Saturday Matinee: The Artist Formerly Known as Captain Beefheart

It was a year ago today that fearless artist Don Van Vliet, more widely known as Captain Beefheart, died of complications from multiple sclerosis. If you’re unfamiliar or only passingly familiar with the man who likely influenced every musician you listen to, check out this Beefheart documentary from legendary music enthusiast John Peel.



Bits: Bootsy Collins, Ali Farka Touré and Toumani Diabaté, Captain Beefheart

  • Ohio-born funk master Bootsy Collins has started the Bootsy Collins Foundation to promote music and education for those who might not be able to afford it on their own. “Say It Loud, An Instrument For Every Child.”
  • Nonesuch has made a track, “Sabu Yerkoy”, off of the second (and final) collaboration from Ali Farka Touré and Toumani Diabaté, called simply Ali and Toumani, available for free download.
  • Those wishing to pay their respects to Don Van Vliet, a.k.a. Captain Beefheart, who died December 17, can leave their tributes at The Captain Beefheart Radar Station. And self-titled has a post that includes Beefheart’s Letterman interview along with John Peel’s short documentary (in 6 parts) on Beefheart’s career.

The Captain is Dead, Long Live the Captain

I’ll admit that it was only very recently that I began getting into the music of Captain Beefheart (a.k.a Don Van Vliet) and his Magic Band after realizing how many of the musicians I love have been influenced by it. Everyone from Greg Dulli to Joe Strummer to, well, practically everyone I’ve ever listened to and really enjoyed. The prize for most Beefheart tributes paid by one band may well go to the Black Keys who have covered four of Beefheart’s songs, including Beefheart’s own cover of “Grown So Ugly” (as discussed in this post).

Van Vliet passed away Friday morning, at the age of 69, due to complications from Multiple Sclerosis. For me, it feels fitting to pay my tribute to the influential and singular giant by way of the band who made me most familiar with his work before I began delving into the source itself. So here are the rest of those Black Keys covers along with the Beefheart originals.

“Her Eyes are a Blue Million Miles” is a touching song from an artist who was better known for freaking people out. Here’s a live rendition from 1978.


Then the Keys turned it into a freakout of their own.


“Here I Am, Here I Always Am” was one of Beefheart’s classic blues-inflected stompers.


So it seems tailor-made for the Keys in retrospect.


“Blue Million Miles” was not Beefheart’s only foray into love songs, of course, and just as touching was his song “I’m Glad”. (This version is a demo from 1966, and it’s much more affecting without the doo-wop backing vocals of the final version on Safe As Milk.)


“Glad” may be the best of the Black Keys’ Beefheart covers with the emotional power of Dan Auerbach’s vocals being on par with Beefheart’s own rugged delivery.


I have other Beefheart favorites that stray farther away from Beefheart’s blues roots toward his experimental apex, but “I’m Glad” seems like the most fitting way to send the Captain out.

Rebirth of the Cool: Grown So Ugly

Back to the blues we go for this installment of Rebirth of the Cool.

The story of Robert Pete Williams echoes the story of many of the great bluesmen: born in Louisiana in 1914, Williams grew up poor and uneducated. He was discovered in Angola prison, while serving time for killing a man, by a pair of ethnomusicologists who pressured the parole board for a pardon. He played the 1964 Newport Folk Festival alongside the likes of “re-discovered” greats like Skip James, Son House and others, heralding the height of the 1960s blues revival.

“Grown So Ugly” is probably Williams’ best-known song, thanks to the next two acts we’ll talk about. Williams had a percussive style of guitar-playing and his singing style could call up the grit of Howlin’ Wolf one moment and the haunting falsetto of Skip James the next.

In 1967, Captain Beefheart brought his Magic Band and his husky yelp to the song and turned it into a jazzy cry.

The version recorded by the Black Keys in 2004 is, essentially, a cover of a cover, taking their cues from the Beefheart rendition. The Keys, of course, add a lot of low end to the song, bringing out a darkness that can easily be overlooked in the original and the Beefheart version.