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Captain Beefheart: The Biography

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Born Don Van Vliet in 1941, Captain Beefheart is one of modern music's true innovators. The owner of a remarkable four-and-one-half octave vocal range, he employs idiosyncratic rhythms, absurdist lyrics, and an unholy alliance of free jazz, Delta blues, latter-day classical music, and rock & roll to create a singular body of work virtually unrivalled in its daring creativi Born Don Van Vliet in 1941, Captain Beefheart is one of modern music's true innovators. The owner of a remarkable four-and-one-half octave vocal range, he employs idiosyncratic rhythms, absurdist lyrics, and an unholy alliance of free jazz, Delta blues, latter-day classical music, and rock & roll to create a singular body of work virtually unrivalled in its daring creativity.


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Born Don Van Vliet in 1941, Captain Beefheart is one of modern music's true innovators. The owner of a remarkable four-and-one-half octave vocal range, he employs idiosyncratic rhythms, absurdist lyrics, and an unholy alliance of free jazz, Delta blues, latter-day classical music, and rock & roll to create a singular body of work virtually unrivalled in its daring creativi Born Don Van Vliet in 1941, Captain Beefheart is one of modern music's true innovators. The owner of a remarkable four-and-one-half octave vocal range, he employs idiosyncratic rhythms, absurdist lyrics, and an unholy alliance of free jazz, Delta blues, latter-day classical music, and rock & roll to create a singular body of work virtually unrivalled in its daring creativity.

30 review for Captain Beefheart: The Biography

  1. 5 out of 5

    Paul Bryant

    THE P BRYANT RIDICULOUS PARODY OF THE MAKING OF TROUT MASK REPLICA 24th March 1969. JOHN FRENCH'S DIARY I woke to hear the sound of padlocks and strong chains being removed from the front door of the Trout House. It crashed open to reveal a burly man. Don was back. The Magic Band cowered in fear. “So, boys, what have you got for me today?” “Please master, food, food” we cried, “or at least drugs and new guitar strings” “You know the rules! No food and absolutely no drugs until you give me more so THE P BRYANT RIDICULOUS PARODY OF THE MAKING OF TROUT MASK REPLICA 24th March 1969. JOHN FRENCH'S DIARY I woke to hear the sound of padlocks and strong chains being removed from the front door of the Trout House. It crashed open to reveal a burly man. Don was back. The Magic Band cowered in fear. “So, boys, what have you got for me today?” “Please master, food, food” we cried, “or at least drugs and new guitar strings” “You know the rules! No food and absolutely no drugs until you give me more songs! Now! Cmon! French – what have you got for me hmmm?” Don unlocked my handcuffs. “We made up lots of songs, boss – all based on those telepathic thoughts you’ve been sending us!” I moaned. “We got one called about a tourist in Italy called “It’s too much for my lire” “What baloney!” shouts Beefheart – “change it to..hnnn ‘She's too much for my mirror’” “Genius idea!” bleated Rockette Morton. "and we got one called ‘The 1010th day of the Magic Band’s Cruel Incarceration’ – you wanna hear that one?” “Naw , save that one for later." Beefheart turned a deaf ear to my feeble attempt to ameliorate our plight with humour. "Now cmon, is that all? Two songs in three days? You know it’s gonna be a DOUBLE ALBUM doncha? So you better git crackin” Beefheart whirled around, kicking Jimmy Semens on his recently healed arm and opened the single door to leave but remembered to cuff me back to the piano before he did. “Doin a good job, John, but remember – it might look as if I have it easy living in five star hotel in the superior part of Sunset Strip up to my neck in acid and connubial bliss, but it’s me sending you all of these telepathic thoughts to turn into these songs – you better remember that.” As he leaves he tosseS the starved band a couple of loaves of white sliced bread and a jar of gherkins. “I’ll be back in two days. Remember – DOUBLE album.” **** AND NOW SOME ACTUAL QUOTES FROM THIS REAL BOOK Ex-member: He could talk endlessly about nothing and make you feel you were conversing with the gods. Beefheart told English journalist Barry Miles that he was a better poet than Allen Ginsberg, a better painter than Willem De Kooning and a better sax player than John Coltrane. Miles commented : "There was no irony there... I was quite shocked" Then there was the tale of the sleigh bells he ordered, twenty sets in total. Herb Cohen (manager) asked him why he needed so many as even if he, the group , the producer and the engineer all played two sets there would still be six sets left over. His answer came back that they would overdub them. . “I got him 20 sets of sleigh bells. I couldn’t argue with that logic.” Beefheart: A nude man is not very interesting – believe me, I’m a man and I’ve been nude and seen what it looks like and it doesn’t look anything like a dolphin. Friend of the band quoted in 1972 : They were walking on stage every night and playing to these people and they’d been promised money and food and clothes and they had nothing. They had hardly a stitch of clothing between them and they had no real possessions. Beefheart : I mean, if they were concerned about being puppets they should have spoken up instead of leading me on to believe otherwise. But then again, who the hell’s a better puppetmaster than me? Huh? Mike Barnes (describing Big Eyed Beans from Venus, the last track on Clear Spot): The only way to deal with such thrilling intensity is to roll around on the floor, mindlessly barking like a dog. Beefheart: is everybody feeling all right? Crowd : YEAHHHH! Beefheart : That’s not a soulful question, that’s a medical question. It’s too hot in here. **** Here is a very solid account of the troutrageous Captain Beefheart’s wonky-donkey zapped-fly career in music and then in proper grown-up high art painting. This guy lived on the edge and then built an extension edge on that one. He couldn’t play guitar or piano. He could whistle. So with the whistling and the ferocious browbeating hypnotic personality he took real musicians and made them play exactly what he had in mind. There were several Magic Bands between 1966 and 1982 and not one of them made any money. (There was also a Tragic Band but we shouldn’t talk about that one.) There’s one other substantial book about Beefheart which is by John French, the on-off drummer. It has to be read to be believed. I never saw anything like it. Student rock psychiatrists could write entire theses about dependence and father issues and the horror of cults (The Magic Band was at times like a five man cult). Mike Barnes’ book blows some cool air into these tortuous tales. From “Hey Garland, I Dig your Tweed Coat” Teeth let go, tobacco juice, an oiled balloon, brown eye in an egg white, black tar bubbles and stripes. A straw hat squeaked on the brim of a feather. Newsprint thumbed through nicotine fingers, a dark olive was turned on. Its small pulp speaker burst into a scream. One large tomato was immediately peeled skin red. It bled into a red "O" and smacked behind accepted fangs. Quick eyebrows danced cutely above a mole. The bridge held a large gold pair of spectacles. The front was smooth. It slightly gathered and wrinkled at the holes. A dark wooden moustache deposited below above Chinese red varnished lips that dented slightly into the evening. "It's gotten quite cold. I've decided I can't sell you my coat."

