Sturgeon's Revelation

Beating the music business odds at SXSW

Don Van Vliet, aka Captain Beefheart, and Gary Lucas (r)
Don Van Vliet, aka Captain Beefheart, and Gary Lucas (r)

Tropical Hot Dog

Wednesday, March 16, 12:30pm, ACC 12AB

After Don Van Vliet left this mortal coil on Dec. 17, 2010, stories started popping up like constellations. Known as poet and musical prankster Captain Beefheart, Van Vliet is the subject of this panel swap meet, featuring anecdotes and tall tales from his cousin Victor Hayden, aka the Mascara Snake; veteran Texas Monthly music scribe John Morthland; Langdon Winner, author of an infamous 1970 piece for Rolling Stone on Van Vliet; and Magic Band guitarist Gary Lucas, who e-mailed one illumination of the man's unique vision:

"On the track 'Cardboard Cut-Out Sundown' on Ice Cream for Crow, he had me learn a discrete solo piece I transcribed from a composition he composed on piano entitled 'Oat Hate.' I worked at it for months in NYC to master the intricacies of playing this very complex and meandering piece, with every tic and stutter of the Van Vliet nervous system intact. That's what your job was, to re-create these one-off events precisely. It was like him taking a deck of cards, throwing it in the air, taking a Polaroid of it, then handing it to you: 'Here ... reproduce this pattern exactly.'

"Well, I really had this sonofabitch down. Very painful to play but it stretched my technique enormously with the contrapuntal fingerpicking. Then when I got out to Burbank for the sessions, Don had already taught the core band a totally separate new piece of music. He then put me behind a baffle in the studio with earphones, started the other group off playing their new piece, and instructed me via the phones to 'Start! Stop! Staaaaart!'

"I played the piece through cued by Don that way. At the end it synchs up beautifully, my guitar and the other musicians, in a stunning pyrotechnic display of choppy unison rhythms and harmonic motifs. I then take the piece out by playing solo. It was almost like he had planned the entire composition to end that way, with me in unison with the band and not the typical Beefheartian fashion of contrary motion, the sound of gears grinding against one another.

"But how? I still don't know how he pulled it off."

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