Don Van Vliet, Dead at 69

Don VAN VLIET, Fire party for Boomerang man with wrought iron curlsDon Van Vliet, Fire Party for Boomerang Man with Wrought Iron Curls (1984), oil, synthetic polymer paint and charcoal on wood panel, 48″ x 68″; courtesy The National Gallery of Australia

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He was better known as the musician and band-leader Captain Beefheart–a deeply American construct, a careening, disjointed and prophetic amalgamation of Delta bluesman, avant-jazz composer and street prophet by way of Melville. Trout Mask Replica is the masterpiece, I guess, but I prefer the rollicking “pop” of Safe As Milk and the fulsome clatter of Ice Cream For Crow.  The former is catchier; the latter, more generous in its textures.  That, and I’ve always found Trout Mask Replica less compelling as art than as a cultural touchstone–like Kandinsky, say, or the Velvet Underground’s Sister Ray.

Van Vliet hung up the Beefheart moniker sometime around 1982 and devoted himself to painting. He was better than the Neo-Expressionists with whom he was usually lumped, but Van Vliet’s canvases never achieved the music’s crackling, syncopated density. Now we have to acclimate ourselves to a world where the good Captain, as mere flesh-and-blood, will no longer threaten to “darken your dark cross door no more”. But the music will endure as a reminder of absurdism’s crankier tangents.

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