THE MUSICAL PAINT OF CAPT. BEEFHEART
by Rip Rense
(Condensed versions of this article were published in the Boston Globe, San Francisco Examiner, Chicago Tribune, 1992.)
Captain Beefheart---poet/musical alchemist of the '60s and '70s not heard from on vinyl since 1982---still sails the high seas of art. He's going by his real name these days, though---Don Van Vliet---and no longer makes music. The Captain wields a paintbrush.
"Actually, I am making music," he said, clarifying. "On canvas."
The man who acquired a reputation as one of the most original figures in modern electric music (the last Captain Beefheart and the Magic Band LP was "Ice Cream For Crow" in 1982)---whose classic 1969 album, "Trout Mask Replica," was voted number 33 on the top 100 most important LPs by Rolling Stone magazine---has turned full-time during the last twenty years to his life's first creative inclination.
He spends his days in his home/studio somewhere on the rugged coast of northern California (he keeps the location a secret), where he has lived since 1983 with his wife of many years, Jan, and beloved cat, Garland---smoking good cigars, inhaling the Pacific Ocean breezes, and, in creative spells that sometimes keep him awake for days and nights on end, putting dramatic and fantastic oil-paint images on to enormous canvases.
Van Vliet's works have secured the admiration of artists Julian Schnabel, A.R. Penck, art dealer Michael Werner, and most recently John R. Lane, director of the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art; they have had their own shows at the prestigious Mary Boone Gallery in New York, the Galerie Michael Werner in Cologne, West Germany, the Waddington Galleries in London, and the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art.
In other words, Don Van Vliet, artist, has been discovered. At age 47.
"Yeah, I'm 47 years out," he said, reached by phone for one of the rare interviews he has granted in recent years. Then, in distinctly Beefheart-ian manner, he added, laughingly: "Forty-seven. But I string the four and shoot the seven so fast that it becomes a one---that's how old I am!"
Talking to the artist, it might be explained, is somewhat like reading haiku, avant-garde koans. The language is abbreviated, heavily metaphoric, idiosyncratic, and illusory. His observations are as complex as they might be for a man of his years, yet somehow as untainted and pointed as a child's. There is no directing Van Vliet; no putting him through standard interview question-and-answer paces. It's too boring; he goes his own way, as he always has in everything. Ask a simple question, you might get a poetic response. Ask a poetic question, you might get a simple response. He likes to think; he likes people he is conversing with to think. Or re-think, perhaps.
Over the years, interviewers have been left to try and follow Van Vliet's seemingly obscure assertions, or (as many have) to grow frustrated with them. For example, a newspaper reporter once baffled by the Van Vliet canvases at a gallery display, ventured to ask of the artist, "What are you trying to say?", and got this response:
Slightly daunted, the reporter added, hopefully trying to prod some printable profundity, "And. . .everything?" only to be greeted with a pause, and this answer:
The man is as apt to describe the chaotic web of the black widow spider as "brilliant" as he is to come up with a phrase---for no readily apparent reason---like "business is yogurt with wrenches" (think about it), or to sing the aesthetic praises of Bela Lugosi's widow's peak, or cowboy movie star Gabby Hayes' beard. . . This is not to suggest that the artist is merely coy. He speaks (and sings, composes and paints) in the images that suit him, and occur to him naturally. He refers to the human nipple, for example, as a "red plasma sombrero." Here, then, is a real rarity: about as literal an explanation as you will ever get from Van Vliet of just exactly what he does---at least in reference to his paintings:
"Actually what I try to do is turn myself inside out on canvas---to freeze the moment so that the person seeing it can observe what I froze. I try to turn what is going on in me into a still life of that moment."
At that moment, Van Vliet's still life was his studio, a place he described as cheek-by-jowel with expansive canvases, completed and in progress, paint-splotches on the floor, spatters on the walls, and his large "tortoise"-colored cat, Garland. Outside, a mere 100 yards away, the Pacific rolled in, gray and "freight-train like." The air, he offered, smelled like "a Robustos Cohiba"---mostly because that was the cigar he was smoking---and also "like pine trees dipped in sun batter." (Now that sounds like one beautiful day!) Van Vliet's straight auburn hair is laced with silver now, his periwinkle eyes (with flecks of gray, as if he'd painted them in) require reading glasses ("When you get older, you have to put 'em on backwards and then you're younger!"), and he often curses the degenerative influence of gravity ("it's the master!") on the human body. Anything else the reader should be aware of?
"I'm nicer now," he says flatly.
The conversation took its inevitable zig-zag, leap-frogging, elliptical course:
"What am I reading?" he said. " Uhh. . .that guy, I can never think of his name---Dick Francis. He's good. You know who read him? Phillip Larkin (the poet.) God, I'd loved to have met him. Great poet. The best, really, I think. What is my favorite poem by Larkin? The one about the moon. '. . .And looking out to see the moon thinned /To an air-sharpened blade. ' God, that's good. It's called 'Vers de Societe.'"
