The Greatest Musician of All Time Came to Dallas, And I Missed It

Categories: Texas History

Photo by Martin Pulaski, via Flickr
Ever miss an un-missable concert? It's one of those pangs that lingers, fixed like a stamp on the back of your skull. It's a bad taste in your mouth that never leaves, a constant reminder of how your life could have been better had you seen (insert band name here) play live.

Many Dallasites never got over missing Nirvana's set at Trees. More recently, countless hearts were broken when a fear of icy streets prevented them from seeing Kanye's date at the AAC. For me, I missed what I consider to be the greatest musician of all time (well, at least in rock 'n' roll); It was 1974, almost exactly 40 years ago, when Don Van Vliet -- better known as Captain Beefheart -- first played Dallas. It was at the Electric Ballroom and I was 11 years shy of existence. Still, It's something I dream of often: seeing the Captain and his Magic Band of misfits live. Soft, half-asleep scenes of a live Beefheart sculpting his Frankenstein shape of rock out free jazz, blues and red-hot emotional overflow taunt me like stubborn bouts of deja vu.

So, who is Captain Beefheart? In short: a child prodigy turned musical (and visual) genius.

In long: Well, it all starts in the desert, where Don Van Vliet would spend most of his life. The artist began sculpting and painting at age 3, and by 11 had lectured at Barnsdall Art Institute in L.A., consistently appeared on a weekly art television program, and earned a six-year full scholarship to study sculpture in Europe. The latter he could not accept, because his parents had moved him out to the desert in hopes of distancing their son from activities they deemed too "queer." It was in the Mojave that he met Frank Zappa, with whom he would gain both a love for music and the nickname Captain Beefheart. The rest is history.

Despite Beefheart's lack of commercial success, there exist few artists as critically celebrated. The renowned radio DJ/ record producer John Peel said of Vliet, "If there has ever been such a thing as a genius in the history of popular music, it's Beefheart." The legendary critic Lester Bangs proclaimed him "one of the giants of 20th century music." The Ivy League scientist and music writer Pierro Scaruffi echoed these sentiments, saying that "the distance between Captain Beefheart and the rest of rock music is the same distance that there was between Beethoven and the symphonists of his time."

While these statements might verge on hyperbole (might), there's no questioning Beefheart's influence. The man operated at the furthest extremes of artistic expression, and in doing so rewrote the vocabulary of rock music. With vocals like a black-lung angel and a startling, almost absurd command of avant-garde composition, Beefheart wove atonal instrumentation and free-associative dadaism into a tapestry of music that's both staggeringly complex and unclassifiable. Most impressive of all, he did it without a whiff of self-consciousness or pseudo-intellectualism.

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Jonathan, I enjoyed your Beefheart & Magic Band overview. They certainly created a startlingly original body of work. I saw two CB shows in Dallas. #1. The first, 5/8/74 at the Agora/ Electric Ballroom, featured "The Tragic Band," supporting Unconditionally Guaranteed. As you supposed, it was disappointing in style and material. On the up side, they played credible versions of "Abba Zabba" and "Mirror Man." Despite the shortcomings, Beefheart's charisma and vocals made for a pretty entertaining show (just not very Magic). There are several live recordings circulating from this band's European tour, if anybody's curious (but I wouldn't bother). #2. Dec. '80 at the Palladium, supporting Doc At The Radar Station. This was much more in the Magic style, featuring material from Trout Mask, Clear Spot, and Safe As Milk. I think that this was their next to last gig (according to Mike Barnes' book, they played their final date a week later in California).

All the best, Mike.


@haskins1  I was really hoping someone would comment who had actually been to the event.  Great to hear your thoughts! Very jealous of that second show--that late period Vliet was some wonderful stuff.

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