The passing of bandleader / visual artist Don Van Vliet is being noted far and wide this evening, and while the Village Voice’s Rob Harvilla suggests we’re in the middle of “that awful interval when someone dies and you immediately leap to YouTube and immerse yourself in that person’s work for the next several hours,” there are other options. For instance, you could trot down to the local bookstore (assuming such a thing exists in your hamlet) and purchase a copy of Nick Kent’s recently published memoirs, ‘Apathy For The Devil’. The veteran NME scribe recalls his first experience witnessing Captain Beefheart & The Magic Band, taking in a particularly impressive 1972 performance in Brighton (“there was a genuinely superhuman power coming out of the PA…people just sat there slack-jawed and pinched themselves to see whether they’d fallen alseep into some alternative dream dimension…none of us could believe we were hearing music this visceral and dementedly alive”), though Kent’s earlier encounter with Van Vliet that afternoon is the passage I prefer to excerpt ;
The world at large might have been blissfully ignorant of his accomplishments to date but Captain Beefheart was still 110 percent convinced of his own artistic pre-eminence. He told me was a genius at least twice within the first five minutes of our interview. Another five minutes passed and he started telling me that he was so in advance of all other living artists – be they painters, sculptors, poets or composers – that ‘I’m going to have to create a whole new art form just to express myself in the future’. He believed in himself with the same nutcase totality that propelled him to believe he could converse meaningfully with shrubbery and insects. Like Orson Welles, he was that infuriating combination : part authentic creative visionary, part outrageous bullshitter.
Van Vliet casts a creative shadow over huge swaths of what we today casually call “experimental”, “psychedelic”, “punk” musics or sometimes all of the above. I’m not sure he ever created that new form touted above, but as a collector/dictator of fine musicians, he certainly turned wild concepts into musical reality in ways unlike anyone before or since (with all due respect to another genius level collector/dictator).