An afternoon with Captain Beefheart

As part of KCRW’s Lost Notes, music journalist Kristine McKenna shares a story about her relationship with Don Van Vliet (Captain Beefheart). Subscribe to the podcast here

“There was something deeply American about Don,” says music journalist Kristine McKenna, “and you can hear that in all of the music he went on to create.” She’s talking about her friend Don Van Vliet.

By the time Don Van Vliet was 25, he had taken the stage name of Captain Beefheart. In 1966 he released his first album, Safe as Milk, with his group the Magic Band. “And the world sat up and took notice of that record,” Kristine says.

For many, Captain Beefheart’s music is almost impossible to describe. But Kristine can.

“A startling synthesis of free jazz, delta blues, and tin pan alley, his music was rooted in an elastic approach to composing that allowed him to combine rural folk tales, voodoo incantations, and anthropological fantasy with a spectrum of sound that stretched from Charles Ives and Stravinsky to the natural sounds of the universe.

His music was built around incredibly complex time signatures, and he had a five octave vocal range that allowed him to slip into different characterizations as he ruminated on his pet themes: the wonderfulness of women, man’s stunning stupidity and spiritual sloth, and the splendor of every damn thing in the universe from Haley’s Comet to a rusty nail.”

It may sound like a glorious genius, free-wheeling mess. But Don Van Vliet was exacting. “It was… tough to be in his band,” Kristine says.

Over the course of their long friendship, Kristine recorded hours of conversations with Don. And she began to see his genius, and what she calls his “unshackled mind.”

In 1985 Kristine visited Don with her friend Nick Chase. Don was living in a house he shared with his wife in Northern California. They spent the afternoon eating cake, drinking scotch and coffee, looking at Don’s paintings and talking about them, and enthusing over the magnificence of his cat, Garland.

Here are some photos from that day, captioned by Kristine:

Don and I at his house in Northern California, 1985. Photograph by Nick Chase.
Don showing off his Yves St. Laurent coat and favorite pair of shoes. Photograph by Nick Chase.
Don was extremely well read, and there were lots of books in his house. That antique boom-box was his music delivery system. Photograph by Nick Chase.
Don and his beloved cat, Garland. Don regarded Garland as a peer not a pet. Photograph by Nick Chase.
“Painting is a color straight-jacket and I love putting it on,” said Don. Photograph by Nick Chase.

Kristine also shared a few of her favorite paintings with us. All works by Don Van Vliet:

Aunt Cigar’s Baby”, 1984 Oil on wood 48 x 38 inches 122 x 97 cm © The Estate of the artist, courtesy Michael Werner Gallery, New York and London
“Boat and Blue Bodagress”, 1984 Oil on wood 48 x 36 inches 122 x 91.5 cm © The Estate of the artist, courtesy Michael Werner Gallery, New York and London
“Fur on the Trellis and Just up into the Air”, 1985 Oil on canvas 84 x 60 inches 213.5 x 152.5 cm © The Estate of the artist, courtesy Michael Werner Gallery, New York and London
“China Pig”, 1986-1987 Oil on canvas 102 x 76 inches 259 x 193 cm © The Estate of the artist, courtesy Michael Werner Gallery, New York and London