Captain Beefheart: a Personal Memory

The first part of a six-part BBC documentary narrated by the late John Peel

Born in January 1941, Don van Vliet, aka Captain Beefheart, died Friday, December 17, 2010, of complications related to multiple sclerosis.

Even though he gave up music in 1982 (beginning a successful career as a reclusive artist until hampered by the onset of multiple sclerosis), Captain Beefheart left an important and influential musical legacy.

Safe As Milk, the 1967 debut album, didn't exactly burst onto the music scene, but it did create some cult interest, even amongst students like me in far-away England. 1967 was a vintage year for rock music. Besides Beefheart, other US bands like Love, the Doors, the Jefferson Airplane, the Grateful Dead, the Velvet Underground et al were all emerging as a riposte to the British heavyweights that had invaded the US a few years earlier.

Beefheart rarely enjoyed an easy relationship with his various record companies, or indeed with the regularly changing members of the Magic Band. He clearly wasn't an easy person to deal with, but maybe that helped preserve the originality of his musical vision in the recorded legacy.

Most commentators regard Trout Mask Replica (1969, on Frank Zappa's Straight label) as the summit of Beefheart's recording career (footnote 1). The unadulterated weirdness of this third album remains fresh and original to this day, and it was undoubtedly his most influential work. But although I find some of it interesting and excellent, I also consider it hampered by the typical self-indulgence of double albums.

I'm still fond of the second album, Strictly Personal, despite Bob Krasnow's phasey over-post-production. Purists may well prefer the much less processed Mirror Man (1971), a live and sometimes rambling recording of similar works from the same era. Post-Trout Mask, the influence of the Magic Band became stronger, and the relatively accessible Spotlight Kid and Clear Spot albums (both 1972) remain personal favorites.

But for me the true revelation came through those early 1970s live performances. I saw Beefheart at least four times in concert. Beefheart's wailing multi-octave vocals and harmonica took center stage; the statuesque Bill Harkleroad (aka Zoot Horn Rollo) was playing bottleneck lead; the diminutive bassist Mark Boston (aka Rockette Morton) bounced around the stage, in front of Art Tripp III (aka Ed Marimba) at the drum kit. The group could create genuine musical magic from Beefheart's uniquely idiosyncratic compositions, combining fascinating rhythmic complexity with a sheer down'n'dirty funkiness that was the equal of any band around, and far superior to most.

The Captain in conversation with a young David Letterman.

Footnote 1: Kevon Courrier's 2007 book-length essay on Trout Mask Replica, one of Continuum Books' "331/3" series, is essential reading for any Beefheart fan.—John Atkinson

jazzfan's picture

First the comments:

I completely agree with JA that Courrier's book is very worthwhile.

I am a bit confused by PM's seemingly conflicting comments. First he states that he was located in England (at least in 1967) and later he tells us how he saw the Captain and the Magic Band several times in concert during the early 1970s. Did Beefheart play in England that many times in the early 1970s or did these performances take place somewhere else?

I also had the good fortune of seeing Beefheart live on several occasions. The first time I was mere teenager when CB&TMB opened for the J. Giles Band at a NYC concert in 1972 (could also have been 1973). I do know that he was with the original Magic Band and played his normal out there material. The audience was not amused and booed throughout the show. In spite of the constant booing, or maybe because of it, Beefheart sent out bassist Rockette Morton to do a bass solo for the encore. A good if somewhat under appreciated show.

I had to wait until around 1980 to get another chance to see Beefheart perform (I refused to even acknowledge the ill fated 1974 band, records and tour) and then managed to see at least three more shows. Each of these shows featured the newly formed Magic Band and each show had it's own special highlights. A stellar version of "My Human Gets Me Blues" and an unbelievable totally rocking rendition of "Nowadays A Woman's Gotta Hit a Man", which was dedicated to the late John Lennon, who had been slain the previous night.

audiocaptain's picture

Being the lover of all things different I became a great fan of the Captain. I owned all his records and listened to them daily for many years. The first concert seeing him he was opening for Jethro Tull in the early 70's . He came on stage in a very strange outfit and managed to cause such an uproar that the crowd was in a frenzy. After about 30 minutes he flipped the bird and exited left.
The next time was the Muffin Man Zappa tour that was crazy good. He struted all over the place and the band was more than amazing. Frank was in rare form and it was incredible. My favorite Album is "The Spotlight Kid." I actually perform some of his tunes. My favorite to play at gigs is Blabber and Smoke,"All you ever do is blabber and smoke. There's a big pain in your window and all your waters turned to rope. It's going to hang you all , dangle you all. If you don't hear me there will be no hope cause all you ever do is blabber and smoke." Awesome

I also am a big Zappa fan and saw a concert in 1970 where he was in a leg cast. He said he had been thrown from the stage by a jealous boyfriend then landed in the orchestra pit breaking the leg. This night Frank ask if improv' was good and they did nothing but improvise for several hours. Awesome considering all the band was present along with Jean Luc and most of these players Ian Underwood (reeds, keyboards), Ruth Underwood (vibes, marimba), Sal Marquez (trumpet, vocals), Napoleon Murphy Brock (sax, flute and vocals), Bruce Fowler (trombone), Tom Fowler (bass), Chester Thompson (drums), Ralph Humphrey (drums), George Duke (keyboards, vocals), and Jean-Luc Ponty (violin) and about ten more it seemed. Mosque in Richmond VA. May have been another year, can't quite seem to remember, but I have some pictures.

I also got to see Frank cover Led Zepplin all night one time in Florida. But nothing beat The Muffin Man,"Bongo Fury" , concert.

Long Live Beefhearts music and his free ideas about it.

klemenn's picture

......6. Never point your guitar at anyone.


Your instrument has more clout than lightning. Just hit a big chord then run outside to hear it. But make sure you are not standing in an open field.....Frank Zappa Newspaper