Shiny Beast: A Beefheart Obituary




The passing of artist and musician, Don Van Vliet – otherwise known as Captain Beefheart – on December 17th 2010 from complications related to multiple sclerosis, will surely inspire a wider reappraisal of a diverse body of work, much of it shrouded in relative obscurity because of its perceived ‘inaccessibility’. His music, poetry, visual art and spoken pronouncements also articulate elements of what can be described as an animist worldview, connoting an inchoate, earth-oriented mysticism. This short piece acknowledges these aspects of Van Vliet’s work.


In the late summer of 1982, intrigued by his reputation as a musical ‘outlaw’,i I went out and bought the newly-released Captain Beefheart and the Magic Band LP, Ice Cream for Crow. It was the first stuff I ever got by him, but it turned out to be the last record Beefheart did before he withdrew from music to concentrate on painting. The song which gives the LP its title evokes a nocturnal, moonlit ritual, as lines from the song go:

the moon was a stone’s throw

stop the show

I need to say hello to the crow

crow dance ah ho ho

crow dance

ah panther

scare crow you answer

you can hee and haw

laugh and scratch

ha ha ha

ha ha ha

boss and toss

don’t shake my hand

give me your claw

two tears in a haystack

scarecrow get back

tonight there’s gonna be

a feather treatment

beneath the symbol we’ll all assemble

oh how we’ll fly

oh how we’ll trembleii

The ‘hop flop squawk’ of the song, delivered in Beefheart’s characteristic werewolf-like howling and growling, was surely the theme which inspired a group of friends to enact their own ‘crow dance’ on a prominent knoll on Stockbridge Down in Hampshire one night in 1983, a stone’s throw from the Iron Age hillfort of Woolbury Ring – a place named for its former association with wolves, presumably. It was an overnight stop on a walk from throwing-out time in a pub in Winchester to Salisbury Plain, for a demo against the ‘defence research’ establishment at Porton Down, notorious for its testing of weapons on animals (including humans). Cloaked in blankets, whooping, flapping, skipping and kicking around a camp-fire, these ‘crow dancers’ playfully transformed some half-remembered words, sounds and images, transporting them to a completely different context from the Mojave Desert of the original song.iii


Born and raised in Glendale, California, Don Vliet immersed himself from his teens in blues music, in common with many of his age and background. The romance and mystique of ‘the Devil’s Music’ and its associations with voodoo and magic – exemplified by the legend of blues singer Robert Johnson selling his soul to the Devil at the crossroads – may have been a seductive image, conveyed in the Beefheart song ‘Obeah Man’, from 1966: ‘If you want to find out about magic, let me show you just where it’s at, well they call me the Obeah Man, I know just where it’s at… I have my hand on the creatures of the dark.’iv The fact that he fronted a group called ‘The Magic Band’ – a name ‘more indicative of Mojo-man hoodoo than mere party tricks’v – adds to an aura of mystery which he was more than happy to cultivate. Such ‘creatures of the dark’ are evoked in a multiplicity of magical traditions of the past and present, such as Anglo-Saxon Scin-cræft (‘shine-craft’), ‘the art of making shadows, conjuring’.vi Scine (giving us the modern word ‘shine’) is ‘a vision, phantasm or spirit’.vii The LP title, Shiny Beast (Bat Chain Puller) (1978), is evocative of this shadow side of shine, with two walking, animal-headed anthropomorphs, painted by Van Vliet, depicted on the cover. Beefheart once told an interviewer, ‘I don’t think I do music, think I do spells’.viii John French, a drummer of the Magic Band, recalls his disquiet at being told of Beefheart, ‘He really is a warlock, you know’.ix Van Vliet has also, according to one profile, investigated ‘extra-sensory perception, clairvoyance and even reincarnation’, and ‘is apparently able to foretell parts of the future’.x Of course, this is also evidence of his ability to weave a mystique around himself.


From an early age, ‘Don noticed that this society had established a destructive tyranny over nature; over all the animals and plants of Earth… Beefheart still believes that in nature all creatures are equals. Man in his perversity forgets this and builds ridiculous hierarchies and artificial systems to set himself apart from his roots. “People are just too far out. Do you know what I mean? Too far out – far away from nature.”’xi

There is an obvious resemblance between Don Van Vliet’s painting and that of the COBRA artists Constant or Asger Jorn, though this cannot be explained by supposing that he knew the work of both artists and consciously referred to it.xii Both Jorn and Constant expressed their rooted hostility to society through a simple and readily accessible pictorial idiom and a childlike technique, unburdened by social discipline. Both trusted to their own experience with painting; both relied on its immediate impact, as something impossible to achieve or reproduce in any other medium; and both proclaimed the social importance of this as a function unique to the artist. Don Van Vliet and his work are part of the same debate, though he found his way to the same position without relying on historical knowledge or historical models.xiii Indeed, this ‘wild’, untutored quality of Van Vliet’s paintings accords with the sentiment expressed in a text/painting by Asger Jorn and Christian Dotremont called There are more things in the earth of a picture than in the heaven of aesthetic theory (1947-48). The metaphysical view of art with its conception of the picture as a ‘mirror of reality’ was rejected by COBRA artists, for they conceived of the picture as its own ‘artistic, material reality’, not a representation of nature, but ‘a direct transformation of nature’.xiv This ‘artistic materialist’ perspective, opposed to the ‘logic of representation’ inherent to the Western classical tradition, is summed up in their Manifesto: ‘A picture is not a construction made up of colours and lines but an animal, a night, a cry, a human being, or all that combined’.xv Compare this to the animist sensibility espoused by Van Vliet in this interview:

According to his set of filters, in-animate objects are alive, and plants and animals share with them the capacity to think as well as feel. Don sees perspicacity in a mesquite, an old broom-handle even. If his lyrics are about anything absolutely, they are about ecology.

