DON'T ARGUE THE CAPTAIN
DON VAN VLIET captain beefheart
from (ANDY WARHOL'S)
INTERVIEW vol.21 #10 011091 usa
by john yau
is 08.91 interview
note: the glossy on and for fine artists was a project by a famous colleague of don
captain beefheart, whose throaty, gutsy music blazed the trail for one-of-a-kind rocksters and popsters, now makes paintings you can hear, and respect.
don van vliet is a truly rare phenomenon in these specialized times: an artist who excels in two different fields. as captain beefheart, van vliet wrote, sang, and played (on the saxophone, harmonica, piano, and guitar) some of the gutsiest music and lyrics heard from the mid 1960s through the early 1980s. together with his magic band he gave the world a series of groundbreaking, idiosyncratic free-form rock albums, like 'safe as milk' (1967), 'trout mask replica' (1969), 'lick my decals off, baby' (1970), 'clear spot' (1973), 'doc at the radar station' (1980), and 'ice cream for crow' (1982), that have since become classics.
along with his musical career - and especially after it, since by the early '80s van vliet had begun to retire from music - he has been making art, painting and sculpting with the same energy that was typical of his performances. this month, the michael werner gallery, new york, presents a show of van vliet's recent paintings and drawings.
inspired by mississippi delta blues, post-bebop jazz, and even, it seems, dadaist principles of nonsense, van vliet's free-wheeling beefheart lyrics and atonal compositions were deeply influential to many musicians of his generation. but van vliet is modest: when asked why his albums were so provocative when they first appeared, he says that everyone 'took me too seriously back then. they couldn't understand that i was just teasing'.
as a visual artist, van vliet is just as unassumingly visionary. on canvas he delineates an expressive array of scratchy marks, squiggles, pictographic images and abstract glyphs until a vivid domain emerges in thick patches of paint - a constantly changing world, populated by such real and imaginary creatures as crows, angels, turtles, human beings, and buzzards, where people are just another form of life. in paint he now reveals the sentient creatures who inhabit that cacophonous landscape inside himself that used to be revealed through music.
today, at fifty, van vliet lives with his wife jan in trinidad, california, a small coastal town of about 150 [inhabitants] near the oregon border. when i spoke to him, he was in his studio, preparing for the werner show in new york. still an iconoclast, whose throaty voice sounds like a cross between a goblin and a grizzly bear, van vliet gives forth in conversation verbal rifts and free associations that are as memorable as his songs.
i hear you spend most of your time painting and watching movies. what do you do - go get tapes at your local video store?
no, i'm afraid to. i'm afraid i'll see a dead head (fan of the pop group 'grateful dead' - t.t.). there's lots of them up here. damn garcia, what's he doing? he looks like gabby hayes (who? - teejo).
don't people come to see you? someone told me that the german artist a. r. penck came out to your house.
yeah, he's wonderful. you know, he can blow some pretty good drums. he first heard my music while he was living in east berlin (in the former communistic part of germany - t.t.). he was in a jazz band then and had to pay an exorbitant amount for my records. that's one of the reasons we got together: music and painting. he knew my music and wanted to see my paintings - i had an image of one of them on an album cover ('green tom' on 'shiny beast (bat chain puller)' - t.t).
he came out here and danced all night. i told him that all he needed to do to please me was wear a panama hat, like brian donlevy wore in 'dangerous assignment'. you've ever seen that? the scene where the knife makes this noise going into the wall? donlevy ducks under it, and he's wearing this hat and these incredible epaulets. that was some pretty good dressing.
what other movies have you been watching?
buñuel's 'exterminating angel'. i've watched that one 150 times, and it gets better and better and better. i think buñuel was the most profound director who ever lived. the first part, with the steps going up, is incredible. when the chick is cutting her toenails, sitting on the stool, she's hideous. you can see her crack open as she is cutting them, one by one. that's buñuel's way of disrobing people. isn't imagination wonderful?
yeah, it is.
yeah, it's all we have now. do you believe that war that went on, that 'desert swirl' (the war against saddam hussein, actual code name 'desert storm' - t.t.)?
yeah, i believe it because it happened. this photographer friend of mine, a vietnam veteran, went up to washington when there was a big parade for desert storm. he said he went to the vietnam memorial wall and stayed there for twenty-four hours, taking photographs. i asked him if anything happened, and he said: 'yeah, these guys put up a banner welcoming home soldiers from kuwait and me and my buddies tore it down. i told some colonel who got mad at us that they got their parade but the wall is ours.'
