Don Van Vliet's heart belongs to dada.
He became Captain Beefheart 15 years ago in the Mojave Desert ("I had a beef in my heart against the world"). Over two decades and 12 albums on six labels, he has earned a reputation as a "seminal figure in 20th-century music," a rock eclectic who has influenced New Wave bands as disparate as Pere Ubu, XTC and Devo, as well as numerous New Wave musicians.
Which make the Muzak playing in the background of the bar at his hotel a bit incongruous. "I can't shut out anything," Beefheart grimaces, his words rolling out like trucks on a gravel road. "I don't want to lose the feel at this age . I couldn't stand it if I were in a place like this." He thinks for a moment, adding, "I am in a place like this, and I can't stand it."
Beefheart, in town for a rare concert at the Bayou last night, is dressed in solid black, with a well-worn, comfortably draped jacket he bought in 1963 and a wooden clothespin that he's worn in his pocket for 15 years (I dare somebody to try and pick my pocket . . . No way . . . What a brilliant invention . . . doesn't kill mice.") If you can't follow the sinuous logic, it doesn't matter: With the Captain -- a handsome, gaunt man whose eyes indicate that he may be on automatic pilot -- sometimes it's best just to go along for the ride.
The man Rolling Stone called a "major American composer" has a mind like a butterfly -- colorful but given to flights. Or crash landings, like the time he was driving along in California and saw a billboard slighting one of his few heroes, Vincent Van Gogh. "I looked up and saw this horrible rag around Van Gogh's head. It said he painted with [a brand of paint]. I couldn't take it -- I went over the curb into somebody's lawn and sat there for two hours and $1,750 damage. I couldn't believe they would do that."
Born in Glendale, Calif., Van Vliet grew up in Lancaster, a tiny town in the middle of the Mojave Desert. His parents took him there to get him away from the "weird art crowd" he'd fallen in with even before his teens; at 13, he'd been offered a sculpting scholarship in Europe. "Why would they do that, why?" he still wonders about his parents' action 26 years later. Lancaster had been an interment center for Japanese Americans during World War II. "I hunted uranium with a truant officer," Beefheart recalls of his early teens. "Got to see a lot of lizards, condors, ravens and rattlesnakes. Had a pet sidewinder. Wonderful beast, never bit me. It was defanged -- but they grow back like sharks. Very affectionate, very intelligent, like a pig."
Music came naturally ("I whistled before I talked"), though he has never had any formal training, which seems to be one of his charms for many critics and fans. It gives him incordinate control over his music, since he arranges it in "complete reverse, upside down, backwards to the music is written. Sheet music's like little black ants crawling across white paper, they don't even move. It's so slow, so far away from the flash." Beefheart tapes his compositions, assigns the parts to musicians, draws out sketches of relationships between the instruments. And it works.
Since he formed his first group in 1964, his music has been called the final frontier of rock weirdness cacophonous, disjointed and dismembered, highlighted or assaulted by Beefheart's 7 1/2-octave voice and unschooled attacks on soprano sax, bass clarinet and harmonica.
Beefheart is also a well-known painter and sculpter, with frequent shows in the Southwest. He started when he was 3, and art continues to be a major part of life for both himself and his wife, Jan. They live in a trailer in the middle of the Mojave Desert. Despite consistent critical acclaim, none of Beefheart's records has sold more than 60,000 copies. What money he does receive from them goes into art supplies. "It would be nice to be successful," he says. "I could get more paint."
Record companies have never known what to do with him; as a final result, his new album, "Doc at the Radar Station," came out at almost the same time that his record company, Virgin, was falling apart and moving from one distributor to another. Despite the critical acclaim, the new album is hard to find, since no one knows where to order it from. "How could they do that to me?" he wonders.
The newest version of Beefheart's Magic Band is in the tradition of his earliest group members: Zoot Horn Rollo, Rockette Morton and the Mascara Snake. His new find is 22-year-old Brave Midnight Hat-Size Snyder, a Winnebago Sioux guitar player who joined the band three weeks before it hit the road several weeks ago for the latest tour, and had to learn 34 songs in a hurry. "Drumbo [the old guitarist] went off to Jesus or something one-dimensional," Beefheart grunts. "Brave is right . . . he plays my music and dances at the same time."
It's just the right feel for a man who was blinded by the power of Van Gogh on a visit to Amsterdam. After seeing several Van Goghs in a museum, Beefheart went outside and was "so disappointed with the sun that I put a cone of pistachio ice cream between my eyes. It seemed like the only thing to do.I needed to be cool, right there in the middle."