Captain Beefheart’s music came to me through the curatorial services of Frank Zappa The purveyor of the unusual in his own work in the Mothers of Invention, his Bizarre label tried to live up to its name by signing the strange, the otherworldly and and the outsider. Wild Man Fischer was one, of course. Like Wesley Willis decades later, Fischer may have been playing off a mental illness in creating music that was alluring because it was just so darn strange.
One might have mistaken the former Don Vliet, who died Dec. 17 at 69, as another in a line of gruff voiced weirdos as well, but his music – on Zappa’s newfound Straight label — was much more affecting and enduring by creating a bridge between Howling Wolf and the modern avant garde. As his voice ployed the blues of an old, mysterious vintage, his musician plonked and skronked the sounds of what now is clear is modernist music ahead of its time.
The subject matter of his songs extended his world view of surreal, in the tradition of Dali or Bunuel or the fish on the cover of his masterwork “Trout Mask Replica.”
There was a time, it is difficult to believe now, when there was a place on FM rock radio for Captain Beefheart, where lot s of fans knew his name and dug his music. Some of his individual cuts, like the title track of “Safe as Milk” were what were known as radio hits. Yet there was nothing safe about Beefheart’s music, or he knew that music that appeared to be safe, also had the power to curdle, sour and affect people in a way that isn’t happy.
The other great thing about Beefheart is that he never even defined himself as solely a musician. He began as an artist and sculpture and spent most of his later life as a visual artist as well , continuing to express himself in a way that was fiercely his own, whether other people caught on or not.