  2. 4 out of 5

    Steven

    This is the book to begin with if you want to find out anything about Don Van Vliet / Captain Beefheart, and it's also the place where you end. Barnes' well-researched and illuminating portrait of the man behind the trout mask is always engaging, fun, and informative, and offers new ways into what can appear to be a considerably dense and difficult body of work. What emerges is a simple image of an artist reflecting the world as he sees it, through sculpture, words, paint, and, most famously, so This is the book to begin with if you want to find out anything about Don Van Vliet / Captain Beefheart, and it's also the place where you end. Barnes' well-researched and illuminating portrait of the man behind the trout mask is always engaging, fun, and informative, and offers new ways into what can appear to be a considerably dense and difficult body of work. What emerges is a simple image of an artist reflecting the world as he sees it, through sculpture, words, paint, and, most famously, sounds, trying to capture a tiny bit of the wonder in the most everyday things. The book makes you want to return to the music with fresh ears, hearing the attempt to capture the sound and rhythm of windscreen wipers and rain in the drum track for "Bat Chain Puller", or to get a greater appreciation of the glorious train of images that spill out of Beefheart during "Neon Meate Dream of A Octafish". The book doesn't tell you things to nail them down, but more as a way of hinting at the unshackling of the mind and heart possible when engaging with such fiercely creative self-expression. Though the work of the Captain and his Magic Band is dealt with sympathetically, Barnes has no qualms about tearing into the series of dud albums made in the mid-70s (humourously dubbed by fans as the "Tragic Band" era), his complete lack of understanding of the business side of music that led to his career being hamstrung on many occasions, or the psychological warfare that the bandleader subjected his charges to. Nor does he mind debunking the most common myths (including ones about teaching his musicians how to play from scratch, or "Trout Mask Replica" being composed, start to finish, in eight hours on a piano), mainly because the things that are true are simply way more interesting and just as unbelievable. One of my favourite passages in the book comes towards the end, when Barnes gives an idea where the music comes from, and how you begin to describe how it makes you feel: "Van Vliet...himself was the sand that irritated the oyster, forcing a number of pearls to pop out. The biggest, "Trout Mask Replica", will always stand as an index of possibilities in the unfettering of self-expression. He has claimed that the freest harmonica playing he heard was when as a child he held the instrument out of the window of his parents' car and the rushing wind brought it to life. Listening to his best music feels as if you are driving close behind, hyperventilating in his slipstream". Thanks for the music and rest in peace, Don.

