Last day of the year, 4 degrees out, 15 inches of snow having recently fallen…
Leica M9, Noctilux wide open with ND filter.
When we read that Captain Beefheart had died, we wrote our friend Byron Coley, who had introduced us to his work ’round about 1976. (Yeah, we were late.) Here’s the reply, which does tend to wipe that bad New York Times moron-obit writing taste right outta our mouths:
yeah, the news traveled fast. best to you this season, as well.
here’s what i wrote to my little newsgroup.
although he was reportedly felled by complications from his long-standing condition of MS, i offer an alternate theory — he was killed by trying to read that recent, endless, infernal john french book, through the eyes of magic. that book was enough to kick almost anyone over the edge. guh.
but it’s rotten news, what can you say? beefheart has been one of my own hallmarks of friendship and brotherhood since trout mask came out in ’69. after that rolling stone cover feature me & my friends almost all decided to dip in. but very few could stand the heat of the weird water. we who tried to figure it out, even though we were only 13, 14, 15, have proven to be my best friends ever over the years. and the fact that i was known as a beefheart expert was the reason i got my first paid writing gig — interviewing beefheart in ’78 for new york rocker. things might have gone very differently in my life without beefheart. from the girlfriends i swayed to with clear spot in ’73, to the many shows i saw and the many weirdos i met via them. so many of my best pals were quiet fanatics for the doc. it was never worth making noise about because so few understood. but, just as syd barrett fanhood was a path to lasting friendship in the early ’70s, so beefheart-ism remained, even through the relatively ‘mersh tours of the later ’70s.
anyone who doesn’t miss the guy is suffering from a profound misunderstanding of underground musical culture. or is an architect.
as don once told me, “an architect is someone who wants to crawl up yr penis, pull down the shades and type all night.”
so long, sir. you made this planet a whole hell of a lot more bearable for weirdos. and here’s to you.
When Don Van Vliet ceased recording as Captain Beefheart, long about the early ’80s, the word was he had health problems, as well as a hankering to be a fine artist. Now, lucky us: when we saw him in 1980 at New York’s Beacon Theater, he was in fine fettle, and it was hard to reconcile the jovial man with the myth, and subsequent reports of illness. We’ve subsequently seen many of the paintings, and sometime in the ’90s went to a one-man show of his in a gallery in New York.
But the music — that Delta’n’ dustbowl growl, the multi-octave rollercoaster ride his voice would go on, those syncopated traffic jams his master musicians lurched through — that’s what we’ll remember him for. That he lived as long as he did was a glory to the world. That he is dead tonight (see this notice in the New York Times posted a short while ago) is sad, sad indeed.
UPDATE: Ben Ratliff is a moron. Oh Heavens. To write a bio of Captain Beefheart and say the high point of his work was Trout Mask Replica shows he’s probably never even listened to anything Von Vliet did. Or that he prepared for the obit writing by reading from a book. Hello, NYT? There was early genius (Safe As Milk), and late genius (Shiny Beast (Bat Chain Puller) and Doc At The Radar Station.) There was even under-appreciated greatness in his most accessible album, Clear Spot. But reducing Captain Beefheart to Trout Mask Replica is like reducing The Rolling Stones to Satanic Majesties. Gimme a break.
UPDATE 2: Well, Mr. Ratliff’s full obit of Captain Beefheart is up and it is much superior to what he posted last night, and worth reading. For starters, he doesn’t have Don Van Vliet’s life and importance peak with Trout Mask Replica. It seems to show evidence of his having stayed up all night reading the liner notes to Dust Blows Forward, which is ok, cuz they’re good.