Of all the strange and bizarre musical artists who reside on the fringe of popular music (and there are quite a few of them), Don Van Vliet, better known as Captain Beefheart, may just be the most enigmatic. Putting to shame more studied eccentrics (David Byrne and Tom Waits, just to name a few), Captain Beefheart hasn’t performed since 1982, when he retired from music. He reverted back to his old name of Don Van Vliet, and made himself almost entirely unavailable to the general public.
Some insight into what’s been on the mans mind since then is made slightly more evident with the DVD release by Music Video Distributors of a peculiar little film made in 1993 by photographer Anton Corbijn called “Some YoYo Stuff: An Observation of the Observations of Don Van Vliet.”
For those unfamiliar with Beefheart / Van Vliet, a quick overview is in order, without which the film is almost entirely irrelevant. Van Vliet grew up in California, where he was weaned on R&B and blues artists such as Howlin Wolf. He was also childhood friends, as well as on-again-off-again grown-up friends, with the poster child for the off-kilter, Frank Zappa.
Captain Beefheart & His Magic Band began to make musical waves in the mid-sixties with a distinctive brand of blues-rock. They were never in danger of being mistaken for John Mayalls Bluesbreakers, but despite a few interesting songs here and there, the early recordings between the years of 1966 and 1968 aren’t particularly groundbreaking.
However, by 1969, Van Vliet became one of the most whacked-out geniuses (un)popular music has ever seen. With the Zappa-produced double album “Trout Mask Replica,” Van Vliet went from penning lyrics like “I’m glad / glad about the good times / that we’ve had,” to lyrics such as “One red bean stuck in the bottom of uh tin bowl / Hot coffee from uh krimpt up can / Me n my girl named Bimbo Limbo Spam.” The music, incorporating elements of free jazz, musique concrete, and African percussion, is almost unbearably intense, dissonant yet playful, and wholly original.
As the 1970s, Beefheart’s music became less and less inspired, but when he retired from music in 1982 to focus on painting full-time, after the release of albums like “Doc at the Radar Station” and “Shiny Beast (Bat Chain Puller)” he was at the top of his game once again. He was the Luis Buñuel of rock.
Currently, there is as much of an interest in Van Vliet’s music as ever. At the time of writing, the Magic Band is reuniting to play shows–but without Van Vliet, of course.
Seemingly oblivious to the “real world” and prone to strange behavior, Van Vliet’s entire musical career seems based on questions: Who exactly is this man? What inspired this unflinching artistry? How much acid did he take? How much time did he spend looking at Salvador Dalí paintings? And, of course, what has the Captain (or Van Vliet, rather) been up to for the last twenty years? (There is the wholly credible story that involves U2’s Bono attempting to get Van Vliet to appear in their self-serving motion picture “Rattle and Hum” and Van Vliet responding with, “Who is this Bongo?”) Besides a few gallery shows of new artwork and an appearance at Frank Zappa’s funeral, “Some YoYo Stuff” is about all you can get.
The film begins with a long shot of a woman who seems to be Van Vliet’s mother. She walks towards the camera, shows the viewer a foot-tall cardboard cutout of Van Vliet, and says, “This is Don, my son,” before she sticks it in the ground. Anton Corbijn comes on screen to explain that he has known Van Vliet for many years and really likes the guy, which is what inspired him to make a “sort-of… film” that features him.
Most of this “sort-of… film” shows Van Vliet sitting in front of a movie screen onto which is projected ravens, his own paintings, flying fish, lizards, and lots of footage of the California desert. The viewer never actually gets to see Van Vliet say anything due to a lack of sync sound. He speaks very… very… slowly… worn down by age and possibly a stroke. He gives typically cryptic responses to questions that are never posed, although a few questions are asked by director David Lynch, most of which are ignored by Van Vliet.
The viewer gets to hear Van Vliet touch on a number of subjects in typically enigmatic fashion. He discusses the difference between painting and music (“One you can physically drowned [sic] in… the other you can mentally drowned [sic] in”) and the similarity between the ocean and the desert (“The ocean is wet and the desert is dried-up ocean”). He tells anecdotes about visual artists like Piet Mondrian and musicians like Roland Kirk, Miles Davis, and Frank Zappa (“He was the only Frank Zappa I knew.”).
He mentions that the Chinese are killing tigers, possibly due to a “p***y problem,” which is either a terrible pun, or which harkens back to his strange fascination with sex, which has been evident throughout his entire recording career. The master of the off-kilter one-liner, Van Vliet hits the nail on the head with, “I have an excellent memory, its just not decorated properly.”
The film is photographed in grainy black & white and has a hypnotic quality to it, but will it matter to anyone not interested in the music of Captain Beefheart? Hard to say. Van Vliet is definitely charming, but will try any unprepared viewers patience, even for 12 minutes. The question to ask yourself is: Would you watch a film of someone’s crazy uncle babble incoherently, even if he was one of the most influential of all twentieth-century musicians?