good for him. that's the problem: too many old boys. oh, wait a minute. i just got a title for my painting: 'too many chrome old boys'.
picture by dan winters
that's great. so you get the title first and then the painting?
usually, yeah. but this time was a strange time. it's hip to talk to somebody that tips.
yeah. you're tipping in (laughs). so what do you want to write about this old fool for?
i'm fifty years out.
you know, penck said: 'it gets better after fifty'.
do you know what he told me? 'whiskey hurts my finger.' that's really hip, i said: 'your finger or your fingers?' he said: 'my finger'.
you've been painting a lot?
i've been painting four days straight. i finished two paintings in the last couple of days. i won, i actually did something i liked. and that's unusual.
four days straight? haven't you got any sleep?
no, i don't need any. i've been feeding on fumes - or dying from them. but it's fun while it lasts.
do you often paint like that, for a few days in a row?
so it's sort of like music - you know, like jamming? you just keep going?
it's different. but, you know, a lot of people can't hear my paintings.
they don't hear your paintings?
no, and they should be able to. god knows, they're noisy enough.
you've got to be noisy in this world at this point.
isn't that the truth?
you once said you felt like an alien on this planet.
and now you live in this house overlooking the ocean, far from the madding crowd.
yeah. i look out my window and the blue devil looks right back at me. the house is 135 feet (40 meters) from the ocean, so it could do a number. you know, i don't have to eat any salt. i just absorb it by osmosis. buying this land is the only right thing i've ever done.
do you ever feel like you have cut yourself off from the world?
no, i got more into it.
painting seems to be your way of learning more about how you see and hear and feel the world you're in. how long have you been investigating the world like that?
i started drawing and painting when i was young. first time i played a harmonica, i was three. boom, boom, boom. then i learned how to bend notes at four. my grandfather played harmonica, by the way. he was good - amos vertenor warfield. he was second cousin to the gold digger who got that english guy to give up the throne. i started painting and drawing and making sculpture at around the same time. i couldn't help myself. i was possessed.
cats got his tail - 1985 - oil on wood - 97 x 122 cm
so what's painting to you?
wait a second. let me read you something: 'fulfilling the absence of space between the opposite meanings'. i think that's essentially what i think. that came the other night. it came blasting into my head. i quickly wrote it down. yes, that's what painting is.
i heard you used to draw while you were performing onstage.
why not? fuck them. what did they want to see me do? i wasn't going to let the audience interrupt me. one of the band members would be doing a long solo, and what was i going to do? stand there? i would get my stuff and begin drawing. i couldn't waste time.
what about the people who collect your work? do you know any of them? are they an interruption?
i am friends with my dealer, michael werner, but i don't want to look at the others. when i was in los angeles, an artist, ed ruscha, bought some stuff - he was nice. i finish doing a painting, and that's it until the next grasp of the brush.
so you're not coming to new york for your show.
no, i can't stand that place. what they think is dust is actually human skin. oh, god, you got to take fifty baths a day. how can you stand it? i don't like flying either, not since reagan got rid of all the air-traffic controllers. besides, i can't paint in airplanes, i can't paint in hotels.
what would you do if you did come to new york?
go to the museum of modern art and see mondrian's 'broadway boogie-woogie'. it's so good you can hear the horns honk. and look at the stuff they have by franz kline and van gogh. hey, i hear you're a poet.
that's true. well, you're a poet too, aren't you?
yeah, i'm a capricorn. i have too much corn in my cap.
and your favorite poet is philip larkin?
oh, yeah, absolutely. you know, larkin worked as a librarian in hull, england, and he loved jazz.
have you ever read his music reviews? he loved duke ellington and count basie, but he hated charlie parker. he thought bebop was gibberish.
yeah, well, the best he could do was dig music that cantered around the room. but did you ever hear someone talk about musicians like philip larkin? use such grisly language? i've been reading a lot of larkin. it's funny, the things you find when you retire. i never got to do anything when i was playing. i didn't get to read, i didn't see movies. remember that album roland kirk did, 'volunteered slavery'? i was a slave. so i retired. i had to. i got too good on the horn and i got to the point where i thought i would blow my head right off. so i started a second life.
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captain beefheart electricity
as felt by teejo