As Ian Anderson said, “We’re getting a bit short on heroes lately”.
And Ian, while he wasn’t speaking of Don Van Vliet, nevertheless would—and has—endorsed the man better known as Captain Beefheart. Indeed, the list of well-loved and iconoclastic artists who have cited CB as an inspiration and hero include the likes of Tom Waits, Nick Cave, P.J. Harvey and Matt Groening. When the people lots of people worship name you as someone they worship, you can safely conclude you have done influential work, even if it didn’t necessarily pay the bills.
To say Don Van Vliet, who passed away on December 17th, was unique is rather like saying the sun radiates heat: it doesn’t quite capture the enormity and impact of the subject. To assert that he was brilliant would be almost insulting, if that is possible. A genius? Let’s just say that if he wasn’t, then no other pop musician has ever been either. Even that is not quite right, since pop refers to popular and Captain Beefheart was anything but popular. He was highly regarded, and always will be, but the circle of aficionados who gravitate to his uncanny catalog is likely to get smaller, not bigger. Also, it just doesn’t work to call what he did pop music; he was an artist. Literally. When he walked away from music, forever, in the early ‘80s, he concentrated on his painting and made far more money from that (calling to mind another eccentric genius, Syd Barrett, who turned his back on the scene and quietly tended to his paintings and his plants).