A Tale Of Harps and Hearts

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A self portrait by Don van Vliet

A Tale Of Harps and Hearts

I was up at the crack of dawn, as I often am, a couple of days ago when this old tune from my early teenage years started playing in my head. It continued playing for much of the day as I desperately searched to see if I had the album from which it came. The song had been recorded by a white Californian, but you could have been forgiven for thinking it was a black man singing raw Delta Blues, and the singer was indeed compared very favourably with Howlin Wolf, who was one his main musical heroes.

Donald Glenn Vliet was born in  1941, and was the son of a Dutch American. Don would often claim that one of his ancestors was a close friend of Rembrandt, who was a major inspiration for him. He was a precociously talented artist and sculptor as a young child.

He is said to have begun drawing and sculpting at the age of four. His subjects reflected his obsession with animals, particularly dinosaurs, fish, African mammals and lemurs. At the age of nine he won a children’s sculpting competition organised for the Los Angeles Zoo in Griffith Park by a local sculptor, Agostinho Rodrigues. This led him to become a student of Rodrigues for several years. During this time, Vliet received several offers of sponsorship from local businesses, including one from a local creamery which would have allowed him  to go and study marble sculpture for 6 years in Italy. He is said to have turned all these offers down, largely due to his parents intense disapproval of art in general, which they associated with homosexuality. His relationship with his parents became very strained as a result, and from his early teenage years onwards he would remain locked in his bedroom, only emerging each day to go to school. During this time, he became friends with another boy at school called Francis, who had a similarly strained relationship with his parents, and the two of them would spend hours together locked in Donald’s bedroom listening to old Delta blues records by Robert Johnson and Son House, Chicago blues by the likes of Howlin Wolf and Muddy Waters, along with Jazz records by  Ornette Coleman, John Coltrane and Thelonius Monk.

Francis started to play the drums and studied orchestral drumming for a time and played drums with a few local bands, before switching to electric guitar later. He became interested in avant-garde music after hearing of a local record shop who had boasted of having such a wildly eclectic stock of records, that they had recently even sold a copy of ‘The Complete Works of Edgar Varese, Vol 1′. Francis was so intrigued by the claim that he spent the next year trying to find another copy of the album, which he eventually did, and this led him to eventually discover Stravinsky, Schoenberg and other avant-garde composers all of whom would remain major inspirations to both youngsters in their later musical careers.

Donald had had major difficulties at school, being severely dyslexic throughout his life, and yet he was a prolific poet and largely self-taught artist, and managed to teach himself to play the harmonica, saxophones and clarinets while being unable to read music. And despite his severely withdrawn personality, with Francis’s encouragement,  he eventually overcame his shyness and found that he was in possession of a very powerful 5-octave range singing voice.

Both lads would go on to become acknowledged as major musical creative geniuses.   Francis recorded over 60 albums  and achieved some considerable commercial success, despite his strongly held and forcefully voiced anti-establishment views, his penchant for bitingly satirical lyrics and his off-the-wall Dada-esque stageshows. Donald made just 13 records before retiring from music to devote himself to painting and sculpture and living as a recluse in the Mohave desert where he had lived in his later childhood. His paintings and sculptures command very high prices these days. During his musical career however, he was perpetually broke and notorious for paying his band peanuts if they got paid at all.

Francis would shorten his name to Frank, and form the ‘Mothers of Invention’  before eventually going solo. Donald became Don Van Vliet, but adopted the persona of a character written for him in one of Frank’s early plays as his stage name – Captain Beefheart. He joined a group of accomplished musicians as lead vocalist playing blues covers, before stamping his authority on them and making them his backing band and musical collaborators which played exclusively van Vliet compositions.

Captain Beefheart and the The Magic Band

Captain Beefheart and the Magic Band – Gimme dat Harp, Boy

Harp Boogie

John Peel’s documentary tribute to Beefheart

Wiki entry


Don van Vliet, artist, composer and singer 1941-2010