You’re a painter. In “Run Paint Run Run” are you saying that the paint itself is a conscious entity with a will of its own?

“Yeah! Definitely! Hey, you got it. Yes, it does have a will of its own.”

So it’s alive.

“I think so. I definitely feel that it is.”

Do you generally feel that about the things around you, inanimate objects?

“Um hm. Yeah, I really do. I think they’re all alive. Don’t you?”xvi

Analogies have been drawn between the theory and practice of the COBRA group and the practice of Central Asian shamanism, which incorporated painted and engraved images in rock and other media,xvii where shamanic agency ‘operated by participation in all the forces thought to be immanent in the world (in natural physical entities, animals, humans and manufactured things)’.xviii With Beefheart/Van Vliet such analogies ring particularly true, not just in his perception of the autonomous material reality of paintings – their aliveness – but also the recurring theme of animal metamorphosis in his visual art, poetry and lyrics.xix


The development of Beefheart’s werewolf-like singing voice, inspired by Howlin’ Wolf, is the most obvious physical attribute of animal metamorphosis, expressed also in word and image. In the song, ‘Grow Fins’, Beefheart inverts the ‘Swan Maiden’ motif, recurrent in fairy stories (involving a supernatural bride who – wronged by her human husband – returns to her previous life as a swan or mermaidxx):

I’m tellin’ ya woman

Ya better get it back together again
If ya don’t leave me alone
I’m gonna grow fins
& go back in the water again
I’m gonna take up with a mermaid
& leave you land-lovin’ women alone…

His art too is inhabited by creatures that cross the boundaries between human, animal and different kinds of animal, in ways that accord with the following Western Buryat shaman’s song, telling of the different animal transformations of shamanic spirits:

Our trail is that of the grey hare,

The dark wolf is our servant,

The honking crow is our incarnation,

The Hoto eagle is our envoy.

On the summit of Bortoi mountain,

Having turned into dark wolves,

Curving our backs we ran.

Whose son did you see there?

On the summit of Tarsai mountain,

Having become five geese,

Crying out, we came in to land.

Whose son did you see there?xxii

Since young Don Van Vliet ‘decided that civilization was a trap, and refused to use civilized English in a linear, logical way and learned the entire language as a vast and amusing game’.xxiii The puns and wordplay characteristic of his poetry is very reminiscent of the language of the novel, Finnegans Wake, by James Joyce, an author who himself declared, ‘I am at the end of English’.xxiv Comparisons between Trout Mask Replica and James Joyce’s novel, Finnegans Wake, are usually drawn for the reason that the former is supposed to be ‘unlistenable’, while the latter is ‘unreadable’. Yet, one revealing passage from the novel articulates the subversion of language which informs both projects: ‘leaving codhead’s mitre… and making a bolderdash for lubberty of speech’.xxv It has also been observed that German Trauermarsch (‘Funeral March’), when spoken aloud, sounds like ‘Trout Mask’,xxvi evoking the funereal theme current throughout Finnegans Wake. The novel’s play upon the coincidence of opposites – death and life, darkness and light, sadness and joy, raven and dove – is exemplified by such puns as ‘funferall’.xxvii Metempsychosis – the transmigration of souls – another central theme of the Wake, reflects Joyce’s longstanding interest “in such theosophical themes as cycles, reincarnation, the succession of gods”.xxviii     A young Joyce had even told the poet AE (George Russell)     that he thought it possible an avatar might be born in Ireland.xxix  As one commentator notes: ‘Time is of course a “spherical constant” (Frank Zappa) but some dots on the curve (like James Joyce and Captain Beefheart) are so close that they may as well be on a straight line’.xxx Certainly, the date of Joyce’s death, on January 13th 1941, is very close to the birthday, on January 15th 1941, of Don Van Vliet, and there are flickers of a literary reincarnation ‘from the night we are and feel and fade with to the yesterselves we tread to turnupon’.xxxi Thus, the ‘Old Fart at Play’ in Trout Mask Replica, who ‘ran down behind the knoll’ and ‘slipped on his wooden fish head’,xxxii could be seen as an avatar of the character HCE in the Wake, whose ‘brontoichthyan form’ lies ‘a-slumber, by the sedge of the troutling stream’.xxxiii Likewise, the animal shade of Van Vliet can be seen in an epithet Joyce gives HCE: ‘faunonfleetfoot’.xxxiv


