At first, I was dismayed at the way I learned of Don Van Vliet’s passing.
I learned about it on Facebook.
Some would claim that this is the power of the social network. That your circle of comrades will scour the internets and newswires-feeding back only the news of interest to your social strata.
I felt that the death of Captain Beefheart was deserving of a worthier announcement. It was an announcement that should be broadcasted from the top of Rockefeller Plaza. His passing should be on the bottom screen ticker at Fox News.
“Captain Beefheart, dead at the age of 69…” the closing sentence of Katie Couric’s evening news.
Then it struck me how the news of Van Vliet’s passing came from an update from the very same friend who introduced me to Captain Beefheart.
The same person who brought Captain Beefheart into my life also told me when he left it.
I’m reaching there-searching for clever metaphors that suggest how Captain Beefheart’s music will live on, and all that.
But the truth is I’m not so sure.
How often do you hear Captain Beefheart on the radio? A silly question, but the truth is, I just heard a song on the public radio station last Saturday night.
I got genuinely excited.
Because it’s a rare event, and Beefheart is one of those rare icons that created just for the sake of creating, that you can just imagine from his name that the results did not bode well for radio airplay.
Now that I recall it, my friend wasn’t actually the first time I’d heard Beefheart. The first time was watching him on Saturday Night Live performing “Hot Head.”
I hated it.
But then my friend turned me on to Trout Mask Replica while in college, and an entire world of wrong notes, vividly descriptive wordplay, and the closest thing to Howlin’ Wolf’s voice that I had ever heard, came through a lens of understanding.
From there, Lick My Decals Off, Baby.
From there, Doc At The Radar Station.
And so on.
Discovering Beefheart during a time when he wasn’t even active musically added to the attraction. What happened to him? Where did he go? Was he just another acid casualty?
You’re never forgotten on the internet, and someone put together a comprehensive Beefheart sight that advised everyone that the Captain was now just “Don” and those covers of his late-career material was, in fact, art.
It was good to know that he was doing well with his art.
You also began to get the picture that Don wasn’t doing so well health-wise. Multiple sclerosis. What cruel irony gave a man with such a vast imagination with a disease that devastates cognitive ability?
It prepared you for this day, but it doesn’t soften the blow.
I like how Don’s relationship with Zappa deteriorated when Beef felt that Zappa was painting him and his magic band as a freak show. This was serious stuff to Don, and he didn’t sweeten the mix with accessibility, or have a care in the world how his stuff was going to be marketed.
To be honest, Zappa may have been trying to do the only marketing that would have been possible with Beefheart: promote the zany sounds.
But listen closely and you’ll hear that those wacky chords are very complex. This was not a nut-job working like a monkey for Warner Bros. This was an artist who pulled the unthinkable by landing on a major label and still managed to release some heady, life-changing records that sound just as challenging now as they did when they were released some forty years ago.