Stepping into the world of Captain Beefheart in 1965, was like walking through a portal into the Twilight Zone-everything was normal, to the extent anything is ever normal, and everything was strangely disjointed. Television sets had a way of finding themselves twisted into Technicolor snow, conversations could turn from blasé exchanges on politics or music, to Dadaistic rants or wordplays, and the most mundane objects became puppets for Don Van Vliet’s life production.
My birth name is Don Aldridge, and I met Don Van Vliet, who would become better known as Captain Beefheart, that year in my hometown of Lancaster, California.
I have always found it amazing, almost karmic (if I believed in such a thing, and I don’t) that Van Vliet and Frank Zappa would find themselves in the same place and time anywhere on this planet as adolescents, much less Lancaster during the 1950s. Something was at work there.
Yet these very odd and unique geniuses who would become two of the main influences for alternative, protopunk and progressive rock, did grow up in that hayseed town on the edge of the Mojave Desert. I believe it was critical mass; this unlikely convergence arguably shaped much of rock and roll for decades to come. I probably should qualify that statement by saying that I don’t consider most Alternative or Top 40 I hear today as rock and roll.
The early years with Van Vliet were the most fun, and I have often wondered if that was due to my age and my rather sheltered upbringing in Lancaster. I was definitely younger at 18 than teenagers are today-we all were. As I grew into full adulthood our relationship changed, of course, and we seemed to address each other more man to man. I miss those times.
But then, during those early days, Van Vliet represented for me an escape of sorts from that backwoods Okie town, although I had already, by the time I met Don, made my first foray into Hollywood, and got incredibly lucky when I did. My short association with Johnny Otis proved to be an enormous break. Still, Don became my “spirit guide,” if I can employ the metaphor, out of that rural society.
Van Vliet had the most amazing accumulation of 45-RPM blues records one can imagine, and at some point in that first year he roped me into copying them onto tape. It was an education in Chicago and Delta blues. Through him I learned of Blind Lemon Jefferson and Robert Johnson and Sonny Boy Williamson and, of course, Howlin’ Wolf. These artists and an incalculable list of others were the absolute bedrock foundation of rock and roll, and I owe Don Van Vliet for teaching me their music.
I will not be so presumptuous as to say I was one of Don’s best friends; I have no idea where I stood on his pecking order of acquaintances. I will, however, say that for many years I thought of Don Van Vliet as one of my best friends.
He taught me Rock and Roll 101. We laughed together, had long conversations, and I became the resident sounding board for his many exhaustive diatribes against everything wrong with the world, especially music. We also attended a few parties. One party we attended was at a motel in Hollywood after a gig. Don spent a good part of the evening downstairs in his room bonking a gal from the club. He later told me she wanted to look at the aquarium all the time they were bonking. I didn’t bother to ask him where he got the aquarium for his room.
I don’t think my friendship with Don Van Vliet hinged on his involvement with Captain Beefheart and His Magic Band. Our friendship dwelt on the outer fringes of that experiment. I have said in the past that I don’t know why we became friends-it was an odd friendship-but I’m pretty sure it had little to do with music.
If I had a best friend in the Magic Band it was almost certainly guitarist and sometimes drummer Alex “Butch” Snouffer. Alex was a wild man and he taught me everything about being “cool” in 1960s Lancaster. Snouffer was the bad boy in the band. He got me underage into the clubs and made sure I knew what waitresses would “serve” me. Uh-hum. The night I got (as I previously related) uproariously drunk with Eric Burden of the Animals, it was Al Snouffer who was getting me the booze. It was Butch who slipped me an upper or two when he saw I was little too hammered. I liked Al Snouffer immensely.
Perhaps I should make this clear: I am not a Captain Beefheart fan and never was. I was for a time a Captain Beefheart and His Magic Band fan, but I was almost devastated when I heard Safe as Milk for the first time. Most of the material, in my estimation, was not up to Van Vliet’s standards, and the band displayed almost nothing of the raw, gritty drive I had witnessed in his living room countless times over the previous two years.
However, I saw that coming. Without slighting Van Vliet’s co-writer Herb Berman’s accomplishments in the slightest, I will say that he was exactly what was not needed at the time. I must have written a volume of lyrics and poems with Don Van Vliet, and I can tell you, this dude did not need any help as a lyrics writer. Berman’s work with Dean Stockwell on the screenplay, After the Gold Rush, inspired Neil Young’s album of the same name, and Berman was a fine writer, but Beefheart did not need him on SAM.
I did like “Plastic Factory,” but I am still not certain as to what Berman’s participation could have been in it. The song was the product of a pretty good row between Don and me because of my “day job” at Lockheed in Burbank. He thought I was above the job, and I pointed out that my job was keeping us in laughing tobacco. Bass player Jerry Handley laid down the riff that eventually turned it into a song.
I felt the same way about the David Gates’ tune selection on the A&M sessions; Gates was one of the best MOR writers of his era, but to include “Moonchild” on that project was laughable, to put it out as an A-side single was ridiculous. It was a cheap and very old Hollywood ploy producers used to get their tunes in on the action, and even I knew it, at 19 years old.
Anyone who was around when Don was writing “Frying Pan,” “Just Got Back from the City,” and “Triple Combination” and heard just the rehearsals, knew that this was an amazing blues-rock artist with world-class potential. I personally thought Don’s channeling of Howlin’ Wolf was beneath him, but he and that band were hot stuff.
The Don Van Vliet I knew in the early days of our friendship was, I believed, potentially one of the great white blues artists in history. His voice could put Janis Joplin to shame. In the end, of course, he chose to go another direction, and it certainly worked out. It was not what I would have hoped for him, but Don Van Vliet did not march to the beat of a different drummer, he was the drummer.
But, despite our divergent tastes in music, I have a deep appreciation (nearing awe) for the music of Captain Beefheart, and an even greater respect for Don Van Vliet the artist. There were, I believe, in the 1960s, three albums that were pivotal to the direction rock and roll would take in following decades: Pet Sounds by the Beach Boys, Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band by the Beatles, and Trout Mask Replica by my friends, Captain Beefheart and His Magic Band. And, Van Vliet’s genius aside, that album was a corporate accomplishment; no other group of musicians could have produced Trout Mask Replica, as we know it. I am sure Don would hiss me for saying it, but it is what I believe.
In this article, as with the preceding ones in this series, I have tried to give the reader a glimpse into the Don Van Vliet I knew. Captain Beefheart, the man most would never know. I often wondered if even many of his band members ever really knew the Don I met back in Lancaster. Probably a few of the most prominent ones did, but I suspect most did not.
There looms over these excerpts of my experiences with Don Van Vliet the specter of the legendary and, I suppose, infamous Ensenada Drive house where the TMR project was rehearsed; I will save that for another time. But my friend Don Van Vliet is a remarkable man, who I count myself so very privileged to have known.