RIP Donn Van Vliet

20 Dec

For a brief period in my misspent youth I was the local promotion man for Warner Brothers Records in Chicago—this at a time when the music business was being transformed (at least aesthetically)by the use of FM radio and a small heroic moment when some of the people programming for the newly expanded radio territory were proponents of free form radio.

In Chicago, there were some wonderful experiments — WGLD with the legendary Bob Rudnick (he was eventually fired for saying on air the Chicago Police murdered Black Panther Fred Hampton—an assertion later substantiated by a number of investigations and civil trials.) , Radio Free Chicago with Rudnick and the Mrvos Brothers and Triad Radio—åll of which I had personal contact with.

So through some fluke of circumstance I was hired by Warner Brothers Records who were on a huge roll with the success of the Doobie Brothers, Seals & Crofts, Black Sabbath, Deep Purple and the Grateful Dead. This success led to a rapid expansion of the label’s stable— Bonnie Raitt, Tim Buckley, Martin Mull,Randy Newman, Gram Parsons, Little Feat,Jesse Colin Young and on and on.

One of Warner Brothers signings was Captain Beefheart aka Donn VAn Vliet who actually toured in 1972 in support of a new long playing record. One of my responsibilities as a the WB rep (and certainly the most interesting task) was artist relations. And it was in this capacity that I met Beefheart backstage at the Avalon ballroom in Chicago. Van Vliet was cordial enough but his main concern was when I was going to get the single off of his album “added” to the playlist of one or the other of Chicago’s AM radio giants, WLS or WCFL. In my mind an unrealistic possibility, an opinion that in my naive and fumbling way tried to convey. As you can guess , this was not enthusiastically received.

If you read the 1970 Rolling Stone cover story about Beefheart/Van Vliet and the updated annotations its clear that Beefheart was badly served by the music business and its short fingered vulgarians. And if you listen his records and performances you find your self enveloped by an artist every bit as original and yet accessible as Thelonious Monk or Sun Ra or Harry Partch

It is likely that you didn’t know about Donn Van Vliet—his music or his art —he quickly became something of a cult artist. Fortunately, his passing to his greater glory gives those of us who did know something of him and his creative legacy to remind some pockets of humanity (apparently one that you reside in) that attention must be paid.

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