As Captain Beefheart, Don Van Vliet Applies His Stroke of Genius to Both Painting and Music

updated 01/31/1983 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 01/31/1983 AT 01:00 AM EST

Don Van Vliet, a/k/a Captain Beef-heart, ambles into Manhattan's Russian Tea Room and gazes with wonderment at the year-round Christmassy decor. He has a mini-snit with the maître d' over whether he has to remove his weathered brown hat. He does. Bareheaded, he joins a group of friends and begins talking animatedly about his new album, Ice Cream for Crow. Mid-sentence, he suddenly covers his ears and cringes like a man being dive-bombed by wasps. "God, did you hear that laugh?" he cries, motioning toward a stylishly dressed matron on the far side of the crowded, noisy restaurant. No one else heard it. Still, Van Vliet covers his ears twice more before the end of the meal. Then, as he is leaving, a fan recognizes him and says, "Hey, Captain, how's it going?" Don smiles, tips his hat and mutters under his breath, "Captain? Hell, I don't even own a boat."

True. But that is not to say that Van Vliet, 42, has no craft. He is a published poet, a skilled painter and sculptor, but he is best known for his Captain Beef-heart music. Don't let that quirky stage moniker give you a bum steer. "It means there's a beef in my heart," he has explained. Van Vliet's "beef" is with things like politics, violence, misogyny and religious hucksterism.

His acerbic sentiments ("Wrong deductions/Poor instructions/Mass destructions") are set in a rich stew of bebop, Delta blues, whistled scat and nature noises. The modern, often atonal Beefheart sound, according to one critic, is "beyond comparison in the realm of contemporary music." Though never a commercial success (his best-selling LP, 1969's Trout Mask Replica, sold only 50,000 copies), New Wave artists like Talking Heads, Devo and Public Image cite Beefheart as an important influence. "Who," he asks ingenuously, "are they?"

If Van Vliet is unplugged from current pop culture, he is keenly in touch with his own muse. "I don't listen to anything because I don't want to get away from the yolk," he says. He entrusts his songs to a tiny tape recorder, leaving it to members of his band to memorize the difficult chord changes and complicated syncopated rhythms. "It can take weeks to get a song right," says Don's manager, Gary Lucas. "As a composer, he knows exactly what he wants." Van Vliet dislikes rock as much as Muzak. He is equally opinionated about painting, dismissing modernists, except for the late American Abstract Expressionist Franz Kline.

Fidelity to his powerful artistic instinct, however, is nothing new. The son of a baked goods deliveryman, he grew up in Glendale, Calif. and the Mojave Desert. Evidence of his strong identity shows up in a statement he allegedly made to his parents at age 3. "You Sue, you Glenn and me Don. If you don't cross that line, we can be friends forever." An only child and a prodigy, he says he refused to attend school, after a half day of first grade—with his parents' consent—and worked on art instead. By 12, he was studying with Portuguese sculptor Augustino Rodriguez, and at 13, he was lecturing at L.A.'s Barnsdall Arts Center.

Over the years Van Vliet has held a variety of jobs, including shoe salesman, commercial artist and vacuum cleaner salesman (Aldous Huxley once bought a brave new machine from him). He launched his music career in 1962, playing with a band called the Omens. In the two decades since, he has toured internationally, recorded 12 albums, and collaborated with a wide range of musicians, from Frank Zappa ("He looks like a fly's leg") to the late Rahsaan Roland Kirk. These days, however, Van Vliet is pouring most of his energies onto canvas. "To do art," he explains, "you have to be willing to put up with irritation, isolation, and turn yourself inside out."

Van Vliet says quite plainly that he feels like an outsider on this planet and admits he has trouble coping with daily life. He can be left dazed by a visit to a shopping mall and keeps a notecard in his car with directions to familiar places. "Civilization," he maintains, "is like a mild case of the flu."

For the past seven years Van Vliet has lived in a trailer in the Mojave with his wife of 13 years, Janet. But don't say that to him. Ask the Captain where he lives, and he'll tell you quite seriously, "My only home is my hat, except when it rains."

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