captain beefheart electricity

the interviews


a reclusive musical genius can't avoid art's spotlight

by tony bizjak
is 30.11.88 interview


rock musician captain beefheart was brilliant, they said, but strange, very strange. he never made it big, never seemed to want to. six years ago, he retreated from music to his trailer in the mojave desert. now he lives up the coast. somewhere.

captain beefheart returned this week as artist don van vliet with a one-man showing of his paintings at the san francisco museum of modern art. the show runs through the end of january. his art is much like the bizarre music he made in the 1960s and '70s. the man himself, now 47, is no less poetic and strange.


he proved it this week when the museum tried to throw a reception in his honor. he showed up at the museum but was too shy to enter the reception. instead, he stood planted like a tree stump at the far end of a corridor, wobbling on a knotty-wood cane, while his wife jan and museum director jack lane tried to coax him into the room.

'he's just a singular personality,' whispered lane, 'he moves at his own pace.' 'he never liked going on stage,' whispered his wife, 'and this is the same.' 'i think he's impressed that he's here with all these great paintings,' said eric feldman, a bay area composer who played keyboards for van vliet during the captain beefheart days. 'music was too easy for him. i don't think he appreciated it as much.'

van vliet indeed is in another world. when he talks, his mind is like soap and he's just a feckless fellow chasing it across the bathroom floor, flailing and changing directions. told that people sometimes use 'genius' to describe him, van vliet thought for an instant, then, with a voice like a boot grinding gravel, replied: 'i occasionally wear levi's.' the questioner is left to guess whether he heard the question correctly, and if so, what strangely flowing mental juices came up with that answer: genius, genes, jeans, levi's?

a television reporter at the reception tried to ask van vliet about his art. 'what are you trying to say?,' the reporter asked. 'nothing,' replied van vliet. silence. van vliet's mustache, bristled like a housepainter's brush, hid the faintest of uncertain smiles. 'and everything?,' the reporter suggested, prodding for a profundity. again: silence. 'every nothing,' van vliet agreed. 'hey, that's a nice notebook.' the cameraman stopped shooting. the reporter rolled his eyes. van vliet smiled.


if his conversation is obscure, his work with paint may not be much longer. michael werner, owner of one of the biggest art galleries in cologne, west germany, calls van vliet 'an extremely important american painter'. van vliet has had several gallery shows at mary boone gallery in new york and at werner's gallery in cologne. his paintings sell for up to $25,000. van vliet is, nevertheless, largely unknown as a painter. the exhibition at the museum of modern art here may change that, at least on the west coast.

it is his first museum show. other museums have approached him, but he has turned them down. they made the mistake of showing too much interest in him as captain beefheart, rock-cult-hero-turned-painter. lane heard of van vliet this year through artist julian schnabel. lane knew nothing of the artist's previous life in music. he spent a day recently visiting van vliet at his home in northern california on a bluff overlooking the ocean. (van vliet asked that the location of his house not be revealed. 'can you imagine?,' he said, 'people would come visit. that would ruin a good football game.')

lane came away confused, but enthused. 'don is not a person that one knows well,' lane said. 'he is enormously complex. i feel like he is always a mile ahead of me and off in a different direction.' lane calls van vliet's style 'primitive modernism'. 'i believe don views man's location within the natural order as being no more important than other creatures or plants,' lane said. 'i think he feels a lot of the problems the world faces are the result of man's hubris. one sees in his work an abstracted landscape in which there is an unhierarchical inhabitation of human, animal, plant and inanimate forms.'

van vliet said whatever people see in his work is 'out of my hands': 'i'm trying to display what i'm thinking at the moment exactly the way it is. i try to get it all there. if i thought i could, i sure would send a message. i would tell people to act like animals. they are brilliant, the animals. what about the timber wolf? aren't they wonderful?'

van vliet's life story apparently is as much myth and mischief as truth. he freely admits he spins tales. 'i lie,' he said, laughing. 'fabrications.'

he grew up in lancaster and in los angeles, the only child of a bakery deliveryman and a housewife. they doted on him. he says he learned to read on his own by age three. as a child he stayed in his room and sculpted. his parents often shoved dinner under his door because he wouldn't come out. he refused to go to grammar school. 'i couldn't handle it,' he said, then corrected himself: 'it couldn't handle mé....'

he appeared regularly as a kid on a television show in los angeles sculpting zoo animals while a professional sculptor commented. he says he got a scholarship at age thirteen to study sculpture in europe, but his parents wouldn't let him take it. they thought all artists were gay. he started playing music as a teenager, and took the name captain beefheart because he heard a man brag about growing tomatoes as big as a beef heart.

he denies the name was given to him by teenage buddy frank zappa because young van vliet seemed to have a beef in his heart against humanity. 'no,' van vliet said. 'but i do have a beef in my heart against humanity. i incorporate that in everything i do. i don't like the way they treat the land. do you eat meat? did you eat turkey on thanksgiving? you liked it? the turkey didn't....'

as captain beefheart, van vliet produced twelve albums of arcane music. last year, rolling stone magazine ranked one of his albums, 'trout mask replica', as number 33 among the 100 most important rock albums of the last twenty years. says van vliet: 'i never liked rock. i never played rock. i can't believe they'd say i was a rock musician. maybe they thought that because i was standing on land. that must be it.... they are funny.'

he began painting more than twenty years ago, he said: 'because i had to'. he doesn't make music at all anymore, and doesn't intend to start up again. he prefers painting. 'it sure is mortal lonely,' he said. 'i enjoy being with myself.' he has never taken art lessons, and doesn't look at other artists' work. 'i won't destroy what my baby thinks,' he said, speaking of his inner creative drive. 'i want to do what i want to do. i'm very, very selfish.'


"new work: don van vliet", an exhibition of seven new paintings by the artist, runs through january 29 in the fourth-floor west gallery at the san francisco museum of modern art. admission is $3.50 for adults, $1,50 for senior citizens and children younger than 16, and free for members and children younger than 6. free on tuesdays.


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