Yes, and what was it about---the mysteries of life and death. . .
"Well," he said, engaging the playful inquiry, "is there something better than that?"
What of the paintings? Well, Van Vliet's visual compositions bear titles as charmingly and joltingly evocative as the titles of Captain Beefheart's musical compositions, which bore such mantels as "Pachuco Cadaver" and "Tropical Hot Dog Night." A few recent works: "The Moon a Pail of Milk Spilled Down Black in the Night," "Feather Times a Feather," "Parapliers the Willow Dipped," "Bat and Cat Panda," "White Tree and Black Gate," "Cardboard Cutout Sundown" (also the title of a musical composition from "Ice Cream for Crow"), "The Corn Thief," and "Arachnid Voon." Pressed hard to describe any one of them, the artist had this to say about "Parapliers the Willow Dipped":
"Hmmm. Looks like a landscape. There's a veridian mountain. There's also---I started to say an elk, but it isn't an elk, it's a carp---down at the bottom, under the mountain. Naturally. The carp is Hoggar blue, flesh, has two eyes, and various blues and greens. And a big Hoggar blue tail! And I'm trying to hold the thing down with my finger! Above that, there are some non-objective markings in black. There's a clicking time (clock) on this landscape and above that is violet, kind of---God, you know, it's hard to talk about paintings!"
Yes, it is, and it is hard for Van Vliet to discuss or "explain" his works. John R. Lane, Director of the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, categorizes Van Vliet as a "modernist primitive," whatever that might exactly mean. It can safely be reported here that the Van Vliet paintings are as abstract, weighty and intuitively affecting as his music, as densely descriptive as his poetry, which included such memorable passages as "The black paper behind a mirror/ breaks my heart that I can't go/ steal softly through sunshine/ steal softly through snow. . ." They often, but not exclusively, by any means, contain images of wolves, bats, demons, skeletons, cats---and themes from nature, not surprising from a man who lived for decades in the Southern California desert community of Lancaster (where he and Frank Zappa were childhood friends.) Or, as Lane noted in a program introducing a recent exhibition, rather loftily: "Seeking to reaffirm humanity's inherent virtues like Rousseau, Van Vliet advocates embracing nature and relocating man in a position that stems from natural order rather than an imposed hierarchy." Further, Lane asserts that the paintings are "intended to effect psychological, spiritual, and magical force."
On a simpler level, one might add that the paintings are as abstract and startling---and yes, magical---as the quicksilver imagery of the subconscious.
"Bat and Cat Panda" is one that the artist often speaks of with great affection. It is, incidentally, the closest the mostly self-educated (he skipped school, folks) artist has ever come to collaborating. One late morning, the story goes, as he worked intensely away, the feline, Garland, entered the studio and proceeded to sharpen his claws on the lower right corner of the work in progress---the one that became "Bat and Cat Panda." Collaboration? No, but it gave Van Vliet um. . .paws:
"Garland just fooled around. I won! I bought the canvas! He just enjoyed scratching it, cleaning his little toenails; his little protein points. It's still there, in a way."
Yes, but did it add anything?
Closest you've come to collaborating?
"Yeah, that's for sure! Do you blame me?"
Van Vliet intersperses this talk, at his whim, with excerpts from some of his favorite aural amusements (he plays them over the phone): a tape recording sent to him by ex-Magic Band member Elliot Ingber of blues musician Eddie "One-String Sam" Jones demonstrating how he gets so many tones from one string; a recording of "You Ain't Too Old" by Slim Green and the Cats from Fresno, "Take the A-Train," a favorite recording with Duke Ellington and vocalist Betty Roche, "Bedbug Blues," by Lightning Slim, and occasionally excerpts from his own fabled "Trout Mask Replica," of which he seems unabashedly proud.
Of special pleasure to him in recent months, he indicated, have been a tape sent to him by a friend in Taiwan containing a deranged former Chinese general loudly chastising pesky alley cats (translation: "You are uneducated! You have no right to exist!"), and two movies: "The Sword and the Dragon," a Russian mythological epic containing a sequence with a small fat man who can blow up a fair-sized windstorm, and the late 40s less-than-classic Universal B-movie, "Devil Bat," in which Bela Lugosi plays a mad scientist who, masquerading as a perfume inventor, actually turns a flying fox bat into a murdering monster.
"Oh, it's good. Real good. 'Tonight we fly'," Van Vliet pronounces deliciously, mimicking one of Lugosi's lines from the film, adding "Flying fox bats---cute little things. Fox terriers in leather jackets. High style. Real high style."
He ought to know.
© 2002 Rip Rense. All rights reserved.