard it, you haven’t heard anything like it.

He had one try at mainstream success: the 1972 album Clear Spot, produced by Warner Brothers popmeister Ted Templeman. It was a good record — really good, actually — but it didn’t go. He also recorded often with Zappa; his best-known appearance as a Zappa sideman was as the singer on the track Willie the Pimp, from the album Hot Rats.

His last few records were truer to his muse, who happens to be from another dimension. One of my favorites is an album called Doc at the Radar Station, from 1980. Below are the lyrics to the song Brickbats. Clearly this is not a conventional mind at work.

Brickbats fly at my fireplace
Upside down I see them in the fire
They squeak and roast there
Wings leap across the floor
Fold up the wall shadows
The window curtain ghost
Throws my heart and dusts my throat
My mind caught by the corner
Gradually decides it’s safe
Becomes a bat itself
Flexes its little claws
Tests its leather wings
With loud, hollow pops
Around the room
Threatening to dash its brains
Somehow at the last minute
Retreats and becomes a natural glue
That holds fast and slow
In every other motion
Making the night more interesting
Becomes a cold, liquid breeze
That freezes and thaws
And pours the surroundings full
As no breath can be taken
It drowns and relieves
To see the black turn into yellow
And the yellow into black.

I would like to post a copy of the song itself (I have it as an mp3), but I’ll get in trouble. If you’d like to hear it, leave a comment, and I’ll email you a link. (Or better yet, download it yourself, for 99¢, here.)

Beefheart retired from music in 1982, and now lives in a remote part of northern California, where he spends his time painting.


  1. bob koepp says

    If you knew how rarely I encounter people who’ve even heard of Beefheart, let alone heard him… An acquired taste, for sure.

    Posted October 31, 2007 at 1:38 pm | Permalink
  2. Malcolm says

    Hi Bob,

    I don’t know how much longer he’ll be around: he has multiple sclerosis, apparently, and can no longer even paint.

    Posted October 31, 2007 at 1:45 pm | Permalink
  3. Elisson says

    I still have my old LP copy of Trout Mask Replica.

    Clear Spot was, indeed, a much more commercial effort…it’s quite listenable, even for folks who are intimidated or put off by the more “Beefhearty” Beefheart tracks on TMR or other albums such as Lick My Decals Off, Baby and Safe As Milk.

    Beefheart was a unique poetic voice. Here it is forty years on, and I still get more out of his material with each listen. Thanks for letting me know that he still has admirers out there!

    Posted November 27, 2007 at 1:47 pm | Permalink
  4. Malcolm says

    Hi Elisson,

    Good to hear that you’re a fan too. It’s surprising how many of us are lurking out there, given how far off the beaten path Beefheart was.

    Posted November 27, 2007 at 1:51 pm | Permalink

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