  3. 4 out of 5

    Andy

    A much needed book demystifying Captain Beefheart and the legend he created for himself with more than a little help from his colleagues. Was he a genius? Yes, absolutely. Was he responsible for everything he took credit for? Absolutely not. When presented with the truth or the legend, print the legend. Unless you're Mike Barnes. Just a few notes: Van Vliet's relationship with his wife never really goes into any depth at all; I thought that was a missed opportunity. I was also amused that Richard A much needed book demystifying Captain Beefheart and the legend he created for himself with more than a little help from his colleagues. Was he a genius? Yes, absolutely. Was he responsible for everything he took credit for? Absolutely not. When presented with the truth or the legend, print the legend. Unless you're Mike Barnes. Just a few notes: Van Vliet's relationship with his wife never really goes into any depth at all; I thought that was a missed opportunity. I was also amused that Richard Gere not only collected Van Vliet's art but could recite many Beefheart lyrics. That's pretty cool.

  4. 4 out of 5

    MJ Nicholls

    A comprehensive and balanced overview of a twisted, compassionate, and contradictory man whose creative endeavours have left formidable footprints in the art and music world. UK music hack Mike Barnes tells the story with professional ebullience, his talents dipping slightly when trying to bring the music and art to life (which is understandable – it's BEEFHEART!) This book runs the gamut of Don (Van) Vliet's life: artful dropout, blues weirdo, countercultural icon, money-grubbing sellout, crotch A comprehensive and balanced overview of a twisted, compassionate, and contradictory man whose creative endeavours have left formidable footprints in the art and music world. UK music hack Mike Barnes tells the story with professional ebullience, his talents dipping slightly when trying to bring the music and art to life (which is understandable – it's BEEFHEART!) This book runs the gamut of Don (Van) Vliet's life: artful dropout, blues weirdo, countercultural icon, money-grubbing sellout, crotchety genius, successful painter, hostile recluse. Barnes deals with his subject admirably: he is neither gushing nor apologetic to this fundamentally unpleasant and egocentric man, taking care to separate the art from the artist. It is disheartening to know that he's turned into a quiet, palsied hermit, and his relationship with his wife Jan would have made for an interesting analysis. Her story is equally relevant yet she is largely absent throughout. You might also be shocked by Van Vliet's thoroughly reprehensible attempts to diddle his band members out of money (see Herb Bermann postscript). This greed and arrogance is a very disturbing element of his character, and might put the squeamish off his music. Otherwise, for rubber dolphins with gold yawning mouths everywhere.

  5. 5 out of 5

    Arthur Graham

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mGLcS... https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mGLcS...

  6. 4 out of 5

    Pete daPixie

    As regards any authors passionate affinity with an artists work is concerned, Mike Barnes's biography of Captain Beefheart, published 2000, has to be up there with the best. The Captain's early years contains ambiguity and sparse factual information, as does the subjects reclusory years away from the poptastic from the mid eighties. Such was the enigmatic nature of Don Glen Vliet. It's the coverage of the Beefheart discography where this book shines a clear spot. The collaborations of the many f As regards any authors passionate affinity with an artists work is concerned, Mike Barnes's biography of Captain Beefheart, published 2000, has to be up there with the best. The Captain's early years contains ambiguity and sparse factual information, as does the subjects reclusory years away from the poptastic from the mid eighties. Such was the enigmatic nature of Don Glen Vliet. It's the coverage of the Beefheart discography where this book shines a clear spot. The collaborations of the many formats of the Magic Bands and their rehearsal,recording and touring exploits that are documented with a precise detail. Barnes covers all the albums, from 'Safe as Milk' released in 1967 to 'Ice Cream for Crow' from 1982. He even includes a couple of the latter chapters to cover the work and art exhibitions that held Vliet's paintings. If the author/publisher could have produced this 380 page Beefheart bible as a large coffee table edition with colour plates of some examples of Don's oil paintings, this would have got five stars from me! Love or loath his 'music' he was a one off, standing alone in the avant garde of rock music.

  7. 4 out of 5

    Benito

    The inspiring story of a wacky cat who never held back in doing what he wanted, even if it did leave him a misunderstood pauper...

