The gifted writer Verlyn Klinkenborg offered a remembrance of Don Van Vliet on today’s New York Times editorial page. I liked it so much I’m reproducing it here (I don’t suppose he’ll mind).
Summer of 1969. Parents away. A 50-foot audio cable runs from the stereo through a window across the porch to the lawn, where it terminates in headphones with my head between them. I’m lying on my back in the Sacramento night. On the turntable is “Trout Mask Replica,” just released, which I’ve listened to again and again. It is the magnum opus of the Magic Band led by Captain Beefheart, a k a Don Van Vliet, who died on Friday at age 69.
I had never heard anything like “Trout Mask Replica.” I listened to it again when I heard that Van Vliet had died. It still feels like walking through a crooked house where every crooked room is a crooked art installation, every song a spirochete that nests in your brain. For years, I’ve heard in my head the syncopated hitch in the gait of this music, the meticulous noodlings of the electric guitars, the frantic drumming, and, above all, Captain Beefheart’s voice.
It rumbles and clatters like an avalanche of boulders. It squeals as if Beefheart had found some inner harmonic in the dog’s range. It makes Tom Waits sound like Julie Andrews. It veers between thoracic and nasal in a single note, every bit as surreal as the lyrics.
Captain Beefheart was a pure product of Southern California. Much of “Trout Mask Replica” was written and rehearsed over three years in a cabin in Woodland Hills on the edge of the San Fernando Valley — a residence that should be as famous as “Big Pink” in West Saugerties, N.Y., where The Band holed up. That was where Beefheart drove his band and was driven by them — Zoot Horn Rollo, Rockette Morton, The Mascara Snake, Antennae Jimmy Semens, and Drumbo — into making one of the seminal albums of all time.
There is more to Beefheart than “Trout Mask Replica,” and far more to Don Van Vliet, who retired with his wife to Trinidad, Calif., where he painted and gradually succumbed to multiple sclerosis. He never made much money being Captain Beefheart. But he left an eerie and undying legacy.