Mike Badger on Don Van Vliet (Captain Beefheart)

mike-badgerThere Aint No Santa Claus on the Evenin’ Stage

Artist and Musician, Mike Badger pays this tribute to Don Van Vliet, formerly known as Captain Beefheart, who passed away yesterday, 17 December 2010.

31st October (Halloween) 1980- I was at St.Helens Art College and decided to go to the Wyndham Lewis Exhibition at Manchester City Art Gallery.  Kevin Wright and I took the train over.  During the journey, Kevin joked that we might bump into Mark. E. Smith.  We had discovered The Fall and dug their strange, but wonderful Woolly back rockabilly Punk sound.

As it turned out, we didn’t run into Mark Smith, but something even more seismic would ensue on that fateful Manchester trip. As we entered the gallery foyer, I saw this guy sitting in the corner. He had a big hat on and a light suit. He was drawing in his sketch book and was swearing at his work.  I could hear him muttering :

“Shit!…Mother…Fuck!…Fucker!…Shit!”

It was bizarre. Who was this guy? there was something really fascinating about him.  I went up to him and asked if I could see his drawings.

I wondered how he’d react but he willingly obliged and flicked through the pages of his book.  They consisted of seemingly abstract, angular lines and portraits, quite animalistic.

“Are you an artist?” I enquired.

“Well, yeah, I do it, but I’m a musician too,” he said.

“Oh, so are we,” I replied, delighted.

“I know,” he replied .

“How do you know?” I asked him, feeling bemused by his previous answer.

“I’m psychic,” he said casually.

“Our band’s called The Smile That You Send Out Returns To You,” I said, feeling a little more confident.  “and we don’t have a drummer.”

This seemed to impress the man, he introduced himself as Don Van Vliet and called some of the guys over who had been busy buying posters of Wyndham Lewis prints from the gallery shop.

“Hey guys – these fellas are in a band called The Smile You Send Out Returns to You,” he said excitedly.  “And they haven’t got a drummer!”

I was awestruck.  Not only did this super-charismatic American guy in the hat know we were musicians, but he’d just repeated the name of our band (a Native Indian saying Carl Davies had discovered on the back of a Beach Boys LP) perfectly. Any other time I’d said it to someone, they’d stumbled through it when they’d mentioned it back to me and jumbled it up-this man was very sharp!.

“What’s the name of your band?”  I asked him.

“Captain Beefheart and The Magic Band,” he said.

“Oh wow – I’ve heard your name before!” I replied excitedly.

“Oh, well, we don’t get too much airplay over here,” said the Captain modestly.

“But John Peel plays you,” Kevin chipped in.

“Oh what a good man,” said Don.  He continued on about getting rid of “that Mama heart beat” out of music and seemed strangely impressed that we had no drummer.

“be careful,” he warned us, before asking how old we were.

“18,” we chorused.

“Well you gotta watch that (Ronald) Reagan guy – do you know you could get called up!” he said sagely.

I told him we were into The Cramps and Iggy Pop.  He told us he’d been with those guys recently, before eventually being pulled away by the arm by John French (Magic Band drummer).  He was still rapping away ten to the dozen even when they finally dragged him from the gallery.  They had a schedule after all .

Gobsmacked, we said goodbye and sat on the steps of the gallery, buzzing, but a little shaken and wondering what that had all been about?

He was some character and the meeting with him had really affected us. It was like the Apprentices having been shown a little of the Magician’s inner circle.  After that, the Wyndham Lewis exhibition wasn’t on we just sat on the steps of the gallery –shaking!

The following day, back in college, Kevin showed me the cover of that week’s NME and there he was, wow! : Captain Beefheart standing in the Mojave Desert. ( the wonderful Anton Corbjn portrait). I read the big feature about him with growing interest and his quotes made so much sense about music, the environment and life in general. And he was real. I knew personally that he lived it. We knew it had been a great honour to meet him but while I couldn’t afford to buy his records just yet I logged the meeting firmly in my mind as a really special event.

trout-mask-replicaOne Saturday, a few months later, I went to Tuebrook  on the outskirts of Liverpool and had a look around the shops there. I came across a junk shop off the main road. Inside, there were a pile of records and I looked through them.  I came across a yellow label that read ‘Clear Spot’ by Captain Beefheart & The Magic Band.  Wow, that’s the guy I met in Manchester! The record had no sleeve at all, I gave them the 30p they asked for it and took it home. I put it on and as the NME interview had done, it confirmed everything I’d hoped for.  There were incredible rhythms, wild man vocals and some of the most delicious ballads I’d ever heard. These songs really hit home for me, probably because they were more accessible than some of the more raucous tracks. ‘Her Eyes Are a Blue Million Miles’!  What a statement. What a song.  ‘Too Much Time’ was classic Soul music and proved Beefheart could sing like Otis Redding every bit as well as he could howl like an animalistic Bluesman.  There was no turning back for me now. It was the best thing I’d heard and what’s more, I had the pleasure of remembering the day we’d met while I listened.

I soon got to hear ‘Safe as Milk’, the Magic Band’s debut album too. Kevin had bought it and it turned out to be another really wild inspired album that seemed to sum up everything I thought the sixties was about.  The guitar playing on ‘Zig Zag Wanderer’ was electrifying. ‘Plastic Factory’ spoke of phosphorous chimneys burning. ‘Sure nuf n Yes I do’ was psychedelic Country music.  Beefheart was just amazing.  He was an environmentalist, woman worshipper, was an avant garde musician,  and a unique songwriter.  He seemed to encompass everything for me. And on top of all that a great visual artist and painter.

I think I was so lucky to have met one of the most important artists of the Twentieth Century ( I don’t say this lightly- there might not have been The Simpsons if it wasn’t for Don Van Vliet-Matt Groening would agree) and coming across a copy of Clear Spot is the perfect introduction (for anyone reading this who isn’t up on his music). Trout Mask Replica is his most challenging for the uninitiated but most probably his masterpiece.

The words Captain Beefheart are written on the side of an old building at the bottom of Park Road on the way out of Liverpool City centre, it tells me what he meant to so many people in this city.

In 1984 I bumped into Lee Mavers and he told me he’d been getting into Captain Beefheart, so we formed The La’s.

Mike Badger 17th Dec 2010

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