Frank Zappa and Captain Beefheart had a strange relationship. Having grown up in the same Californian scene as teenagers, the duo collaborated and toured together throughout the 1960s and ’70s before their relationship became estranged. The two have always been compared to one another over the yeard due to both their history and, of course, their abstract recording methods. Here, we re-visit the music they made together as teenagers before they carved their own individual legacies.
Don Van Vliet, aka Captain Beefheart, and Zappa had been friends since high school with Zappa even producing Captain Beefheart & His Magic Band’s now-iconic record Trout Mask Replica in 1969. The two then toured together in the 1970s and there was deep mutual respect between despite them both, on occasion, being difficult characters. Despite their fondness for one another, they would both occasionally deliver hostile comments about each other in the press.
As quoted in The Real Frank Zappa Book, Zappa recalled how odd his contemporary was to tour alongside: “Life on the road with Captain Beefheart was definitely not easy,” he said. “He carried the bulk of his worldly possessions around in a shopping bag. It held his art and poetry books and a soprano sax. He used to forget it in different places—just walk away and leave it, driving the road manager crazy. Onstage, no matter how loud the monitor system was, he complained that he couldn’t hear his voice. (I think that was because he sings so hard he tenses up the muscles in his neck, causing his ears to implode.)”
Zappa, admittedly, was instrumental in helping Beefheart get a foot into the music industry and looked out for his old friend through thick and thin. Despite he fact, it has to be said, Beefheart’s derogatory comments made in a 1972 interview with Frendz: “Zappa is the most disgusting character I have ever encountered. He was trying to market me as a goddamned freak—the gall of the man!”
Just three years after Beefheart made this statement he joined Zappa and The Mothers on the famous Bongo Fury tour which showed that there was no bad blood between the pair despite Beefheart’s previous comments. That string of live dates was Zappa trying to revive his childhood friend’s career as Beefheart’s progressions had somewhat ground to a halt. A failed attempt at commercial success on the albums Unconditionally Guaranteed and Bluejeans & Moonbeams, as well as contractual issues which now meant Captain Beefheart was now without a Magic Band and spending his days painting in North California while, allegedly, contemplating giving up music for good before Zappa intervened.
Talking to the BBC in 1991 about the occasion, Zappa revealed why he graciously invited him on to the tour: “Don had the ability and inclination to sign any piece of contractual paper shoved under his nose without comprehending what these papers said and how they interacted with each other. So his career fell on evil days. He was in a position where he couldn’t tour and couldn’t record and it was at that time that I put him in the band to do the Bongo Fury tour.”
Unexpectedly and perhaps out of character, Beefheart spoke candidly following their reunion in a conversation with Steve Weitzman of Rolling Stone. Discussing his regrets about his past actions and how the pair repaired their relationship, he said: “I said some silly things because I was a spoiled brat and don’t understand business to the extent that Frank does. I probably felt neglected, I’ll admit that. I said, ‘Sorry Frank, and I don’t mean that for an excuse.’ We shook hands and that was that.”
The duo’s relationship would soon become fractious again over petty issues with Beefheart telling the press that Zappa looked like “a fly’s leg” shortly later he would quit music for good in 1982. Thankfully, the two had sorted out their issues for a final time in 1993 when Van Vliet heard about Zappa’s battle with prostate cancer. Once a week, Beefheart would call his friend and play some of the records they had listened to in when they were at school together down the telephone.
Now though, let’s go back to that magical time where the two were fresh from leaving high school and listen to ‘Lost In A Whirlpool’ which marks the beginning of the two iconic careers.