Captain Beefheart RIP, a tribute to a genius – by John Robb

We have lost a lot of people this year.

Each one leaves a sense of numbness and sadness but death of Don Van Vliet or Captain Beefheart has knocked me sideways.

There are few constants in my life but Captain Beefheart is one of them.

His death is a major shock.

He died from complications brought on by MS- the disease that had been laying him low for years.

I’ve listened to his records for years. Not to be hip or smart but because I totally loved them. I loved their sprawling energy, their sharp intelligence and their wild bohemian spirit. Their words were sheer poetry- shards and slivers of and craps of surreal words that make their own logic as they go along. These were words that combined a wild free jazz humour and a free jazz spirit in a confusion of phrases that were at once funny and touching and made bizarre and brilliant pictures in your head.

He was even a genius painter, whose artworks matched the wild spirit of his music and personae and fetched thousands when he concentrated on his painting when he retired.

He fused the wild spirit of Howling Wolf whose grizzly bear voice he must have loved to the out there freeform imagination of John Coltrane and the skronk jazz greats. He mashed avant-garde with the guttural blues into music that dripped with feral wildness and a wild humour that touched every emotion in your body.

Utterly invigorating- a prime time Captain Beefheart album like Trout Mask Replica was an adventure on its own. I must have listened to that record thousands of times and I still can’t rememebr it all because of its twists and turns and fierce undiluted smartness.

Massively influential- Beefheart touched corners of rock music that you would never expect. Artists including Tom Waits, Nick Cave, Franz Ferdinand, even Oasis apparently, Red Hot Chili Peppers and The White Stripes are among those who have cited him as an influence.

Beefheart is part of my life. He turned music and language inside out but always made it raw and thrilling. he made moustaches look cool and his zig zag imagination and that gravel pit voice are so distinctive that a whole genre of music emerged in his wake. It’s fair to say that nearly every band that we hung around with in the eighties when we were doing the Membranes and the Death To Trad Rock scene was totally infused with anarchic spirit.

This was the sound of the human soul, untainted and unvanquished. Beefheart sounded wild and free. It may have taken a bit of work to decipher what he was doing but once you got there you got the holy grail of music. Unfettered, wild and free- a true genius.

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Award winning journalist and boss of Louder Than War. In a 30 year music writing career, John was the first to write about bands such as Stone Roses and Nirvana and has several best selling music books to his name. He constantly tours the world with Goldblade and the Membranes playing gigs or doing spoken word and speaking at music conferences.


  1. I was lucky enough to have seen The Magic Band when they played The Free Trade Hall Manchester 1974. I remember it being a rainy night and the Hall smelt like damp afghan coats. I seem to remember them carrying on there own tiny amps and not being loud enough for my young ears but boy could those guys play one of the tightest bands I ever saw.

  2. I have had the rare pleasure of seeing Captain Beefheart 3 times, live, in Vancouver. At different times in his too short performing career, and with different bands, he was still an artist that could make you catch yourself in a trance at some time during the concert…..he will always be a musical icon to me, and still a musical amazement to anyone…………R.Browne…..Vancouver, Canada

  3. […] Captain Beefheart & The Magic Band – \’Big Eyed Beans From Venus\’ Few people in music deserve to be called a genius but Beefheart reinvented everything… […]

  4. […] dance music at parties. Their first show was in the school gym of Cal State Northridge supporting Captain Beefheart and The Magic Band. In 1965, after The Byrds left their residency at Ciro’s on Sunset Strip following their first […]

  5. […] Captain Beefheart ‘Ashtray Heart’ The release schedule is dotted with a whole host of off the wall classics and this late period piece from the Captain is still one of my favorites. Culled from his late seventies Doc At The Radar Station album this was the returning Beefheart who added some of the urgency of punk to his own genius, twisted vision which made so much sense to our teenage years and installed him as one of the key influences. Inspiral Carpets ‘You’re so Good For Me’ A few months ago I went to see the re-emerging Inspiral Carpets rehearsing with new/old singer Stephen Holt and they played me this, their NEW song. A great slice of garage rock n roll with a glorious pop hook and ample proof of a band that has the innate knack of writing top songs in their own classic Farfisa style. […]


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