They’re dropping like flies this week: Bob Feller, Blake Edwards and nowDon Van Vliet aka Captain Beefheart who died earlier today at the age of 69.Captain Beefheart was the touchstone of cool when I was a tadpole His music was a cacophonous cross between Howlin’ Wolf and Pharoah Sanders. As a singer he sounded like Tom Waits’ demented Uncle Don. Waits was one of Beefheart’s biggest fans and said of him: “Once you’ve heard Beefheart, it’s hard to wash him out of your clothes. It stains, like coffee or blood.”
I spent far too much time as a kid perfecting a Beefheart imitation. I recall seeing him play to a rather hostile audience who didn’t get what he was up to. He shook his head in disgust and said in his gravelly voice: “Playing to you people is like trying to turn pickles back into cucumbers.”
Every once and awhile I trot out that line but to little effect: most people have never heard of Captain Beefheart and the The Magic Band. Trust me, you haven’t lived until you’ve heard the pseudonyms of his sidemen: Winged Eel Fingerling and Zoot Horn Rollo are my personal favorites.
Van Vliet retired Captain Beefheart quite some time ago and pursued his painting. Don was a talented artist but if I’d ever run into him I would have asked him to “gimme dat harp, boy.”
Don Van Vliet is dead. Long live Captain Beefheart.