The black paper between a mirror breaks my heart

The moon frayed thru dark velvet lightly apart

Steal softly thru sunshine

Steal softly thru snow

The wild goose flies from winter

Breaks my heart that I can’t go

Energy flys thru a field

n the sun softly melts a nothing wheel

Steal softly thru sunshine

Steal softly thru snow

The black paper between a mirror breaks my heart that I can’t go

The swan their feathers don’t grow

They’re spun

They live two hundred years of love

They’re one

Breaks my heart to see them cross the sun

Grain grows rainbows up straw hill

Breaks my heart to see the highway cross the hills

Man’s lived a million years ‘n still he kills

The black paper between a mirror

Breaks my heart that I can’t go

Steal softly thru sunshine

Steal softly thru snowxxxv

Steal Softly Thru Snow: Danebury Ring Hillfort viewed from Fullerton Down on 23rd December 2010

i A reputation established, for many, by the LP Trout Mask Replica (1969).

ii Track 3 from Ice Cream for Crow (Virgin 1983).

iii Interestingly, corvids, particularly ravens, were recurrent ‘ritual’ deposits in ‘storage pits’ at Danebury Ring Hillfort, a couple of miles across the Test valley and clearly visible from Woolbury (Cunliffe, B. 1984. Danebury: an Iron Age hillfort in Hampshire. Volume 2 The excavations, 1969-1978: the finds. London: Council for British Archaeology Research Report 52, p 530).

iv ‘Obeah Man’, track 1, Grow Fins: Rarities (1965-1982) Revenant

v Barnes, M. 2004. Captain Beefheart: the Biography. London: Omnibus Press, p28

vi Bosworth, Rev. J. 1838. A Dictionary of the Anglo-Saxon Language. London: Longman, Rees, Orme, Brown, Green and Longman. 313

vii Ibid.

viii Lester Bangs, ‘He’s Alive, But So Is Paint, Are You?’ Village Voice October 1st-7th 1980, reproduced (without pagination or issue number) at: http://www.beefheart.com/zigzag/articles/cry.htm

ix French, J. ‘Drumbo’. 2010. Beefheart: Through the Eyes of Magic. London: Proper, p 250

xi Ibid.

xii Ohrt, R. 1993. ‘The Painting of Don Van Vliet’, in A. Beaugrand (ed.) Stand Up to be Discontinued: the art of Don van Vliet. Ostfildern: Cantz, Online at http://www.beefheart.com/caucasian/ohrt.htmhttp://www.beefheart.com/caucasian/ohrt.htm accessed 3.1.2011. No pagination.

xiii Ibid.

xiv Jorn, A. 1971. Magi og Skønne Kunster (Magic and the fine arts). Copenhagen: Borgen, p15 and 16, quoted in Birtwistle, G. 1986. Living Art. Utrecht: Reflex, p72.

xvi Lester Bangs, op.cit.

xvii Crook, S. 1998. ‘Moving Mountains: ‘Shamanic’ Rock Art and the International of Experimental Artists’. Transgressions No. 4, pp36-48.

xviii Humphrey, C. 1994. ‘Shamanic practices and the State in Northern Asia: views from the centre and periphery, in N. Thomas and C. Humphrey (eds.) Shamanism, History and the State. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, p199.

xix One critical difference between Van Vliet and COBRA is the latter group’s commitment to a participatory ethos, oriented towards a social art in which all may share. Van Vliet’s autocratic approach to the realisation of his musical vision is well-documented in John French’s book (see footnote 9).

xx Leavy, B. 1994. In Search of the Swan Maiden. New York: New York University Press.

xxi ‘Grow Fins’, track 3 side 2, The Spotlight Kid (1972).

xxii Humphrey, C. 1995. ‘Chiefly and Shamanist Landscapes in Mongolia’, in E. Hirsch and M. O’Hanlon (eds.) The Anthropology of Landscape Oxford: Clarendon Press: 135-162, p155.

xxiii Winner, L. op.cit.

xxiv Ellmann, R. 1982. James Joyce. New York: Oxford University Press p 546.

xxv Joyce, J. 1939. Finnegans Wake. London: Faber and Faber, p233.

xxvi Ben Watson 2009 ‘Trauermarsch (Trout Mask) as Finnegans Wake Replica’. Radio programme originally broadcast on Resonance Radio http://www.archive.org/details/WakeAsTrauermarschtroutMask11-ii-2009

xxvii Joyce, J. 1939. Finnegans Wake. London: Faber and Faber, p111.

xxviii Ellmann, R. op.cit., p 99.

xxix Ibid.

xxx Ben Watson op.cit.

xxxi Joyce, J. op.cit., p 473

xxxii ‘ Old Fart at Play’, track 27, Trout Mask Replica (1969).

xxxiii Ibid . p 7.

xxxiv Ibid., p 128. Don Vliet added the ‘Van’ to his name in his twenties, because he was wanted by police for ‘smuggling sponges into Nevada’ (Barnes, M. op.cit., p18).

xxxv ‘Steal Softly Thru Snow’, track 26, Trout Mask Replica (1969).

* A shorter version of this article-cum-obituary was published in Northern Earth 125, Spring 2011 pp.25-28. http://northernearth.co.uk/