On December 20, Don Van Vliet passed away of Multiple Sclerosis, age 69.
There has been talk of him being ill for many years now, and so another legend passes.
Don had an unconventional upbringing. He never had to attend school and was considered an oddball. As a child he was equally interested in music, painting and sculpture. It’s quite likely he could have been an artist first but the social climate at the time was centred more on music.
I was quite lucky to discover Don’s music at an early age as I did Frank Zappa’s at an even earlier time of around the age of 15. Don and Frank were teen friends and later Frank produced the classic album “Trout Mask Replica”. They apparently had a patchy relationship over the years and did a live album together called “Bongo Fury” which is a killer album.
I recall an older friend introducing me to Don’s music, I believe it was the “Clear Spot” album which I first heard and is still a favourite. There was also “The Spotlight Kid” which is fantastic. They are more song-based albums which some people believe was Don trying to be more commercial, but I beg to differ as they are masterful.
Most people cite “Trout Mask Replica” and “Strictly Personal” as his best but they are the most experimental and abrasive. They were bold, genre defying and some of the most startling music one can hear.
Don’s lyrics were the most original and creative, almost having a beatnik influence where he would mix similes, metaphors and collide them with unusual imagery.
Take for example the song “Tropical Hotdog Night” -
Tropical hotdog night,
Like two flamingos in a fruit fight
Like stepping out of a triangle into striped light
Striped light striped light
Tropical hotdog night
Everything’s wrong, at the same time it’s right.
He was visually poetic and daring in all aspects.
He retired in 1982 after releasing “Ice Cream for Crow”, focused on his painting and became quite successful. His style was considered abstract expressionism, primitive modern art and outsider art.
Don Van Vliet’s influence on music and art is immeasurable, with so many people being influenced by him.
What always struck me about his music is that its so immediate and raw yet so sophisticated… the collision of primal power with such imagination is a powerful combination. It sounds as original today as it did all those years ago and will most likely stay that way.
His influence on me is considerable, although you won’t hear a direct influence, it’s more the attitude of taking risks, finding that path and staying on it…that the creative being has no bounds and should be expressed regardless.
Maybe that is the role of visionary artists, to give others strength and hope in a market-driven world.
Don’s final appearance was on Anton Corbijns 1993 short “That Yo Yo stuff” where he gives his observations on life and art, and anything that popped into his unusual and original mind.