Saturday, December 18, 2010

Don Van Vliet 1941-2010

When I was a teenager, I heard two albums that baffled me, took all my preconceptions and threw them away and took me the best part of a decade to absorb properly. One was Bitches Brew by Miles Davis and the other was Trout Mask Replica by Captain Beefheart and his Magic Band.

There was something curiously old-fashioned about that "his"; it seemed to evoke old-time acts like Mantovani and his Orchestra. This is strangely appropriate. For all his avant-garde reputation, Beefheart was a showman, and there's a playful theatricality in his music that in another life might have made him a housewives' favourite. You'd have a shock if you put the record on expecting some smooth strings though. I knew the album's reputation, of course - I was an obstreperous child and got that one because it had the most forbidding reputation - but the extraordinary noise that awaited me was something I wasn't prepared for. It took years (and I mean, around 10) for it to click that for all the complexities of time and tone, it was at heart a blues album. That moment of realisation brought everything into focus, and thereafter it seemed incomprehensible that I'd ever found this music forbidding. It never became comfortably familiar though. Like all great music, it remains unpredictable, startling, new.

It's nearly 30 years since Beefheart fell silent. He was advised that he'd never be taken seriously as a painter if he continued to record, so the Captain was put to rest and Don Van Vliet the painter took his place. There's a strong continuity between the painter and the musician. The paintings have that same playful experimentation as his music, and the music comes to seem painterly in the way he spreads sound across his canvas. So it's not really true to say that he'd been inactive in music since 1982; he'd just made music in pigment instead, where before he'd painted in sound. But beyond that, it seems an immediate loss just because he was so far ahead that we haven't really caught up yet.

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