DON'T ARGUE WITH
history - interview
from usa 27 september 1984 L.A.
WEEKLY vol.6 #?
i recently paid a visit to captain beefheart and came away thinking that perhaps there is some justice on life after all.(*)
though critical accolades have rained down on don van vliet throughout his nearly two decades of work as a musician, the mass audience has always seemed to prefer his musical innovations after they have been adapted and diluted by lesser artists. numerous popular artists cite van vliet as a major source of inspiration and his musical thumbprint is evident in works by artists ranging from laurie anderson and p.i.l. to tom waits and grandmaster flash.
van vliet brings a startlingly elastic approach to composition and rhythm and his music marries rural folk tales, free association, voodoo, dada and anthropological fantasy to a spectrum of sound that stretches from charles ives and stravinsky to delta blues, rock and the natural sounds of the universe. and yet, van vliet's brilliance has never quite paid off at the bank. in fact, he spent the better part of the past decade living in a small, decidedly unluxurious trailer in the mojave desert.
eleven years ago van vliet took a shine to some land he chanced upon in northern arizona, and after a decade of plotting and planning, he took up residence there last december. based on a design by a legendary west coast architectural firm, van vliet's new home is a beautiful, airy structure perched on a heavily wooded hillside that slopes down to a lake. the house includes a sunny studio equipped with a grand piano, and van vliet spends the majority of his time there painting and composing. it seems exactly the way a great artist should be living midway through his career.
van vliet is presently preparing for an exhibit of his paintings in manhattan, about which he laughs: 'i want to expose myself in new york' [eventually happened second half 1985 - t.t.]. he also is ready and waiting to record his next album for virgin records, but is without a recording contract in his homeland - a situation which is nothing short of a national disgrace. the crappiest teevee can be financed to the tune of millions, and nobody will pay for beefheart to make a record!
when his next record comes out, there's a good possibility he will tour because, as he says: 'i have a lot of friends out there'. 'but reaganomics [economy according to president reagan - t.t.] have made touring very difficult,' he added. 'i can't afford it anymore!' van vliet is also immersed in periodic interviews with physicist langdon winner, who is at work on a biography of captain beefheart [and who is the writer of the odyssey of captain beefheart (1970) and in search of america (1971). the bio never saw the light. - t.t.].
van vliet was in high spirits the day we met, and is a cordial and gracious host who spent the afternoon dragging out prized possessions like a child sharing his favorite toys. among items exhibited: his favorite shoes (black patent leather), a photograph of albert einstein (about whom he comments: 'he's the cutest thing!'), and a black yves st. laurent coat he bought in new york many years ago.
critics have been
touting the genius of don van vliet for so
long that the reader's response is apt to be
one of: 'yeah, we know already!' but again, i
must say that don van vliet is truly an
extraordinary man. first of all, he is that
rarest of creatures - a celebrity who is
interested in discussing things other than
conversationally, his frame of reference is dazzlingly diverse and he makes mindboggling leaps in the sequence of his thought. he'll often say something and follow it with a comment that seems to have no connection to the subject under discussion. five minutes - or five days - later it will dawn on you that this 'kooky' comment actually made perfect sense. he was just thinking a little faster, a little more imaginatively than you were.
he is a superb story teller, a great wit, and a well-read man with an impressive library. van vliet is quite the cheerleader for authors he admires and he hauled out numerous books, insisting i must read them. among his favorites: lilian hellman, joan didion, raymond chandler, a.j. liebling ('he wrote this book about boxing called 'the sweet science' that is unbelievably good', van vliet enthuses), wyndham lewis and ross mcdonald.