  8. 5 out of 5

    Steve Getto

    This book helped me enormously with writing my first novel "Beefheart's Blueprint". It's an insightful and clearly written biography and I highly recommend it. This book helped me enormously with writing my first novel "Beefheart's Blueprint". It's an insightful and clearly written biography and I highly recommend it.

  9. 4 out of 5

    Doug Birkitt

    Dude knows his Beefheart. Loved.

  10. 5 out of 5

    Jon

    It can't be easy to write a book about a famously taciturn and misleading guy that moved himself into isolation in the last years of his life and refused most interview requests, but Barnes did an admirable job of tackling Don Van Vliet's life and legacy. Beefheart's music is difficult to approach, his life even more so given his fabrications, enhancements and outright lies throughout his entire career. While this doesn't entirely open up his life, it does allow one to get an inkling of the man' It can't be easy to write a book about a famously taciturn and misleading guy that moved himself into isolation in the last years of his life and refused most interview requests, but Barnes did an admirable job of tackling Don Van Vliet's life and legacy. Beefheart's music is difficult to approach, his life even more so given his fabrications, enhancements and outright lies throughout his entire career. While this doesn't entirely open up his life, it does allow one to get an inkling of the man's restless creative vision, even when that meant at best torquing others and at worst shunning them out of his life entirely.

  11. 4 out of 5

    David Ashley

    An enjoyable and fairly comprehensive account of Don Van Vliet's musical and artist career. Really helpful for understanding the spider web history of The Magic Band and getting to grips with who was where at what point etc. I wouldn't say this is a 'complete' history, it feels there is a lot that can't be accounted for and Van Vliet was an odd and private character so you have to take some of his quotes with a pinch of salt. I wish there was a deeper dive into the themes of Van Vliet's work but I An enjoyable and fairly comprehensive account of Don Van Vliet's musical and artist career. Really helpful for understanding the spider web history of The Magic Band and getting to grips with who was where at what point etc. I wouldn't say this is a 'complete' history, it feels there is a lot that can't be accounted for and Van Vliet was an odd and private character so you have to take some of his quotes with a pinch of salt. I wish there was a deeper dive into the themes of Van Vliet's work but I guess only Don knew the intricacies and 'meanings' behind many of the pieces. So far I've read this and the 33 1/3 book, really enjoyed and would recommend both.

  12. 5 out of 5

    Tony

    This review has been hidden because it contains spoilers. To view it, click here. A bit dry in places but often illuminating overview of the life of Don Van Vliet. Mercifully a bit short of hagiography, the author seems willing to accept that some albums have been short on commitment and quality. The lengthy analysis of each album is a bit deceptive as it rarely gives a full flavour of the music. The writing retains a strong strand of rock journalism with no substance regarding musical form etc. Good descriptions of much of the complex legal wrangling throughout The Captain's A bit dry in places but often illuminating overview of the life of Don Van Vliet. Mercifully a bit short of hagiography, the author seems willing to accept that some albums have been short on commitment and quality. The lengthy analysis of each album is a bit deceptive as it rarely gives a full flavour of the music. The writing retains a strong strand of rock journalism with no substance regarding musical form etc. Good descriptions of much of the complex legal wrangling throughout The Captain's career, though still short of much detail of his later life.

  13. 4 out of 5

    Tiny Red Dragons Radio

    I was afraid that this book might focus too heavily on the earlier adventures of Don Van Vliet (Safe as Milk, Trout Mask Replica) but Barnes gives equal time to each Captain Beefheart ablum, as well as Van Vliet's later years where he focused solely on painting. This is exhaustively researched and the writing is at times very dense, but it's absolutely worth a read if you can dig it. (This review originally appeared on my personal Good Reads page: https://www.goodreads.com/user/show/9...) -Jeff I was afraid that this book might focus too heavily on the earlier adventures of Don Van Vliet (Safe as Milk, Trout Mask Replica) but Barnes gives equal time to each Captain Beefheart ablum, as well as Van Vliet's later years where he focused solely on painting. This is exhaustively researched and the writing is at times very dense, but it's absolutely worth a read if you can dig it. (This review originally appeared on my personal Good Reads page: https://www.goodreads.com/user/show/9...) -Jeff

  14. 4 out of 5

    Donnacha

    Only for the die hard fans. Wouldn't recommend any one else to buy it. I'm a big fan of his music but this book is a hard read and not at all enjoyable. Only for the die hard fans. Wouldn't recommend any one else to buy it. I'm a big fan of his music but this book is a hard read and not at all enjoyable.

