Monday, September 16, 2013

Progress Is Chanel No. 5 On The Rocks, Wrote Captain Beefheart

by Stephen J. Gertz

An original poem in manuscript composed by musician, artist, and poet Don Van Vliet (1941-2010), aka Captain Beefheart, in 1975 with an accompanying drawing of a foot surrounded by musical notes (a Beefheart "footnote") has come to market. Manuscript material and original drawings by Vliet are highly desirable and extremely scarce. Offered by Royal Books the asking price is $9,500.

A letter of provenance from music writer, record producer, concert promoter, and deejay  Bill Bentley explains the circumstances of this poem's composition:

"In 1975 I interviewed Captain Beefheart at the Armadillo World Headquarters for the Austin Sun. Beefheart was appearing there with Frank Zappa's band, recording a live album [Bongo Fury]. After the interview I asked Captain Beefheart to draw me a picture, since he was doodling as we spoke...

Poster verso to poem, 11 1/2 x 17 1/2 inches.

"He got a poster from another Armadillo show and on the back quickly wrote out this poem. The words flowed out of him spontaneously. He signed it and handed it to me, and then took it back. He added at the end, 'Progress is Chanel No. 5 on the rocks,' and then drew a foot around those words with notes circling it. He called it his 'footnote.' As I got ready to leave, I started to fold the poster. He said very loudly, 'No!' He took it from me and rolled it up before handing it back, and said 'Some day you'll thank me.' He didn't want me to crease the poster, knowing it would adversely affect the value. We ran the poem along with the interview shortly after in the Austin Sun."

The poem reads:

train the
its not Zen
Zrite znow
when the ocean
is wounded it
takes the whole
world to heal.
Ah, Eden
[?] is
the thing that
runs down
the back of
your leg
that makes
your foot
it isn't worth
getting into the
bull's shit to find
Out what the bull ate.
ah joint is part of
today's anatomy
an artist is one
Who kids him
Self the most
A psychiatrist is
one who wishes to
die in your other

Don Van Vliet '75

Progress is
Chanel Number 5
on the rocks

Don Van Vliet began his career in high school in Lancaster, CA as vocalist in a band with Frank Zappa on drums. The journey of Captain Beefheart and His Magic Band - whose third album, Trout Mask Replica (released by Zappa's Straight Records in 1969), is #60 on Rolling Stone's 500 Greatest Albums of All Time and, inspired, in part, by the free jazz of Ornette Coleman, redefined the boundaries of rock music and continues to influence - is too tortured to recount here. 

"On first listen, Trout Mask Replica sounds like a wild, incomprehensible rampage through the blues. Don Van Vliet growls, rants and recites poetry over chaotic guitar licks" (Rolling Stone).

"I thought [Trout Mask Replica] was the worst thing I'd ever heard. I said to myself, they're not even trying! It was just a sloppy cacophony. Then I listened to it a couple more times, because I couldn't believe Frank Zappa could do this to me – and because a double album cost a lot of money. About the third time, I realized they were doing it on purpose; they meant it to sound exactly this way. About the sixth or seventh time, it clicked in, and I thought it was the greatest album I'd ever heard" (Matt Groening, creator of The Simpsons).

Unsurprisingly, it's reported to be director David Lynch's favorite album of all time.

Of Vliet's poetry, it began to pour forth early on, separately and through his lyrics. It was first collected in Skeleton Breath, Scorpion Blush (1991), followed by Riding Some Kind Of Unusual Skull Sleigh (2003) and Don Van Vliet Paintings and Poetry (2007). Each volume has become highly collectable with prices continuing to rise with his reputation in the midst of a limited number of copies.

In a nod to carping ichthyologists who've been aching for a correction, yes, the trout in the cover shot of Trout Mask Replica is a carp. The trout, apparently, weren't running on the day of the shoot which is why Beefheart wears a trout mask replica and not a carp mask original.

At age twenty in 1971, I lived on Clark Street, a short distance up the hill north of the Whisky a Go Go on the Sunset Strip in Los Angeles. (Remind me to tell you about the time I met Wild Man Fischer at Sun-Bee Market across the street). When multiple guests came by and overstayed their welcome, I'd play Trout Mask Replica (with Stockhausen's Gesang de Junglinge as back-up) to clear the room and two minutes later be alone to enjoy it myself. It was easy listening music to my ears, divinely savaged at age thirteen when I heard Stravinsky's Le Sacre du Printemps for the first time and fell in love with dissonance and polyrhythms.  Discordant prose and poetry soon followed.

Click here for an index of Don Van Vliet's poetry. The poem under notice has, it seems, been forgotten; it is not included.

Poem and poster images courtesy of Royal Books, with our thanks.

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