DON'T ARGUE WITH THE CAPTAIN
CAPTAIN BEEFHEART / DON
from VRIJ NEDERLAND
HOLLAND opinioned weekly
by moze jacobs
is article / 050585 germany interview
* pictures by marjan verkerk
'i just feel like a thirteen year old girl without bra in an itchy woolen pullover. woo-ho-ho!'
may 5th: at gallery michael werner in cologne [germany - t.t.] an exhibition was opened of the californian painter and drawer don van vliet. several requests for an interview unfortunately couldn't be met. but, as we were informed from cologne by phone, the artist would be present in person at the opening, and give a press-conference. with doubt in the heart we set off from amsterdam. should we really see the great man? or was his announced presence just a tempter for the press?
to the gallery scene don van vliet probably is a big stranger, but under the name captain beefheart he is a sort of living legend in certain parts of the music world. a 'cult-hero' who has been a source of inspiration for two generations of musicians. from avant-garde to punk. a musical giant who leads a retired life in the wilderness of north-america, where he paints, composes and writes splendid poems.
'i found my saxophone at a pawnshop', he once told in a phone-interview. 'i simply liked the instrument. everything where i can plug my own sound through, pleases me. and i succeed in it.'
captain beefheart alias don van vliet is someone who has endured many changes in his looks. from a dark young blues-singer to a sort of magician with a cloak, to a stern looking sir in shirt and tie. likewise, his music continuously changes its shape. external influences play a part there. record companies and other economic circumstances, particularly. 'lower mathematics', as he would call it.
the cover of 'shiny beast' represents two pieces of art. on the back a drawing in red paint and black crayon, on an ordinary brown bread-bag. a sphinx-like male figure with claws in stead of hands. on his back a mask, behind him the head of a horse, sketched in a few simple lines. the sphinx-man tenderly looks down to a bird sitting on his forepaw. was signed; van vliet. the front cover is a painting of two human forms with animalesque heads. does the shiny beast walk in front? he slants his black-green head and somewhat sadly stares in front of him, while with one hand he coaxes away the hard-rose being behind him. it's a wife, so to see.
this painting also is shown on the exhibition of van vliet. [so you should have noticed it is titled 'green tom'! - t.t.] oh yes, gallery michael werner in cologne.... would he be there, or not? at ten o'clock we entered the building with anxious beating heart. high white rooms, many paintings and drawings, which hung close together. no trace of don van vliet. you see, i sadly thought. but no: they were picking him up at the airport. excitedly i turned over the pages of the catalogue.
the biographical data of van vliet were settled in a few sentences. 'born in 1941 in los angeles. started drawing and painting in the sixties. lives in california.' as a compensation the catalogue contained an introduction by the hand of a.r. penck (german artist and philosopher). 'first of all', he writes about the works of van vliet, 'there springs up a new 'image space' by means of black-white and grey as abstract formulas and ways of expression. but this room is also vexed by organic and crystalline forms, so that on the pictures clearly a motion in the space itself becomes manifest.' i just swallowed for a moment.
when i looked up, the attention of all the cameras, art experts and buyers in the gallery suddenly had concentrated on óne spot. don van vliet had arrived. he was disguised as a quite small, a bit elderly man with a moustache and spectacles and a flaming red scarf, and he was accompanied by his wife jan and a fussy gesturing american in a mustard-coloured suit. the manager, i presumed. for the time being there seemed to be little chance to speak to van vliet in private. he was swarmed by silent admirers and opulent gentlemen with big cigars. a glass of whiskey was slipped into his hand and occasionally he disappeared into a small private office with a big art shot.
but the big eyes behind the specs looked friendly, and a some- what helpless. i decided to simply step up to him. the first thing he said, was: 'hello', and then, 'i just feel like a thirteen year old girl without bra in an itchy woolen pullover. woo-ho-ho! it's the first time i have an exhibition of my own! can we close that door? what a cacophony outside.' he has a low voice, deep, but with a rustling by-sound as if the wind breezes through it. he doesn't converse, he speaks: the things he says either are very practical or very poetic. pleased he says he comes from holland too, just like us.
do you also speak dutch?
'oh no, only english. i just wanna paint. and make music.'
but as soon as he can, he directs the conversation towards his favourite subject: nature. for long years he lived on an isolated spot in the desert, in arizona, amidst the cactuses.
do you still live there?
'no, i live in north-california now. near the ocean. the ocean or the desert, that makes no difference: they are the same. i have 35 raccoons. you know them, they have those little black masks, like pandas. they have style, they're splendid! i feed them, they cost me about two-hundred dollars a month. but i give them good food.'
you keep them in cages?
'no! oh no. they just come along, they live somewhere else. that's none of my business.'
have you painted them?
did you ever paint your wife? (his wife jan, support and shield, and co-producer of his last elpee, 'ice cream for crow'.)
'no. i didn't even see her. i'm married to her for only fifteen years yet. woman is the superior being!'
he says he has a lot of other animals around his house. 'birds. and one day i woke up - on easter, quite humdrum - but when i went outside i saw fourteen whales, they squirted water! as if someone had left the sprayers on at the lawn. they rubbed themselves against the rocks, and against each other, and they threw up a fountain of beauty. they're so smart; can you imagine any-one not feeling it? you know what the biggest living mammal on earth is?'
'the absent mind!... and - '
from left to right: julian schnabel, someone on a painting, don van vliet
at that moment we are interrupted by a loud american voice: 'don!; donnie!!' the man in the mustard-coloured suit storms in. he's outraged he is taken for the manager of van vliet. 'i'm his friend. i'm just another fucking character of the street.' what is more, he turns out to be julian schnabel, praised by some art critics as a 'classic' amongst modern painters and equally abused because he would exalt kitsch to art. all the same, schnabel is energetic, gifted, and he has an impressive amount of exhibitions to his name. about van vliet he says: 'i think he's terrific. his heart is so great, he is so moralistic. the quality of the headwork behind his art is so good and accurate. technique? technique isn't important.'
in nearly all the paintings and drawings of don van vliet forms from nature are recovered, like his music seems to be stirred by a kind of primitive power too. he refuses to comply with human-made systems. 'truth has no patterns', he sings on 'shiny beast (bat chain puller)'. and he says: 'on paper i turn myself upside down. i quickly paint what enters my mind. thanks god, my brains haven't been damaged too much. thanks god! influences from others? i don't believe you need those as an artist. when i watch van gogh, i do not analyze his work. i just want to enjoy it.'
lets give the last word about don van vliet to a.r.penck: 'from the deep of the subconsciousness images of the demoniacal animalism in man emerge. they are swung to and fro between classic earnest and an open-minded ironical look at the instinct-bound ego.'
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