other things he
loves include: the sun in arles, france [where
don never has been, but which he can
'experience' from the paintings van gogh has
made there - t.t.], franz kline, remy martin
cognac, mumbly-pegs, windsor newton oil paints
('they make this incredible color called
'geranium light'), suckerfish ('that cute fish
with a hump on its back that looks like a
water buffalo'), albert einstein, and his wife
jan. a beautiful and intelligent woman who
obviously has a big hand in maintaining van
vliet's equilibrium, jan met the captain when
she was eighteen and married him six weeks
later. they've been together for fourteen
years and their marriage is a credit to the
van vliet is as vociferous in his dislikes as he is in his pleasures, and among the things that annoy him: walt disney (for his cloying and patronizing treatment of the animal kingdom and the way he used stravinsky's music in 'fantasia'), most popular music ('it's designed to hypnotise people, and that seems to be what they want,' he observes, 'and that's why my music has never been popular'), and senior citizens behind the wheel of large recreational vehicles ('none of them have bus driving licenses,' he fumes!).
during my visit i happened to see some amazing photographs of van vliet as a child growing up in glendale, california. snapshots of the van vliet family gathered around the christmas tree or a thanksgiving turkey suggest that the captain had an idyllic childhood, and the photos yielded no clue whatsoever as how or why van vliet developed the profoundly original take on the universe that fuels his art. i was particularly struck by a photo of van vliet at age five, dressed up in a cowboy costume, waving a toy pistol in the air and staring into the camera with the same open, fearless, intensely curious gaze he has today. from the start he was obviously a boy with a plan; forty-three years on and he hasn't betrayed it.
herewith, a few don mots...
A DAY IN THE LIFE
i paint every day. painting is a color strait-jacket and i look forward to putting it on in the morning. i find painting more pleasurable than music, although god, i love music. i've been listening to a lot of beethoven lately. i still compose all the time and just wrote what i think is the best thing i've ever done. i work on my paintings and while the paint is drying i'll write a song. i usually don't go to bed until around 4:30 in the morning and then i get up at 5:30 because i like to see the sun and the moon together in the sky.
occasionally i eat breakfast. if i could find a town i would go into it now and then. they had towns in the 1930's but they all seem to be gone. like lightnin' hopkins said, they're gone like a turkey in a storm. there's nothing happening now and town has become a matter of going into yourself. we can live inside and they can't do anything about that!
occasionally, like a gopher coming out of its hole, i go somewhere for provisions. i always hope i'll make it back, because i don't really like to drive. hell, i could see a butterfly out of the corner of my eye and drift right off the road! so, i spend my time reading, painting, writing music, watching television... that's about it, other than jan and i dance.
(don insists that i hear a recording of 'i'll see you in my dreams' by ukelele ike, widely known as the voice of jiminy cricket, who in turn, is particularly known for his rendition of 'when you wish upon a star'.) he is so hip, i mean. i love that! that was the good old days when people really gave a damn. that's a sad song, isn't it? nobody knows how to make sad songs anymore. they all just sound like vampires now. songs break my eardrums instead of my heart these days.
ON BEING AN AMERICAN
throughout my musical career i've tried to be an american, but the america i think about isn't popular like the america that politicians and other stupid people in high places try to sell. still, i can't think of a better place to live. i mean, the fake freedom is nice. no, i'm just kidding... we do have more freedom than many countries have, but it's still fake. gravity is the master and every time i look in the mirror and see that flesh growing off that ball i'm reminded of that. my eyes look like sunflower seeds that didn't quite come off. either that, or a real irresponsible maid made up the pillows.
RICHARD BRANSON AND THE NEXT LP
as soon as richard branson [owner of a record company and an airline, both named 'virgin' - t.t.] gets done burning up that jet fuel financed by boy george [successful english musician - t.t.] i'll make a record for virgin. hey, i'm ready! do you hear me, richard? actually, branson is ok, i mean, he has always been nice to me. he had better be! branson's the second richest man in england and that may be why a lot of people don't like him. the first richest man in england probably is a woman [yes, it's the queen - t.t.], though i'm not really sure because they don't let me into those circles, but who would want to be in those circles? and that's why they won't let me in: because i won't let them let me in. you know, the british are funny. i can't believe how much they drink. they get up in the morning and drink while they're combing their hair!
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