His first record—a single that was cut in 1965 in Los Angeles, a street sign away from Glendale, where he was born Don Glen Vliet in 1941—was a huge, devouring version of Bo Diddley’s 1956 “Diddy Wah Diddy.” Diddy-WAHHHHHH, the by now renamed Don Van Vliet proclaimed, his voice lowering into a rumble that all but broke the needle on the recording console: “Ain’t no town, ain’t no city—” That was a dare: Wherever I go, I’ll leave confusion, awe, fear, and freedom in my wake.
From Safe as Milk in 1967 to the double dare of Trout Mask Replica two years later, from Lick My Decals Off, Baby in 1970 through to Ice Cream for Crow in 1982, he performed as a crackpot, spouting riddles made out of puns, sketching conspiracy theories as winking and Grimms-like as the paintings—often featuring wisps of animal-human composites at once threatening and playful—that would occupy his last three decades. Legends surrounded him, stopping just short of claims that he’d been raised by wolves: that he ruled the musicians in his Magic Band like a cult leader, giving all of them new names, as if they had had no identity before him and would have none after; that he could predict when the telephone would ring, or make it ring to match his prediction. Nothing was so scary as the sense of certainty that drove his music like a stagecoach driver flashing his whip. Despite the clatter of instruments that seemed to be flying away from each other as if each song was its own big bang, there was almost always a deadly kind of gravity at the center. That gravity wore faces that changed almost as soon as you thought you’d caught them: Charley Patton or Charlie Parker, Howlin’ Wolf or Cecil Taylor, Asger Jorn or Bruce Conner, Aimee Semple McPherson or Lenny Bruce, tricksters all. It was the certainty of the performer who appears before an audience, or God, as one who is always right; as one who, by right, cannot be wrong. It’s no matter if you can’t understand, if it all sounds crazy, childish, if you’re sure the artist as trickster is really the trickster as con artist. “Fuck it!” Beefheart shouted to a crowd in 1978. “If you’re going to talk, forget it!” What was chatter in the audience is instantly angry, loud, the sound of people sure they’ve been cheated, but God will never fuck this mind for good.
He had shaman’s eyes; they glowed. They couldn’t have been yellow, but that’s how I remember them, from a day in 1970—eyes that seemed to see right through you and look back, as if he were a mirror before you and a mirror behind you. It was frightening. He was polite, quiet, and menacing. As a guest in a friend’s house, he set himself up as king and issued commands as to how the people there should live, telling his host to leave his girlfriend, that she was not on the side of his destiny. I had no idea who this person really was. Did he? Was that the whole point, the point of all those shape-shifting, unstable, slithering songs, that there was nothing fixed?
In “Orange Claw Hammer,” from Trout Mask Replica, he’s a broken old sailor, Ahab himself as a bum in the alley, muttering about Painless Parker and cherry phosphates, seeing a woman on the street, or every woman: “God before me if I’m not crazy is my daughter.” He puts you on the street with him, watching the madman, wondering what you’d do, what you’d say, if you could say anything. Whose mind is fucked now? “Want to do a version of ‘Orange Claw Hammer,’ live in the studio?” a disc jockey asked Van Vliet one day in 1975. “Yeahhhhh,” he said in a drawl of pure pleasure, stepping right into the song like it was a movie sequence he’d just stepped out of; with Frank Zappa, his friend and nemesis since high school, playing guitar like an autoharp behind him, it felt like bourbon. It sounded like a tall tale, a rumor, a folk song.
That day in 1970 was the day the news of Jimi Hendrix’s death broke. That night, Captain Beefheart and His Magic Band were performing in San Rafael, in Marin County. It was the first time I’d ever seen someone stand up onstage and read lyrics off sheets of paper as he sang, as if they were pages ripped from some occult book, full of words and phrases he could barely decipher. Like a dervish standing still, he summoned up a vortex. Then he picked up a soprano saxophone, stepped away from the microphone, and said in a clear voice, “For Jimi Hendrix.” He played long, slow lines, coaxing the genie out of the bottle, then letting him go back in, just as Don Van Vliet finally did, on December 17, 2010.
Artforum, April 2011