  15. 4 out of 5

    Michael Mehary

    the more you like Beefheart, the more you’ll love this. Exhaustively, lovingly researched, covers all bases, many inside stories

  16. 5 out of 5

    Simon

    The analysis of all of his recorded output ultimately gets tedious after a while, even considering that Beefheart is one of my all-time personal heroes. The portrayal of Van Vliet's complex personality however is highly enjoyable, not to mention honest. - valuable insight to his personality is provided, not to mention the accounts of everyone around him that were inclined to deal with it's (several) setbacks. However, I'm not sure if an in-depth review of every album he made was necessary, consi The analysis of all of his recorded output ultimately gets tedious after a while, even considering that Beefheart is one of my all-time personal heroes. The portrayal of Van Vliet's complex personality however is highly enjoyable, not to mention honest. - valuable insight to his personality is provided, not to mention the accounts of everyone around him that were inclined to deal with it's (several) setbacks. However, I'm not sure if an in-depth review of every album he made was necessary, considering that anyone who picks up his book should be familiar enough with his work that they'd want to pick up a 300+ page book about him. Some nice tidbits are provided here and there, but not much.

  17. 4 out of 5

    Marko

    A very interesting and quite thorough account of the legendary Captain Beefheart a.k.a. Don Van Vliet, warts and all. Barnes has obviously done a great amount of work for this book, and the result is a well-thought-out piece of work, which I really enjoyed reading. It was really interesting to read all the stories about Van Vliet's peculiar personality and the less ordinary methods of music making that he practiced with The Magic Band. Oh, I do have one complaint: Barnes writes twice that Van Vli A very interesting and quite thorough account of the legendary Captain Beefheart a.k.a. Don Van Vliet, warts and all. Barnes has obviously done a great amount of work for this book, and the result is a well-thought-out piece of work, which I really enjoyed reading. It was really interesting to read all the stories about Van Vliet's peculiar personality and the less ordinary methods of music making that he practiced with The Magic Band. Oh, I do have one complaint: Barnes writes twice that Van Vliet's date of death was 7 December 2010, but actually it was 17 December 2010. Of course, it could be just a typo...

  18. 4 out of 5

    Lamoreaux

    Not so much a personal biography as a chronicle of Vliet's career. It's reasonably well written and insightful enough that it might change the way you look at the guy. (Arthur Tripp's comments in the appendix are worth the price of the book.) It's got me listening to a lot of the Captain's post-Clear Spot material, none of which I'd ever heard before but which now I'm counting as enjoyable discoveries. Not so much a personal biography as a chronicle of Vliet's career. It's reasonably well written and insightful enough that it might change the way you look at the guy. (Arthur Tripp's comments in the appendix are worth the price of the book.) It's got me listening to a lot of the Captain's post-Clear Spot material, none of which I'd ever heard before but which now I'm counting as enjoyable discoveries.

  19. 4 out of 5

    Jeffrey Bumiller

    I was afraid that this book might focus too heavily on the earlier adventures of Don Van Vliet (Safe as Milk, Trout Mask Replica) but Barnes gives equal time to each Captain Beefheart ablum, as well as Van Vliet's later years where he focused solely on painting. This is exhaustively researched and the writing is at times very dense, but it's absolutely worth a read if you can dig it. I was afraid that this book might focus too heavily on the earlier adventures of Don Van Vliet (Safe as Milk, Trout Mask Replica) but Barnes gives equal time to each Captain Beefheart ablum, as well as Van Vliet's later years where he focused solely on painting. This is exhaustively researched and the writing is at times very dense, but it's absolutely worth a read if you can dig it.

  20. 4 out of 5

    Iain McNab

    Excellent, well written and balanced bio of the late great, which makes, in my opinion, sound judgements on the work.

  21. 4 out of 5

    Dean Wilcox

    Exhaustively researched portrait of one of the most interesting music makers of the 20th century.

  22. 4 out of 5

    Edward

    Fast and bulbous! Bulbous also tapered!

  23. 5 out of 5

    Ian

    Recommended

  24. 5 out of 5

    Dantanian

    Beefy!

  25. 5 out of 5

    Daniel Jones

  26. 4 out of 5

    Morgan

  27. 4 out of 5

    Alan

  28. 5 out of 5

    Hudson Dunlap

  29. 4 out of 5

    Dmitry Veselkov

  30. 4 out of 5

    Anastasia

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