I am listening to a Jersey City radio station online. In another room of the house, a local station is keeping a cat company. Both are playing Captain Beefheart tunes and have been for a couple hours now.
I checked email when I arrived home from my outing with OB. Crash sent me a link with the sad news that Captain Beefheart had died. His real name was Don Van Vliet, and he had been suffering for many years with MS. An accomplished musician and painter, he is survived by his wife of 40 years.
I don’t remember exactly when I first heard the Captain’s music. Sometime in the late 60s. Rock and roll was still a teenager and in its youth was already doing a lot of experimentation, separating itself from its roots in blues. Beefheart chose to stay behind and explore those roots, deconstructing, if you will, that basic rhythm into what some would say is equally innovative as the infant free jazz movement of the time. It certainly had my attention.
Beefheart was a poet of the absurd. I like to say that his music found the sounds in between the notes. Psychodelia certainly played a part. But lest a person call it noise, consider that he was a person with a strong vision, a perfectionist who alienated many of his band members.
His music is certainly an acquired taste, even though some may say it lacks musicality. Yet it is also defining, and therefore brings like minds together.
It may have been 1983. I had recently moved to Syracuse, NY. There was a cooperative gallery in town, Artisera, that I frequently visited, and I soon became friends with the SU grad students that ran the space. One of them fancied himself a poet, and knowing that I wrote and did performance art, asked me to join him and a young undergrad writer one Saturday afternoon to do a poetry reading at the gallery.
The grad student and I created an environment for the reading. He hung a tree limb from the ceiling and spread dead leaves on the floor. It was Autumn. I brought an old Hoover upright, an old B&W TV on a stand, turned the TV on to static and had a female grad student in vintage clothing vacuum the leaves. We were young, but the undergrad was younger. He showed up with a boom box, and was wearing only military fatigue pants.
The grad student read first. I have no impression that remains. I read next. My stepfather, who also lived in Syracuse (another story), fell asleep. The undergrad woke him up with the boom box. Captain Beefheart. He crushed dead leaves against his bare chest as he read poems directly to his girlfriend in the audience.
I don’t remember the grad student’s name. Maybe David. The undergrad student is James Gray, a friend forever. I was his Best Man.
Thank you, Captain.