New York

Don Van Vliet

Captain Beefheart, a.k.a. Don Van Vliet, first made a name for himself during the brief, interminable psychedelic era of the late ’60s. While most psychedelic music was little more than polluted blues or rock ’n’ roll with “special effects,” the music of Captain Beefheart and his Magic Band was and remains truly original, built from a unique sonic and verbal viewpoint. The comparisons made by critics to Beefheart are as amusing as they are instructive: he is seen as the heir of Delta blues, the successor of Igor Stravinsky, the culmination of Dada, America’s answer to the Peking Opera . . . he is all of the above and none.

In 1971, Beefheart made a promotional video for the album Lick My Decals Off Baby. Intended to be the first television commercial for a pop record, it was rejected by numerous television stations in California and was never aired. To promote his new album, Ice Cream for Crow, Beefheart shot a video of himself and the Magic Band performing the title song in the Mojave Desert, where he lives in a mobile home. This too was recently rejected by MTV, an influential 24-hour national cable-television network devoted to pop music. Both tapes, however, have found a home at the Museum of Modern Art.

The earlier tape begins with a shot of a white hand holding a smoking cigarette butt on the left of the otherwise totally black screen. A few notes of the song “Woe Is a Me Bop” are heard. The hand flicks the butt across the void; it strikes the invisible black wall at screen right with a bang, and the music stops abruptly. The scene cuts to a shot of what appears to be a sisal mat in closeup (Beefheart has described it as “a shot of nothing in focus”). A voice—that of a used-car pitchman well-known in California—announces “In Tustin it’s Rockette Morton” (the Magic Band’s bassist). We go back to the hand with cigarette butt, another shard of “Woe Is a Me Bop,” and another cut to “nothing in focus” on the beat of the butt’s ricochet from the side wall. “In Santa Anita it’s Ed Marimba.” And so on, until each member of the Magic Band has been named. Cut to a shot of Van Vliet, standing at attention in a dark suit and hat against a black backdrop. “In Plainview it’s Captain Beefheart.” Van Vliet slowly raises his right hand from his side and his right foot from the floor, in an apparently ritualistic gesture which is, Beefheart has said, typical of the movements that dogs are trained to do for dog shows. In silence, a black-hooded, black-suited figure crosses the empty screen turning an eggbeater, followed by another such figure with a flour sifter. Still in silence we cut to a closeup of a Tupperware bowl, filled with pancake batter and resting on a highway centerline; behind it are two large masculine feet in white socks and Mary Jane shoes. One foot rises dog-show fashion, tipping the batter out onto the road. Cut to the album cover, and the announcer breaks the silence with “Captain Beefheart and his Magic Band’s new album Lick My Decals Off Baby on Reprise Records.”

Presumably the tape was rejected for broadcast because it was too “weird,” or because the title of the record was considered obscene. Today it is quite acceptable to say things like “lick my decals off baby” on television, but this lost advertisement is still powerfully strange.

The tape for “Ice Cream for Crow” begins with a silent profile of Van Vliet, his silhouette black against the luminous pastels of a desert dawn or dusk. His head turns to the camera and the music begins, an intense, contagious analogue of boogie with Beefheart’s signature shaman vocals, against-the-grain drumming, and exotic guitar creations. “It’s so hot,” barks Van Vliet, now in full Mojave sunlight, picking up a Kleenex from a boulder and mopping his brow. “Looks like you have three beaks crow.” We cut to a night scene of Beefheart and the Magic Band before a giant rock formation, the full moon in view. “The moon’s so full,” sings Beefheart, “white hat on a pumpkin/you know there’s something/the moon was a stone’s throw.” The song is about black and white, as Beefheart said on “The David Letterman Show” recently; the ice cream of the title is vanilla, and the tape cuts from a daytime painterly desert of rosy-miffed sunups/downs to black and white nights, from light to dark.

In one shot the band romps with elegant frenzy on a dirt road, kicking up dust devils, framed by two huge power lines heading for the horizon. A tumbleweed rolls by, picking up Beefheart’s Kleenex and rolling on. It reappears several times, each time having picked up more tissues; when it finally disappears it is filled with them. But the Magic Band doesn’t just litter this nature that cleans up after them; it gestures at improving it, with scenes of band members placing potted plants among the cacti and succulents. We see a suspected crow at night and from a distance, taking off from a tree and winging moonward. And standing in for the scarecrow of the song’s lyric is only Captain Beefheart, holding up amid the cacti some of the radiant canvases he paints. He is also present as the bellowing, hollering, rasping narrator, declaiming with obvious authority his philo-Delphic observations, his face, hands, and posture ornamenting his words like a medicine man’s.

In 1971 Beefheart’s language was considered obscene; perhaps MTV rejected his 1982 tape because it contains no sex or violence. It has been suggested that MTV considered Van Vliet to be too old; at 41 he looks great.

Glenn O'Brien