"Uh oh, the phone," Captain Beefheart mumbled as he placed his tarnished soprano saxophone in its case. "I have to answer the telephone." It was a very peculiar thing to say. The phone had not rung.
Beefheart walked quickly from his place by the upright piano across the dimly lit living room to the cushion where the telephone lay. He waited. After ten seconds of stony silence it finally rang. None of the half dozen or so persons in the room seemed at all astounded by what had just happened. In the world of Captain Beefheart, the extraordinary is the rule.
At age 29, Captain Beefheart, also known as Don Van Vliet, lives in seclusion and near poverty in a small house in the San Fernando Valley of Los Angeles. Although it appeared on several occasions in the past that he would rise to brilliant stardom as a singer and bandleader, circumstances have always intervened to force him into oblivion. In his six years in the music business he has appeared in public no more than 25 times.
Since virtually no one has ever seen him play, stories about his life and art have taken on the character of legend, that is, of endless tall tales. People who saw him at the Avalon Ballroom in San Francisco three years ago will now tell you, "I heard that he's living in Death Valley somewhere" or "Didn't he just finally give up?" But there is considerably more to the man that the legend indicates.
The fact is that Don Van Vliet is alive, healthy and happy and putting together a new Magic Band to go on tour soon. As his recent album Trout Mask Replica testifies he is one of the most original and gifted creators of music in America today. If all goes well, the next six months should see the re-emergence of Captain Beefheart's erratic genius into the world and the acceptance of his work by the larger audience it has always deserved.
The crucial problem in Beefheart's career has been that few people have ever been able to accept him for what he is. His managers, musicians, fans and critics listen to his incredible voice, his amazing lyrics, his chaotic harp and soprano sax, and uniformly decide that Beefheart could be great if he would only (1) sing more clearly and softly (2) go commercial, (3) play blues songs that people could understand and dance to. "Don, you're potentially the greatest white blues singer of all time," his managers tell him, thinking that they're paying him a compliment. Record companies eagerly seek the Beefheart voice with its unprecedented four and one half octave range. They realize that the man can produce just about any sound he sets his mind to and that he interprets lyrics as well as any singer in the business. Urging him to abandon the Magic Band and to sing the blues with slick studio musicians, record producers have always been certain that Don Vliet was just a hype away from the big money.
But Beefheart stubbornly continues what he's doing and waits patiently for everyone else to come around. He has steadfastly refused to leave the Magic Band or to abandon the integrity of his art. "I realize," he says, "that somebody playing free music isn't as commercial as a hamburger stand. But is it because you can eat a hamburger and hold it in your hand and you can't do that with music? Is it too free to control?"
Beefheart's life as a musician began in the town of Lancaster nestled in the desert of Southern California. He had gone to high school there and became a friend of another notorious Lancasterian, Frank Zappa. In his late teens Don Van Vliet listened intensively to two kinds of music — Mississippi Delta blues and the avant-garde jazz of John Coltrane, Ornette Coleman and Cecil Taylor. Although he was attracted to music and played briefly with a rhythm and blues group called the Omens, he did not yet consider music his vocation. He enrolled at Antelope Valley Junior College in 1959 as an art major, but soon grew suspicious of books and dropped out. For a brief while he was employed as a commercial artist and as a manager of a chain of shoe stores. "I built that chain into a thriving, growing concern," he recalls. "Then as a kind of art statement I quit right in the middle of the Christmas rush leaving the whole thing in chaos."
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