The Odyssey of Captain Beefheart: Rolling Stone's 1970 Cover Story

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For the first time in his career, Beefheart was entirely satisfied with his album. Zappa had made good his promise to give him the freedom he required and in fact issue the record in a pure and unaltered form. Nevertheless, the Beefheart/Zappa relationship is presently anything but an amicable one. Beefheart claims that Zappa is promoting Trout Mask Replica in a tasteless manner. He does not appreciate being placed on the Bizarre-Straight roster of freaks next to Alice Cooper and the GTO's. He constantly complains that Straight Records' promotion campaign is doing him more harm than good.

Straight Records on the other hand claims that Beefheart's problems are all of his own making. He refuses to go on tour and procrastinates about making a follow-up album. "What can we do?" a Straight P.R. man asked me. "Beefheart is a genius, but a very difficult man to work with. All we can do is try to be as reasonable as possible." Straight's brass recall that during the recording of the parts of Trout Mask which were done in Beefheart's home, Don Van Vliet asked for a tree surgeon to be in residence. The trees around the house, he believed, might become frightened of the noise and fall over. Straight refused to hire the tree surgeon, but later received a bill for $250 for such services. After the sessions were over Beefheart had hired his own tree doctor to give the oaks and cedars in his yard a thorough medical check up — his way of thanking them for not falling down.

In another classic story of this sort, Herb Cohen of Straight recalls that one day he noticed that Beefheart had ordered 20 sets of sleigh bells for a recording session. Cohen pointed out that even if Frank Zappa and the engineer were added to the bell ringing this would account for only 14 sleigh bells — one in each hand of the performers. "What are you going to do with the other six?" he asked. "We'll overdub them," Beefheart replied.

The fact of the matter seems to be that precisely the same qualities of mind which make Beefheart such an astounding poet and composer are those which make it difficult for him to relate to Frank Zappa or anyone else in the orthodox music business. Like many notable creative spirits, Beefheart's personality is not geared to the efficient use of time or resources. For this reason and for the reason that he has often been burned by the industry, Beefheart is very suspicious of those who try to influence the direction his career takes. To see why he has such continual trouble adjusting to the practicalities of his vocation, it will do well for us to look briefly at the incredible story of Beefheart's life before he became a musician.

Don Van Vliet was born in 1941 in Glendale, California, to normal middle-class parents. He grew up without problems as any child would in Glendale — until the age of five. It was then that he decided that civilized American life was a gigantic fraud. Don noticed that this society had established a destructive tyranny over nature; over all the animals and plants of the Earth. He also became aware of the fact that America extended this tyranny over each man and that it was apparently out to include him in "the great take over." They wanted to teach him proper language, social rules, arithmetic and all of the other noxious techniques required to live in this country. Young Don suddenly rebelled and refused to go along.

Looking back on it now Beefheart recalls one day of enlightenment. "My mother, who I called 'Sue' rather than 'mother' because that was her real name, was walking me along a path to school — the first day of kindergarten. We came to an intersection and she walked right out into the way of a speeding car. I reached up with both hands and pulled her out of the way. She could have killed us both. It was then that I thought to myself, 'And she's taking me to school.' "

So Don did not attend school, at least not regularly. Instead, he took up sculpting all the birds of the air, fish in the sea and animals on the land. Because he refused to come out for dinner, his parents were obliged to slide his meals under the bedroom door to him. It was Don's belief that he could re-establish ties to everything natural through the art of sculpture. Soon he was good enough at what he was doing to attract the attention of professional Los Angeles artists. One day during a visit to the Griffith Park Zoo he met and befriended Augustonio Rodriquez, the famous Portugese sculptor. Together they did a weekly television show in which Don would sculpt the images of nature's art while Mr. Rodriquez looked on.

Understandably, Don's parents were concerned about the unusual inclinations of their son. When at age thirteen he won a scholarship to study art in Europe, they took strong steps to discourage him. "My parents told me all artists were queers," Beefheart recalls. "They moved me to the desert, first to Mojave and later to Lancaster."

But even though Don's life as a sculptor had ended, he never gave up the vision of art and nature that he had discovered early in life. Neither did he forsake the wonderfully unstructured consciousness with which he had been born. "I think that everyone's perfect when they're a baby and I just never grew up. I'm not saying that I'm perfect, because I did grow up. But I'm still a baby."

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